Adventure in the Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness

Much of my field work as a wilderness ranger is completed, yet all too soon this internship will end, after which I shall return to my home state of Connecticut. But on the Columbus Day weekend, I got the chance to have a memorable outing at the Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness southwest of Fredricktown, Missouri.

This is the smallest wilderness area in the state, but it spans 4238 acres of challenging terrain. There are plentiful gorges as well as steep, rocky slopes, the most prominent of which is a broken ridge connecting Little Grass Mtn at the trailhead to Rock Pile Mtn some 3.2 miles to the south. These high points are part of the St. Francois mountains, among the oldest land-forms in North America, rivaling the Appalachians. The maintained trail is about 2.6 miles long, starting on Little Grass Mtn and ending on a slope before Rock Pile Mtn. Per wilderness management protocol, designated trails are not marked or blazed. The path does continue on into the larger and wilder part of the wilderness, but because that section isn’t maintained, it offers its own set of challenges to hikers. Many of the “trails” in this part of the wilderness are in fact remnants of old logging roads, and as such, they can be very difficult to follow and “lead to no-where”.

According to our statistics, Cherokee Pass emergency response personnel (fire dept. and local Sheriff) make an average of 10 search-and-rescue operations into the wilderness per year, because some visitors are ill-equipped and ill-prepared for Rock Pile’s rugged landscape. I cannot stress enough how important it is to plan ahead and be prepared for wilderness trips. In the case of Rock Pile, I highly recommend bringing a detailed topo map (available at the trail-head register box and online here and here), an orienteering compass or a GPS with extra batteries, and most importantly, the knowledge of how to use whichever navigational tool you choose. A SPOT device is also a handy gadget for personal safety, in that it allows you to send a SOS signal to the nearest emergency response personnel via satellite communication. It is far more reliable than a cellphone. And, because there aren’t any natural permanent water sources available year-round (aside from the St. Francis River to the southwest), it is recommended to bring your own water supply and be prepared to treat any water you can collect.

That said, the Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness is so named for a circular formation of granite stones placed on the mountain by earlier human inhabitants, perhaps Native Illiniwek, but no one is entirely certain.


Here’s a view of the wilderness from FR 2124 on Little Grass Mtn. In the distance is Rock Pile Mtn.

And up at the trail-head:


The kiosk board has been updated since I came back from this trip, and this is what it now looks like. We were fortunate enough to receive 10 new register boxes from a boy scout as his Eagle Scout project, and they were very well made with great attention to detail. I installed one of them here, along with 2 others at the Bell Mtn Wilderness. On the board itself, I added a more detailed information poster about the wilderness after removing about 100 rusty staples and some older, weather-worn signs. It sure looks much better than it used to.🙂


Day 1:

I left the ranger station in Potosi on Sunday the 9th with all my kit stuffed in my LK-35, arriving at the trail-head at around 10:00 in the morning. As I drew nearer to my destination, I had a suspicion that, even though I have never encountered anyone in the wilderness (let alone see a vehicle parked at the trail-head), I just might see someone. Sure enough, I saw a Honda sedan parked just off the access road close to the trail-head. I have no idea how these visitors managed to climb up the deeply eroded, steep, and rocky track without damaging their vehicle….but somehow, they managed it. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended, but not necessary for accessing the Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness. Vehicles with lower ground-clearance can park off the road before the rather tricky ascent up Little Grass Mtn, and the occupants can simply walk up to the trail-head.

The trail starts off at the top of Little Grass Mtn before a steep descent down the slope. It would be very precarious in wintertime with snow accumulation on the ground disguising loose rocks. After that, the path mostly levels out before gradually ascending up to the crest of a glade-capped hill, and then down to a wildlife pond at the foot of the slope. This part of the trail is designated “remote”, or zone 2 on the Wilderness Opportunity Spectrum. Unlike the other wilderness areas in Missouri, Rock Pile is the only one to not have any transition zone (zone 1). This is largely due to the fact that fewer visitors go the this wilderness compared to the others, and Rock Pile’s location is in itself remote.

