Howdy From Missouri!

Well now, it seems as if the days have already flown-by! I’ve been “off-grid”, as it were, for about a week. I almost forgot about computers entirely until my supervisor, BJ (aka “Big John the Badass”), told me he would try to arrange my computer access at a desk in the Potosi Ranger Station here at Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri.

The National Forest itself has a lot of designated wilderness areas, of which my duties as a wilderness ranger intern are to monitor the following – Rock Pile Mtn (over 4000 acres), Bell Mtn (over 9000 acres), and the Irish (over 16,000 acres) sections. The designation was granted by Congress, and as such, there are certain regulations and management practices that need to be followed in accordance to the Wilderness Act of 1964. For one, there is only one road in and out of these locations, and it isn’t exactly a road you would drive your Prius on…the Forest Service access roads are dirt and gravel, with lots of bumps and holes, better suited for a vehicle with 4WD. Secondly, the trails are not marked with clear, coloured blazes every 30 ft – again, this is a wilderness, not a quick walk in the city park. The trail might be blocked by obstacles such as fallen trees (which we do our best to take care of them with crosscut saw and axe work), or it might be impassible due to flooding in heavy summer rains. As such, visitors need to be self-reliant to enjoy the solitude and remoteness.

BJ related to me an incident involving a SAR operation that occurred last year, in which a woman was travelling the Bell Mtn Wilderness to geocache, and she was ill-equipped for her journey. What should have been a relaxing day became a near catastrophe as her GPS batteries died, leaving her stranded in the woods at twilight. She had no map, and she also didn’t pay attention to the clock. Luckily, she was found and made it out without injury.
Potosi is a small town by my standards – population about 3000, though there are several other nearby towns that are smaller than that (less than 1000 population). Where I am in Missouri it is quite hilly, and there are mountains all over the place…apparently, they are older than even the Appalachian range back East. There are lots of mineral deposits in the area, and in the town of Ironton, LOTS of red granite. The forest ecology is a bit different than Connecticut, but not by much other than the lack of more evergreen coniferous trees and a lot more hardwoods (oaks especially). There are lots of wild turkeys here, at least throughout the National Forest. Black bears are sometimes seen, and only a fool would leave his/her food lying about camp without taking proper precautions, such as using a bear bag to store food.

So, after settling-in after my arrival last Wednesday, I got to take part in some trail building on the weekend with the Ozark Trail Association, a non-profit organisation run by volunteer conservationists. Last Thursday, I helped the crew leaders set out the assortment of tools in a remote section of Mark Twain National Forest. Little did I know then that the weekend wing-ding was a “Mega Event”, with 220 people attending, the largest gathering ever for the OTA.



We arrived on Friday at the Bass River Resorts, a short drive to our work destination, to camp out for the time (3 days, 2 nights). It was a bit odd at first, as most everyone else was car-camping, and I was among the few who had packed in a backpacking manner. The weather was fantastic, so I opted for a modified Adirondack tarp shelter next to the Bass River (really more a stream than a river).

The following day (Saturday) we all got down and dirty with tools such as fire rakes, McLeods, pulaskis, pick-mattocks, and grub hoes. It took maybe 5 hours, but we created about 3/4 mile of trail. When we got back to camp, the OTA prepped a large dinner followed by, in true Southern fashion, a large bonfire and live bluegrass music. I met a lot of great people at that event – it was a blast :). I also found out that southern gnats and mosquitoes don’t seem to like my Yankee blood.


We left on Sunday, and on Monday I got to work in the Forest Service garage, fixing up some of the FSS (Federal Supply Service) pulaskis my supervisor lent the OTA for their event. You can get a lot done with a pulaski as far as trail building, and it is equally useful when fighting forest fires.This one above is a Warren Axe and Tool Co. FSS, possibly from the 1940s. And yes, the handles are painted. I know some of you axe purists may cringe, but this is done mostly so that the tools can be identified as belonging to this Ranger Station. Usually, with a collaboration like the mega event with the Ozark Trail Association I mentioned earlier, the USFS will lend workers and-or tools to the organization if necessary, and it helps to know which tool belongs where.

