Sunday, October 2, 2016

rock breaking project

Silence is one of the hardest arguments to refute.
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“Such silence has an actual sound, the sound of disappearance.”
- Suzanne Finnamore

Last week I went out with Ryan from our motorized trail crew to work on a rockier portion of trail. Since we weren't working in the Wilderness we used tools I never use.
Ryan with the power wheelborrow we used to pack in the jackhammer/rock breaker and everything else we used that day. This thing was tricky to manage! I was excited initially but after about 5 minutes I looked over at Ryan and said "this isn't exactly fun is it?" He laughed and shook his head. He would run ahead on the trail and knock rocks out of the way making maneuvering the thing easier on me. Occasionally he would look back to check on me and give me the thumbs up to reassure me. Sometimes I gave the thing too much gas and it would kind of take off too fast. Or I would go over obstacles and wide eyed hope the thing didn't fall over (which is did once, and it was okay...not too hard to upright with two of us pushing).

Ryan working the rock breaker. This thing weighed at least 50 pounds, it was exhausting to run.

Here's the before and after of the work site. As you can see, the rocky hill pushes too far into the trail corridor. People don't want to walk or ride on that kind of thing so it was pushing people over and tempting some to cut the switchback entirely. Under the pile of loose rocks on the left is a not visible log crib that supports/holds in the trail above. We leveled out the rocks on top (any rocks above the log cribbing/retainer will just get knocked into the trail below), broke up the solid rocks along the hillside then poured dirt over everything.

All day we were running these things that were motorized and loud. The noise alone was exhausting. It was a rewarding project and I'm always excited to learn to use new tools but the whole thing just made me grateful for the Wilderness Act and that we have places where even as workers for a land managing agency, we have to function and get jobs done without loud equipment.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Labor Day weekend

"If I have someone who believes in me, I can move mountains.” 
– Diana Ross

I just had every crazy thing a ranger could have happen, happen all in one weekend.

I was on my way to one of our more popular lakes. On the way there is a very nice large lake on a flat trail just a couple miles from a trailhead. It's popular for families, first time backpackers or people who don't want to exert themselves too much. For those reasons there are often folks that need reminders and education on best practices for how to be a responsible backpacker. It's also one of the few places on our district (besides the developed campgrounds) where campfires are still legal right now.

I came into a camp initially to make contact and go over regulations but found that the party was not there. What I did find was that the fire they made was not completely put out and had gotten away and traveled through the duff into a nearby log, starting to char it.

escaped campfire had traveled through the duff and burnt into the log on the left

It had rained about a half inch the day before so it was good real life example of how even when you are soaked and you think the ground is soaked (there were still puddles on the ground in the area and it was sprinkling off and on this day as well) it takes a lot of rain to saturate the ground. A good example of why burn bans to limit human causes wildfires are relevant even as the weather may try to tell you otherwise.

So you can see in the photo the fire was not flaming at all but it was still smoking, hot, and had red hot embers. It also had no rock ring around it which didn't help. We're supposed to call any uncontrolled fire into our dispatch so I got all the information they would need at dispatch together while I waited for the campers to return. I didn't want to start putting it out because I wanted them to see how hot it still was. I called the fire in to dispatch. When the campers returned I showed them how it was still hot. They acknowledged knowing it had escaped and charred into the log. They told me they poured water on the log (which I believed, the log was cool and damp and no longer smoldering) but left the rest because they wanted to have another fire that night. The fire had charred into the duff and surrounding roots. I was surprised to learn one of the people in the party lived in a city that lost dozens of homes last summer due to a human caused wildfire. Additionally another person in the party confided in me that after seeing how the fire got away, they were so worried about it the night prior they left their tent and slept beside it. I wrote the party up. I don't enjoy writing tickets but this season specifically I have been able to write some for issues that are very important to the Wilderness. Luckily all the roots were very small so to put it out I basically poured water on it (it took over 10 gallons to get it cold!) stirred it around and dug the charred area down through the organic layer to mineral soil so I knew there was nothing else under that could burn.