For the day, I was to conduct my solitude monitoring within the remote zone. After descending Little Grass Mtn, I came across the two visitors who had left their vehicle up on the access road. They had difficulty finding their way past the end of the maintained trail, but fortunately, they didn’t get lost. Their goal was to find the stone circle on Rock Pile Mtn, but because of the network of old logging roads, they were confused which way to go, and decided it would be better to head back than risk going down a wrong path – wise choice. I had never found the rock circle either, but I intended to make its discovery a goal for the trip. I also panned on bushwhacking to Turkey Pen Hollow at the edge of the wilderness, close to the St. Francis River.

I continued on and noted how quiet things were. In the past, I would almost always hear the drone of a sawmill, two miles or so to the east. Perhaps the mill doesn’t run on Sundays? Eventually, I reached the glade-capped hill, and decided to make my camp there, well off trail and concealed by dark Eastern Red-cedars, aromatic Sassafras, and graceful Sugar Maples.


This shelter was gifted to me from a family member. It’s made by Guide Gear and was sold on Sportsman’s Guide for a short time at $35. The full shelter is a tent system, with an inner mosquito net and bathtub floor, but I prefer the lightness and simplicity of the outer  fly sheet. It has comparable weight to my DD 3×3 tarp at 26 ounces/0.737 grams. All the seams were sealed, and for $35, it was a steal. Pyramid/laavu tents can be ridiculously expensive, and you pay a premium for something ultralight. I don’t think this fly sheet qualifies as “ultralight”, but it’s light enough for me and packs down very well. Plus, the steeply-angled sides are ideal for shedding snow in the winter. The only issues I have with the shelter is that the tie-outs could be reinforced better, and the one vent should have been made bigger (or a second one added) to reduce condensation buildup. It isn’t bad as it is, but just something that could be improved. But again, for $35, you can’t expect everything to be perfect.

One of the things I particularly enjoy about this fly sheet is that it blends in VERY well, great for for stealth camping/Leave No Trace.


Two hundred feet away and it’s practically invisible.

Like usual, I hung my bear bag about 100 yards away and downwind from camp. This is the time of year when bears are stuffing their faces and seeking high-calorie and carbohydrate meals, and they won’t pass up an opportunity when they smell one.


This is the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) bear hang, which relies on tension provided by a simple toggle system. It is more bear resistant than the more traditional way of hanging a bear bag. In some places, such as the Shining Rock Wilderness in North Carolina, black bears have learned to chew through the cordage to cut the line releasing the bag – thus prompting wilderness managers in such places to recommend bear canisters. But because the line in the PCT system isn’t loaded with weight from the bag, a black bear will have a harder time getting the food. Luckily for me, black bears in the Ozarks seem to be well-behaved, but one can never be too careful in bear country.

At around 16:00, I started fixing an early dinner and got my Emberlit fired-up with flint, steel, and chaga. The steel striker was part of a fire kit that I received from a friend in Texas.


There are two ways that I know of for igniting chaga with the flint and steel. One method is to take your knife (or a stone flake) and drill a small hole into a large piece of dried chaga to make a fine powder. Then you hold the steel close and above the tinder, striking down with the flint. This method does work, but I have found that it take a lot of patience because you need a spark to land directly on the powdered chaga. The one time I got it to work, it took about 15 minutes for a spark to land where I needed it to…but maybe I’m not doing it right (and it won’t be the first thing I haven’t done correctly, either LOL). The other way is to break off a small piece of chaga, and hold it against the flint whilst striking down with the steel, in the same manner that you would ignite charred-cloth. It helps to expose the dark orange part of the chaga to the edge of the flint where you strike. And it might take a dozen strikes with the steel, but it’s a much quicker method than the aforementioned.

Tonight’s menu….


One package of Thai Kitchen instant rice noodle soup (basically a ramen, but gluten-free) and a Zatarain’s rice mix to spice it up🙂.

After stuffing my face, there was little else to do except watch the sun go down and then turn-in. It stayed relatively cool the whole night, and the clear skies let the light of waxing moon splash silver across the landscape.

