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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 :).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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. 🙂

Refurbishing An Old Crosscut Saw: Part 1

Originally, I planned on doing this in one article, but realistically, it would be a lengthy read – I think it is better to upload this project in a 2 or 3 part series. This is a learning process for me, and up until I worked with the Forest Service to help manage wilderness areas, I had never before used a crosscut saw.


Big John the Badass under-bucking a fallen Black Oak with a Disston in the Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness. Notice the axe technique used to help guide the saw.

My supervisor was (and still is) a crosscut instructor, but due to our working schedules, we didn’t have much time to dedicate to crosscut use or restorations. Luckily for me, I was able to catch a few tips from Dolly Chapman (you may know her from the 1990s USFS documentary Hand Tools For Trailwork) during my short time time at the Wilderness Skills Institute in Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina. At the time, she was teaching a crosscut restoration course.

Unlike developed recreation and semi-primitive recreation areas, wilderness areas designated by Congress require specific management practices. Under most situations, chainsaws are not allowed for trail work (motorized and mechanized equipment is prohibited), and it is impractical anyway, because carrying a bucking crosscut saw and a full-sized axe or two for 8 miles into the backcountry is much easier to manage than one or two chainsaws, plus adequate fuel and bar oil. The US Forest Service is the primary federal agency that continues to offer crosscut saw courses and certifications.

Thanks to Big John, one day in the middle of summer I was given a few hours to work on a couple crosscut saws that the Potosi-Fredricktown Ranger District had recently acquired.


Here I was using a pumice stone and water to remove the surface rust from this tuttle-tooth pattern bucking saw. The advantage to using pumice is that it leaves much of the patina intact, and won’t remove the acid etchings of a manufacturer’s brand. The disadvantages with pumice are that it is slow to work on a saw that has a lot of surface rust, and the pumice itself can wear away quickly.

Inspired with the way these saws turned out, I started scouring the local antique shops in Potosi for old crosscuts. Later in September, I found my prize, a 5.5 ft bucking saw with the original handles. The price tag was marked $150, which is rather high, but after inspecting everything, I bought it. The handles were in very good condition, and though the saw blade was covered in surface rust, the teeth and rakers were still intact, retaining their original set as an added bonus. Another interesting characteristic I noticed in the store was that it had a crescent taper, which is a good indicator of a high-quality saw. After showing the saw to Big John, he gave it the thumbs up :).

Two weeks later on one of my days-off, I started working on the handles. The metal parts were tricky to remove. I needed the help of an adjustable wrench and WD-40 in order to twist off the wingnuts, and all the metal bits were rusty. I couldn’t get the threaded rod and pin mechanisms to come off, so I just removed the wingnuts and clamps. They were immersed in vinegar for 24 hours, followed by some vigourous brushing with a file card, and then a sanding to bring out a little shine. They aren’t anywhere near sparkling, but they sure look better than before, and I like the rustic look the patina gives.


The two wooden handles were extremely dry and cracked in places, and much of the wood was discoloured from years of dust and dirt. I sanded them down, and then started applying multiple thick coats of linseed oil. I’m not sure exactly what kind of wood the handles are made out of. Regardless, the remnants of the dirt and dust trapped in the pores of the wood gave the handles a very lovely, rich walnut-colour when I applied linseed oil. I sealed the wood with a beeswax finish. They feel very comfortable in the hand and appear to be the “Triumph”-style made by the Henry Disston & Sons company.

Later on, I managed to take off the thread rod and pin mechanisms with an old file, using the tang as a punch to knock out the pins. I used a lot of WD-40 to help loosen the rust. After removal, they were soaked in vinegar for a day, and then scoured with a wire brush and 100 grit sandpaper. With those final bits off, I could begin the rust removal process on the saw blade, starting with a double-sided, medium and fine grit waterstone (more abrasive than pumice).



…and after:


It took about 2 hours to clean-up both sides with the stone followed by fine-grade steel wool. I lightly passed the stone across the teeth to confirm that they were still in set. The waterstone left most of the patina untouched, though I could not see any acid etching left by the manufacturer. You don’t need a mirror polish on crosscut saws – in fact, going to that length is often discouraged because you can take off a lot of metal from the blade, making it prone to warping and breaking. If the surfaces on both sides of the blade are smooth, it’s good enough for functionality. With all the metal parts cleaned, I rubbed on some WD-40 to prevent rust buildup from moisture. I do not recommend using linseed oil (raw or boiled) on any kind of saw blade, because it will harden, forming a slightly rough surface, which will cause friction in the cut and can lead to binding issues.

