Trail work party

12:49 p.m. on October 9, 2017 (EDT)
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I'm back from a three day trip to Summit City Canyon with a trail work party.  Spectacular weather and a group of really nice guys made this a real pleasure. I began by leaving Napa at a little before 5 a.m. to get to the trailhead in time to meet the group,  At about 9:30 the first team hit the trail, while others stayed behind to load up the mules with the heavy lifting: tools for the trail.   My little group of three split up at the Horse Creek Trail junction, when Greg headed back over the ridge to take care of his ailing wife.  Dave and I continued down for another mile or so and set up camp.  By the time we had the tents up, the pack team arrived, and everyone else got there soon after to join us for lunch.  IMG_4540.JPGBy 1:30 we were at the first major obstacle of the trail: a massive tree that blocked things from the far side of the river to the granite cliffs on the other side of the trail.  And since the only way to get past it was to get on your hands and knees and crawl under it, this one had to go.  Ranger Chip had been there some weeks before, but had been unable to cut through the monster.   In fact, he'd had to leave two wedges stuck in place in the saw cut.  The damn tree was still alive, with some of its roots drawing water from the creek, and the wood expanded around every cut and wedge.

So we set to work.  The buck saw would bind up completely after a few strokes, despite the wedges we were pounding into the cut.  We cut from below, then we started another cut on the other end to reduce the tension, and final hacked out the wedges and Chip and I began a second cut parallel to the first one, whacking out the material between the two cuts with a small saw and a hatchet.  Bear in mind that all of this was done with hand tools, as any engine is prohibited in the Wilderness Area!  After a couple of hours, we began to make progress, and finally cut through the first cut.

The tree didn't move.  IMG_4541.JPGNow we started on the second cut, with Tom and Dave pulling much of the work.  But now we were able to use the wedges with some effect, and about 4 p.m. we finally cut through on the second side.  The middle section was now held up by the branches we had propped under it, and with a few whacks we dropped it to the ground.  With much heaving and hollering, we slowly inched it up onto a smaller branch, rotated it, and rolled it off to the side of the trail.  After that, it was back to camp for a well-deserved rest and dinner. IMG_4543.JPGIt was a beautiful evening, with fall colors all around, but after dark the temperature dropped quicker than that big log, and we were in bed soon after.

The next day we left our camp and headed down the trail for more fun.  This time it was a large aspen that had fallen almost directly on the trail.  And while the tree was smaller, it was lower to the ground and still green.  Tom, Dave and I sawed away on it for more than an hour before we finally cut it through on both ends, and then maneuvered it off the trail.  Chip had gone farther down the trail to scout out our next project: a maze of trail braids through the jungle of ferns above the first crossing.  He arrived just in time to see us polish off the aspen.  IMG_4545.JPGFrom there is was a short walk down to the ferns, where the trail had become quite confused due to a large tree blocking the route.  We used a Macleod, a shovel, some loppers and lots of hard work to mark the best trail through, and then lined it with larger branches to make sure it was easy to see.  By the time we had done this in two different sections of the trail, it was lunch time. 

Meanwhile, Mark and Greg got off to a late start, but hiked past us to head down to the second crossing to get to work down closer to the Mokelumne River.  After lunch our team hiked down to within a mile of the second crossing, hitting the trail with the Macleod from time to time, lopping off a few branches, kicking bigger logs out of the trail, and occasionally restacking a cairn for better visibility.  

We stopped at a glorious granite plateau by the creek, refilled out water bottles, and started to hike uphill back to camp.  On the way back Tom, who had never been down the canyon before, led the way so that we could get a fresh pair of eyes on the trail.  We found a few places where it wasn't clear, and did what we could to mark it better.  IMG_4558.JPGChip raced down to chat with Mark and Greg below, and then joined us in camp for the second night's dinner.  It was another stunning evening in the wilderness.  