Day 2:


I awoke just before 06:00 in the morning on Columbus Day….and just as 06:00, the sawmill drone started. Hearing that sort of background noise can be rather bothersome, but I wouldn’t let it put a damper on my trip. I packed up all my kit and started my trek back on the maintained trail, passing the wildlife pond, and ascending the gradual slope next to Rock Pile Mtn. From there, I turned east and began the climb up the side of the ridge. The way was a mostly overgrown logging road, so thick at times that it was easier to handrail the path off to the side.


The beautiful red shades you see here are from Tupelo trees🙂.

Once I gained enough elevation, I passed by a few glades before reaching the summit, which was essentially one large, open glade. And just around a corner along the old, overgrown track, I saw the mysterious circle of granite rocks.


This is it – this is what most people who come to the wilderness look for, and not everyone finds it. But with good navigational skills, a decent topo map, a compass or GPS, and some perseverance, you can get to it😉. Personally, I don’t think the pile of rocks is as impressive as other parts of the wilderness, which I discover later on.


The sawmill could still be heard to the north and east, but it was faint. And so I lingered on the summit for a little while, admiring the natural beauty of my surroundings as well as the brisk wind from the north. But I couldn’t stay there all day – I had a long way yet to travel deep into the wilderness, and I hoped to reach Turkey Pen Hollow and the St. Francis River as a goal for the day.


For most of my trips, I do take along a GPS for distance calculation, and to make note of latitude and longitude bearings of user-created recreation (camp) sites as well as feral hog sightings, but I don’t use it for navigation, preferring the reliability of a map and a good compass and my experience using them.

I planned my route by  scanning the topography on the map, looking for a way to make the descent down from Rock Pile Mtn a little easier. Regardless, it would be really steep in Turkey Pen Hollow. To circle back to the maintained trail, I would follow one of the major runoff streams that runs east to west into the St. Francis River on my way out. Rock Pile might be the smallest wilderness in the state, but it’s rugged country, and bushwhacking across this terrain would be a test of my physical fitness and navigational capabilities.

I still kept to what was left of the logging road, descending the height and heading south, until I came to a junction. Checking the map again, I decided to turn to the west, as that course would eventually take me a bit north. After about 1/4 mile/0.4 km, I stepped off the path to start my cross-country trek, bearing 270 degrees (due west).

The going was relatively easy at first, but the further I went, the more vegetation I ran into  due to the gradually decreasing elevation. At some point, I reached a spot at which I could see far ahead to the northwest through the forest canopy.


Checking my map, I confirmed that this was the great backwards “c”-shaped valley known as Cave Branch. This meant that I went too far north, since Turkey Pen Hollow lay to the south. So, I changed my course and set the compass to 180 degrees. Even though I was then following the contours lower of Rock Pile Mtn, the way was tough with areas of dense undergrowth (even some Pawpaw saplings at one point) as well as treacherous loose rocks, partially disguised under the leaf litter.

At length, I crossed over the ridge-like slope forming the northern part of Turkey Pen Hollow, and fumbled my way down the precipitous side.


The hollow is incredibly steep, and the further down you go, the steeper it gets. But this characteristic has allowed some of the trees to endure a few hundred years, never felled by axe or saw. Most of the trees I saw were relatively new (estimated 120 years and less), but as I followed the dried-up, jagged stream that leads out to the St. Francis River, I found what remains of a giant American Sycamore:


I cannot be sure exactly how large this tree once was, but the diameter near the base was about 5 feet. Even though it has suffered storm damage, this Sycamore is quite tenacious, with numerous sprouts and branches jutting out from what is left of the trunk.

A bit further on, and I reached the very edge of the wilderness at the St. Francis River.


It looked particularly beautiful with many trees flaunting their autumnal clothes🙂.

From there, I hand-railed the river until entering the wide valley of Cave Branch a little to the north. I soon discovered the stream that runs north, and then east and south in a horseshoe shape, and so I followed it for awhile.


