The Game is Afoot

Picture of an Italian thistle plant.

A young Italian thistle.

I know what all five of you who read this blog are thinking: “Oh no, not again!” you’re groaning. And I don’t blame you.

Yet again I’m blogging about invasive species management on the Overlook and Montini properties, as I have for years. But as you might imagine, there’s a reason for that, and it’s because we’re in a decades-long fight that we may never win.  So buckle up, buttercup, here we go again!

I first sighted Italian thistle popping up in early November. Certainly by November 8, two days earlier than last year, I noticed more than one patch of it. Therefore, today I went out on the Montini Preserve and pulled not only the one pictured plant (the largest one I found today), but also many other, much smaller plants. The game is definitely already afoot, thanks to some early rains.

So far I’ve been unable to tell if our previous work has made much of an impact on the problem. My instinct is that we haven’t yet, that we still have a ways to go to seriously reduce the seed bank present in the soil. There seem to be plenty of plants along the trail on the Montini, which is where I’ve focused much of my attention, so there doesn’t seem to be much progress there. Yet.

But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that invasive species management is a long game. And few people know what the long game takes better than I do, I submit. So once again I saddle up, and enter the fray. I’ll see you out there.

Rock Patrol Ups Its Game

rock chiselAfter I became Maintenance Chair, I began considering new kinds of trail maintenance activities. Since Sonoma Overlook Trail is a particularly rocky trail, over the past year or so I pioneered what I dubbed “Rock Patrol“. As it was originally conceived, it consisted of hiking the trail with a shovel and a pry bar, levering out rocks and backfilling with soil to remove “trip rocks” and make a smoother tread.

Over time, I added an activity that I called “trail smoothing”, which I conceived of as a more systematic effort over a stretch of trail from 6-12 feet or more. In this activity, we would remove many rocks from the trail bed and fill with soil and gravel, packing it down to recreate a smooth tread. This was devised as an activity for our monthly group trail maintenance work days.

Now I’ve added another activity that I’m calling “rock reduction”. To do this, we’ve purchased a cordless rock chisel/hammer/drill (pictured; click the photo to see a video of it in action). As I say in the video, it is a complete game-changer. I really don’t think there is a rock on the trail that we can’t now either completely remove or reduce to trail level or below.

Given that fact, I’m now open for any trail hiker or runner’s nominations of rocks to remove or reduce. Take a photo of your most hated rock and/or ridge of bedrock that impinges on the trail and send it to me at roytennant@gmail.com along with a description of where to find it on the trail. Just do your best; I’m pretty sure I will recognize it. Having nominated it, I will let you know when it has been removed or reduced.

Check out the video. It’s less than 2 1/2 minutes long and I think it does a great job of illustrating how we can now take down even some of the hardest rocks on the trail (many are much softer than the one in the video, which I had originally attempted to take out using a large, heavy, iron pry bar).

Rock reduction is now officially part of our arsenal.

Rock Patrol, Part 2

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A short rocky section of trail.

When I became the Maintenance Chair for the Sonoma Overlook Trail Stewards, I stepped into a role of responsibility that I never thought I would take. But it has been surprisingly interesting and rewarding. I’ve learned a lot along the way, particularly by also volunteering with the trail maintenance team at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. Along the way I’ve invented some things. One of them I dubbed “Rock Patrol,” introduced in a previous post.

Since then, I’ve realized that there are two different activities, not one—rock patrol, which is a solitary task of removing individual problem rocks from the center of the trail and infilling with soil, and tread renewal, which is a more systematic effort of rock removal from a section of trail and a renewal of the tread with gravel and/or soil. You more often do tread renewal with a team, but not necessarily.

IMG-2156Today I went out and blurred the lines between the two, as well as pioneering another technique, that I’m calling rock reduction. There are some rocks in the trail that can’t be removed, as they sink too deep into the trail or are bedrock. However, I’ve found that many rocks on the trail can be “reduced” by striking them with a steel prybar and chipping pieces off the top and/or fracturing parts off the side. By using both of these techniques it’s possible to reduce the level of the rock below the trail, and then covering it over with soil. The picture shows the rock at the bottom of the first picture that has been “reduced” to the point where it can be covered.

IMG-2157The point is to create a smooth tread that fails to trip hikers, and especially runners, as they traverse the trail. As someone who has fallen badly a few times when trail running, I understand the importance of removing (or reducing) trip rocks.

We understand that this work can only progress at a snails pace, as each section of trail requires a good deal of effort. But progress it will, and like our efforts to reduce and control invasive species this is a long game. And we know exactly what a long game requires.

Today’s project had a further nuance. If you look at the first picture, at the rock at the top left of the trail, compare it with the bottom picture. We successfully reduced it’s width by breaking the side of the rock impinging on the trail, therefore widening the clear path. Nuance like that can easily be overlooked, but it matters, as it produced a wider smooth trail. Eventually, every inch of trail will have had this kind of attention.

Rock Patrol to the Rescue

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The massive rock we had to remove.

The Sonoma Overlook Trail is coming up on its 20-year anniversary. In twenty years of heavy use, the trail bed can become quite eroded, thereby exposing rocks that can become tripping hazards. Recently the trail stewards in charge of trail maintenance have begun a concerted effort to transform particularly rocky sections of the trail into smooth paths by removing rocks and filling the resulting holes with packed aggregate and soil. We call this activity “Rock Patrol.”

The last two standing monthly work days were dedicated to performing this work on two sections of trail under the Upper Meadow. Today, the section we worked on included a rather massive boulder (see picture) that we dug out and rolled off the trail. Now, instead of that tripping hazard there is smooth trail.

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The final result (note the big rock on the left that we removed).

We recently set a goal to create 18-24″ of smooth path for the entire length of the trail, realizing that there may be some sections where this is not possible. Of course those of you who are familiar with the trail will understand the enormity of this undertaking, and therefore will likely also understand that this work will take years to accomplish. We won’t just do this work in group work days. Rock Patrol can also be a solitary activity, as sometimes all that is required to make a section of the trail safe is to remove a solitary “trip rock” from the middle of the trail. That can be accomplished by a single volunteer.

SOT Maintenance Team in Action

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Maintenance Team members Kurt Teuber, Priscilla Miles, and John Donnelly with the refurbished section of trail.

Every month on the first Monday, the Sonoma Overlook Trail (SOT) Maintenance Team has a standing workday. Sometimes we do “rock patrol” where we remove rocks sticking up in the trail and fill in the holes, sometimes we pull invasive thistle and cut back poison oak, and other times we engage in more traditional trail maintenance activities, like we did today.

Today a team of four stewards on the Maintenance Team worked to shore up a section of trail that was in danger of falling away, and spread gravel to create an outslope that encourages “sheet flow” of water directly off the trail when it rains. This project was assisted by the remnants of rock and gravel left behind by the American Conservation Experience (ACE) crew who recently worked on three sections of trail to make them easier to traverse and more sustainable.

After the ACE work had been completed, volunteer stewards Bill Wilson, Fred Allebach (both of whom were instrumental in getting the ACE work completed) and I walked the renovated sections of trail and identified the portion of trail we worked on today as needing work. With four of us working, and the materials we needed close at hand, it only took us an hour and a half to complete the job.