On day three Tom and Chip were going to hike down and join Mark and Greg, while Dave and I hiked out.  But we weren't done with our work detail.  We took the post hole digger along for the ride, so that we could dig new holes for two of the posts that Chip was having brought in by mule that day.  IMG_4349.JPGThe first one, at the junction of the Horse Creek Trail, was a cakewalk.  Dave wiggled it a bit and pulled the old pole neatly out of the perfectly preserved post hole.  It took all of thirty seconds, and we were a bit gleeful about that.  (You may remember that sign post from our trip report a month ago.)IMG_4561.JPGBut the second post hole, at the junction with the Fourth of July Lake Trail, was not so much fun.  It had broken off right at the ground, and as we dug a new hole we discovered that the old hole had been packed with rocks to hold the post tight.  They worked, and so did we, digging it out one rock at a time.  But after twenty minutes of combined sweat, David and I declared the second post hole dug, and left the tool beside the trail for the mules to collect.  Our work was done. 


We hiked out and made the trailhead by noon, and I managed to get back to Napa through the stunning aspen trees around Carson Pass by 4 p.m.  As I drove into town I noticed a fire burning in the grasslands by the airport south of town.  Later that night, Napa would be surrounded by fires on three sides, with blustery winds blowing them quickly across the landscape.  Our own home only suffered a light coating of falling ash, but our more rural neighbors found themselves in dire straights.  We can only hope the easing of the winds will make controlling the fires possible today.   Č

10:07 a.m. on October 10, 2017 (EDT)
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Trail work is fine and lots of people volunteer to do it. 

But there is that magic moment on longer trips when we get far enough in to be on a trail with no maintenance.  Where most people never go.  Where the hand of Man has not reached.  Those are some of the best places on Earth. 

12:17 p.m. on October 10, 2017 (EDT)
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Very cool P. I've not intentionally joined a crew yet but have ran into them on a couple trips and I scrapped my planned route to hang with them and work and had fun.

1:25 p.m. on October 10, 2017 (EDT)
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great story and great photography.  thanks.

1:00 p.m. on October 11, 2017 (EDT)
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ppine said:

Trail work is fine and lots of people volunteer to do it. 

But there is that magic moment on longer trips when we get far enough in to be on a trail with no maintenance.  Where most people never go.  Where the hand of Man has not reached.  Those are some of the best places on Earth. 

 Not sure what you mean by this post, ppine.  I'll bet even those trips into the land of no-man's-hand start on trails.  And while I also love to get out and off trail, I'm not sure what that has to do with my posting about trail work...?

3:44 p.m. on October 11, 2017 (EDT)
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I have nothing but respect for you and your efforts to clear trails.

As an advocate of wild country and wilderness however I am astounded by the focus some people have on trails. Not you necessarily. We have a local trails association. I have been a member of the Backcountry Horseman of America.

They want trail maps and directional signs and bridges over the rivers and creeks. I don't. I don't like trail "improvements" at all. They are intrusive.  I like landscaping by God. I would rather wade across the water, find my own way, and see Nature in its wild state.

I am guessing some people have no idea what I am talking about. They navigate the country by the trail network. I have spent a lot of my life working and hiking in wild country not anywhere near a trail.  Once you get used to that , permits, and quotas and improved trails have no appeal.

5:01 p.m. on October 11, 2017 (EDT)
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ppine I totally get what you are saying, and this is maybe a one-off tangent...

but in many of the eastern forests near me, there is simply no practical access without some trails, unless you want to crawl through thickets on your hands knees while pulling your pack behind you. I've done that and honestly there is not much enjoyment in it for me. I love going off trail but not every area is suitable for such exploration. If we didn't have some of the trails no one could enjoy those places except the animals. 

7:41 p.m. on October 11, 2017 (EDT)
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Many of you know that we live in Napa.  And if you've been following the news, you know that Napa has been suffering through terrible fires this week.  Here's what we know.  We're in downtown Napa, so far so good.  The fires are mainly in the hills above the valley floor, between Napa and Sonoma, between Calistoga and Santa Rosa, and between Napa and Fairfield.  But none of the fires are close to being under control, and there seems to be no timeline for when that might happen.  They are just too massive.

