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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

Before:

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…and after:

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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.

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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.

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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.

References:

*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.

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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?…).

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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.

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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 thesca.org 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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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….

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 🙂

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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? 😀

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

Distance hiked for day 3 – 4.72 miles

Total distance hiked – 18.7 miles

Back In the Irish Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to get started! 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A perfectly cut hinge :).

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

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I guess this is the leprechaun swimming hole :P.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

5 Days Backpacking the Irish Wilderness

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

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

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

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

 

Day 1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Day 2:

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

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

Time for brekkie!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I eventually came to a trail junction…

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

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

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

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

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

 

Day 3:

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

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

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Here’s a view inside from the entrance:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And for the main course…..

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

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

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

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

 

Day 4:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Day 5:

When I awoke, the forest was cloaked in mist.

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

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

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

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Plotting a bearing to monitor the pristine zone.

I made it back to the fork close to noon.

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

Thanks for coming along with me :D.