Monday, September 30, 2013

Another Day, Another Privy

September 28, 2013

They say whenever you get two or more AT volunteers together, the talk inevitably turns to S**t.   Managing human waste is an important part of what we do as trail managers.  Elsewhere in this blog, I've discussed why we just don't want people to camp anywhere they'd like.  The consequence of this is that when we concentrate use in a few locations (to preserve the rest of the Trail from impacts), we concentrate everything people do--from cooking to sleeping.  And people's byproducts are concentrated too.  

In some places on the AT (I'll refrain mention any specific places, but the state begins with a "T"), trail visitors are asked to "disperse" their waste and bury it in "catholes" about 6" below the ground's surface.  This works well for quick decomposition of the waste, but in an area around a shelter or campground, the available real estate for this activity is quickly used up--and not all hikers are skilled in making their deposits.  Add to this the intense traffic the A.T. generates and pretty soon the whole area around the shelter smells like an outhouse (well, it actually IS the outhouse).

The solution then, is to concentrate the deposition of waste in a place that does not impact the water supply, nor unduly degrade the hiking experience with odors and insects.  At most A.T. overnight sites in Mass (and now, elsewhere in New England) we have chosen to use "mouldering" type privies, where the waste is contained above ground and decomposed relatively quickly by aerobic bacteria and other critters.  At some overnight sites, where there is lower use, more room, and soils are easier to dig, we may choose to retain the traditional "Pit Privy".  Essentially a hole in the ground over which rests a toilet seat (and usually an small building to protect the user from weather and offer some privacy).

There are two problems with this: 1) The hole fills up. 2) The stuff does not decompose.  Burying waste in the ground slows decomposition, as oxygen-using organisms aren't present throughout the mass of waste.  Anaerobic critters take much longer to do their thing.  Old privy pits may remain essentially unchanged for years.

OK, enough talk.  In Mass, of 14 overnight sites we have three with pit privies.  About every 3-5 years, another pit needs to be dug and the old one covered with dirt.  This week it was Shaker Campsite.  Last dug in July of 2009, it was full pretty much to the top.

Step 1:  Pick spot for new hole.  This should be close to the current one, but not on top of an old hole or too far away (privies are heavy).  

Step 2: Dig the new hole.  We tipped the outhouse onto it's back so we could re-caulk the area where the vent pipe comes through the roof, and so some dirt from the new hole can be used to cap the old one.

Steve starts the digging

Don's turn to dig

Step 3: Keep digging.  The deeper the hole, the longer it will last.  Every shovel full of dirt we take out of the hole is 2-3 more deposits the hole will hold.  Eventually, the hole becomes so deep that the dirt can't be lifted out--about 31/2 feet deep is pretty much the limit.  The outhouse must completely cover the hole, so the hole measures about 3ft x 3ft.  The outhouse is 4ft x 4ft.
Steve is just about there

Not quite to China, but here's another 4 years of capacity

Don finishes up the caulking on the vent pipe.
Step 4: Move the outhouse.  No pictures here as all three of us were involved.  Important considerations: 1) Don't step into the old hole. 2) Don't step into the new hole.  Pile rocks on top of the cap of the recently covered hole to alert the next crew that this is not the place to dig a new one.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Nopel Patio Hardening

 September 14, 2013

Several of our shelters have a raised platform (or "patio") under the front overhang because of the slope of the ground where the shelter has been sited.  Picnic tables are placed under the overhang, not only for hiker's convenience, but to deter fires from being built directly in front of the shelter--so this patio needs to be reasonably level, pitched slightly for drainage.

Rock walls, or occasionally, wooden cribs are constructed, then filled with mineral soil taken from nearby borrow pits.  Because the patio is somewhat protected from the weather, the mineral soil never gets very wet and can be easily tracked into the shelter by hikers--especially when their boots are already wet.  Locations with sandy subsoils are particularly prone to this problem.  Earlier, we addressed the same issue at Wilcox South shelter  This post goes into a little more detail.