While my whole escaped fire debacle was going on, my attention was going in and out of monitoring radio traffic regarding an injured person on a trail not too far from me. After the party moved their camp and I put the fire out I called my boss whom I heard relaying information about the injured person and hoping to get information about the Search and Rescue (SAR) operation.

There are two ways my NPS contemporaries can make me jealous: it's by working for the agency that manages the most acres of Wilderness and by their involvement in SAR. While NPS manages their own SAR operations, ones that happen on Forest Service lands are actually under the jurisdiction of the county. So a NPS Wilderness Ranger will likely do lots of SAR while a FS Wilderness Ranger is not often involved in SAR.

A Washington Trails Association (WTA) crew leader who was hiking in with his crew for a week long volunteer trail work party came across the injured subject's wife. The crew leader had problems with his radio so he hiked back down to a Forest Service cabin where he was able to use another radio to call in the initial assessment of the injured man. He returned to the lake where his crew and the injured man were located that evening with a set of fresh batteries for his radio. He never called back with an update because it turned out the radio issue was not battery related. My boss got me in touch with the country to let them know I was available and I left my radio on that night just in case. I hiked in with 6 SAR team members the next morning the county had assembled. The information we had from the call the night prior was the man's back had gone out, not triggered by anything specific but he did have preexisting back issues. It being Labor Day weekend they did not have as many people as they hoped. They were all volunteers and very nice and funny people. "A bunch of 50 year old guys with back problems going to carry out a 50 year old guy with a back problem!" one of them joked. That was a bit of a hyperbole, the age range of the group was fairly balanced. It felt good to help out with a rescue that was happening on my district. I felt useful not just in a people power way to help carry the guy but also because I had pertinent information for the SAR members. I could tell them that the trail was clear of logs, wide enough for a litter carry but still plenty of rocks and roots to negotiate, that it was about 2,000' gain over 2 miles and what part of the lake the man was likely located in since I knew where people tend to camp there.

We got to the lake and met with the man, his wife and the WTA crew member who had called in the incident. The man was laying in his tent unable to move. We disassembled the tent around him (a really obvious idea in hindsight that I'm not sure I would have thought to do on my own. It made it so we could get to him more easily and move him less, very important especially for back/neck/head/spine issues). We put him in the litter leaving him on his sleeping mat and in his sleeping bag (it was chilly out) and strapped him in. With me and two WTA members we had 9 people to help with the carry and a 10th helper from WTA to carry the man's pack out. If you've ever wondered how long it takes to carry out someone 2 miles down a trail I have the answer: 5.5 hours.

the country Search and Rescue crew carrying the parts of the litter up the trail

We rotated through positions on the litter carry each taking breaks because even with 6 of us carrying at a time the man weighed over 200 pounds and it was very hard work. Despite being a great pain and audibly suffering the entire time the man was as upbeat as one could be in that type of situation. The litter had a wheel which had to be negotiated around all the trail tripping hazards so someone would be ahead of the litter talking the crew through what obstacle the wheel was about to hit. Of course being hyper aware of the Wilderness Act I certainly thought about the wheeled litter and how it was mechanized transport but that was obviously trumped by this emergency situation and the reality was there was no way we would get this man down the trail safely with a hand had to be wheeled or a helicopter. Even with the wheel, it was difficult and heavy and very tricky to manage. I don't have a photo of it assembled but it looked more or less like this.

We got to the trailhead where we met the ambulance, medics and local fire crew. Additionally some of the district's hand crew were just coming back from checking on my runaway fire from yesterday. I wasn't really sure what I should do at that point, my initial itinerary for the work week was toast but I still had one night left I was supposed to be in the field. The WTA crew leader was going to town to get a new radio and wouldn't be able to return to his crew until the next morning. He asked if I could stand in for the night so they could have radio communication if needed. So of course that was a good solution to where I could be useful and I hiked back up 2,000' to the lake I had just hiked up to and down from that day. The crew cooked me dinner and I collapsed in the crew leader's tent where piles of AA batteries and his Wilderness First Responder handbook told a story of the stressful situation he had been thrown into as the first responder to the situation and having to take on the initial injury assessment. The crew leader came back the next morning with a functioning radio and I left the crew to their work and I went back to mine. The weekend excitement wasn't quite over however.

