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 :D.
 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 :).

Forest Service: Monitoring the Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness

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

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



…The Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness :).



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

Rucksack –

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

On my person –

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

Optional Items –

  • axe
  • folding bucksaw
  • leather work gloves


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

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



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



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

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

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


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

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

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



Forest Service: Solitude Monitoring

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


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

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

Welcome to……


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


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

Enjoy the views… 🙂





Some of the flora….


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



Fire Pink, its red petals reminiscent of bursting fireworks.



Wild Bee-Balm yet to bloom.



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



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



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

Some unknown plants…





And here are two wildlife close-ups…


A cute but shy Box Turtle.



Turkey Vultures soaring in the wind overhead.

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


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