I Love Rainy Days…

It is a truth that fewer people (in general) go out hiking in wet weather. Popular trails and points of interest usually thick with visitors and summer-outers become sparse or even empty. But those of us who do go out in the “less than favourable” weather are rewarded with solitude and sometimes spectacular views of the landscape, shaped or shaded by the weather conditions.

Some days back I had the pleasure of visiting a few areas in the Red River Gorge National Geological Area that I hadn’t yet been to. Low, grey stratus clouds brought an enduring light rain, and with it came cool temperatures in the 50s as well as great shrouds of mist.

One of the first spots we (myself and three other backcountry ranger coworkers) checked-out was in the area of Sky Bridge.

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And here is Sky Bridge itself:

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At this angle it almost looks like the side of a dinosaur :P.

 

Later during the day we stopped along Chimney Top Rd and came across a few people taking it all in. And no wonder, for with views such as these, it is hard to leave.

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Spring in the Gorge is incredibly beautiful. I haven’t seen an ecosystem so diverse nor so majestic. The smoky veils of meandering mists seemed to compliment the already lush and blossoming landscape.

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It was hard for me to walk away, as well. I was soaking in the rich,¬† green ambience like a sponge. Days such as this create enduring memories and sharpen one’s respect and love for the natural world. ūüôā

 

 

The Clifty Wilderness

Of all the places here, in and around the Red River Gorge, my favourite spot would have to be the Clifty Wilderness. At close to 13,000 acres, Clifty borders the adjacent Red River Gorge Geological Area, with its own share of natural arches as well as rugged terrain. My previous post depicted some parts of the Wilderness area, but in this article I want to portray as best I can the abundance of natural beauty that makes this place so special to me.

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A giant Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobus.

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as 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 and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.” – Section 2 C of the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Five designated trails traverse different parts of the Clifty Wilderness, as well as the Sheltowee Trace, a national scenic trail. Some sections are more challenging than others, but the solitude and immersion in Nature is well worth it. Swift Camp Creek is an undeniable favourite, with its waters meandering through the valleys thick with rhododendrons, Eastern Hemlock,  magnificent Eastern White Pines.

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The confluence of Gladie Creek and Salt Fork, close to the junction of the Sheltowee and Lost Branch Trail.

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Near the junction of Wildcat and Swift Camp Creek. The overcast and misty skies created an almost ethereal atmosphere in the groves of towering Eastern White Pine and hemlocks.

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More information about the Clifty Wilderness can be found at http://www.wilderness.net/NWPS/wildView?WID=127. Maps of the Red River Gorge and the Clifty are available at the Gladie Visitor Center.

 

Into the Gorge…

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Howdy folks! I meant to post sooner, but as there’s no internet access at my housing, I have to walk or cycle into town to get wifi. I guess this is a good thing, in that I am spared much of the chaos and political flame-wars of the internet, but it also means that my ability to keep up my posts will be rather limited.

I am very excited to be working in the beautiful Red River Gorge, with 3 other backcountry ranger interns to share the workload. On our first field work day, our supervisor took us to Indian Staircase, which is an unofficial, user-created trail. The views made the precarious climb well worth it:

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The next day, we trekked Auxiere Ridge, which is a very popular designated trail route, with a spur trail to Double Arch.

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We made good distance that day, hiking approximately 11 miles. Auxiere Ridge is one of the trails that receives a lot of use, and was the site of a fairly recent wildfire caused by negligent visitors. Part of our job as backcountry rangers is to provide navigational assistance to visitors, educate them about Leave No Trace principles using the Authority of the Resource, and to naturalise illegal campsites.

Bordering the Red River Gorge is the adjacent Clifty Wilderness, of some 13,000 acres. It is the home of rich conifer woodlands dominated by Canada Hemlock and Eastern White Pine.

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Many of these trees are gigantic, reaching over 100 ft in height and probably over 200 years old.

Fortunately for me, I have made solid friendship with Charlie, who is a crosscut and chainsaw evaluator in the Cumberland Ranger District, and I will be receiving my crosscut certification in time. Right now I am looking forward to going out with his wilderness trail crew on April 8th.

“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” ~ John Muir

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New Job at Daniel Boone National Forest

Well folks, I am pleased to announce that I will be heading down to Kentucky for a Forest Service job next month. I will be a lead backcountry ranger intern working in the Red River Gorge Geological Area. A portion of the Gorge is designated as the Clifty Wilderness, with some 12,600 acres of rugged terrain. More information about Red River Gorge can be found on the USFS website.

