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Te Hapu, New Zealand

Kilroy was Here

Kilroy was Here

Happy New Year everyone. For the first post of the year, something from the days before BuenoLuna and DryStoneGarden: Ryan’s Bush Track from the winter when Anita and I did some bicycle touring and WWOOFing on the South Island in New Zealand.

Another crew leader in the trail building scene just got back from New Zealand and sent me photos of Te Hapu, a one thousand acre sheep and cattle farm along the coast in the uppermost northern corner of the South island, New Zealand, on the west coast just below Farewell Spit. Anita and I spent almost a month there, during which time I made a trail through a section of native rainforest and did a reroute on another trail that goes to a waterfall. The Te Hapu website has a map of the property viewable as a pdf. Ryan’s Bush Track is near the northern (right) property boundary. It gives a sense of the size of the property to see my tiny little track and know that it is a kilometer long. It’s an amazing place and Sandra and Ken, the owners, were great hosts when we stayed there. Pretty funny that they named the trail and put the sign up. I guess people will know who to blame for the muddy spots.

The Track

The Track

Start of the Track through the Gorse

Start of the Track through Gorse and Ferns

I got to know prickly-leaved gorse, as well as the native plants, while I was playing around in the bush making the trail. Gorse is one of the big problem weeds of New Zealand and the target of a lot of eradication efforts, but it also gets some begrudging appreciation as a nursery plant for native trees, getting tall and leggy in its old age and providing shade for native rainforest trees to recolonize and then eventually shade it out. At Te Hapu it seems to have acted as a barrier to keep out the cattle. From the outside of the gorse, there was little sign of the rainforest hiding inside; I could just see gorse and the tops of a few trees rising out of it.

I remember three kinds of tree ferns at Te Hapu. I think the one in the photo is Dicksonia squarrosa, a relative of the Tasmanian tree fern that is common in Bay Area gardens. The most beautiful one was the black tree fern, Cyathea medullaris, which I’ve never seen available in a nursery.

Hapu Beach

Hapu Beach

Outside of the rainforest, the scenery reminded me somewhat of the central coast of California, though California doesn’t have this type of limestone outcroppings. Some of the rocks are still topped with rainforest where the sheep and cattle can’t climb up to it. I had climbing shoes with me to explore the rock a bit, and it was a strange experience to start on turf and climb up into rainforest so dense that it was difficult to move through.

Gilbert's Beach, Te Hapu

Gilberts Beach

It’s the only private property I’ve ever known where the owners had multiple beaches to pick from — one for swimming in calm water, one for playing in the waves and body-surfing, one for tidepooling and abalone hunting, and others for just watching waves crash violently against the rocky shoreline. They rent guest cottages to travelers, something that’s common in New Zealand where farms often have nicer scenery than the public lands. In fact, Te Hapu has a national park bordering it, but the park doesn’t have any trails or access.

yMerinos Grazing

Te Hapu Limestone

Pasture Grass

Sheep Grazing

Limestone Bluffs

Te Hapu

Limestone along the coast

Sunset

My thanks to On Lee Lau for the photos. Anita and I were traveling without a camera when we stayed at Te Hapu, so it was great to see photos of the place; they make me want to go back. More photos can be seen at the Te Hapu website. Really, though, the place needs to be seen in person to be truly appreciated, and there’s more to it than I can cover in a single blog post (first place I watched dogs mustering sheep, there are caves on the property, and google turns up a recent photo of a blue whale carcass on the property). Anyone who is ever going to be in that part of the South Island should try to make a visit.

On a somewhat related note: Tomorrow, Anita and I leave for Baja to bicycle tour around the southern section between San Ignacio and Cabo. A couple of posts should happen while I’m gone, but I won’t be responding to comments for a while.

Building Stone Steps for Mules & Gardens

Pack Mules on Duck Pass Trail

Pack Mules on Duck Pass Trail

The topic for this month’s design workshop at Gardening Gone Wild is dealing with slopes. The description mentions “tips for building steps and paths to make slopes easier to navigate,” so I thought I’d cite the source I learned from, the forest service Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook, which is online and in the public domain (Who owns this government document? We do!). The text might have a few elements geared towards public trails rather than residential gardens, but the diagrams are good and the principles are solid.