Due to my work schedule, I was unable to make any more progress with the saw, though before I left Missouri, I purchased a 6×9 canvas drop cloth to use as an improvised sheath. Fire-hose also works well as a durable, lighter-weight sheath, though a drop cloth allows the entire blade to be protected.


Today, I took out the saw for a trial run on some seasoned Norway Maple from a tree that was felled on our property. The teeth have not yet been sharpened – this was just a test to see if the rakers are set at the correct height, as I currently don’t have a raker gauge.


From what I could determine, the rakers appear to be near the correct height. The saw cut nice and smooth, considering that the teeth have not yet been sharpened. The rakers probably need some fine-tuning, but so far I am quite impressed.

That’s it for now. Until I can make myself a suitable saw vice, I’m not going to attempt to fiddle around with the teeth and rakers. I have been using the US Forest Service Saws that Sing Guide for research, but any additional insight or advice from sawyers is welcome :).

Rambling About Vintage Axes

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

This post has been “in the works” for awhile, mainly to address the frustration some people have expressed in buying old axes. I hope that the suggestions and tips mentioned here will be useful to others as they have been useful to me. I will also put the spotlight on some common misconceptions about vintage axes in the hopes that others will be better educated.

Over 100 years ago at the turn of the century, during what many call the “Golden Age” of axe manufacturing, the majority of mass-produced axes were made to meet the demands of the logging industry. Over the course of the next 40 years – especially in the 1920s, as classic camping (then called “auto-camping”) became a popular pass-time –  the axe market evolved to produce more household and outdoor/camping-related axes, as evidenced in early catalogs of companies such as Marbles, Collins, and Stanley.

By the 1960s, the development of portable, one-man chainsaws took hold and effectively replaced the loggers’ felling axes and crosscut saws. As a result, axe production decreased. Companies either merged with each other or were bought by larger, more successful manufacturers.*1 In 1960, the True Temper Co., formerly American Fork and Hoe Co (which had previously bought Kelly Axe and Tool Co in 1930), was purchased by Ludlum Corp. 27 years later, Ludlum sold the True Temper/Kelly axe manufacturing divisions to Barco Industries, which remains in business.*2 The Mann Edge Tool Co absorbed Collins in 1966, with Stanley Works purchasing four Collins factories located outside the US.*3 Mann Edge started producing a line of “sportsman’s axes” under the Norlund brand in 1968, though by the 1980s, despite a favourable reputation for offering high-end tools, demand lessened significantly. Norlund’s production all-but ceased in 1986, and 17 years later, Mann Edge Tool Co (and Collins subsidiary) was sold to Truper Herramientas in Mexico.


*1 – YesterYearsTools American Fork and Hoe Co. (Tom Lamond) and YesterYearsTools Barco Ind. (Tom Lamond)

*2 – YesterYearsTools The Collins Co Pt 1. (Tom Lamond)

*3 – YesterYearsTools Norlund Co. (Tom Lamond) and YesterYearsTools Mann Edge Tool Co. (Tom Lamond)

But since the late 1990s, and especially in more recent years, axe production in the US and Europe seems to have been jump-started by the growing interest in homesteading, woodcraft, and bushcraft, promoted on TV shows and the Internet. Companies like the infamous Gränsfors Bruks (popularised by Ray Mears), Wetterlings, Husqvarna, and later Council Tool, began producing large quantities of portable “bushcraft” axes marketed directly to outdoor enthusiasts. With the Internet’s evolution of social networking sites, like-minded people could share their ideas with a world-wide audience. Some individuals started encouraging the practice of restoring old axes as a practical method of recycling (that also preserves history), allowing others to “make their own” axe for a lesser price. And indeed, for the past 6 years or so, refurbishing vintage axes has become quite a popular trend. Currently, on social media sites such as youtube, searching ‘axe restoration’ will yield you over 48,000 results.

