5 Days Backpacking the Irish Wilderness

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Well guys, I’m back from spending some time in the Irish Wilderness😀. Last week my supervisor, Big John the Badass, informed me that I would be heading down into the Eleven Point Ranger District to work with an AmeriCorps intern to monitor the wilderness. But because of all the wildland fire activity out west, she was sent out on a hand-line crew, leaving only me. BJ told me that I could stay at a cabin a few miles from the wilderness and from there venture out each day to gather data – we needed 5 days (3 weekdays, 2 weekend days) of monitoring information in the transition and pristine zones to be completed for the Forest Plan. Instead, I offered to backpack – the main trail system in the Irish is 18.6 miles long, and can be completed in a 2 day trek, but I chose to extend my hike as a 5 day trip. BJ gave me a topo map and marked points suggesting where I could camp each night.

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The Irish Wilderness is the largest wilderness area in the state of Missouri, having an area of 16,500 acres. Its history dates back to mid 1800s when an Irish  Catholic priest, by name of Father John Joseph Hogan, purchased land deep in the Ozarks to form a colony wherein Irish immigrants could live in peace, away from the stresses and discrimination they endured whilst working on the railroads. Father Hogan left the colony for St. Louis upon request from another parish just before the Civil War began. Missouri was torn, ravaged by Union and Confederate soldiers. Much of the Ozarks became a “no-man’s land”, and when the war finally ended, Father Hogan came back to find that the colony had vanished. The most plausible theory is that the Irish families fled one by one after being raided by both sides during the conflict. But there is no definite proof of this, and to this day there is no clear answer as to what exactly happened to the Irish colony Father Hogan founded. For more information about the colony, I highly recommend reading the book ‘Mystery of the Irish Wilderness: Land and Legend of Father John Joseph Hogan’s Lost Irish Colony in the Ozark Wilderness‘, by Leland and Crystal Payton.

Since that time, the area was logged –  most of the trees are less than 50 years old, but you can still find a few older growth trees. Some of the logging roads remain, but only as faint imprints in the land, now shrouded by brush. Thanks to the efforts of the Forest Service, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the ability of the landscape to ecologically re-stabilise itself back to a woodland environment, the Irish Wilderness has regained much of the natural character that Father Hogan found.

I left Wednesday the 29th of June with my kit sorted. Since this was my first time exploring the Irish Wilderness, and because I did not know how reliable the water sources would be (due to the usual dry summers here), I brought about 3.5 quarts/3.3 litres of water. Even though I packed light, I definitely felt the weight of the water…about 7 lbs of it. Usually I bring no more than 2.5 quarts, and as it turned out, I never needed the extra quart, but it was nice to have as “insurance”, so-to-speak. Pretty much all of the streams had dried up, leaving only the Eleven Point River (on the far side of the wilderness) as well as Bliss and Fiddler Springs as potential water sources on my course.

 

Day 1:

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I arrived a little after noon at Camp Five Pond, the main trail-head for the wilderness. After spending some time studying the map, I hauled on the pack and started my trek. Since I was only monitoring the transition zone that day, I didn’t need to go very far (no more than 3/4 mile from the trail-head). After a short time, I reached the fork where the trail splits off.

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I chose to start on the south loop since that route would take me closer to the water sources. After a quick 1/4 mile of hiking, I picked a spot well off the trail and set up camp. My shelter consisted of a Mil-Tec poncho, a mozzie net and a heavy duty space blanket for a groundsheet. After that there was little else to do except watch the hours slip-by and record the day’s data.

For dinner I had Backpacker’s Pantry Chana Masala, cooked on a new (to me) stove system.

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Now I’m sure most of you guys know about the $10 Chinese Pocket Rocket clone made by Etekcity. It is rather popular, especially as a budget 3 season cooking system. This was my first time trying it out in the field, I am quite happy with it. Not only is the burner adjustable, but the canister fuel burns a bit more efficiently than alcohol. Less fuel is required than you would need with an alcohol stove. Alcohol stoves certainly have their place, but lightweight canister stoves such as this are worth checking out.

After dinner, I hung up my food in a bear bag, 100 yards from camp, just to be on the safe side.

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Black bears are becoming more prevalent in Missouri every year, and it is better to take the proper precautions than to end up losing your food. A bear used to scavenging leftover or littered human food is a dangerous bear, since their behaviour will be altered to associate people with food. And somewhere down the line, they will lose their fear of humans, and that’s where problems between people and bears start.

The first night was cool and the sky clear, giving me a lovely view of the moon and stars, and nearby Barred Owls soothed me into quiescence through the tranquil darkness. This is my newly acquired and current summer sleep system:

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The liner is really made of polyester, not silk and cotton as the label says, but doesn’t matter to me so long as it breathes well and keeps me comfortable. The pad is a Thermarest RidgeRest SoLite (2.8 R-value). It never got below 60 F each night, and I was warm enough in the liner.

 

Day 2:

Early in the morning, probably around 05:00, I awoke to the cries of coyotes howling at the new dawn. A short time later, when the first rays of the rising sun brightened the woodland understory, I noticed that I had a visitor up in the top peak of my mosquito net…

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…a 3 inch Wolf Spider😀. It some coaxing to get her out, but she finally crawled away.

Time for brekkie!

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This is a gorp/trail mix I put together to serve in part as breakfast and as an occasional snack. It consisted of dehydrated apples, sunflower seeds, m&ms, and banana chips. The bulk of the necessary calories comes from the sunflower seeds.