They've just announced mandatory evacuations of the town of Calistoga to the north...and lots of people in the outskirts of Napa itself are either evacuated or, frankly, burned out by now.  We expect to have some houseguests tonight, who live up in the hills and haven't been home since Monday. 

But so far we're OK.  What happens next all depends on the wind--which direction, and how strong.  There are major fires both East and West of us....but to the North we have vineyards, which don't burn very well.  And to South it's clear, so far. 

But who knows what tonight and tomorrow will bring...I've seen weather reports of winds from 5 mph, which would be great, up to 35, which would be utterly disastrous. In winds like that, embers can carry more than 1/4 of a mile, and jump any barrier the firefighters might set up.  And the winds are projected to be from the that's the best direction for us, really. 

We can only hope, and suffer with those who are less fortunate than we have been so far.  Thanks to everyone who has sent us their wishes and prayers.  

8:45 p.m. on October 11, 2017 (EDT)
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Best of luck...our thoughts are with you and your neighbors.

And a belated thanks for the trail work. When I pass by a trail crew I always thank them and sometimes share a snack and a chat. I haven't joined one yet as I tend to seek out the less maintained trails and make my own minor improvements as I go. One day I'll have to pitch in, although I prefer deer paths and wild areas, as Patman says it is sometimes next to impossible to bushwack in the southeastern forests without severe physical damage. Coming out of a hell hole excursion and hitting a maintained trail is like entering a freeway with no traffic...a real joy at times.

10:08 a.m. on October 12, 2017 (EDT)
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My first outdoor job was trail work (paid, thankfully) in Saguaro NP, Arizona.  Many of the trails in those days were in dreadful shape and I got used to bushwhacking, looking for the occasional overgrown blaze or ax cut limb.

Bushwhacking has its own appeal.  Sometimes it is pretty gnarly - climbing through brush and not even touching the ground, etc. but venturing off trail will get one to some pretty neat experiences.

10:09 a.m. on October 12, 2017 (EDT)
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I have made a living in SE Alaska in places where there are no trails except those made by animals. The country gets 150 inches of rain and is a tangled mess in some places. But working there changed my attitude about trails. After AK everyplace else seems like easy going. 

On the subject of fires, specifically Napa, the American public is in denial about fire danger and what to do about it.  Fire suppression is partly resonsible for the current conditions.  We are very good at it. Fuel reduction needs to be an annual program. People of means can certainly afford for mechanical treatment, the creation of fuel breaks, defensible space, water tanks, sprinkler systems, and education to help people understand the danger of living in the WUI, Wildland Urban Interface. 

Thoughts and prayers can only take society so far. The vegetation types on the coast historically probably burned every 7-10 years. With fire suppression we have extended the interval to more like 40-100 years. Landscaping in yards tends to be too close to residences.  There may be only one way out. Wildland fires can be controlled beforehand not after the fact. The sooner society starts to understand the need to be pro-active the sooner we can avoid loss of life and property.  The next time you hear someone say "there is nothing we can do", help them understand there is a lot we can do and we are way behind and need to get busy. 

3:09 p.m. on October 12, 2017 (EDT)
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Actually, Napa County has a very effective fire prevention program, with all rural houses required to keep a 300 foot cleared area in the rural areas, or the county will come in and clear a 300 foot wide swath around your entire property.  Water tanks and sprinkler systems required.  The county inspects every year, and offers free chipping service to anyone who needs to get rid of the combustible material. Pretty effective.  One of the reasons that only a very few of the 1200 wineries in our region were damaged is because of exactly these policies, and the effective enforcement of the regulations. 

