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Of lopping and stone waterbars June 6, 2010

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Our crew pauses between Icewater and the Bunion

Yesterday was National Trails Day. I’d decided to get out there and lend one more set of arms and legs to the effort. The Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, the Park Service, and Friends of the Smokies had organized the effort in GSMNP in which an army of 100 volunteers descended upon the A.T. between Indian Gap and Dry Sluice Gap to generally pound, prune, and groom the trail into submission.

I was part of a five-person crew headed by Dick Ketelle, who has been giving much of his time to A.T. maintenance for many years. He is master of all the tools that can possibly be used, from pulaski and pick-mattock to swingblade and loppers, sledgehammer and pry bar, chainsaw and even good old-fashioned cross-cut.

There was quite a long and complicated assembly at Sugarlands before we all carpooled up to Newfound Gap. We heard from park superintendent Dale Ditmanson, although what seemed to be on his mind this morning was not so much trail maintenance as the very unfortunate recent episode in which a tourist-habituated bear bit a stupid, ignorant person who got too close, and the bear had to be euthanized. The Park Service came under a huge amount of emotional attack and intense local press coverage for killing the bear, and Ditmanson gave us his side of the story. The whole bear episode had been a lose-lose situation.

So we could understand the superintendent’s slight obsession with the subject. At any rate, we eventually got up to Newfound Gap and set off to do our work. I grabbed up a swingblade and a surprisingly heavy pick-mattock and headed up the trail as Dick led us along at a fairly blistering pace. I soon began to regret that I hadn’t fueled up with the free donuts at Sugarlands, and I found myself, with a tool in each hand, unable to wipe the sweat from my brow. I did not regret that we got bogged down for a bit among other, slower-moving crews who were stopping to do sections closer to the Gap.

By Icewater Spring we had left all but one group of the others behind. That group went on to Dry Sluice Gap. After we passed the shelter we started working on building up some old defunct stone waterbars. We scraped out the uphill side to create a better outflow trench and found some nice flat, sharp-edged rocks to raise the height of the waterbar.

The flat rocks were placed end-up across the trail

It gets a little crowded with people swinging sharp tools in close quarters, so two of us went ahead and dug out a few more waterbars. As the trail leveled off somewhat and transitioned from sidehill to ridgetop, the number of waterbars decreased, and we turned our attention to lopping.

We, and quite a few random hikers, reached the Bunion at a good time for lunch. I hadn’t been out there via the A.T. for years, and I gazed around at the places in the Porters Creek and Lester Prong valleys where I have had some great off-trail adventures. My friend Brian is talking about doing a climb up a slide on the side of Horseshoe Mountain, and I could see the top of the slide across the Lester Prong valley. If you look closely in the photo, you can see the very top just below the high point on the Horseshoe ridge. (You can click on the photo to enlarge it.)

Looking across to Horseshoe Mountain

You also get a good view of the Jumpoff.

The Jumpoff is the rocky scar

This is an incredible place.

We headed back toward Newfound Gap to do “more of the same.” I have to admit that my talents lie more in lopping than stonework, so I was glad to take over the main lopping responsibilities.

Eventually we worked our way back past Icewater and started running into the other crews. We stopped to help a group between the Boulevard and Sweat Heifer junctions with installing a beautiful new stone step.

The stone was lovingly placed into a carefully created hole

By the time we finished with that, it was getting toward 4:00—time to head out. A picnic was scheduled for Metcalf Bottoms, but I, as the odd North Carolinian amongst a gaggle of Tennesseans, opted to head directly toward home. The picknickers may have had to deal with a bit of moisture, as the heavens opened about that time, dispensing a generous quantity of what someone I know calls “hydrological head poo.” But a fine day nonetheless.

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