Restoring the A.T. in Brown Gap

In 2001, Mike Karpie, who was then the PATC Appalachian Trail District Manager for the South District of Shenandoah National Park, suggested our Crew work on a the Trail in Brown Gap.

Brown Gap

Nearly 70 years ago, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) relocated the A.T. here to remove it from the route of the new Skyline Drive. In many cases, the CCC crews built cribbing of stone and brought in mineral soil (that is, clay) to top off their cribbing.

After millions of footfalls and footpounds and gallons of rain water later, the Trail in many areas showed moderate to worse damage.

Trail construction techniques the CCC used dictated a level surface from side-to-side of the trail. The sad fact is, that this technique often results in erosion, as the treadway surface forms a path straight-way downhill. Rain water, like so many other inanimate objects (students, politicians, zealots of any ilk, and so forth) automatically chooses to follow the Path of Least Resistance. Therefore, the bulk of the tread material—the clay soil—was washed away over the years. That this erosion wasn’t so bad is due mainly to the good grade on which the Trail was built.

Our mission was to do “something” about this. So, Our Heroes gathered at the Loft Mountain Wayside at 9:30 A.M. on a somewhat overcast Saturday.

An Auspicious Beginning…

When do headaches start? At the beginning, of course. With this worktrip, the headache began (literally) at 10:15 A.M. when the Fearless Leader pulled into the Wayside. Awaiting him (not so patiently) were: Robert Nelson (Trusty Crew Lawyer—every crew should have one), and new recruits Bill Weaver, and Richard Morin. A few minutes later, Jim Wasel (Trusty Crew Engineer—every crew needs one even more than a Crew Lawyer) arrived. Jim looked Fearless in his eye and asked: “Is your tire going flat?” (Jim should have been an intelligence analyst.)

The Fix Was In…

We tried two cans of Instant Tire-Fix. Didn’t work, despite Jim’s efforts to make them work. So, after some delay, the Crew arrived at the Brown Gap parking area, but the sad fact was that the tire was deflating faster than Fearless Leader’s ego. (If the tire would only have emulated Fearless’ stomach, instead...)

Jim, Robert, and Bill intuitively determined the requirements—physical and metaphysical—for changing a flat tire on a Toyota Tacoma and jumped right in to meet the challenge. (If a technical writer had been there, he or she might have noted that none of the increasingly frustrated tire-changers checked the owner’s manual for hints on how to release the spare tire from its berth.) Finally, things were set aright.

Momentary Indecision?

Fearless Leader scratched his head and gazed through the fog on the ridgetop. What was he forgetting? Trail work. As it happened, Mike Karpie was absolutely correct: the Appalachian Trail leading north out of the parking area at Brown Gap was cupped and getting more rutted.

The photo above shows how the trail looked from the start of our work this dreary Shenandoah day—you can plainly see that the capstones of the original crib wall on the outside (left) edge are higher than the tread in the center. This makes them act as a curb, funneling water down the trail instead of encouraging it to run across and off of the tread.

Gentlemen, Start Your McLeods!

The only real “solution” to this problem in Shenandoah National Park is to cut-and-fill the cupped section of treadway. This technique usually requires the crew to cut dirt from the uphill section (the right-hand side in this view) and pull it into the cupped treadway. This will stabilize the tread for a period of time, but it will not fix the problem. To do that, the crew would need to pull enough dirt out into the trail to form a “lip” over the capstones of the crib wall and grade the tread to at least a 1% grade out to the edge of the capstones. There wasn’t enough dirt available to do that.

It’s time to introduce our favorite tool to use in situations like this: the Venerable McLeod. This tool lets you cut duff and mineral soil using the tines, pull it using the straight edge, and grade and tamp it using the flat side of the blade.

What “Crib Wall?”

An interesting thing happened over the 70 years since the CCC built this section of the Appalachian Trail—erosion. The fact is, that the only evidence you see of the original crib wall is the line of capstones along the side of the trail. The rest of the crib wall lies buried under the soil that washed down off of the ridge and off of the original treadway.

Theoretically, the Crew could dig soil from the crib wall and replace it into the treadway. Unfortunately, Mother Nature invoked other plans for that material: it is no longer mineral soil (that is, clay) but has been transformed into, essentially, topsoil. Trees and shrubs and weeds and Poison Ivy and vine of all descriptions grow in it. It contains a lot of duff, and duff is not good for tread filler. (It compacts and causes more run-off problems too quickly.) Still, we did dig out a significant amount of clay from underneath the duff and use it in the tread. Most of the mineral soil we used, of course, came from cutting the uphill bank and pulling it into the treadway.

What About Those Capstones?

Then, there was the matter of the bowed-out capstones that no longer sat atop the now-buried CCC cribwall. Jim Wasel recognized the problem pretty quickly—I’d say that only two hours had passed before he brought this matter to the attention of his Fearless Leader.