After my morning munch, I packed up and headed back to the trail.

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I planned to hike at least up to Fiddler Spring (where I’m pointing in the pic) and camp in the area, a little over 4 miles away.

I passed by a rather large Blackjack Oak. The trunk diameter was easily 3 ft/91 cm.

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Blackjack Oaks prefer open sun…they don’t grow well in the shade, which is why they are very common in rocky glades. This one has been around for awhile, towering above much of the newer growth.

After losing some altitude and crossing a few dried-up, rocky sections of White’s Creek, I noticed that the forest became much thicker, and the further I went, the thicker it became, until it was practically a jungle, with brush camouflaging much of the trail.

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I am glad I had my staff to help push back the dense undergrowth. The nasty part was negotiating the thorny vines of Carrion-flower and Bullbrier. Makes me wish I had a machete with me. But…..it is a wilderness after all, and thickets like this should be expected. New growth can re-claim a cleared trail very rapidly.

Through the thick undergrowth, I saw what appeared to be a narrow pond to my left.

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It eventually led to a ford where the trail crosses over, and there I stopped to cool-off. With the sun out, the weather felt steamy even though the temperature had cooled from the 90s to the 80s.

It was also a nice place for a break to remove the many ticks I collected from pushing through the undergrowth (with help from the mirror on my sighting compass), and I had time to refill my water supply.

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Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t through the jungle yet. It was just as thick after I crossed the water, and there was a steep ridge yet to climb.

I eventually came to a trail junction…

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…and this was where I got a bit “turned-around”. At first I couldn’t find where White’s Creek Cave was located on the map until later the next day – the lettering was all garbled as if it didn’t print out properly. I figured I was close to Fiddler Spring, but I couldn’t tell for sure. On the map it was portrayed as a spur from the right side of the trail heading south.The main trail appeared to continue to the left, as indicated by the sign, but that wasn’t consistent with the map’s trail route. Straight ahead at the junction, the path faded into the brushy thicket, and I took it to be a user-created trail, which can be deceptive and sometimes lead you to no-where, so I chose to go left. Maybe the spring was somewhere up there?….

I gained elevation, and the climb became steep and treacherous with loose rocks…and I was still not yet out of that confounded jungle. I trudged up and through the undergrowth, plastered with more spider webs across my face and arms than I care to remember. Finally I made it to the top of the ridge, and the jungle finally gave way to a less-clustered woodland. From there, the trail follows the contours of the ridge before dipping down again to White’s Creek and the White’s Creek float-camp spur trail. That climb made me quite hot and sweaty, and I was wishing for rain. But be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it – and I sure got it.

Clouds had gathered, and to the west, I heard the distant rumble of thunder. I didn’t have much time, so I reluctantly pitched camp on the ridge, and the rain came hard and fast. Lightning struck close (2-3 seconds, so around half a mile away) a few times, and I stayed under my shelter. Luckily, I had found a somewhat open area to camp, but I was still nervous, being surrounded by large oaks. However, the downpour of rain meant that I had a chance to refill some water bottles.

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The storm passed after a half hour, and seeing how I wouldn’t make much more progress that day, I remained there and focused on preparing dinner.

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Later in the night, a second thunderstorm rolled in and brought gusts of wind. I stayed mostly dry despite the wind whipping the rain all around, though some of my kit got wet. I did check the weather forecast before I left for this trip, and a “chance for scattered thunderstorms” was predicted. Looking back, I wish I had brought my larger DD tarp instead of the poncho.

 

Day 3:

After brekkie, and still unable to find the blasted Fiddler Spring, I struck camp and headed back down the hill the way I came the previous day. I was sure I missed something. All I knew was that I was somewhere on the main trail, between White’s Creek Cave and the spring…wherever the heck they were. I came back to the junction and decided to turn left onto the path I figured was a user-created route. After a short distance, I found Fiddler Spring. What a fool that made me feel like. But, curiosity drove to me discover where the runoff flowed, and after a short walk following it, I found larger pools of water. Thus, I determined that the”narrow pond” from the day before was in actuality a pool of runoff from the spring, and part of White’s Creek, the main stream in the Irish Wilderness. I took the opportunity to top-off my water bottles, and made my way back to the trail junction, hiking back up that steep, jungle-choked ridge. The cloisters of undergrowth parted, and I continued along the trail that now dipped slightly downward.

After a little while, I found White’s Creek Cave off to my left. I was not expecting to see a cavern that large.

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Here’s a view inside from the entrance:

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On that sauna-like day, the cave’s entrance felt like stepping into an ice box. It seemed to be 20 degrees F cooler, and what surprised me was that it also felt dry. Sure enough, as soon as I stepped away back on the trail, my glasses fogged up😛.

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The cave is closed-off from September 15th to April 30th due to protect the Indiana Bat population that inhabits the cave, an endangered species. I wanted to stay at there for awhile longer and enjoy the cool, dry air, but after lingering for half an hour, I decided it would be better to continue. My goal for the day was to make it to Bliss Spring.

I lost more elevation on the trail and eventually came to the float-camp junction.

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This was towards the lower end of White’s Creek itself, where it feeds into the Eleven Point River 1/4 mile to the southwest.

I saw some more, smaller caves on the other side of the creek.

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There also appeared to be a beaver or two inhabiting the area, as I found 2 partially-gnawed trees.