I was headed back down the trail when I started hearing stories from people coming up trail of some escaped stock. People were telling me there were 5 animals unsaddled and unattended headed down the trail. Also, they were still hobbled!! So I start booking it down the trail, trying to brainstorm what I could even do if I came across the animals. After some time cruising down the trail the story changes a bit and I find out the owners of these animals are somewhere on the trail between me and the stock. That's welcome news, I was worried the owners had left their animals for the day and had no idea they had escaped. I radioed some co-workers who were working down along the road where the trailhead was, that way if they saw the animals they would at least know that the owners were behind looking for them. Eventually the owners come up the trail with their stock. The animals were just a few hundred feet from where the trail meets the road when they got to them.

So there it is. This is my third year doing this and I'm pretty sure I just had the most eventful work week of my entire career.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Does a Wilderness Ranger poop in the woods?

I love not man the less, but Nature more. Lord Byron
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I love not man the less, but Nature more. Lord Byron
Read more at:
"I love not Man the less, but Nature more"
- George Gordon Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

An interesting difference working in Washington was working in a Wilderness that had "toilets" in the backcountry. At first I was put off, as there aren't supposed to be structures in Wilderness area but as the weeks passed by it be came clear to me that for reasons yet to be discovered (higher visitation= more instances of pooping? More intense root system= harder digging= less people burying? Less informed visitors?), the visitors to the area I am working seem to have a harder time pooping in the woods correctly. Summer of 2014 in the Hoover Wilderness in California's Sierra Nevada I rarely found "surface poops" or toilet paper on my patrols. In Alpine Lakes Wilderness I find massive piles of toilet paper every patrol. We need to bury our poop in the woods to keep others from coming into contact with it for health and ascetic reasons. Some people may not consider the fact that even if you surface poop very far from a water source, rain and snow melt may carry your poop to the nearest lake. People drink from that lake or it's runoff and can get the parasite Giardia or other diseases. The reason we tell people specifically to bury it 6" down is because that is far enough down to keep it from easily being unearthed and also puts it into the most active layer of soil to get it to decompose as fast as possible (too deep is a thing, so don't get down to mineral soil). You may hear people talk about the "smear method" which is basically thinly smearing your poop on sun exposed rocks. While this method does work because the UV rays basically sterilize your poop, people are just recreating too much for this be a good option. No one wants to see poop smeared all over the place and it leaves the poop exposed where other folks can come in to contact with it. The only time smearing seems applicable in this day and age is if you're very remote in an area with very low frequency of visitation and there's no soil...rocky, desert or tundra. Once outside the body Giardia cysts can live for a couple months in cold water or soils, it has a shorter lifetime under warmer environments. Here's a good diagram for ways the pathogen spreads, it's fecal-oral.

Your uncle talk about the "good old days" when everyone used to drink directly from the mountain streams and no one buried their poop? The first documented case of Giardia in the US wasn't until 1970. Apparently there was a spike in western visitation to the USSR and Leningrad's (now St. Petersberg) municipal water supply was full of Giardia. So that's one theory of how it came and why it's only being talked about in our country in the past 30-40 years. Also, there are WAY more people recreating outside and more people means more people pooping mean more potential for disease spread.

You have a friend who never filters their water do you? You can also be an asymptomatic carrier of Giardia. 20 percent of the world’s population is infected, and up to 7 percent of Americans (most without any symptoms). So if some ranger tells you about a stream he's been drinking out of for decades and never gets sick, it may mean nothing to you! That all being said, Giardia is not terribly common in concentrations that would make you sick in remote waters, you're more likely to contract it from poor hygiene which is common on the trail so: bury your poop! In an arid/soil deprived environment where your poop won't decompose? Pack out your poop! Bring some dog poop bags or other plastic bag when you go on your next desert hike or summit a peak where there's no soil, they're so light. See it's just like having a dog, no big deal!

Typical TP dump, I find these all the time! You should be packing out your used toilet paper. If nothing else out of respect for the 100's of people that will be visiting the area you're in before it has a chance to decompose and have to look at your garbage.

toilet moved off it's full hole

what's worse than exhausting yourself digging a pit toilet hole? A giant rock that you can't get out of the way taking up valuable poop real estate

Standing in the hole for scale. Not as deep as I wanted but okay for my first attempt at this. This one is over 10 miles from the trailhead and still filled up in one season's time...