Lots of people now collect a variety of old axes (particularly certain brands, the most recent popular one being Norlund), whilst others acquire a few to be dedicated “users”. Due to the increased value from demand, sellers at flea markets, on ebay, and even in antique stores are listing vintage axes at higher prices than a few years ago. Some disgruntled individuals have openly stated in frustration that it is “impossible” to find cheap old axes nowadays, and many blame certain youtubers and forums.

In reality, this trend is not the fault of any one individual or group of individuals. Social media is a very powerful force in our modern world, allowing content to be viewed and shared across the globe, wherever one can access the internet. With that in mind, it only makes sense that many thousands of people wanted to find old, serviceable axes, and fix them up as their own DIY project. For many people, restoring axes, as well as other old tools, has become a hobby – and as previously stated, there are numerous collectors who seek specific brands and lines of axes. With a surge in demand, sellers realized that their rusty piece of steel may be worth much more than a few dollars. Prices for certain axes might seem ridiculous, but you have to take into account the fact that some people are willing to pay that price. So yes, the days of finding a 3.5 lb True Temper axe head in good condition for $12 on ebay are pretty much gone. If that’s all you’re willing to spend, then yes, your options are going to be extremely limited.

But in the $15-$30 price-range, you can still find a serviceable axe. Ebay can be very competitive, especially when old axes are auctioned, and what starts out as $9 axe can quickly become a bidding war with the winning offer of $45 or even $70. My first bit of advice is to establish an amount that you are willing to spend up to. The $15-$30 price range is about ideal, considering the extra cost for the helve, compared to affordable options from Council Tool. Personally, I stay away from axe auctions on ebay because they are almost always too competitive. Buy-it-now listings are fewer, but much more promising. To refine your search, you can use the “advanced settings” function next to the search bar by typing in the $15-$30 limit (or whatever your price range is) and clicking the check-box for “buy-it-now”. You may not find what you’re looking for at first, so make sure to check each day.

That was how I picked up this beautiful 3.5 lb Michigan pattern double bit on ebay for $20.80.


Aside from a little surface rust, some minor pitting, and a few chips in one of the edges, it was in near mint condition. It still had the factory grind, with over 2 inches depth of temper in both blades. I will be posting a restoration article on this axe in the near future, so stay tuned :).

Another tip is to let all your friends know that you are looking for old axes. Talk about it with your acquaintances. Hey, you might get something for free. Last year, after responding to an advertisement in the local newspaper, I was talking with the seller, and the subject of axes was brought up in the conversation. I ended up with a bonus….a Chopper 1 splitting axe (or maul?…).


Earlier that same year, I was gifted with a 3.5 lb  True Temper Kelly Works Flint Edge Michigan pattern single-bit from a friend, who bought it for less than $25 on ebay.


I posted the restoration of this axe here, though I later ended up re-working the edge (the profile was too rounded), and more recently, I rehung the axe on a shorter 31 inch handle made of heartwood.

Sometimes you’ll find decent axes at yard sales, in flea markets, or second-hand stores. You might have to haggle, but don’t be afraid to walk away if the seller remains fixated on a high price. With some perseverance and a bit of luck, you will find what you’re looking for. Don’t give up.

Axe Myths: Don’t judge a book (or an axe) by its cover

This brings us to the subject of common misconceptions regarding vintage axes. Earlier in this post, I put up a photo of my latest project, the Michigan double-bit that I acquired from ebay. It is unmarked – there is no visible factory stamp or logo to be seen. Some people scoff at the idea of buying an axe such as this because of the rather silly notion that it might be made in China, Taiwan, or Mexico, or any other off-shore country where they believe cheap steel is made. They want to see “USA”, “Made in the USA”, “Germany”, “Sweden”, or better yet, a well-known manufacturer’s name like “Collins”, “Kelly Works”, “True Temper”, “Gränsfors Bruk”, “Norlund”, etc., because if the axe doesn’t have these markings, you could be buying “a piece of junk”. I beg to differ – years of corrosion from neglect can wear away the manufacturer’s stamp in the metal. Sometimes all that’s left is a stamp of the head weight. The fact remains that the majority of old axes out on the market were made in the US. From the mid 1800s to just before WWII, more axes were produced in the US than any other tool.

Nevertheless, many sellers will offer an unmarked axe at a more affordable price because there’s often no way to tell exactly which company made it. On ebay, such axes will be listed in the “buy it now” category at a lower price due to the lower market value. An exception (as of current) are Hudson Bay axes, which are still exceedingly popular, and therefore have a higher market value.