At the start of the new year, I began hunting around for jobs on the SCA website, Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, and USAJobs. A lot of opportunities pop up in January and February, and they tend to come and go rather quickly as positions get filled. It pays to check daily, which is how I found out about this job on the SCA website.

My working period will extend through 3 seasons, from mid-March to the end of November, about 37 weeks. Here’s the position description:

Serve as the long term backcountry ranger intern during the 2017 field season working with other SCA interns and volunteers in the Red River Gorge (RRG).  This position works the entire season from spring through fall.  Patrolling backcountry areas of the RRG you will make visitor contacts, providing one-on-one education to visitors on topics such as Leave No Trace principles, wilderness values, and basic rules and regulations of the area. You will help rehabilitate areas of the RRG impacted by heavy recreational use, remove fire rings from campsites, block visitor created trails, install signs and remove trash, monitor visitor use through the use of road and trail counters as well as personal observations.

I will also have the opportunity to attend USFS public meetings that involve determining how Red River Gorge will be managed in the future.

I am pretty excited about this one : ). I’ve have never been to the Gorge, but after seeing some trip report videos posted by blogger That Hiking Guy, it seems like a fantastic place. I’ll post an update when I’m down in Kentucky and settled-in.

Cathedral Pines Preserve

Over 300 years ago, long before the American Revolution and French and Indian War, back in the early days of the colonies, the first settlers must have looked upon the vast forests of spire-like trees with awe…and some trepidation. Many explorers and naturalists were delighted to find an assortment of tree varieties which bore striking similarities to European species…American Ash, Chestnut, Mountain Ash, White Oak, and American Beech, to name a few. And how large these trees must have been, for the indigenous peoples had only stone and fire to fell timber with, until they began trading with European explorers (as early as the mid 1500s in Canada).

Aside from trade, the timber market formed the backbone of the economy in the northeast, as the forests seemed like an endless resource to the colonists. One tree in particular was instrumental in the events leading to the start of the American Revolution – and that was the Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobus. Virgin pines grew to impressive sizes, similar to their western cousins, Pinus monticola, across the Rocky Mountains. On what is now Dartmouth College in new Hampshire stood an Eastern White Pine that was judged to be 240 ft tall. An early Connecticut settler, Ezra Styles, measured one that had a circumference of 15 ft (about 4ft 9 inches diameter). On the stump of another, he counted 400 annual growth rings.

Pines were important as “mast wood” for shipbuilding. Compared to Riga Fir, which supplied mast wood for the Royal Navy (imported from the Baltic), the wood of Eastern White Pine was not only lighter, but also stronger. It was Captain George Weymouth of England’s Royal Navy who saw the potential in Eastern White Pine forests after exploring the coast and estuaries of what is now Maine in the early 1600s. Before long, pines were exported to England in specially designed ships which could carry timbers 100 ft or more in length.

In 1691, the demand for white pine was high enough that the Crown imposed a claim to all trees over 2 ft diameter that were located within 3 miles of any river or the sea. These trees were notched with a brand known as the “King’s Broad Arrow”. This didn’t sit right with many colonists and loggers, as it significantly encroached on their profit, and negatively affected the local economies. In retaliation, some Yankees would cut the branded trees down at night, or simply beat-up the Royal “mast agents”, whose job it was to enforce the Crown’s policy. A few brave colonists even dressed up as Natives before chopping the pines, years before the Boston Tea Party. Retribution from the British was swift – sawmills were burned and loggers driven from their homes in reprisal for their actions. In short time, the King’s Broad Arrow became as hated as the tax on tea and the Stamp and Currency Acts.

Once the American Revolution began, numerous Patriot flags were embroidered with images of the Eastern White Pine, including the Massachusetts’ Navy flag, Washington’s Cruisers standard, the New England naval ensign, and the Continental flag (which was flown at the battle of Bunker Hill in June of 1775), as well as many other variants. The noble pine had become a symbol for not just New England patriotism, but also American independence.

Unfortunately for the pines, the conclusion of the Revolution didn’t end mass harvesting. By 1850, most of the virgin growth in New England had been cut, and loggers were spreading ever westward to find more. When the regrowth of Eastern White Pines reached maturity, these were also chopped down in a second great harvest between 1875 to 1925. But not all of those pines fell to the relentless swings of the woodsman’s axe. In Connecticut, there exists a grove of second-growth Eastern White Pine and Eastern Hemlock. And today, I had the chance to walk among giants.