Friday, July 1, 2016


"Of course motors in a wilderness setting is a shock to visitors. But the reason motors are generally prohibited is not primarily due to their effect on visitors. Howard Zahniser, who wrote the Act, argued that we need 'areas of the earth within which we stand without our mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment.' And these motors do make us immediate masters over our environment. If a tree falls in the wilderness — because you cut it down with a chain saw — and there's no visitor to hear it, has wilderness character still been degraded? Of course, the answer is 'Yes.' " 
-Kari Gunderson, adjunct assistant professor for the Wilderness Management Distance Education Program and Mission Mountains Wilderness Ranger 

I've been spending a lot of time working on log out since coming on in May. As a way to supplement attempting to acquire a full 6 months of work (which is what I'm limited to as a seasonal worker) and as a way to bide time as we wait for the high country (which a huge bulk of our Wilderness is) to melt out. I act as an honorary trail crew member for points during the season. Washington had a decent winter this year and that in conjunction with the dry winter it had the previous year (and likely other factors too) has made for a lot more logs down than last year. The Wilderness boundary on my district starts a little ways back from all the trailheads, additionally we have other areas of trails that are completely outside the designated Wilderness which means in those places we can use chainsaws for logging out the trail!

We went over basic saw operations as wells as sharpening and cleaning the saw. Some of this was new to me and some of it review. Here's one of our saws with the bar and chain removed for cleaning.

 This is the carburetor pulled from the inside of a saw. It manages the fuel and air mixture. When you set the choke to start the saw it moves the circular plate (which in this photo is flipped open, in the middle) to close up that circular hole effectively blocking air and thus sending more fuel to the saw which helps start the saw when it's cold (hasn't been running).

While the rest of trail crew was away at a stock training I spent a week with my boss, just the two of us, working on logging out non-Wilderness trail sections with the chainsaw. Here he is working on some 30"+ monster that used up our gas for the day.

 Eric cutting into another monster gas hogging log. The blue thing is a wedge that can be inserted into the kerf to mitigate bind and open the kerf for more space.

The remains of the log from the previous photo after Eric cut it out the trail corridor

Lexi hiking in the Wilderness with one of our crosscuts. No motors in the Wilderness means no chainsaws so when cutting logs off the trail in designated Wilderness we use a crosscut.

Me a few years ago with the saw I learned old Stihl 066 with a 36" bar. This thing is huge, heavy and hard to manage...needless to say I am happy to be using smaller and lighter saws in my Forest Service work!

On the job I really haven't gotten to use a chainsaw much so it's pretty exciting to get to spend some time chainsawing at work. I learned a lot from Al since he's a sawyer on his fire crew so I've been comfortable running a saw for a few years. I have also learned a lot from my boss John. Running the saw isn't hard or overwhelming. What tricky is the bind assessment. When you saw a log it's going to pinch one way or another depending on how it's laying and what it's pushing against. Without getting into too much detail (I would but I don't have any good diagrams! Everything I found on web searches is too confusing) it's important how you cut a log (from the top down, from the bottom up, from the side etc) and the way you cut is dictated by how the log will bind and potentially pinch the bar of your saw. I got a general sense of bind assessment working with crosscut saws but generally I like wedge open most crosscut cuts for sake of creating a larger kerf if not for mitigating bind so I actually feel like I learned a lot more about binds working with a chainsaw. Not using wedges as much with the chainsaws gave me a better understanding of the binds and watching what the kerf is doing (opening or starting to pinch).

In addition to considering binds in how you cut you also need to think about how you can manage the piece you're cutting. A good example is using a compound cut to direct a heavy chunk of a log to fall away in the direction you want to make it easier to move.

Neat stuff right?? It's easy to come up to a log and just start cutting especially when you get to use a chainsaw but particularly when logs are larger and trickier to move there's a lot of thought that goes into how you cut something. There's a lot more to say about this.... cutting to mitigate barberchairing, limbing to log to avoid funny side binds etc etc but I'm trying to keep this simple so I won't go into that.