I crossed the stream again at a ford, and from there, my course led me west and then north, gaining 300 ft of elevation from a broken ridge, outlining Orchard Hollow. From there, the trail turned southwest, following the contours of the bluffs above the Eleven Point.

Here’s a nice view of the famed Eleven Point River, about 1/2 mile from Bliss Spring.

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It is a popular destination for anglers, canoeists, and kayakers. And it was here, where I stopped temporarily for a water break, that I heard and saw the only people during the entire 5 day trip. One was a fisherman passing by in his motorboat, and the other 2 people were somewhere 150 ft or so below me on the far side of the river.

I made it to Bliss Spring earlier than I expected, and I took the opportunity to cool down.

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The water was delightfully cold, and to a sweaty backpacker, delicious. I did not bother filtering the water since I drank straight from the source, rapidly bubbling out of the rocky earth. I can see why the it was given the rather charming name, “Bliss Spring”:). Nearby, there’s a spur trail that leads out of the wilderness area to the Eleven Point, following the spring’s runoff into the river.

Springs such as this can create their own micro-environment for moisture loving plants and mosses. There lots of Watercress, and even some Wild Ginger:

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Whilst exploring the surrounding area, I discovered an old White Oak, clothed in moss.

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This tree isn’t as old as other oaks I’ve seen, but it is certainly among the eldest in this wilderness.

I made camp some 200 yards from the spring, and got the evening’s meal prepped, starting with an appetizer of gluten-free corn tortilla with smoked tuna and watercress:).

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And for the main course…..

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Katmandu Curry with a Peanut Butter desert to top it off😀.

Unfortunately for me, I lost about 40 ft of paracord from attempting to hang my bear bag line from a Dogwood. I could not retrieve it, for the counter-weight I was using (a rock from the trail) had gotten lodged and stuck in one of the crotches of the tree. I did not have any extra cordage I could dedicate as a bear bag line, and after a half hour of fussing with the tree, I gave up. I had no choice but to hang the bag as high up as I could…and this left me with a hard decision to make; to either hang it up near my camp where I could, if need be, guard it, or I could risk stashing it 100 yards away from camp. My main concern was unwillingly attracting a black bear, and if I placed the bag 100 yards out, it would likely be snatched without me there to defend it, leaving me with little food (1 or 2 prepackaged and sealed meals) for the next two days. In the end, I figured it was better to keep the bag close to camp.

And, sure enough, at some point during the night, I heard the noise of some blundering animal approaching my camp. I could not see what animal it was since I chose not to take a head torch, but that didn’t matter to me – something was too close for comfort, and I would defend my food. So I blasted my whistle and shouted at whatever was out there. It was no deer, for the deer in this wilderness see or smell you and run the opposite direction. I doubted it was wild bacon (my terminology for “feral hog/s”), and I didn’t believe it could be a coyote because coyotes, in my experience, prefer to keep a safe distance…unless, of course, if the food was unguarded. Plus, I have never known coyotes to make that much noise moving around – they are part scavenger and part predator, and they tread quietly.

Whatever animal was there did not want to leave, and it took some more bellowing for the creature to depart. Lesson learnt: bring a spare 50 ft cordage. A bear canister is also worth considering for more convenience despite added weight.

 

Day 4:

I awoke in the morning to the yips of nearby coyotes, and thankfully, if that animal in the night was indeed a black bear, it did not return to snatch my food whilst I snoozed. I noticed that the sky had turned into an overcast of stratus clouds, and after a quick breakfast, it began to rain. Not a heavy rain, just a shower, but I was grateful that the rain brought cooler temperatures.

I made my way up another finger of broken ridge, passing a few sinkholes. The forest gradually became more open, with little brush in the understory to obscure my view on either side of the trail. Fortunately for me, this meant less spider webs to deal with, though I did encounter this eight-legged friend, whose large orb web was draped across the path like an invisible net.

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It appears her web location was good enough, for she had caught a large beetle. I took care not to disturb her as I walked around her sticky snare and home.

Further on I came ventured into a grove of Shortleaf Pines, presumably a plantation leftover from the days when the place was logged before it became designated wilderness. As I passed under the pines, I saw a beautiful though deadly mushroom, an Amanita.

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I’m not sure what kind of Amanita it is, nor does it matter, since most (if not all) of that particular genus are either extremely poisonous, or they create psychedelic reactions and hallucinations. Better to leave them alone.

A short while later, just after noon, I came to the Brawley Pond spur, which goes directly north. The rain had ceased, but the remaining overcast told me that the rain was not yet over.

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My course would take me west back to Camp Five Pond and the trail-head.

About 1 mile later, I reached a small gorge, one of the northern reaches of White’s Creek that meanders through the wilderness. I setup camp for the night under a stately Shortleaf Pine, overlooking the narrow ravine and enjoying the gentle breeze. Just before dinner time, the rain started again, but it stopped after about an hour, and the sun peered through the gloom before setting in the west. That night it did not rain, and again I was charmed by the distant hoots of Barred Owls.

 

Day 5:

When I awoke, the forest was cloaked in mist.