But when the humidity is less than 20%, and there are 50+ mile an hour winds, any fire that starts can easily carry over a 1/2 mile wide fire break and race along at more than 20 mph.   Fires burn hotter, faster and travel large distances.  The six lane freeway in Santa Rosa did nothing to stop this fire, and if those conditions return, more damage will result.  A single house on fire can ignite as many as twenty or thirty downwind.  And these fires were moving at more than 15 miles per hour, leaping as much as 1/2 mile behind the fire crews.  As the fire chief in Middletown said, "when the winds get into this range, we are not firefighters, we are spectators.  All we can do is to try to get as many people out of harms way as we can."

In those conditions, you're not really talking about vegetation, so much as requiring every home to be constructed of fire-retardant materials on all exterior surfaces, virtually no landscaping at all--living in cement blocks.   

Any discussion of these fires without mentioning the obvious impact of global climate change, with more extreme weather, including lower humidity and higher winds, doesn't really capture the situation very well.   

8:10 p.m. on October 12, 2017 (EDT)
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Here in Palo Alto, we are supposedly safe from the fires. However, the smoke being blown south to us is pretty thick (look on your maps if you want to judge the distance).   The smoke is thick enough that a lot of people are wearing filtered face masks. Reading the posts above makes it seem like it's no big deal. However, there has been a large amount of damage, including several hundred missing people, several dozen known deaths, several of the major historical wineries completely destroyed by the fires. A number of the towns and villages have been burned to the ground. Much of the area is under mandatory evacuation.

Well, I am pretty safe here in Palo Alto. North Bay and up in wine country are another story.

Unfortunately, California is very dry this time of year (20% humidity is wet for this season). Some years ago, there was a major fire across the SFBay in Oakland. Two friends and climbing partners died in that fire while they were trying to evacuate - they got trapped in the huge jam-up of cars attempting to evacuate.

The origin of the fire is not yet known. However it is thought that the fires were originally triggered by (1) the low humidity, (2) a large number of dead trees (lots of people want to preserve their trees, despite the trees being dead and rotted), (3) with the winds (15mph doesn't seem strong, but rotted trees get knocked over easily), (4) some (many??) of the downed trees landed on power lines, which provided short circuits and sparks, helping ignite fires, (5) the 15mph winds carrying the burning embers, hence triggering more fires along the lines of wind travel you can see some of this in the images I linked to).

Some terminology - the fires are listed as plural, because the embers being moved along by the wind ignite new fires. Hence there are now counted to be 15-20 separate fires.

The Donald stopped by and proclaimed what a problem it is. At least, though, he promised us lots of help, unlike his dismissing Puerto Rico.

7:18 a.m. on October 13, 2017 (EDT)
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Most of us in suburbia would not consider our neighborhoods vulnerable to fire storms.  This is reflected in our architecture, which has a fair amount of exposed wood and vents that permit embers into attics or under raised foundation homes.  Our local fire codes are less strict than foothill and forest zones.  Often tract home  fires will involve neighboring structures, however the fire usually is manageable.  But throw the recent weather at such a fire, then even sundry house fires may take off and sweep with great devastation.  In fact many of the lost structures in our current spate of wild fires were ignited by embers from another building. 

Hot, dry, high winds are a irresistible force to reckon, when it comes to fire.  While track home 'burbs may seem less prone to fire than the forest, it should be apparent to all that the close proximity many of us have to our neighbors and the amount of fuel present on even well groomed properties is enough to set a fire storm in motion when these conditions occur.  Hilly terrain played a contributing factor is some of the fires, such as the Anaheim Hills burn, where housing sat atop hills with steep, fuel laden, ravines.  Sloping hill sides seems a secondary factor, however, when addressing entire communities of tract homes going up in smoke.  Even the flat horizons of Australia can turn into wild fire drag races when winds, heat, and low humidity over power our efforts to tame the beast.



10:13 a.m. on October 13, 2017 (EDT)
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Good story last night on the news about Santa Rosa Fire Station #5, which burned to the ground on Monday.  It was the latest fire-resistant architecture, and it is nothing but rubble.  They spent some time looking for the badges of the firemen who had left the station to go fight these fires, and found only five of the nine...


At the same time, the ten cars in the parking lot of the fire station were unharmed. 

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