Trail Work in the Bell Mtn Wilderness

Whilst I am out recording solitude and recreation site monitoring info for the Forest Service, I often have some extra time to maintain the trails, which is also a duty for a Wilderness Ranger. Of course, since I am out mostly by myself, there is a disadvantage with the amount of trail work I can complete – my primary responsibility is to monitor specific zones within the wilderness for solitude and rec site data. A crew of two or three persons can cover a lot more ground than just one person.

On Friday the 13th of this month, as I was approaching the Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness trail-head, I noticed a large dead tree (presumably a half rotten oak) blocking the way, which likely came down during the strong thunderstorms that passed through last week. Having stopped to inspect the obstacle, I considered my options. I did have my portable bucksaw and Gränsfors Bruks Small Forest Axe, but the trunk was well over 12 inches/30 cm in diameter, with several large branches to remove as well. If I instead parked where I was and walked the 1/4 mile to the trail-head, I’d save myself a lot of exertion and time. In this case, my tools simply wouldn’t cut it, pardon the pun. I would have to come back another day with a larger axe to remove the obstacle. Lesson learnt: expect downed trees after strong winds or passing storms, and bring the appropriate tool/s for the job. So, I resolved to carry a full-sized Federal Supply System double-bit axe.

The next day I drove to the north trail-head of the Bell Mtn Wilderness, taking along my chosen double-bit. Almost all of the double-bits at the ranger station are vintage True Tempers (Western/Pennsylvania pattern) that were specifically made to meet Forest Service specification 5100-9D (formerly 5100-9C).

A lot of people seem to have a misunderstanding when it comes to FSS-branded axes and pulaskis. They tend to think that because the Forest Service uses these tools, they should “work better” or have a “higher quality” than a standard axe or pulaski. The truth is that there isn’t necessarily any advantage to purchasing a FSS axe or pulaski. Having the FSS mark only means that the tool meets Forest Service specification 5100-9D (axes) or 5100-355E (pulaskis). Perhaps the most common misconception when it comes to FSS tools is the expectation of “perfect” grain orientation in the handles, but according to section 3.2.2 of both specifications, nothing is mentioned about requiring handles to have parallel grain in-line to the tool head.

3.2.2 Handles. The handles shall be shagbark hickory (Carya ovate), shellbark hickory (Carya laciniosa), or mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa) of any natural commercial color. The handle dimensions shall conform in all respects to drawings MTDC-546 for Type A, MTDC-547 for Type C, and MTDC-548 for Type D. The high point of the handle shoulder shall be as detailed on the drawings. The handle centerline shall be parallel to the cutting edge of the ax blade. Each handle shall have a wedging slot cut in the head end as shown on the drawings for the insertion of the wedge. The handle shall fit snugly into the eye of the tool head (see 3.2.3). The knob end of the handles shall be chamfered or rounded. The wood shall be sound and free from crooks, bows, cracks, splits, scores, or other defects that may affect appearance or serviceability.

The reason why there is no requirement for handles to have “perfect” grain orientation is because the Forest Service has not found any correlation with grain direction and handle failures.

That said, the double-bit I chose for the day snapped at the handle as I was bucking this oak log, and I should mention that the handle had what most would consider “acceptable” or “decent” grain orientation (no more than 30 degrees from parallel in-line with the tool head). Very rarely do I over-strike with a glancing blow against the helve, and this failure was not caused by such impact. Perhaps it was user error, but I have always wielded axes with care using safe and effective techniques, and none of those axes had cracked or snapped. I will say, though, that the exposed wood where it snapped on this axe felt very dry.
Yes, tools may fail in the field, and FSS axes and pulaskis are no exception – nothing is indestructible. Fortunately for me, I had my bucksaw with me and was able to finish this job, though I wasn’t able to tackle the larger downed trees that I encountered later. Still, a small failure shouldn’t make the rest of the day non-enjoyable: when life gives you sour apples, take those apples and press them into fine cider. 😉
 Here’s a Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly :D.
 My goal for the day was to monitor the designated remote zone from the trail junction to Joe’s Creek. At around midday I reached it. This is one of many natural “shut-in” creeks that are fed by runoff water and springs.
The next day I was back at the north trail-head, but this time I took two axes…the Council Tool FSS boy’s axe I rehung, and a different True Temper double-bit. Time to get to work! 😀
 This half-rotten Short-leaf Pine chopped through like butter.
 Here’s an example of an obstacle that has a definite need to be removed. Equestrians couldn’t cross it, so the horses were led around (off to the left, not shown in photo), creating a user path and spreading tread impact. This also incidentally makes a more “convenient” short-cut for other trail users who are more likely to follow it. The fallen oak would have been better handled with a crosscut, but since it was only me monitoring the trails and no crew to work with, I chopped through it with the double-bit. That oak might look mostly rotten, but believe me, most of the inside sapwood and heartwood was intact and well-seasoned, making for tough chopping.
 Lots of chunky, large chips from a decently-sized trunk :).
This axe had a handle with cross-grained wood…
 …yet it did not crack or snap after bucking several more oak logs.
After all the lengthy axe work, I climbed the trail up Bell Mtn itself, stopping at a glade next to the summit.
 To the left in the above photo is nearby Lindsey Mtn, also part of the Bell Mtn Wilderness area. Scenes like this more than make up for the sweat and labour of bucking downed trees :).

2 thoughts on “Trail Work in the Bell Mtn Wilderness

  1. Couple of comments — Looks like you had a nice day in the woods with a selection of fine axes. Grain orientation is much less important than grain runout. Your axe handle looked like it split from center to edge. I’ve chopped hardwoods up to 20″ dia. with a boy’s axe with no problem (other than extra time). You need to chop a wider angle with those small axes. Your V-notch is too narrow. 45° per side is the minimum. Remember that an axe is a slicing tool and not meant to cut across the grain.


    1. Not sure if grain run-out was an issue with the handle…I’ll have to re-examine it.

      Most of the chopping has been done with the full-sized (36 inch) double-bit. The boy’s axe was there for smaller stuff and as a backup. A wider angle would make for an awfully large V notch. To me, it seems like extra work when I can start making my notch at about 10-12 inches wide. When the V comes to closure, I can then come down on one of the side to widen it. I personally wouldn’t try to chop more than a 45 degree angle, because then you risk glancing. This method is what I have found works for me.


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