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I love a misty woodland – it conjures a primeval feeling to the landscape. And in those early hours of the morning, my mind was consumed with thoughts of what this wilderness looked like so many years ago when Father John Joseph Hogan created his dream of a place where the wearied Irish immigrants could live far from the toil of urban life, to “…profoundly worship as in the depth of that leafy forest…where solitude and the heart of man united in praise and wonder of the Great Creator.” So much has changed since those earlier days. We humans have permanently altered the structure of the landscape to suit our wants and needs. Yet, even so, in places that have been carefully nurtured, the wilds have returned…and with it, a numberless host of trees, shades of their grandfathers, yet tenacious and enduring. They are the pillars in this grand cathedral of the Irish Wilderness.

As I pondered about wilderness philosophy, I fixed myself brekkie.

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And yes, that’s “real” coffee on the left, not the instant stuff😉. After munching, it was time to leave, complete my final monitoring work, and head out.

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Plotting a bearing to monitor the pristine zone.

I made it back to the fork close to noon.

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From there, it was a quick 1/3 mile to the trail-head at Camp Five Pond (where I stopped to gorge on wild blackberries), and a 2 hour drive back home to a much needed shower and a welcoming, cold beer:).

Thanks for coming along with me😀.

 

 

Wildland Fire Information

After attending the Midwest Wildfire Training academy 2 weeks ago, and with fire season really taking off in the western states, I thought I would share some data and more detailed reports of what is going on than what can be found on the news.

The first is the National Interagency Coordination Center’s website, from where you can find out pretty much anything regarding wildfires and natural disasters across the country. At the top left of the page under Information is the NICC Incident Management Situation Report, which is updated everyday, containing wildfire data across the states as well as Canada. The incidents are listed in tables. Perscribed fires are also included towards the bottom of the Sit. Rep. Going back to the NICC website page (the first link above), you can click on any region marked on the map, which will take you to the Coordination Centers for each region/area. Each region’s page will have a link to their Morning Report/Briefing under a “What’s New” or “Bulletin Board” panel. The reports are similar to the Incident Management Sit. Rep, but they only concern the fire information for that region/area. Some reports will include detailed weather data, which is valuable information for the entire chain of command engaged at the incident, from the fire squads and crews on the line up to the Incident Commander.

One of our rangers, whom I was working with in the field on Tuesday, received a message from his supervisor telling him that his single resource was on call, and that he needed to come back to the station ASAP. On the way back, through dispatch he was notified to report into Utah by 12:00 the very next day. Things are certainly getting crazy out west. It wouldn’t surprise me if a few more from the station are called.

Wilderness Skills Institute 2016

Hey guys, I’m back from spending 5 days at Pisgah National Forest for the Wilderness Skills Institute. The WSI is an educational collaboration of the US Forest Service, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, and other conservancy organisations and volunteer groups.

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking…you’re contemplating that I was out in the field everyday learning hands-on survival skills, shelter-craft, primitive fire-making, etc. Well,…that isn’t exactly what the WSI is about. The idea is to host practical courses for future and current conservationists in order to equip them with wilderness management knowledge. I previously touched on the subject of wilderness preservation in my post Forest Service: Solitude Monitoring,but before I delve too deep into this, I guess I should explain as best I can what exactly wilderness is, and how it applies to me as a wilderness ranger.

What is Wilderness?

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Above: View of the Shining Rock Wilderness from Black Balsam point.

 

Wilderness is, as described by the Wilderness Act of 1964 (signed by former President Lyndon B. Johnson), “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions…”. Wilderness also has outstanding opportunities for solitude or primitive, unconfined recreation, and is of sufficient size to make practicable its preservation in unimpaired condition. And aside from being a natural area, wherein the imprint of human civilisation is unnoticeable, wilderness areas are also known for having features of value, whether they are scientific (ecological or geological), scenic, historical, or educational. Some wildernesses are situated in remote locations, whilst others are closer to civilisation or are easier to access – not all wilderness is backcountry.

Perhaps the most commonly misunderstood word in the entire Act is “untrammeled”. Most tend to think that the word is a synonym for “un-trampled”, but this is not the case. A trammel is a device used for restricting the movement of horses, sort of like a chain. Therefore, “untrammeled” refers to “being free”, or “freedom”.

Only Congress has the authority to designate areas as wilderness. As of now, there are 765 wildernesses in the US and Puerto Rico – a total of over 100,000,000 acres – the largest of which resides in Alaska…the Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness of 9,078,675 acres, managed by the National Park Service. The smallest is the Pelican Island Wilderness in northern Florida, of just 5.5 acres. Wilderness areas are administered for the use and enjoyment of the citizens of the US, to be managed in such a way as to leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness.

 

In the Boots of Wilderness Ranger

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Me, stopping for a break and a sensual immersion in the great orchestra that is wilderness.

 

Wilderness rangers, such as myself, are in the public eye and at the forefront of educating others about the importance of the management of these special places. Of course, we must be educated in order to pass on our knowledge, and that is what my short time with the Wilderness Skills Institute was about.

Of the many courses offered at the WSI, I enrolled in the Wilderness Interpretation and Education class. Much of the class itself involved a thorough Leave No Trace curriculum, as well as how to engage and educate visitors in the field. Lastly, we learned about how to use social media as a medium to spread the message of wilderness conservation. Our class also gave a demonstration to the rest of the WSI  members about one of the 7 principles of LNT, ‘Minimise Campfire Impacts’. I contributed my own knowledge of the use of backpacking wood stoves, wherein the fire itself is contained, with little preparation and minimal impact. Several of the instructors thanked me afterwards, since this is an excellent and practical teaching tool in the field.