Every now and then I’d come to a dry section, at one point startling a lone coyote. The journey became more hilly as I gained elevation, but I held my northeasterly direction. Eventually, however, hand-railing the stream turned difficult as it narrowed, connecting into branching brooks which led this way and that – and I could no longer determine with certainty which one led east. To my left was the upper part of Cave Branch, basically a ridge-like slope, and I climbed it hoping to get a better view of my surroundings. To the south I could see the opposite hill containing the valley, but I could see little to the east other than more tree canopies. By now, it was a little after 13:00.

Knowing that the slope I had climbed pointed in a general easterly direction, I decided to travel along it, taking comfort in the swift breezes that whisked through the trees. I gained more elevation, and then the rise seemed to give way to a small valley surrounded by more hills. I saw a dried up brook running south to north, and this confused me, as I couldn’t see any such waterway marked on the map (actually, it is marked, but sort-of hidden by a grid line). Still, I knew that continuing east would lead me back, even if it meant climbing over those hills.

I trudged on up and over the slopes and through endless thickets, at length crossing onto what was left of a logging road. I felt optimistic, thinking that this might lead back to the maintained trail, but I should have known better. I found out after 15 minutes of hiking alongside it that the path ran south to north, and therefore wouldn’t lead me back. There was nothing to do other than reset my course to east again and continue. After crossing over another hill, I heard that familiar murmur in the distance. Could that be the blasted sawmill? Maybe.

Keeping to my 90 degree bearing, I ascended a steep-sided ridge lined with Short-leaf Pines. They sure looked familiar, and as I reached the crest of the rise, I heard the unmistakable drone of the sawmill. After 200 more yards, I found the maintained trail, and turned north to head out.


That was one heck of a hike -by the time I reached my Forest Service truck at around 15:45, my legs felt worn out. Still, I was happy – I had seen more than most people who come to this wilderness ever get to see. And, after checking my GPS, I found that I had trekked 11.73 miles that day. Every now and then, I like a good, solid challenge to test my skills, and this adventure into the Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness sure tested my abilities. I have thoroughly enjoyed maintaining and managing this beautiful area, and I will dearly miss it when I depart in early November.

3 Days Backpacking The Irish Wilderness

Two weeks ago, I drove down south near the Missouri-Arkansas border to complete my solitude monitoring data in the largest Wilderness in the state, the Irish. But this time, I chose to seek my refuge within the forest itself, instead of the pampered comforts of more “civilised” life in Winona. I was also eager to take some new kit out with me. The weather forecast showed mostly clear skies and slightly cooler temperatures, though it would still be hot enough trekking with a pack.


On this occasion, my planned route would take me from the Camp 5 Pond trail-head (far right in photo, as indicated on the map), to Bliss Spring (where my thumb is pointing), and then back. Essentially, this trek traverses the width of 16,427 acre wilderness, with elevations varying from approximately 900 ft/274 m at Camp 5 Pond to less than 500 ft/152 m by the Eleven Point River. By taking the northern part of the White’s Creek Trail loop, I would avoid getting tangled (literally) in the 2 mile section around Fiddler Spring which I now refer to as “the Irish Jungle”.

Day 1:

I left on Friday the 26th of August with all my kit tucked away in a new rucksack, an Outdoor Products Mantis Dragonfly. I dearly love my modded LK-35, but something a bit larger is really nice for multi-day trips…otherwise I have to secure the more bulky items to the outside of the pack. With an extra 10 litres, I also have room for additional food and water.

I arrived at Camp 5 Pond close to 10:00, under a light rain shower. But before I could start my journey, I had to first gather solitude opportunity data in the transition zone, which is indicated as the first 0.3 mile/0.5 km of trail into the Wilderness and a short ways past the fork, extending approximately 100 yards outward on either side of the trail, as outlined on the map in the photo above. Zone 2, or the “remote” zone, consists of the rest of the trail system (including the Brawley spur), and everywhere else is designated zone 3, or “pristine”. Per Forest Service protocol, this data has to be collected in a minimum of 4 hours spent in that zone. Any “unnatural” sights or sounds, such as distant gunshots, overhead planes, or the echo of a passing vehicle, is recorded, as are encounters with other people. Essentially, this data gives wilderness managers an idea as to what a visitor would experience in that area. According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, federally designated Wilderness areas should have “outstanding opportunities for solitude”….ideally, a place where one can feel totally immersed in natural surroundings without encroachment from the outside, “civilised” world.