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Cathedral Pines is probably one of Connecticut’s best-kept secrets. It is a small 42 acre preserve managed by the Nature Conservancy, but if I’m not mistaken, it is also the largest stand of second-growth trees in New England.¬† This is a place I longed to visit after reading about it in the book New England Wilds (authored by Ogden Tanner and the editors of Time-Life books).

Today I turned 24, though my age is just a short chapter in the lifetime of these trees. Many are 200 years old or more, stretching skywards at heights of 125 ft. Standing among them is like visiting grand¬† parents…they have many stories to tell.

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They are still standing thanks to J.F.R. Calhoun, a nearby dairy farmer who had grown up playing in these very woods. In 1883, he purchased the 42 acres to save the pines from being cut down by loggers. The property remained in the family until his descendants gave it to the Nature Conservancy in 1967. Tornadoes have damaged the site 1989, but there is still much to see. This massive Eastern White Pine (below) is among the oldest with a DBH of approximately 4 ft.

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And up on the crest of the hill, one can see the distinctive folds of the Housatonic Highlands, which merge into the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

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The forest is always changing. Trees fall, decompose into the ground, and become nutrition for new growth. Despite all the changes (you could call it “terra-forming”) we have made to the landscape, even after miles upon miles of clear-cut, the trees always return and continue to be our companions. The house you are living in, the warmth of a hearth fire, the welcoming shade on a summer day, and the air you breathe are all things we owe to the existence of trees.

Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world” ~ John Muir

 

Winter Trekking Through a Snowstorm

Recently, the Northeastern US received a surprise visit from Old Man Winter. Weather forecasters predicted snowfall accumulations of 8-15 inches across Connecticut ahead of the first major winter storm of the season. Just to point out how random New England weather can be, temperatures in some parts of the state reached an incredibly mild 60 F/15 C under clear skies on the 8th, the day before the storm.

I have been waiting since December for enough snow to fall to go snowshoeing, so I decided to head down to Ridgefield, Connecticut, to trek across a section of the Ive’s Trail. The snow began to fall sometime around 04:00 in the morning, and driving there was tedious and slow.

For this trip, I brought my winter kit load-out (for overnights to 3 day trips), which I’ve managed to bring down to a base weight of approximately 18 lbs/8.16 kg. I could squeeze everything into the LK-35 (except the snowshoes), but having an extra 10 litres with the Mantis Dragonfly pack makes life a lot easier. I’m still evolving the winter kit, seeing what works and what doesn’t. Eventually, I’d like to pair a lightweight tent stove with my tipi shelter as a hot-tent setup.

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The plan was to start at the southern end of Bennett’s Pond, and hike as far as I could go through the storm. This would be a challenge due to the weather conditions and steep terrain, and the going would only get tougher as the snow levels grew higher.

The wind was picking up all around Bennett’s Pond, minimizing visibility. In some places, even though I was right next to the shore, I couldn’t quite see the opposite side.

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I continued on until I reached the foot of Pine Mtn, the tallest ridge in southwestern Connecticut at 997 ft (304 m). Checking my map, I had the option to take a side trail straight up the western side of the ridge, but I opted to maintain my course, going the longer way around. At this point, the snow was powdery and close to 8 inches deep, and trying to climb the steep side would take a lot of energy.

Even going the longer way took some determination, but at length, I made it to the top of Pine Mtn. Here’s the view from the bluff facing southwest.

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Not much to see, is there? lol

The wind was roaring across Pine Mtn from the north, scooping up great waves of snow. With temperatures down to 23 F by noon, the wind chill factor reached near 0 F.

As the elevation began to flatten out, I strapped on the snowshoes. The reason why I didn’t put them on earlier is because of the effects of drifting snow across uneven terrain. High wind displaces the snow, moving it from exposed surfaces, and creating pockets of deep accumulation in places that are more sheltered. Some parts of the trail were barely covered, while other areas were much deeper.

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At around 13:00, I found a relatively-sheltered location off-trail near the summit. I put up my tipi to rest and get out of the wind for a bit.

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The shelter can be deployed with 4 or 5 stakes, and the steep angles on all sides make it ideal at shedding snow. However….with only one small vent, condensation will build up inside and freeze. I’d like to add maybe 3 more vents to the top.

By 14:30, I was back on the trail, heading east into Wooster Mtn State Park. At one point I had to negotiate 100 ft climb onto a rocky ledge, which went straight up at a very steep angle. I probably spent 15 minutes struggling to reach the top, sliding in the snow. Thankfully, it was mostly downhill from there.

