I was in the White Mountains over the weekend doing routine maintenance on the the Jewell Spur Trail, drawn in red above, a hiking trail I adopted in the spring of 2011 at the foot of Mt Washington. It runs between the Cog Rail Line station and the Jewell Trail which is a frequently used escape route on Presidential Traverses if a thunderstorm rolls in and you need to get below treeline quickly to avoid getting hit by lightning.
Unfortunately “my” trail was very hard hit by Hurricane Irene last year, washing out the trail head bridge. This is all that’s left of it. I’ve been told that it’s going to be rebuilt, but I’d be surprised if that actually happens due to the Forest Service budget cuts up here.
The beginning of the Jewell Spur trail has been rerouted higher up the slope of Mount Washington along the cog railroad tracks, altogether bypassing the stream that the old bridge crossed. The new stretch of trail is mostly dirt, without a hardened treadway, water bars, or any kind of erosion control. I expect it to become a mud pit/erosion eye-sore eventually, but what can you do? I’ll keep doing my best to the keep diversion in good condition, in addition to the rest of the trail that I’m responsible for.
I originally adopted the Jewell Spur Trail because I figured it was the right length, 0.9 miles, for one person to maintain. My primary job is to clean the water bars twice a year to prevent trail erosion and to cut back the brush on the sides of the trail to keep the path clear for hikers. If there is a large blow down or major damage to the trail, I report it back to the US Forest Service and they send out a professional crew that has the skill and training to tackle more dangerous and time consuming jobs.
On this latest work trip, I cleaned out about 25 water bars on the Jewell Spur Trail and the bottom of the Jewell Trail with a Hazel Hoe that I borrowed from the trail adopter tool cache provided by the US Forest Service. The bugs, especially gnats, were out in force so I covered up with long pants, long sleeved short, hat, leather gloves and high top work boots.
What is a water bar, you ask? It’s usually a log or stone barrier that spans a trail, on a diagonal, in order to divert rain water off the trail and into the surrounding vegetation. This is done to prevent erosion of the trail by water, and the leaves, rocks, and mineral soil that rain water picks up when it runs downhill.
Regular water bar maintenance is particularly important in the White Mountains because we have very steep trails without any switchbacks. The Forest Service has also lost most of its budget for trail maintenance so their main focus is on preserving the trails that have been built as efficiently as possible. That means using as much volunteer labor as possible, like me.
That’s the what. If you want to see what it’s like to clean a water bar and its drainage, here’s a video of me in action.
To start, you do dig down to the base of the organic matter that’s been trapped by the water bar, including dead leaves, sticks, and bark, using a rake or a hoe. You scrape this stuff down the water bar’s drainage chute into the woods: the chute or trench is also usually clogged up, so you clean that out too. The idea is to remove any obstructions which would prevent water from draining easily the next time it rains.
It’s important that the top of the water bar is exposed so that rain water won’t just roll over it. This sometimes requires that you excavate the area up-trail from the water bar if a lot of mineral soil, brought down by trail erosion, has settled in front of it. Rather than dig with the hoe, you lift it up and let gravity do the work for you, just like using a pick axe. This is hot, dirty work and if you put too much muscle into it, you’ll get exhausted very quickly.
Although it might be hard to imagine, I enjoy doing this kind of work. It’s really rewarding to be thanked by hikers who pass by me on the trail. I do the same thing when I see a trail maintainers working.
If you want to protect the White Mountain National Forest and hiking here, get dirty!