Just after 14:00, with a light lunch in my stomach, I finished the day’s work and started my trek. The rain had ceased, and the clouds were parting to reveal an auspicious and enduring sun.

Oaks and hickories were the dominant trees in this part of the forest, their great spires reaching reaching high to form a tangled canopy. Much of the forest had a relatively open understory, though wherever an old oak had fallen, there would be a large gap in the canopy and thick clusters of young Sassafras, Winged Sumac, Flowering Dogwood, and oak saplings, taking advantage of the enriching sunlight. I crossed through multiple fingers of the upper reaches of White’s Creek, each stream-bed unmoving and silent, with no water to give the tumbled stones life.


A little over 3 miles in, I came to the steep gorge carved out by the main flow of White’s Creek, indicated on the map as a “U” in the trail before the Brawley Pond spur. This valley dips down about 300 ft and makes for a rather fatiguing climb on either side and will leave you winded. Though it can be a challenge, the ascent is rewarding, with edifying views from the hills.


Once I reached the western side, I un-shouldered my pack and set up camp about 100 yards from the trail amongst a grove of towering Short-leaf Pines.

This time, I brought along a hammock and tarp setup, which I prefer in warmer weather.


In the past I used a DD Frontline hammock, but I found it to be on the heavy side and too bulky for what it is. What I have now is a simple, lightweight, double-wide hammock without mozzie netting, suspended with ultralight carabiners, tree-huggers, and webbing. I’m not sure exactly how light the hammock and suspension is, but it’s definitely lighter and less bulky than what I used to have.

I strung up my bear bag 100 yards north of my camp using a new (to me) method of suspending it.


This is what’s called the “PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) Hang”, and unlike the more conventional method of throwing a line over a tree branch, raising the bag, and tying the line off to an adjacent tree, the PCT Hang relies on tension provided by a simple toggle system. This arrangement is more bear-resistant, because there is no tension stored in the excess line, meaning bears cannot chew through the cordage to release the bag.


I had an early dinner of quinoa, and after that there wasn’t much to do other than relax and watch the dying sun yield the sky to star-kissed darkness. Nightfall brought strong breezes rushing through the gorge, and the trees quivered and swayed almost as if in a primal trance.

Distance hiked for day 1 – 3.85 miles.


Day 2:

When I awoke, I was greeted by a golden sun, casting aureate rays across the depths of the gorge…pure bliss.🙂


I reluctantly got up out of my hammock and started fixing brekkie. I knew it would be at least 10 miles to get to Bliss Spring and back, and what better way to start the day than with a cup of real coffee and a dose of carbs?😀


For convenience, I prefer to cook my oatmeal (the non-instant, old-fashioned kind) in a re-sealable pouch, like that of the dehydrated or freeze-dried boil-‘n-bag meals marketed to backpackers. It saves time spent cleaning the kettle/pot.

After brekkie, I struck camp and headed further westward along the trail. For this day and the next, I would collecting solitude data in the remote zone (Zone 2). Fortunately, this meant that I could hike and record at the same time, since the designated remote zone consists of the entire White’s Creek trail (except for the 0.3 mile transition zone from the Camp 5 Pond trail-head) as well as the Brawley Pond spur.

One thing I particularly like about the Irish Wilderness is that, if you’re observant to your surroundings, you’ll notice areas where the trees transition from oak-hickory forests with Sassafras and dogwood undergrowth into stands of Short-leaf Pine with young Red Maple in the understory.


Some of these pine groves were the result of planting efforts several decades earlier, like this one about half a mile/0.8 km west of the Brawley Pond spur. However, these pine-dominated and mixed pine-hardwood forests would have existed back before the forests were logged to meet the demands for settlements. The virgin timber would certainly have been much larger than the trees today, and most of the woodlands would not have been as choked with undergrowth as they are now. This is due to the fact that the Native tribes who inhabited the area used fire to clear the brush, opening the woods to make travel and hunting easier, all the while creating a balanced ecosystem that benefited the pines and the forest as a whole. In short, the Natives were mimicking Nature’s own processes of naturally-caused wildfires (caused by lightning) in order to help manage the land.