Step Construction

Step Construction

‘Build stairways from the bottom up, at a break in the grade. The most common mistake is to start part way up a grade. If you do so, the trail will wash out below the stairs. The bottom stair should be constructed on a solid, excavated footing. If it is constructed on top of exposed rock, it should be well pinned to the footing. Each successive stair is placed atop [or against] the previous stair. Dry masonry rock stairs usually rely on the contact with the stair below and with the footing to provide stability.

‘Hikers, especially backpackers, generally don’t like steps and will walk alongside them if there is any opportunity. The steps need to be comfortable to climb or they won’t be used. This means keeping the rise a reasonable 6 to 8 in (150 to 200 mm) and the run long enough to hold a hiker’s entire foot rather than just their toe. It’s helpful to armor the sides of steps with rocks to encourage users to stay on the steps.’

Stepping Rock and Riser Stairways

Stepping Rock and Riser Stairways

‘The most important area of the step is usually in the run. This is where most traffic steps as it climbs. If the step is composed of something like a board on edge with fill behind it, then the traffic will step onto the landing. Almost all foot traffic descending the step will walk off the edge of the step. The top of the step (and landing) should be stable and provide secure footing. The edge of the step should be solid and durable. The face of each step should not contain a batter that creates a “face run” of over 2 in (50 mm) from top to bottom. This is particularly important as the rise of the step increases.

‘Steps with landings are a bit harder to secure in place because the stairs do not overlap. Each step can either be placed in an excavated footing and the material below the rise removed to form the landing of the next lower step. This is usually the most stable arrangement. Or the step can be secured on the surface and fill used to form a landing behind it. The material used to provide the rise does double duty as a retaining structure when the landing consists of tamped fill. These steps must be seated well to prevent them from being dislodged by traffic. For stock use, landings should be long enough to hold all four of the animal’s feet.’

Riprap Stairway

Riprap Stairway

‘In more primitive settings, you don’t need a uniform flight of steps as long as the route is obvious and there is solid tread at each stepping point. In the Sierra, a cross between cobblestones and stairs, locally called riprap, is commonly used for this purpose.

‘If the stairway climbs straight up the hill, each step should be slightly crowned to drain water to the edges or slightly sloped to one side. When the trail traverses a slope, each step and landing should be slightly outsloped. Water should not be allowed to descend long lengths of a set of steps or to collect on or behind a step on the landing. A drain dip where the trail approaches the top of the steps is a good idea.

‘In all steps, the key is to use the largest material possible and to seat it as deeply as possible. Rocks should be massive and rectangular. On steps that traverse a slope, it helps to seat the upper end of the step material in footings excavated into the slope.’

Rock Staircase

Rock Staircase

Best practice for building a stairway these days, if the rocks are big enough, is to butt them against each other instead of on top of each other. That way it is possible to repair one of the steps without redoing the whole staircase.

Rock Staircase

Rock Staircase

It doesn’t say in the notebook, but I was taught to kick test every step. If the stone moves when you kick it, it isn’t solid enough. A bit of a shock, sometimes, to see someone kick the structure you just labored on, but the step is definitely going to get kicked when people use it, so you might as well find out if it is going to last. You want to feel confident that your stairs are safe. It’s scary enough the first time you see a mule train crank through a set of steps that you’ve built even when you know the steps are solid. There aren’t mules in residential backyards, but the foot of a 150 lb. person can easily impact with 300 lbs. of force, so the basic principle is the same. Steps should be strong.

Steps also need to be regular. The test is to walk up and down the stairway without looking down at your feet. If the rise and run are even, you shouldn’t trip or stumble.

Old Town Wall Steps

Old Town Wall Steps

In the front country I usually don’t get to work with stones that are “massive and rectangular,” but I still kick test every step and walk the staircase with my eyes closed. This set of steps, built with a local sandstone called Old Town Wall, was a lot of work, getting the risers to all match and the stones all interlocked enough to stay in place. I was working for a designer who is a serious dry stone purist, so mortar was out of the question. I think the steps and cheekwall took me longer than the entire rest of the wall.