At around 15:30, the snowfall ceased, but the winds did not. By 16:00, I reached the trail cross-over at Route 7. I decided to leave it at that. I had travelled 6 miles, but the effort felt like I put in 12. Hiking/snowshoeing in conditions like this can be a double-edged sword. Most of the time, you’re alone and the probably the only one out on the trail….and you are therefore also the only one packing down the trail ;). Still, this was a great workout to test my endurance. It was fantastic to see what this area looks like under a cloak of snow :).

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New Life For An Old Double Bit

Back in December, after scanning ebay for quality, inexpensive axe heads, I landed a great deal with a gentleman from Idaho. He was selling an unmarked Michigan pattern double-bit for $20.80 with free shipping. Aside from some minor pitting and surface rust, a few chips on one of the blades, and some dings from a hammer, the head appeared to be in tip-top condition. I couldn’t pass up an opportunity like this, so I bought it.

There are many misconceptions out there regarding vintage axes, and as stated in my recent post Rambling About Vintage Axes, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Just because there’s no visible brand name or logo, it does not mean that the axe is “cheap”. Years of corrosion or abuse can easily wear away at a manufacturer’s embossed logo or name. An intact maker’s stamp matters more to collectors than to those of us who simply want quality users.

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With this particular axe head, I was pleasantly surprised to see how little wear there was on both bits. I could even see the original factory bevel grinding marks. It weighs 3.5 lbs exactly, and has convexed cheeks with ridges in the eye. The above photo is the result after a 30-hour vinegar immersion followed by a light sanding. You might be able to make out the quench lines of the temper, which extend slightly over 2 inches behind the cutting edges.

The edge bevel profile on both sides was exceptional. Sometimes you’ll come across old axes that have been rounded significantly along the edge, which is the result of continuous damage to the toe and heel. Such profiles make the axe inefficient at chopping, since there is less contact between the edge and the wood being cut. This can be difficult to correct, and can take several hours to re-profile with hand work. A slight curve along the edge, as shown in the photo above, is ideal.

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That said, I had some file work to do in order to remove the few chips in one of the blades. I’ve “upgraded” to Bahco files, which seem to be much better quality than the newer Craftsmans (made in Mexico) that I was using before.

I sharpened both cutting edges on a foam pad with wet-and-dry sandpaper, starting at 220 grit, and finishing at 1200. This process probably took no more than an hour because the bevels were in such good condition. After stropping, both edges were wickedly, hair-popping sharp.

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Some double-bit axes have a narrower bit profile on one side, with a wider angle on the opposite. This design was meant to be versatile, with the narrower bit for chopping, and the wider bit to be used for splitting or when chopping near the ground. This axe does not have that characteristic, so I sharpened one edge at a fine 25 degree angle, and the other closer to 30 degrees.

I didn’t have enough leather for a “full-face” sheath, so I opted for a simpler design.

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Both parts are connected on the opposite side with a section of old stretchy-fabric belt. The leather was originally white, so I stained it with some saddle brown leather dye followed by a few coats of raw linseed oil for a richer colour. I finished with a light coat of beeswax to help seal the leather from moisture.

It took me a little while to acquire a decent handle, but the owner of a local small-business hardware store in my area was kind enough to order one for me. The hickory was mostly heartwood, which I prefer, with a thin streak of sapwood running down partway from the top. Conventional advice it to consider heartwood as a defect because of its “weaker” structure, but I have not found any truth in that claim. I am also starting to doubt that growth-ring orientation makes any difference to the quality of a handle. Furthermore, US Forest Service axe specifications 5100-9D under section 3.2.2 make no mention of growth ring orientation or heartwood as “defects”.

I spent 3 days shaping the handle at leisure, using a spokeshave and four-in-hand rasp. It came rather thick, but this allowed me to customise the fit for my hands. This is an important step to take and cannot be rushed, so that the helve is comfortable to hold for long periods of use. After determining the most comfortable fit, I smoothed the handle with 100 grit sandpaper.

Because this axe’s eye has ridges, I had to carefully gouge out 6 notches in the eye wood for the head to seat firmly and securely on the handle. Fitting the head took some time, as is most often the case – patience and good tools are your best assets.

Here she is after hanging, ready for a coat of raw linseed oil and a wax finish.

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For those who might be wondering, the round, steel wedge came from the good folks at Beaver Tooth Handle Company. It is their “medium” size, which I purchased in a set of 5. I like the practicality of these round wedges, because they spread the wood equally in all directions.

Last week, I took the newly refurbished axe out with me for some trail work. This fallen limb came down from a Black Oak about 2 years ago. The diameter was roughly 9 inches.

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I am very pleased with how this axe turned out, and it will be a faithful companion in my future endeavours in conservation and wilderness management. ūüôā