Logging and nearly a century of fire suppression have created a regrowth which is much thicker than what used to be, though, thanks to efforts by the Forest Service and other federal and state agencies, prescribed fire is now once again part of land management efforts in certain areas, such as the Hercules Glades Wilderness in the Ava Ranger District.

I pressed on through part of a broken ridge etched by Barn Hollow, hiking past a few shallow sinkholes.


These are some of the many other Karst topographies that can be found all over the Irish Wilderness.

As I neared the Eleven Point River, the undergrowth gradually gave way to a more open woodland, sloping down into the river valley.


Here you can see the other side of the Eleven Point River. To the north is Horshoe Bend.

By now, I was quite hot from hiking up and over the finger-like sections of the broken ridge, and the sun didn’t help, nor did the many mosquitoes who acted as though they were starving. Despite slapping the daylights out of what seemed like scores of those little blood-sucking buzzers, I still ended up with numerous bites on both arms and shoulders. Lucky for me, mosquito bites aren’t particularly bothersome, and they clear up in a week or less. But all I wanted at that point was to make it to Bliss Spring so I could taste that cold, revitalising water. My own water supply was quite low from constantly rehydrating myself due to the heat, so I was eager to reach my destination.

Bliss Spring can be a real tease, because you hear its rushing water long before you can see or get to it. But at length I found the treasured oasis, sparkling with effusive liquid life.


After cooling myself off and refilling my water bottles, I took the opportunity to rest and have lunch.


The greens are watercress sprigs collected from the mass that flourishes across the mossy rocks at the spring.

I was reluctant to turn around and head back, but I had miles to trek, and after a quick look at my topo map, I figured it would be best to camp next to the gorge again, but in a different location even further from the trail. As I made my way up the broken ridge, I noticed that a brief shower had dampened the forest – apparently it skimmed-by just to the north as a dark cloud blocking the sun, and I felt no raindrops at Bliss Spring.

By the time I reached the crest of that steep valley at 16:00, I was hot and sweaty again, but I took comfort in relaxing in my hammock, grateful whenever a breeze would swish through the trees.


Dinner promised to be a highlight of the day…lentil, potato, and noodle soup.🙂



And this is why I brought my Olicamp kettle – yes, it’s stainless steel, so it isn’t as light as something made of titanium or aluminum, but it excels at slow-cooking due to the shape of the pot. Besides, cooking “real” food can be a real nice change from boil-‘n-bag meals, gorp, and carb/energy bars, especially on extended trips. Needless to say, the soup was delicious🙂.

Unfortunately for me, as I was consuming that carb-packed, lentil goodness, I noticed that my lower legs had been ravaged by chiggers. They probably crawled onto me when I passed through a few overgrown sections of the trail earlier that day. I did my best to wash them off with biodegradable soap and water, but the damage was done…and I was itching like mad during the night. Lesson learnt: spray permethrin on clothes.

Distance hiked on day 2 – 10.13 miles


Day 3:

I awoke to another spectacular dawn, pierced by the howls of distant coyotes. After munching brekkie, I took down camp and started my trek out, travelling east into the rising sun. Thankfully, hiking seemed to lessen the itching from the chigger bites. Along the way, I backtracked a bit to cut back an overgrown section of the path. As I neared the end of the north section of the White’s Creek trail, I was surprised to find another backpacker. This was the first time I encountered another backpacker in the Irish Wilderness. We both stopped and chatted for awhile, and I learned that he was planning on hiking to Bliss Spring. We parted, and I continued on, eventually reaching the fork and then the Camp 5 Pond trail-head.


While this wasn’t the most enjoyable trip with the heat, humidity, hungry mosquitoes, and the blasted chiggers, it was great to come to the Irish Wilderness again to savour not just the spring water, but to soak in that special feeling of being alone, separated from the chaos of modern society in a wide expanse of trees and shrubs. I was immersed in solitude.