Mortared Arizona Flagstone Steps

Mortared Arizona Flagstone Steps

When it’s up to me — though I’m a dry stacker at heart — I usually build steps with mortar, usually by stacking flagstone with a recessed mortar joint. I don’t think that method holds up in areas with heavy freezes and probably not if the steps are going to be used by mules, but it does well in Bay Area yards. A before photo of these steps and another mule photo are below. (more…)

Rock Steps

Rock Step Clancy

Rock Step 'Clancy'

Instead of a bridge, my crew spent most of our time building rock steps, mostly on Duck Pass Trail in the Mammoth Lakes basin.

Arrowhead Lake

Arrowhead Lake

The trail to Duck Pass is one of the area’s quickest routes up into the high country, so it gets a ton of usage. The first section is mostly steep, dusty switchbacks through lodgepole pine forest, but then you’re up in granite country the rest of the way to the pass. Arrowhead is only a mile and a half in, with a fifteen foot high rock to jump from (very nice after a day of moving rock, jump at your own discretion), and then Skelton’s another mile and Barney’s another mile after that. Also, the trail somehow became THE TRAIL for cross-country running teams from Los Angeles. Every day, we would have entire high school and college teams run through our work site, forty or fifty runners at a time, up and then back down an hour or two later. I’d never worked on such a popular trail. It was frustrating to have people constantly walking through our work site, but then, on the other hand, I’ve never had so many people thank me for anything I was doing. Literally hundreds of people thanked us. A much used and much loved trail.

high timber step

High Timber Step

The trail is slowly evolving into a giant staircase. It’s steep and gullied, with steps installed to try and control the gullies. The steps hold the tread in place on their uphill side, but then the downhill side of each step slowly erodes and becomes too high and requires another step in front of it, which then needs another step in front it, and so on. My crew spent the bulk of our time building new steps in from of the steps that past crews had built, and future crews will no doubt build a few more steps in front of ours. At times it felt a bit sisyphean.

Rock Step Bigeasy

Rock Step 'Bigeasy'

The steps we built are western trail steps, designed for horses and mules. Each step is supposed to be 4-6 feet long so that a horse can have its front and back legs on each step before stepping onto the next one. This step, Bigeasy, we actually sited even further in front of the timber step above it because that step is overly close to the next step above it. When that timber step inevitably rots out and needs to be replaced, it can be relocated a couple of feet forward and then all the steps will have proper spacing.

Bigeasy in transit

'Bigeasy' in transit

Finding the rock, aka rock-shopping, is probably the most enjoyable part. Moving it to the work site is often the biggest chore. Did I mention Sisyphus?

moving Mastondon with rockbars

Rockbar Power Activate!

You do develop a good sense for the shape and size of each rock as you roll or skid it through the landscape, though. We gave names to most of the big ones. Basically, if you found the rock and spent enough time wrestling with it, if it was big enough and gravity-soaked enough, then it was your rock and you got to choose a name. Names were usually descriptive, but sometimes random. For instance, Clancy (a nice big one fit snugly between Elton and John) was named after a forest service guy who had his macho turned up to eleven. Mammoth was an early 500 pounder. Bigeasy was surprisingly painless and easy to move. P.I.T.A. (Pain-in-the-Ass) was the opposite. Melon was low-hanging-fruit. Quickie was finished quickly. The macho, male names of our early rocks led to a series of less macho names, Howard and Jeffrey, then Fabio (very handsome), then Buttercup, Jewel, and Pearl. Showtime, the Three Musketeers, Mastodon, Alligator, and Shitzy round out the list, the last of the names I remember. A few of those steps and the view from near the top of Duck Pass are below. (more…)

Backcountry Bridges

Gadbury bridge

Gadbury bridge with one post

The project that helped lure me into leading a crew for the Inyo National Forest last month was to build a bridge. Unfortunately, bureaucracy happened. The wilderness supervisor had wanted and planned for a native bridge (built with trees and rocks gathered at the site, pretty much the coolest project you can do on a trail) but then the higher ups mandated a strength that could only be achieved with glued laminated lumber. By the time the engineers, hydrologists, trail managers, and everyone else got on the same page and agreed on a design, it was too late in the season to get the specified materials and build it. So, no bridge; my crew spent the month building rock steps and waterbars, instead.