On Tuesday my supervisor took me out to the Rock Pile Wilderness for some trail maintenance work and introductory wilderness monitoring. I was issued my “field hat” (a hard hat for safety purposes) and leather work gloves. No chainsaws here, just good ‘ol fashioned hand tools, man-power, and in our case, BEARD power :D!. He brought along his full-sized axe and a 5 ft two-man crosscut. I brought along my Gränsfors Bruks Small Forest axe.



usfsmtnftrailworkjb3-5_zps54bdalt7Big John the Badass swinging his 3.5 lb Council Tool Jersey.


This is a technique for making a lower cut (“under-sawing”) with a crosscut saw, using the helve of an axe to steady the blade. Notice my Small Forest axe on the right. In situations like the above photo, the downed tree can have numerous “pinch points” (tension stored in the wood fibres from limbs resting against the ground, another tree, or a large stone). A lower cut was necessary to finish the job and relieve the pressure, and the saw did get stuck cutting from the top. The Small Forest Axe was very helpful for cutting the tension with careful chopping next to the left of the saw blade when it was stuck. It is rare that you can get through a day without at least some technical difficulty. But that’s all the fun when working with hand tools, and through mistakes, you learn how to adapt. 🙂

The Forest Service has three different levels of crosscut certification – A (novice), B (intermediate), and C (advanced). Some time in the future the letters will be recognized as numbers; 1 for novice, and so-on. I will be certified first as an “A”, and then a “B” during my 6 month internship. BJ and I make a good crosscut team, and you know you’re good when you fall into a rhythm, letting the saw itself do the work for you – at that point it is almost effortless, and you can pull the saw with a finger.


This is a rocky “glade” near the summit of Rock Pile Mtn, wherein there is too little soil for most plants other than Eastern Red-cedar (a juniper) and grasses. The exposed rock is home to a variety of mosses and lichens.


I have no clue what kind of plant this is, but I thought the flowers looked cool :). There was also some Indian Paintbrush and Spiderwort along the trail, but I didn’t have the time to take a bunch of photos.




On Wednesday and Thursday, I was back in the garage fixing up the other pulaskis and re-hanging a Council Tool FSS boy’s axe. As most of us already know, when you work with hand tools, you should know how to repair and restore them. The Forest Service has acquired hundreds of vintage double-bit and single-bit axes to use for trail work, some made by companies such as Warren Axe and Tool Co., Collins Co, and True Temper/Kelly Works. But most of the cutting tools you’ll find wielded by trail crews are more recently made specimens from Barco Industries and Council Tool.

Yesterday I attended another wing-ding with the OTA at the Ozark National Scenic Riverways for their Junior Ranger Day event. As the name suggests, this place is managed by the National Park Service and is the only NPS-managed area in Missouri. We assisted them by providing hiking activities to groups of 5th and 6th graders from the local schools. The hike was nothing “serious”, but it was enough to hopefully spark a few young minds, and no doubt it is always great to take the kids outdoors and to teach them some basic woods skills, such as identifying plants. Sorry, no pics….I foolishly left my camera behind.

Today I finally found time to catch up on my blog. But I enjoy the work, as well as the unexpectedness of what each day can turn into. 🙂

Slán go foill!





2 thoughts on “Howdy From Missouri!

  1. sounds like they are keeping you busy!
    trail building is hard work, but really teaches a guy how to use his tools and works muscles he never knew he had!
    me i’ll stick to trail maintenance as thats hard enough for this old coot.
    keep up the good work and thanks for the update…atb…woods


    1. Aye, they’re keeping me happy :D.
      Well, to be fair, we had it easy since my supervisor got one of his crew members to take a bulldozer to start the trail itself. All we did was even everything out, remove/transplant large rocks, scrape away the duff, and cut out the back-slope. Hand lining it would definitely have been challenging. Actually, I will have a chance to do that later this year in the Marble Creek area :). That will be about 1/2 mile of trail.

      But with a mega event like the one I attended, many hands make light work 😉
      Yeah, and even trail maintenance can be tough, especially if the folks in charge of maintaining it have done a piss-poor job or haven’t even bothered. Then it turns into trail restoration, and if it’s bad enough, you might as well brush it up and create another trail to save the effort.


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