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Standing (left): USFS ranger Pete, one of the course instructors and Eric (right), wilderness ranger for SAWS

 

On Wednesday, our class headed out to Black Balsam point at the edge of the Shining Rock Wilderness for an in-field real-life simulation of encounters one might expect as a wilderness ranger. Much of it involved role-playing on the part of the course participants and visitors who wished to partake in the experiment. The idea was to test ourselves on what we had earned up until that point and how to deal with different situations. We didn’t get as much time in the field as we would have liked, but it was nevertheless a great experience, and I think all of us learned a lot that day.

Wilderness rangers also participate in trail maintenance, and within the Forest Service, that involves axe and crosscut saw work. There were two crosscut saw classes held at the WSI, including a restoration course led by none other than the Legend, Dolly Chapman, whom some of my readers may recall was interviewed for the ‘Hand Tools for Trail Work’ video published by the USFS back in 1998. She came all the way from California to teach the class. I wasn’t able to take the course, but I did have the honour of meeting her in person. She is quite the role model for trail crews, having been taught how to restore crosscut saws by Warren Miller. For me, this was the highlight of the whole WSI experience. Perhaps sometime in the future I will have the privilege of learning from Dolly herself:).

I am very glad I was able to attend the WSI for 2016. I met a lot of wonderful people, and I learned quite a bit about managing these special places in America. I am proud to mention that I am now a certified Leave No Trace Trainer😀. This experience has boosted my confidence and is sure to guide me along my journey of conservation.

 

More Info:

http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/nfsnc/recarea/?recid=48114

http://wilderness.net/

Trail Work in the Bell Mtn Wilderness

Whilst I am out recording solitude and recreation site monitoring info for the Forest Service, I often have some extra time to maintain the trails, which is also a duty for a Wilderness Ranger. Of course, since I am out mostly by myself, there is a disadvantage with the amount of trail work I can complete – my primary responsibility is to monitor specific zones within the wilderness for solitude and rec site data. A crew of two or three persons can cover a lot more ground than just one person.

On Friday the 13th of this month, as I was approaching the Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness trail-head, I noticed a large dead tree (presumably a half rotten oak) blocking the way, which likely came down during the strong thunderstorms that passed through last week. Having stopped to inspect the obstacle, I considered my options. I did have my portable bucksaw and Gränsfors Bruks Small Forest Axe, but the trunk was well over 12 inches/30 cm in diameter, with several large branches to remove as well. If I instead parked where I was and walked the 1/4 mile to the trail-head, I’d save myself a lot of exertion and time. In this case, my tools simply wouldn’t cut it, pardon the pun. I would have to come back another day with a larger axe to remove the obstacle. Lesson learnt: expect downed trees after strong winds or passing storms, and bring the appropriate tool/s for the job. So, I resolved to carry a full-sized Federal Supply System double-bit axe.

The next day I drove to the north trail-head of the Bell Mtn Wilderness, taking along my chosen double-bit. Almost all of the double-bits at the ranger station are vintage True Tempers (Western/Pennsylvania pattern) that were specifically made to meet Forest Service specification 5100-9D (formerly 5100-9C).

A lot of people seem to have a misunderstanding when it comes to FSS-branded axes and pulaskis. They tend to think that because the Forest Service uses these tools, they should “work better” or have a “higher quality” than a standard axe or pulaski. The truth is that there isn’t necessarily any advantage to purchasing a FSS axe or pulaski. Having the FSS mark only means that the tool meets Forest Service specification 5100-9D (axes) or 5100-355E (pulaskis). Perhaps the most common misconception when it comes to FSS tools is the expectation of “perfect” grain orientation in the handles, but according to section 3.2.2 of both specifications, nothing is mentioned about requiring handles to have parallel grain in-line to the tool head.

3.2.2 Handles. The handles shall be shagbark hickory (Carya ovate), shellbark hickory (Carya laciniosa), or mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa) of any natural commercial color. The handle dimensions shall conform in all respects to drawings MTDC-546 for Type A, MTDC-547 for Type C, and MTDC-548 for Type D. The high point of the handle shoulder shall be as detailed on the drawings. The handle centerline shall be parallel to the cutting edge of the ax blade. Each handle shall have a wedging slot cut in the head end as shown on the drawings for the insertion of the wedge. The handle shall fit snugly into the eye of the tool head (see 3.2.3). The knob end of the handles shall be chamfered or rounded. The wood shall be sound and free from crooks, bows, cracks, splits, scores, or other defects that may affect appearance or serviceability.

The reason why there is no requirement for handles to have “perfect” grain orientation is because the Forest Service has not found any correlation with grain direction and handle failures.

