Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Perfect Day for Some Trail Work

Last Sunday was cold, dawning in the teens and barely topping out at freezing. But it was clear, with few high clouds, and the harsh bitter winds had calmed down. So early in the afternoon, we set out to do some long-postponed trail work along the stream near the northern property line.

The first order of business was a recent deadfall across the trail at the big pool. We had been watching the tree’s increasingly perilous posture for some time, and finally, a month or two ago, it let loose. It crashed into the fork of a nearby oak, briefly wedging itself high across the trail before gravity finally broke its back and settled it to earth. With a few quick cuts, we cleared the way and set the cut section alongside the trail.

Our big task was clearing a good-sized dam the recent heavy rains had formed just above the second stream crossing. A stately sycamore, rooted in the bank of the stream with water rushing over its roots, had caught several sections of massive logs, which formed the armature of a dam of brush and debris. The dam funneled the rushing water hard against the western bank, eroding and flooding the stream crossing, and eating away the bank and trail immediately downstream. The vast slack water it created upstream has also allowed the streambed to fill with sand and silt, obscuring the rocks we had so diligently placed as stepping stones in the warmth of summertime.

We paused at the upper crossing and changed from our trail shoes to high muck boots. And what an outfit: Woolen cap, ear protectors with face shield, thick layers of warm fleece, chainsaw chaps tucked into/over knee-high rubber boots, and idling chainsaw. I crossed the upper crossing, walked down the bank, and waded into the icy rushing waters. The waters swirled around my calves and undermined the sand on which I stood.

Mary began tearing the dam apart from the western bank, using the larger pieces to shore up the eroded trail edge. While she did that, I started attacking the middle of the dam, grabbing handsful of leaves and muck with one hand while holding the growling saw in the other.

With the loose debris gone, the spine of the dam was laid bare. A tree trunk maybe six or eight inches in diameter that spanned from well onto the east bank to the roots of the sycamore. I was able to easily saw chunks from the center and pass them end-over-end to Mary, who placed the chunks strategically along the stream bank where they would do the most good. The heart wood was a beautiful deep rusty color like cedar, but without any noticeable odor and much denser than cedar would have been.

We cleared more of the loose debris from amongst the logs, tossing the mouldering leaves and twigs into the swirling waters downstream to disappear. Bit by bit, we picked that dam apart, and as we did, the slackwater energized, resuming its temporarily impeded drive towards the river. As it accelerated, it slowly and deliberately scoured away the accumulated sand and silt, reclaiming its deeper channel and gnawing away at the impudent banks.

The heart of the dam was a stout section of tree trunk, maybe ten feet long and fourteen inches in diameter. It appeared scoured and beaten, as though the stream had brought it to this place from some distance, or perhaps has relentlessly scoured it here once it lodged in place. This wood resisted the saw, and I had to work with some effort to free sections from it. Somehow, sand from the stream had found the saw chain and wreaked havoc with its edge, forcing me to push the saw harder than I would have liked, driving the acrid smell of hot wood from kerf, and reducing the ejecta to a dusty rain rather than the confetti-like curls that are the mark of a keen blade.

Once freed, the four-foot long sections were massive and unwieldy, and it was all both of us could do to roll them awkwardly into place downstream, filling a hollow the waters had carved where the trail had so recently passed.

With the heart gone, the remnants of the dam slowly dissipated with the fast-flowing waters, leaving just the worn root ball, stranded high and dry nestled against the sycamore. Together Mary and I wrestled it loose and sent it over the edge into the stream below, to dam or be damned once more. When we were done, we were both feeling the day’s cold in the bottom of the narrow stream valley, with the sun already disappearing behind the grey trees and high flanks of the rocky hills. We abandoned our ambitions for any further trail work for the moment, succumbing instead to the lure of a warm fire where we could dry out and warm our extremities once again.

We have yet to go back and see how matters have settled out since our reengineering efforts. Maybe this weekend: it promises to be cold once again, but this time with rain, sleet and snow as well. Perfect weather for getting outside and doing some trail work, I say.

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