Gadbury bridge

Gadbury bridge at Barney Lake

A couple of members of my crew did help another crew built this Gadbury bridge at the outlet of Barney Lake on the Duck Pass Trail. The classic Gadbury is a log split in two and put side by side so the fat end of one half is fit against the skinny end of the other, equalizing the width, though this bridge here is a lodge pole pine cut in half, instead of split, with the tops chiseled to make a flat surface. A wrap of wire set in a groove at each end holds the logs together, and the ends of the bridge sit on rock sills so they won’t rot as quickly as they would on dirt. Quick and easy to build, and solid to walk on. The SCA blog has a 60 second slideshow/video of a crew building one, makes me jealous. The video goes pretty fast, but you can see the process of putting together the abutments, the stringers, and the railing’s joinery.

bridge at Garnet Lake

bridge at Garnet Lake

bridge at garnet

bridge at Garnet Lake

This is what I was expecting to build from the initial project description. It uses two big logs, canted on the sides to fit flush together.

bridge at Garnet Lake

bridge at Garnet Lake

Pretty good if the bridge has been there since 10/63. The posts are newer, set with bolts, and the rails fitted together with lap joints.

bridge at Thousand Island Lake

bridge at Thousand Island Lake

bridge at Thousand Island Lake

bridge at Thousand Island Lake

There’s something really pleasing about a rustic bridge. I’m still going through the photos of the rock structures that my crew built when the bridge got postponed. I’ll probably post some of them soon.

– Update — Through the magic of blogging, I now have a photo of the Barney Lake bridge under construction with the old bridge beside it. Thanks BruceinPA for sending the photo.

bridge at Barney Lake

bridge at Barney Lake

Skidding, Rolling, and Lifting

Sold! To the person with a giant backhoe...

One of the fun parts about backcountry rock work is searching around to find the rocks to build with. One of the most laborious is then moving the chosen rocks to the building site. Some wilderness crews use a come-along or grip hoist, but most do it with human power, rolling their rocks downhill to the trail with their hands or a six-foot long rockbar. Here are a few backcountry sayings, born of many hours of wrestling against gravity:

Skidding is better than rolling, rolling is better than lifting, lifting sucks.

Stones come in three sizes: hernia, double-hernia, and too small.

and

If you can carry it, it’s too small.

Mcleod the Tool

Mcleod

Mcleod (tool)

The other  tool that represents trail crews for me, along with the Pulaski I showed in my last post, is the Mcleod, a combination rake, hoe, and tamper. It doesn’t make a big first impression, but it’s surprisingly useful, a mainstay on trail-maintenance and fire-fighting crews. The straight edge is the primary business edge, kept sharp enough to cut through roots and useful for cleaning and grading out a trail. A lot of people don’t notice, but trails are never built completely flat; they always have a slight outslope so that water will flow off them. Classic Mcleods are built from a single piece of steel welded together (even older ones were built so that the handle could be removed for easier transport, but I’ve never actually seen one of those) and are useful for checking the outslope of your trial; you can just stand them upright, and they should tilt one or two inches to the side, instead of plumb, if the outslope is correct.

Mcleod head with bolt

Mcleod head with bolt

Newer Mcleods, the only ones I’m seeing now, have a bolt at the bottom. They still function for tamping, but you can’t check the outslope on a hard-packed trail with them. A water bottle laid on its side then becomes the low-tech, backcountry level of choice.

A ranger for the Sierra National Forest, Malcolm Mcleod, designed the first one around the start of the century, and his name provides one of the only tool jokes I know:

What is the difference between Mick Jagger and the Scottish people? Answer below the jump. (more…)

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