Distance hiked for day 3 – 4.72 miles

Total distance hiked – 18.7 miles

Back In the Irish Wilderness


Well folks, after spending all of July and half of August working for our Recreation Managers in the Potosi District of Mark Twain National Forest, my time to collect solitude and recreation site data in my 3 assigned wilderness areas has come again. I have just come back from a week spent gathering data from the Irish Wilderness. I left on Saturday the 13th for my temporary quarters in Winona, Missouri, at the Eleven Point Ranger Station. So far, despite heat indexes of over 100 F for muchtof the summer, we’ve received quite a bit of rain. For the first 3 days of my week monitoring the Irish Wilderness, it did nothing but rain. I later learned, after I got back, that several places had flash floods, including parts of the Mark Twain National Forest.

On the 4th day, things started clearing up, though every now and then it would shower lightly. I was hoping the rain would dissipate, because before I left on Saturday, I acquired a new toy….errr, I mean “tool”😛.


Say hello to my little friend! Or, I should say, “big” friend…because this is a Silky BigBoy, with medium teeth.

Part of my job as a wilderness ranger intern is to help manage the trail systems that traverse the 3 wilderness areas that I’m assigned to look after. Now, trail work, especially in high heat and humidity, isn’t exactly “easy”. It can be very hard manual labour. I have a lot of respect for trail crews, especially the AmeriCorps groups, who spend a solid 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, outdoors clearing the trails so that visitors can enjoy their time outdoors. Trail work is a hot, sweaty, exhausting job. Add onto the labour if you are just using hand tools. In the Forest Service for wilderness management, only hand tools are permitted for trail maintenance – so no mowers, chainsaws, or string trimmers.

With that said, I had several opportunities to put the Silky to work, and I was itching to try it out. Not far into the designated remote zone, I found my first downed tree.


This White Oak probably fell back in July when lots of severe thunderstorms rolled through Missouri. I do know that it wasn’t there when I was last in the Irish Wilderness. Like most fallen oaks, they might look all decayed or rotten on the outside, but I can assure you, once you start chopping or sawing into it, you’ll almost always find that much of the inner sapwood and heartwood is still solid. The exceptions are oaks that have fallen due to internal borer damage – in those cases, the heartwood will have been eaten out.

Time to get started!🙂


I was quite impressed with the ease of which the saw cut through. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Silky saws are almost like light sabres.😉

With that obstacle cleared, I went no more than 100 yards further down the trail when I found my next target.


This Black Oak also wasn’t there last time. I thought, “Looks like there’s going to be be a bunch more to go through,”…and there was.

The next day I decided to venture over to the Brawley Pond spur trail, which I had not yet been to. Getting to the Brawley trail-head takes you through the very small town of Wilderness, Missouri. No joke, the place is actually called “Wilderness”. Not to many people access the Irish Wilderness that way because it is off-the-beaten-path, and it is easy to get turned-around on the dirt and gravel roads in and around the small town. When I parked my government pickup at the trail-head, there was knee-high grass all over the parking area. I don’t think anyone had been there the entire summer!

**On a side note, it has occurred to me that, since many of the topographical features of the terrain were named after the former inhabitants of the area, the name, “Brawley”, was perhaps spelt at one point as “Brálaigh”, as it would be in Gaeilge. This only makes sense since the settlers here were Irish immigrants, many of whom spoke Gaeilge. The Anglicisation of Irish first names and surnames often tended to be phonetic equivalents.**


Much of the forest along the Brawley Pond trail is open, with a decent mix of Shortleaf Pine as well as oaks and hickories. Only a few spots were thick with undergrowth, some of it (unfortunately) was Multi-flora Rose and Lespedeza cuneata (commonly referred to as “Lespedeza”).

Identifying and collecting data of invasive plants in wilderness areas is another of my duties as a wilderness ranger intern. The information is then passed on to our Natural Resource Specialist and Non-Native Invasive Species (NNIS) Coordinator, and a plan is formulated to deal with the invasives. At best, this just means snipping with loppers and pulling out the root system…at worst, it can involve a lengthy process of approving herbicide use in the case of especially noxious invasives that threaten wilderness character. Fortunately, this method is often used as a last resort when other efforts have failed.