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That said, the double-bit I chose for the day snapped at the handle as I was bucking this oak log, and I should mention that the handle had what most would consider “acceptable” or “decent” grain orientation (no more than 30 degrees from parallel in-line with the tool head). Very rarely do I over-strike with a glancing blow against the helve, and this failure was not caused by such impact. Perhaps it was user error, but I have always wielded axes with care using safe and effective techniques, and none of those axes had cracked or snapped. I will say, though, that the exposed wood where it snapped on this axe felt very dry.
Yes, tools may fail in the field, and FSS axes and pulaskis are no exception – nothing is indestructible. Fortunately for me, I had my bucksaw with me and was able to finish this job, though I wasn’t able to tackle the larger downed trees that I encountered later. Still, a small failure shouldn’t make the rest of the day non-enjoyable: when life gives you sour apples, take those apples and press them into fine cider.😉
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 Here’s a Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly😀.
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 My goal for the day was to monitor the designated remote zone from the trail junction to Joe’s Creek. At around midday I reached it. This is one of many natural “shut-in” creeks that are fed by runoff water and springs.
The next day I was back at the north trail-head, but this time I took two axes…the Council Tool FSS boy’s axe I rehung, and a different True Temper double-bit. Time to get to work!😀
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 This half-rotten Short-leaf Pine chopped through like butter.
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 Here’s an example of an obstacle that has a definite need to be removed. Equestrians couldn’t cross it, so the horses were led around (off to the left, not shown in photo), creating a user path and spreading tread impact. This also incidentally makes a more “convenient” short-cut for other trail users who are more likely to follow it. The fallen oak would have been better handled with a crosscut, but since it was only me monitoring the trails and no crew to work with, I chopped through it with the double-bit. That oak might look mostly rotten, but believe me, most of the inside sapwood and heartwood was intact and well-seasoned, making for tough chopping.
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 Lots of chunky, large chips from a decently-sized trunk:).
This axe had a handle with cross-grained wood…
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 …yet it did not crack or snap after bucking several more oak logs.
After all the lengthy axe work, I climbed the trail up Bell Mtn itself, stopping at a glade next to the summit.
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 To the left in the above photo is nearby Lindsey Mtn, also part of the Bell Mtn Wilderness area. Scenes like this more than make up for the sweat and labour of bucking downed trees:).

Forest Service: Monitoring the Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness

The Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness is one of the three areas that I will be managing during my time here in Missouri. It is just over 4200 acres in size, comprising of mostly hardwood forest including a few rocky glades, with some very rugged trail sections. As it is in a remote location with tricky access, not too many people pass through. Unlike the Bell Mtn Wilderness, there is only 1 trail-head at the end of a steep, very lumpy-bumpy and washed-out Forest Service access road. Again, wilderness areas aren’t supposed to be as “convenient” as your average city park. “Wilderness” means wilderness – don’t expect an easy journey in. Some visitors may not like the fact that there is only 1 trail-head and a rough access road, but for those who are self-reliant and like to be left alone without running into groups of people every minute with low-flying planes buzzing overhead as annoyingly as black flies, these remote locations serve as a place where they can enjoy themselves.

With that in mind, let me welcome you to….

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…The Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness:).

 

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For those who are wondering what all I take with me for these monitoring trips, here’s my checklist:

Rucksack –

  • Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Plus w/ 30 SPF sun-screen -haven’t yet needed to use this
  • First-Aid kit, includes a QuickClot sponge
  • Rite-in-the-rain journal
  • cellphone
  • wallet +keys
  • heavy duty space blanket
  • fleece jacket
  • ultralight rain jacket
  • 2 qt water
  • sunglasses
  • prepared food
  • hat
  • 50 ft paracord attached carabiner on outside of pack

On my person –

  • field cover/hard hat
  • whistle
  • pocket knife
  • radio comm
  • SPOT location tracker – just in case, you can never be too careful….
  • camera
  • clipboard w/ data recording sheets, Forest Service protocol info, pen + pencil, pocket calendar, Rite-in-the-rain notebook, and topo map/s of the wilderness
  • Pocket saw

Optional Items –

  • axe
  • folding bucksaw
  • leather work gloves

 

The main trail is about 2 miles, running mostly north-south, and has some rather technical spots that can be impassible after periods of heavy rain. There are a few other trails further south in the designated pristine zone of the wilderness, but these are not often used, and you can get easily turned-around at the different junctions if you aren’t oriented correctly.

Something I particularly enjoy about solitude monitoring is that you almost blend-in with your surroundings, and at that point you begin to notice the overlooked subtleties that serve their own roles in the grand collective of the environment’s ecology.

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Creatures as small as spiders and frogs go unnoticed by the majority of outdoor visitors, yet their role in controlling the insect population and being a food source for birds and snakes makes them an important part of this orchestra that is the wilderness.

 

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Wherever a large tree falls, a space is created for other sun-loving plants to grow. In this spot, a large oak was felled from storm winds after being structurally weakened by oak borers. At first, you might think it as destructive, but the majority of new growth makes up for the loss. This young Red Maple (Acer rubrum)sapling is likely related to the more mature maple on the left in the photo. Maples grow fairly quick, and they have evolved to drop hundreds if not thousands of winged-seeds from each tree in order to continue the succession of the species. Open spaces like this one are prime nurseries for them, as well as Sassafras, hickories, and various oaks.

The fallen trees (if they are not already dead) become homes for insects and grubs, which feed on the wood, and they in turn feed the wildlife – black bears, spiders, weasels, frogs, mice, etc. Anything leftover decays and becomes part of the leaf litter or duff, that acts as a sponge to protect the mineral soil from erosion, allowing water to gradually soak in.

Fallen trees that block trails are removed via crosscut saw and-or axe.