To remedy this, after the original patio has been used for a couple of years, we consolidate the mineral soil by mixing in cement and spread the mixture evenly over the surface and water it lightly.  The chemical reaction in the cement helps bond the dirt together creating a more durable surface.  Because the top coat has little structural strength, the soil underneath must be well-compacted. 

It starts with dirt.  Don harvests from the borrow pit.

3 parts mineral soil to one part cement.  Jim mixes small batches of the dry ingredients    

Dry mix is spread over well-compacted patio surface

Low spots are filled and lightly tamped with a rake

Jim and Steve use a screed board to make a smooth, flat surface

Surface is lightly watered

It sits for about a day while the mixture sets and dries.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Death on the Trail

Consider this an Op-Ed piece, these ramblings do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Mass AT Committee, AMC, ATC or any of our Agency partners.

We had a hiker fall to his death on a side trail (which our Club maintains) to the AT this summer and there have been other fatalities elsewhere on the Trail this year that can be attributed to it’s physical challenges.  It brought to my mind that what we do is not without risk.  Our local story (in brief) occurred when a two brothers decided to hike down from Race Brook Falls campsite to “go check out the falls”.  They followed the blue-blazed trail down towards the road, and at some point (most likely where the trail turns left, away from the stream) went off-trail, past a line of large boulders and a double blaze placed to direct hikers to the left, and found themselves 50 yards later at the top of the waterfall.  From here, we as trail volunteers do not know what specifically happened next--we only know that one of the hikers fell down to the bottom of the upper waterfall.  Other hikers and local rescue personnel came to the scene, but were not able to save the man’s life.

So, this presents us a moment to think about some things:  As volunteer stewards we engage in many different aspects of trail management.  As well as physical maintenance of the trail, we write and edit the text in ATC’s guidebook, edit official maps, create and install trail signage, build bridges and construct shelters and privies at overnight sites.  What we can’t do of course, is get inside the head of trail visitors--we can only supply as much external information as we can--while keeping the hiking experience as “wild” as it can be.  As our AT Management Plan puts it:
“[Trail facilities]..should be constructed when appropriate to protect the resource or provide a minimum level of public safety. Design and construction of these facilities should reflect an awareness of, and harmony with, the Trail’s primitive qualities."

Just what is our personal risk in “providing a minimum level of public safety?”  A.T. volunteers are protected from Tort by the Volunteers in Parks program run by the NPS.  Club volunteers are considered “government employees”, and as such can’t be sued by hikers for injury, inconvenience, lost time, etc, as long as they are working within their job descriptions (part of which is reflected in the Management Plan quoted above).  

While we are protected--it does not remove our responsibility to do things the right way--follow design standards and maintain the physical condition of the trail as required by ATC.  We do all those things (and do them well), and still a hiker dies of his injuries.   Should/Could we do more?  Would railings or fences built to keep hikers on the trail or away from cliffs be in harmony with the Trail experience?  Should we build ATV-accessible “rescue routes” from nearby roads to the A.T., put mile markers on the blazes, and clear helicopter access openings in areas where there are higher numbers of hiker injuries and/or rescues?  We get these requests from local responders often when there is an incident on the Trail, but so far have not been required to provide them as they are not part of the standard we are required to follow.  

A hiker takes on a level of personal risk by choosing to hike the Trail--but I think, sadly, they are not always aware of that assumption.  Ultimately, they are responsible for their own actions.   There are going to be slippery rocks, muddy trail, unsigned road crossings or trail intersections, unprotected cliffs, even a scarcity of blazes.   When a hiker steps out of the parking lot and onto the AT she immediately enters a world where the “golden hour” that EMT’s value so much (the time between injury and the hospital) does not exist.  For some of us, that is part of the appeal of the Trail--the breaking of bonds between the protective shell of the “real” world and the freedom of the trail world.  I believe we should continue to avoid pressure to make the A.T. a “walk in the park”, to diminish the sense of remoteness and distance from the built world.   But, are we really ready for the consequences?  I think we did everything right regarding the physical condition and management actions on the Race Brook Falls Trail,  but I am thankful that it was not my son laying at the bottom of Race Brook Falls.