The blade of my ax makes the sound when it strikes the fallen tree.
I have an arrangement with the ax. I lift it, bring it down and it does the work, that’s the deal.
A chip flies out of the enlarging bite that the ax has made in the side of the trunk. I make a few more chops and then, there’s the satisfying crack that reports that this downed tree has been broken through; one tree off the trail and out of the way.
That’s how it was May 16 on my first trip this year to my maintenance section on the Appalachian Trail. As a trail maintainer with the Maine Appalachian Trail Club it’s my job to clear fallen trees that block the trail, among other duties.
My assigned section of 2.2 miles starts at the sign on top of Pleasant Pond Mountain in Caratunk. From the summit it goes down the ridge on the other side of the mountain, northbound. For my first hike to work on it, like in years past, I’m on a reconnaissance mission through the first mile.
I never know in advance how many trees have been blown down, so this trip will determine just how much work I have to do. Some years, I don’t get very far. In bad years on my section, there could be half a dozen trees per mile across the trail. I usually make at least two trips, one trip for each mile and one-tenth. During the worst years, it takes four trips.
I got to the 2,547-foot summit by climbing steeply from the south, through another maintainer’s section. The trail ascends 1,200 feet in a mile before reaching the summit sign. I stopped at the sign with a young couple with two small children. I met them just below the last steep climb on the way up.
There, I showed them the views that are among the best anywhere along the Maine trail. From the top we looked out over Moxie Pond, Katahdin, Sugarloaf (which still had snow on the ski trails), Bigelow, Kineo and Big Moose Mountain. Those are only a few of the landmarks in the scene.
The couple and I soon say our goodbyes and I turn to hike down the other side. I make some notes about needing to paint a white blaze near the open summit ledges, then I’m on my way. I cross the ledges and notice some rock cairns that have either been pushed over or fell over on their own. Either way I’ll have to restack them on my way back.
Once off the slate ledges, the trail and I enter the forested ridge, gradually descending. The mountain is formed of two summits, really, the second being Middle Mountain. There’s a saddle between the two humps. It’s on my way out of the sag where I find the first tree, a red spruce about eight inches thick. I quickly cut through it and move on to the top of Middle Mountain. Before I get there, the second tree, about six inches in diameter, appears across the trail. That’s where I find the echo.
I lift up the ax. Whack. Then after a second delay, it’s followed by another single, “whack,” off the side of the mountain. I didn’t know I had an echo on this mountain. Whack, and there it is again.
“Cool,” I think. It sounds like I have help up the trail, like someone else is over on the side of the hill, chopping. It also looks like I had help taking photos, but I just used the timer on the camera.
Soon, I clear the tree and continue on to the top of Middle. No more trees block the trail along the way. Then, I’m at the 1.1-mile mark, which isn’t really marked anywhere but on the map. It’s time to turn around and hike out.
It’s about 2 in the afternoon by then. As I walk back over the hill, I make a few more notes on places that need painting on the next trip. I only bring one tool for the recon hike, the ax. Painting blazes will have to wait. Up on the summit of Pleasant Pond Mountain, I stop at all the cairns and gather a few more rocks to stack from off the trail.
Stacking rocks apparently attracts black flies. They didn’t bite me, just swarmed, nudged and bumped into me to let me know that, next time they will be here. They might not be so friendly. I hope for a strong breeze. Say, gale force. Now that I think about, chopping trees attracts flies, too. I’ll wear a head net.
The rock stacking is really pretty easy work. I just make sure the bigger rocks are on bottom, smaller rocks work their way up. It’s always better to take the pile down and restart from the last spot on the stack where the rocks are stable. The stacks aren’t particularly large, just high enough to mark the trail over bare ledge where there are no trees to paint.
All in all, I had a light year for downed trees. It was, at least, through the first half of my section. Next time I won’t have to work my way through to the start of the second mile. For some reason, that second half can have a lot of damage. I plan to start earlier in the day and stay later, now that I know the first part is clear. In the meantime, I’ll be sharpening the ax.