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This 6 inch Eastern Red-cedar (a juniper, Juniperus virginiana) was removed as it was creating an obstacle on the trail. Oftentimes, trail users will travel around the obstacle, creating another path which spreads the impact of tread. A good steward of the land recognises this as a problem and removes the obstacle – in this case, with an axe – else over time as more trees fall on the main trail, users will walk around them, spreading the impact of their tread, which can become destructive, particularly if sensitive native pants are trampled (as is often the case, unfortunately). To combat this, trail crews chop or saw through the obstacle, move the log/s out of the way and off the trail (perpendicular to it so that runoff water isn’t blocked by the log if it were parallel, which could lead to erosion problems on the trail itself), and then any limbs from the tree can be used to screen and block  the user-created shortcut, showing the true route as the main trail.

I must say that I really enjoy working so much with hand tools. A chainsaw could never compare to the joy of working the wood using time-proven techniques and developed skill, nor could it compare to the feeling of accomplishment after you’ve cleared several difficult obstacles in a row.

On the week of the 23rd this month, I will be in Pisagh National Forest learning more about wilderness management and visitor interaction. It will be nice to head back East again, but I can already tell that I will miss the rocky Ozark mountains.

 

 

Forest Service: Solitude Monitoring

One of the techniques the Forest Service uses to better manage wilderness areas is through “solitude monitoring”, which is part of my work duties here in Missouri as a Wilderness Ranger intern. This involves in-field research of investigating different zones (transition, remote, and pristine) within designated wilderness areas to record statistics such as visitor encounters, camp encounters, and so forth. It’s a bit lengthy to explain in full detail, but essentially this is a way of keeping track of the potential impact for solitude opportunities. According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, a wilderness area should have “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation…”, and “be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such a manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness, and so as to provide for the protection of these areas, the preservation of their wilderness character…”.

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What this means for Wilderness Rangers is a lot of time spent in the good ‘ol outdoors, and getting to see, preserve and protect this nation’s wild places. As I am an intern via the Student Conservation Association, this something I’ll only get to do for my 6 month internship; yet there is so much do so and seemingly little time to do it. But who knows what the future holds?…the more I do this, the more I see my efforts take root and grow.😀

All that said, I’d like to share with you the things people like me in the field of wilderness conservation get to see and experience.

Welcome to……

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My monitoring zone for the day consisted of a short 2 mile stretch. Per Forest Service protocol, I get to spend a minimum of 4 hours of monitoring in each zone:).

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The dotted trail running north-south on the map is the Ozark Trail, part of the Taum Sauk section.

Enjoy the views…:)

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Some of the flora….

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Low-bush blueberry, a sign of dry, acid soil.

 

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Fire Pink, its red petals reminiscent of bursting fireworks.

 

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Wild Bee-Balm yet to bloom.

 

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I presume that this plant (in the centre with the big leaves) is Cheeses, or Common Mallow. I’ve only seen smaller Cheeses plants back East.

 

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This is a rather flashy-looking Wood Sorrel. There are 7 species in the continental US…this one is Oxalis violacea, or Violet wood Sorrel.

 

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This is Bird-Foot/Narrow-Leaved Violet amongst a cluster of Virginia Creeper.

Some unknown plants…

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And here are two wildlife close-ups…

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A cute but shy Box Turtle.

 

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Turkey Vultures soaring in the wind overhead.

On a final note, whilst there are some great wilderness areas out there, some of them have become popular, and therefore endure more visitor impact. Do your part in helping preserve these places by practicing Leave No Trace camping and following the regulations. Plan ahead and be self-reliant – there is a lot of rugged country in the wilderness. And if you are fortunate enough to live near a designated wilderness area, consider volunteering for the agency that manages it.

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“There is just one hope of repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every inch on the whole Earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom and preservation of wilderness.” ~ Bob Marshall

 

 

 

Howdy From Missouri!

Well now, it seems as if the days have already flown-by! I’ve been “off-grid”, as it were, for about a week. I almost forgot about computers entirely until my supervisor, BJ (aka “Big John the Badass”), told me he would try to arrange my computer access at a desk in the Potosi Ranger Station here at Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri.

The National Forest itself has a lot of designated wilderness areas, of which my duties as a wilderness ranger intern are to monitor the following – Rock Pile Mtn (over 4000 acres), Bell Mtn (over 9000 acres), and the Irish (over 16,000 acres) sections. The designation was granted by Congress, and as such, there are certain regulations and management practices that need to be followed in accordance to the Wilderness Act of 1964. For one, there is only one road in and out of these locations, and it isn’t exactly a road you would drive your Prius on…the Forest Service access roads are dirt and gravel, with lots of bumps and holes, better suited for a vehicle with 4WD. Secondly, the trails are not marked with clear, coloured blazes every 30 ft – again, this is a wilderness, not a quick walk in the city park. The trail might be blocked by obstacles such as fallen trees (which we do our best to take care of them with crosscut saw and axe work), or it might be impassible due to flooding in heavy summer rains. As such, visitors need to be self-reliant to enjoy the solitude and remoteness.

BJ related to me an incident involving a SAR operation that occurred last year, in which a woman was travelling the Bell Mtn Wilderness to geocache, and she was ill-equipped for her journey. What should have been a relaxing day became a near catastrophe as her GPS batteries died, leaving her stranded in the woods at twilight. She had no map, and she also didn’t pay attention to the clock. Luckily, she was found and made it out without injury.
Potosi is a small town by my standards – population about 3000, though there are several other nearby towns that are smaller than that (less than 1000 population). Where I am in Missouri it is quite hilly, and there are mountains all over the place…apparently, they are older than even the Appalachian range back East. There are lots of mineral deposits in the area, and in the town of Ironton, LOTS of red granite. The forest ecology is a bit different than Connecticut, but not by much other than the lack of more evergreen coniferous trees and a lot more hardwoods (oaks especially). There are lots of wild turkeys here, at least throughout the National Forest. Black bears are sometimes seen, and only a fool would leave his/her food lying about camp without taking proper precautions, such as using a bear bag to store food.