It did not take long for Fearless to understand the issue, either (if I do say so). As this touched-up photo shows, some force pushed a section of CCC capstones off of the crib wall and over the side. This probably occurred due both by water rushing over the stones and by hikers who started to hike upon the stones as the treadway narrowed from the uphill side. In any case, both PATC and Shenandoah National Park are committed to preserving the structures built by the CCC, including these capstones.

The next step was to remove all dirt from around the original capstones and expose the crib wall underneath. Then, the Crew replaced and re-set the stones and brought dirt back into the tread to stabilize both the stones and the Trail. This is not quite so easy to do as it is to describe.

The Prime Directive

Yes, there is a Prime Directive applied to stone masonry: The Rock Can’t Rock!

It’s not enough to set the capstones, in this case, back where they appear to belong. That part is easy. They must, however, stay where they’re placed. After all, some hiker will step on them—if they move, the hiker may lose his or her balance, trip, and fall. Besides, the hiker will upset and kick out the capstone in doing this, and that is not good. So, we who work with stone have to find smaller stone as shims to level and hold the larger stones in place, largely through friction-induced inertia. When that’s done, and done for each stone in the line, the Crew takes mineral soil and packs it into the spaces between the capstones and the smaller rocks they set in place. Clay (mineral soil) is great for this purpose; it acts much like concrete mix would (if we could use it). When all is thought to be done, it remains to test the work to ensure that the Prime Directive has been satisfied. This job fell, of course, to Fearless Leader.

And There Appeared…

A large troup of Boy Scouts came down the Trail, hiking south into Brown Gap. The Scouts of Troop 720 in Glen Allen (near Richmond), Virginia were backpacking the Trail that weekend. Their leaders were eager to have the Crew explain our work to the Scouts. This, too, devolved to Fearless Leader, who (according to some) approached this job with greater enthusiasm than the Quality Assurance task described above.

The boys and leaders of Troop 720 exemplify all that is good about Scouting and its goals, aims, and methods. Hats off to Mark McKinnon, Brad Parsons, and Jim Duke (Scoutmaster & Assistant Scoutmasters) and to the Scouts: Scott Fincham, Matt Spencer, Bruce Rapp, Mike Braun, Tom McCue, Andrew Fisher, Robbie Kelleher, David Rapp, Steve Duke, and Ryan (whose last name I cannot transcribe)!

It’s A Wrap!

When all was done, we still had to do something to help protect all the work we had done from the evils of—gasp—Splash Erosion! Splash erosion is the effect of raindrops hitting loosely compacted clay. Each drop falls far to Earth from somewhere Up There. The impact of a single drop is insignificant; however, the cumulative effect of many drops can cause serious problems before the newly re-established tread is fully set. How to handle this issue? Simple: scatter leaves over the new tread! I believe that, in eons past, some disgruntled trail crew worker snorted in disgust and claimed that his (or her) Boss wanted him (or her) to litter the trail with leaves. Hence, we know this material as “Leaf Litter.” And, we scattered it with glee.

The Aftermath

We cleaned our tools and stowed them away, and returned to Loft Mountain Wayside before going on to Ivy Creek Maintenance Hut for the night. Don’t be fooled by the description of this structure as a “maintenance hut!” Thanks to the overseers, Mary & Tom, this is a premium facility, indeed. It sits snuggled in a very picturesque notch at the top of the hollow formed by Ivy Creek below. There are clean mattresses and well-built bunks in the enclosed Hut, along with very comfortable furniture (and pads!). Jim, Rich, and Bill hiked up to the summit of Loft Mountain for to take in the view whilst Fearless Leader laid out his tools and concocted one of his (in)famous one-pot Suppers. When the hikers returned, they chowed down on crackers, cheese, salsa & chips, washed down with (ahem) some favorite (ahem) beverages. And, then, supper was delivered! (I am happy to report that All Survived.)

bg-2003-01.1.jpg
Cupped tread inside CCC cribbing
bg-2003-02.1.jpg
Cutting upslope soil
bg-2003-05.1.jpg
Filling mineral soil in treadway
bg-2003-07.1.jpg
Resetting crib capstones
bg-2003-08.1.jpg
Carefully tapping capstones into place
bg-2003-09.1.jpg
Restoring the original CCC capstones
bg-2003-11.1.jpg
Checking the set of capstones
bg-2003-10.1.jpg
Jim patiently works the jigsaw puzzle
bg-2003-12.1.jpg
Always listen to others' ideas
bg-2003-13.1.jpg
The project is almost done
bg-2003-14.1.jpg
Leaf litter finishes our job
bg-2003-15.1.jpg
Remember the first photo?

All in all, this was a very productive and positive weekend. New friends were made, needed work was done, and good times were enjoyed. Even the weather cooperated—despite the clouds on the ridge, no rain fell on Our Heroes.