Friday, June 10, 2016

BAER- Burned Area Emergency Response

"Chasing angels or fleeing demons, go to the mountains"
-Jeffrey Rasley

I started my season about 3 weeks ago but got the opportunity to travel to another forest to help with a BAER (Burned Area Emergency Response) project. So I spent a week and a half near Kettle Falls, WA working on that.  For Forest Service fires over 500 acres an assessment is supposed to take place to evaluate the need for action. They bring in lots of "ologists" to assess threats to animals, plants, watershed, archeological sites and infrastructure. If deemed by the initial assessment an implementation crew comes in to mitigate threats. The fire areas I was working in had burned late last summer and in the fall they did the initial evaluation and implementation. 
some areas were completely charred and devoid of plants still

others had grass and wildflowers blooming despite the fire being not much more than 6 months ago

The main role of BAER implementation generally ends up being protecting roads. Burned slopes along roads within a certain grade (steep enough to be of concern for landslides, gentle enough that they can hold material without it just sliding off the hill) have straw or wood chips spread across them. This helps prevent erosion, protects any remaining topsoil, absorbs some of the water and with that moisture retention promotes biological activity in the soil. Without the organic top layer of topsoil and plants lots more water travels down hill, that coupled with the fact that the soil is also very loose (no organic material holding it together) makes landslide a huge concern after fires. I arrived to the project after they had done the mulching (dropped via helicopters) so I didn't get to be involved with that.

my crew

pink areas on maps to the left are "high severity burn areas" where I worked

My role in the project (completely separate from the roads/aerial mulching crew) was to assess how well the implementation of work in the fall on trails in the burned area had held up through the spring snow melt and also do an initial assessment/implementation of a separate fire burned area that had not been worked on. I was monitoring areas that had been designated "high severity burn areas" and were thus most susceptible to have issues. I hiked the trails, checked out how well the drainage features in the trail were working and dug out new drainage features in areas where runoff was apparent (it had been raining recently so it was easy to see where water was moving across the trail). There were a decent amount of miles to cover and the parameters of the project was to create temporary features (lasting around 3 years) so all features installed were drainage dips (I didn't take a photo but here's a diagram that gets the gist across, ignore the measurements, it's for roads) since they are quick to make. It's basically a dip in the trail with a berm that runs across the trail at about 45 degrees (the angle helps slow the water gently as opposed to having a 90 degree berm perpendicular which would stop the water too abruptly) directing the water off trail. If there were other drainage features (log and rock water bars, puncheons or turnpikes with ditch and culverts) that needed cleaning we cleaned the sediment out of them. There were also some areas with a backslope on the trail that was too steep which was knocked down. Vegetation has a hard time growing on slopes steeper than 45 degrees and optimizing the potential for vegetation to grow back to help hold in the soil and absorb water is important. There were also areas where we removed sloughing and berm from the trail to encourage water to run across the trail instead of getting stuck in it and running down trail. The idea behind working on these trails and making sure they were very well drained was to hopefully keep landslides from blowing the trail out and washing sediment into the watersheds below. The local ranger district there had a soil crew to help me with the work and there were also other folks like me brought in from other Forests to help. The size of my crew changed every day, sometimes just one other person and sometimes 6 others. Some people had trail maintenance experience and some had none so it was neat to get to explain the anatomy of the drainage features and why and how they work. Also since I got to work with the local soils crew I could point out general trail issues that would only be exacerbated by increased water runoff in the post-burn environment and they can hep act as a liaison in explaining those issues to incoming conservation trail crews that would be coming later in the summer to do more trail work.

Bonus to working in a burned area...TONS of morels!

Saw lots of shattered rocks like this, I think they got so hot in the fire it caused this

an old leg hold trap

It was neat to work in a different area and see all the morels and wolf tracks...things I hadn't seen before. We have a wolf pack in my district but the female was poached a little over a year ago. The biologist told me it's unlikely the pack will survive without her. I also got to learn more about using Avenza and ArcMap which though aggravating at times, was great for me because I just love maps. I was working about 10 days straight for 10-14 hours a day so I was ready to come home in the end.