Some wildernesses, such as the Hercules Glade Wilderness (second largest wilderness area in the state, after the Irish Wilderness) in the Ava District, have a special natural resource management program in which prescribed fire is used to restore ecosystems and biodiversity. This method has also been successful in controlling many different invasive plants.

As I made my way down the trail, I came across two downed trees that needed to be removed.


The tree leaning over is an Alternate-Leaf Dogwood (Swida alternifolia)…on the bottom is a fallen Shortleaf Pine. An obstacle such as this is best removed because equestrians cannot pass through without circling around it. Unfortunately, this spreads tread impact and creates a footpath that others will inevitably take because the route is easier and more convenient.


The saw made short work of both trees. The Dogwood was especially easy to cut through because of all the tension from leaning over with no support at the far end, with the upper branches weighing it down.

I kept going, stopping every now and then to jot-down the identities of invasive plants along the trail as well as their location from the latitude and longitude coordinates on my GPS unit. As the path turned south, I heard the distant croaks of bullfrogs and new I must be close to Brawley Pond.


As the vegetation in this wetland area was so dense, I didn’t see much open water. To my dismay, there was a lot of Lespedeza all around Brawley Pond. The southern and western part was particularly bad, as I saw an very large area (easily 100 yards x 100 yards) covered in it. However, the rest of the forest had an open understory with relatively few invasives.


This would be a great area to revisit in the autumn. As it was, the day was warm, and every now and then, a cooling breeze would exhale through the woodland, the trees gently weaving and whispering as their leaves were caressed.

A bit farther ahead, I spotted another downed and dead tree, this one an 8 inch Black Oak.


A perfectly cut hinge🙂.

As it was a little after 12:00, I stopped to sit on the log for a lunch break, and afterwards, I shouldered my pack and continued the hike. A few hundred yards later, I found a small, shallow pool next to the trail.


I guess this is the leprechaun swimming hole😛.

The open woods made an ideal place for a variety of mushrooms to flourish.




There were golden Chanterelles dappled throughout the forest floor, silent symphonies of Black Trumpets, and various other fungi, including these unknown red-orange bits.

I followed the trail until I eventually reached what was an old logging road, which has been transitioned as part of the  wilderness trail system. Not far, perhaps a tenth of mile further to the south, is the junction at which the Brawley Pond spur connects with the northern part of the 18.6 mile White’s Creek Trail loop. The length of the spur trail is about 1.5 miles.

The following days were spent clearing the southern part of the White’s Creek Trail.







The tree in the last photo probably took the longest to remove, because there were so many large branches to cut through.


And this is why these kinds of obstacles should be removed as soon as possible. It might not look like much in the photo, but this trampled area is the beginning of an alternate path around the tree blockage. It was created by equestrians, likely from the same two riders I encountered in the beginning of my week. But I cannot blame them, because they had no other means of negotiating the blockade…and, fortunately, there wasn’t as much vegetation damage as I’ve seen in other places where visitor use is much higher.





I took care to drag the leafy branches large limbs across the user-created path, covering and disguising it so that tread wear remains concentrated on the trail. Below is the final result of an hour’s work:


Soooooo…that makes a total of 10 obstacle trees removed🙂. I’m sure there are more deeper in the wilderness, but these were the ones I could get to. Ideally, we would arrange a trail crew to come and clear the place out once or twice a year. Perhaps that will happen in the near future (hopefully). But for now, it’s just me…and it’s a lot of work for one person.



5 Days Backpacking the Irish Wilderness


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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


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:


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…


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

Time for brekkie!


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.


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.


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.



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… 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.


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.


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…


…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.


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.


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.


Here’s a view inside from the entrance:


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😛.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:


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


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🙂.


And for the main course…..


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Plotting a bearing to monitor the pristine zone.

I made it back to the fork close to noon.


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?


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


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.


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:

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.

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.😉
 Here’s a Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly😀.
 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!😀
 This half-rotten Short-leaf Pine chopped through like butter.
 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.
 Lots of chunky, large chips from a decently-sized trunk🙂.
This axe had a handle with cross-grained wood…
 …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.
 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🙂.