Some things I look for in unmarked axes are convexed cheeks, phantom bevels, and-or ridges in the eye. If the axe has one or all three features, chances are very likely that it was American made. Specific patterns like Connecticuts, Jerseys, and Michigans are also indicative of a US-made axe.

The second axe myth I want to shine the spotlight on the generalization that old axes were “hand forged”. This notion has been around for awhile, but it is only partly true. From colonial settlement in North America up until the introduction of power hammers (i.e. drop forging), the majority of axes that were mass-produced were forged from mechanical trip hammers, many of which were water powered. Some trip hammer forges remained in use into the 20th century.

“Hand forging” refers to forging metal using only human power, i.e. a hand hammer. Forging axes in this manner was common on a small-scale in early North American history. *1 Drop forging is the method of using a high energy transfer of force via a power hammer. It how axes were made for the past 100 years. With trip hammers and power hammers, axes could be manufactured on a large scale requiring far less time and human effort compared to hand forging. That said, there are some smiths today who do make axes and tomahawks by hand forging on a small-scale. But since this article is about vintage axes, I won’t digress any further.

Reference: *1 – Library of Manufacturing: Drop Forging Hammers

It should be noted that older Gränsfors and Wetterlings axes were often stamped “drop forged”. Just because an axe looks old, has cool forging marks in the metal or an uneven surface, does not mean that it was forged by hand. So when you see an ebay listing for an old axe head with a title description like this, “Vintage Kelly Axe Mfg Co.: Hand Forged Jersey Pattern Axe”, or “Vintage Gränsfors Bruks Felling Axe Hand Forged In Sweden”, don’t believe it. And if you find a seller at a flea market or in an antique shop who is asking a high price for the “hand forged” axe that you’re eyeing, be prepared to walk away and look elsewhere.

Back in Connecticut

Sorry for the delay, but I am back and mostly settled-in. October seemed to fly-by, and as I was preparing to leave Missouri, my supervisor, Big John the Badass, was leaving for his new job managing wilderness areas out in Colorado.

At the summit of Rock Pile Mtn, Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness

I want to extend a big thank-you to him for all the advice he has given me, as well as for the great times we’ve shared. I also wish to thank Becky Ewing (District Ranger at the Pososi, MO US Forest Service office), Jennifer Falkey (NNIS Coordinator/Natural Resources Specialist), Bill Anderson (Recreation manager), and Lisa Essmyer (Recreation manager), for being fantastic role models and helping me achieve my goals. It has been great working alongside you. I also want to thank the Ozark Trail Association as whole for their continuing support in maintaining and building the Ozark Trail. I have enjoyed building trail alongside you all, and I hope one day to return to Missouri and hike some of the sections. Last but not least, I extend my gratitude to the Student Conservation Association, without which, I would likely never have been given such a wonderful opportunity to monitor and manage our special natural areas.

I could not have asked for a better 6 months, despite weeks of 100+ F heat and enduring the torment of chiggers; for not only have I thoroughly enjoyed working with the aforementioned people, but I have come to realise that my passion lies in protecting our wilderness areas. In a way, my time in Missouri felt like a working vacation, with 3 large, natural offices totaling some 30,000 acres.

That said, I have worked 1081 hours for the Forest Service, completing solitude surveys, recreation-site analyses, and invasive plant studies in the Bell Mtn, Rock Pile Mtn, and Irish Wildernesses. Having worked for over 1000 hours, I can now apply to GS-4 level jobs within the US Forest Service, NPS, BLM, and FWS. And with that experience, I have earned the following certifications:

  • Chainsaw B Bucking
  • First-Aid/CPR
  • Leave No Trace Trainer
  • Federal gov driver’s license
  • FFT-2 grade C (Fire Fighter Type 2, for fighting wildland fires)

Well folks, it sure has been wonderful taking you along during my time in Missouri :). Right now I’ve got a bunch of projects around the house to do, including a wood stove installation, but looking ahead, I intend on applying to seasonal wilderness ranger positions on USAJobs. I have no idea where I will end up working, but my options are far from limited. I could even choose to take another SCA position, and I will be looking on for future opportunities.

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