So, after settling-in after my arrival last Wednesday, I got to take part in some trail building on the weekend with the Ozark Trail Association, a non-profit organisation run by volunteer conservationists. Last Thursday, I helped the crew leaders set out the assortment of tools in a remote section of Mark Twain National Forest. Little did I know then that the weekend wing-ding was a “Mega Event”, with 220 people attending, the largest gathering ever for the OTA.

 

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We arrived on Friday at the Bass River Resorts, a short drive to our work destination, to camp out for the time (3 days, 2 nights). It was a bit odd at first, as most everyone else was car-camping, and I was among the few who had packed in a backpacking manner. The weather was fantastic, so I opted for a modified Adirondack tarp shelter next to the Bass River (really more a stream than a river).

The following day (Saturday) we all got down and dirty with tools such as fire rakes, McLeods, pulaskis, pick-mattocks, and grub hoes. It took maybe 5 hours, but we created about 3/4 mile of trail. When we got back to camp, the OTA prepped a large dinner followed by, in true Southern fashion, a large bonfire and live bluegrass music. I met a lot of great people at that event – it was a blast:). I also found out that southern gnats and mosquitoes don’t seem to like my Yankee blood.

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We left on Sunday, and on Monday I got to work in the Forest Service garage, fixing up some of the FSS (Federal Supply Service) pulaskis my supervisor lent the OTA for their event. You can get a lot done with a pulaski as far as trail building, and it is equally useful when fighting forest fires.This one above is a Warren Axe and Tool Co. FSS, possibly from the 1940s. And yes, the handles are painted. I know some of you axe purists may cringe, but this is done mostly so that the tools can be identified as belonging to this Ranger Station. Usually, with a collaboration like the mega event with the Ozark Trail Association I mentioned earlier, the USFS will lend workers and-or tools to the organization if necessary, and it helps to know which tool belongs where.

On Tuesday my supervisor took me out to the Rock Pile Wilderness for some trail maintenance work and introductory wilderness monitoring. I was issued my “field hat” (a hard hat for safety purposes) and leather work gloves. No chainsaws here, just good ‘ol fashioned hand tools, man-power, and in our case, BEARD power :D!. He brought along his full-sized axe and a 5 ft two-man crosscut. I brought along my Gränsfors Bruks Small Forest axe.

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usfsmtnftrailworkjb3-5_zps54bdalt7Big John the Badass swinging his 3.5 lb Council Tool Jersey.

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This is a technique for making a lower cut (“under-sawing”) with a crosscut saw, using the helve of an axe to steady the blade. Notice my Small Forest axe on the right. In situations like the above photo, the downed tree can have numerous “pinch points” (tension stored in the wood fibres from limbs resting against the ground, another tree, or a large stone). A lower cut was necessary to finish the job and relieve the pressure, and the saw did get stuck cutting from the top. The Small Forest Axe was very helpful for cutting the tension with careful chopping next to the left of the saw blade when it was stuck. It is rare that you can get through a day without at least some technical difficulty. But that’s all the fun when working with hand tools, and through mistakes, you learn how to adapt.:)

The Forest Service has three different levels of crosscut certification – A (novice), B (intermediate), and C (advanced). Some time in the future the letters will be recognized as numbers; 1 for novice, and so-on. I will be certified first as an “A”, and then a “B” during my 6 month internship. BJ and I make a good crosscut team, and you know you’re good when you fall into a rhythm, letting the saw itself do the work for you – at that point it is almost effortless, and you can pull the saw with a finger.

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This is a rocky “glade” near the summit of Rock Pile Mtn, wherein there is too little soil for most plants other than Eastern Red-cedar (a juniper) and grasses. The exposed rock is home to a variety of mosses and lichens.

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I have no clue what kind of plant this is, but I thought the flowers looked cool:). There was also some Indian Paintbrush and Spiderwort along the trail, but I didn’t have the time to take a bunch of photos.

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On Wednesday and Thursday, I was back in the garage fixing up the other pulaskis and re-hanging a Council Tool FSS boy’s axe. As most of us already know, when you work with hand tools, you should know how to repair and restore them. The Forest Service has acquired hundreds of vintage double-bit and single-bit axes to use for trail work, some made by companies such as Warren Axe and Tool Co., Collins Co, and True Temper/Kelly Works. But most of the cutting tools you’ll find wielded by trail crews are more recently made specimens from Barco Industries and Council Tool.

Yesterday I attended another wing-ding with the OTA at the Ozark National Scenic Riverways for their Junior Ranger Day event. As the name suggests, this place is managed by the National Park Service and is the only NPS-managed area in Missouri. We assisted them by providing hiking activities to groups of 5th and 6th graders from the local schools. The hike was nothing “serious”, but it was enough to hopefully spark a few young minds, and no doubt it is always great to take the kids outdoors and to teach them some basic woods skills, such as identifying plants. Sorry, no pics….I foolishly left my camera behind.

Today I finally found time to catch up on my blog. But I enjoy the work, as well as the unexpectedness of what each day can turn into.:)

Slán go foill!