Sunday, February 11, 2024

Fixing Fences, Finally

A large group of trail volunteers got to work on Saturday morning to repair a large number of broken fences along the RecPath at Silent Waters.

The fences suffered a lot of damage during December storms and several section had collapsed or were ready to collapse.  The first task was getting all the replacement materials in place.  The second was digging out the old posts.  Here Jeff, Boodie, and Gary  are digging out the old base and trimming stumps so we didn't fall off the old dam.

Did I mention that the RecPath runs along the top of a historic dam that used to supply downtown Shelton with water?  So we were often working several feet above ground and didn't want to trip on some piece of brush sticking up and fall.

This is one of the "before" pictures from late December.  The string of storms was too much for the fence built in 2006.  The post had rotten, falling over and several sections of fence were compromised all at once.  We did wrap the fence with pink tape to let people know not to lean on it and take a selfie, and that seemed to work.

It took a while to purchase this much fencing, get it delivered (long saga), and schedule the work party.  Here are Zach & Brooklyn digging out the old post.  Luckily today was unseasonably warm for February and there was no frost to break through.  Even so - Removing the bases of the old posts too a lot of digging bar, post hole work and hand work; the posts were stubborn and didn't want to come out of their warm home in the ground. 

But, with some persistent digging we got them out, lined up the posts, inserted the rails, and got them back together.  Once a section of fence was removed and the post loosened it was easier to replace the rails.  Sometimes it was necessary to partially dig out a solid fence post and loosen it to replace a rotten bottom rail.  But that is where the Fine Adjustment Tool (our 15 lb. sledgehammer) came into play.  Many of the trail volunteers had never had the joy of replacing a split rail fence before; but now they can add this to their list of job skills.

Helpful Trail Tip:  Use the weight of the digging bar to work for you.  Raise and drop the bar to break up the soil and posts where you can, rather than driving it down.  You back will thank you the next day.

The Gator was helpful in getting all the parts out to the job and we ferried or carried all the rotten pieces out to the road for later pickup.  Mark had to make several trips to get more posts and fence rails.

Luis was helping hold the post straight while Zach and Zion tamp in the backfill around the new post.  The round end of the digging bar for pounding the loose soil to compact the soil firmly around the post.  Many, many times.

And that new fence is solidly in place.  Great job.  It's gratifying sometimes to see trail work where you go out and at the end it is a dramatic improvement like that.

The old fence posts and rails were hauled out to Constitution Blvd. N. for later pick-up.

Today was a good morning's work.  The RecPath was pretty busy during the work party and all the trail users liked the fence being repaired.  It was really helpful to have a lot of trail volunteers on this job to take turns digging, setting the new fencing, haul all the materials on and off the RecPath, etc.  Thanks to Bodie, John, Zach, Zion, Brooklyn, Val, Annie, Luis, Gary, Jeff, Mark, Bill, and Terry.  

And nobody fell off the dam. 

Val posted more, and better, pictures on the Facebook page.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Shelton's "Hank the Hiker"

"Hank the Hiker" before installation

Have you see this guy? He's been living at the Trails Barn, the newish one over at the Dog Park. The style of the barn begged for a weather vane, and what better than a hiker for a Trails Barn. There didn't seem to be any hiker weather vanes on sale, so it was custom made in Vermont. 

Hank can be hard to see.

Prior to installation, the copper hiker was leaning up against the walls of the barn while Trails Committee members held their monthly meetings there. Joining in, so to speak, although he didn't have much to say. Eventually, the committee members decided to name him Hank the Hiker. 

There he is.

So next time you're at the Shelton Dog Park, give him a wave. People will wonder what you're up to.  We're introducing you to Hank because he's involved with our next trails challenge, the 2024 Shelton Trails Marathon, starting with the logo:

The logo for our next trails challenge. 

For the challenge, hikers need to complete a specific set of hikes that total 26.2 miles, the length of a marathon (since it's an Olympics year). You'll have all year to do it. We've set up two levels of difficulty, so everyone can choose a level that works best for them. The challenge preparations are almost complete and will be done by March 1. Check back here on the Shelton Trails blog for more info this spring. Happy Trails!

Monday, January 22, 2024


The 2015 "Shelton Bear" shortly before his capture downtown. 

Hi, this is Teresa, here to talk about bears. A lot of people tell me they've been avoiding the trails in Shelton because they're afraid of bears. This makes me sad, because Black Bears are pretty easy to deal with and not something to be overly afraid of once you understand them.  I have personally come across bears several times while solo hiking (not in Shelton) and once had to chase one away from my tent while I was backpacking.  These encounters were the best part of my hikes, except for that one snooping around my tent. But even the tent investigator moved on when I pressed the issue. 

Woodsend Trail (game cam)

So while we don't need to panic, the bear population is rising rapidly, and everyone should know what to do if they find themselves near one, whether they go on the trails or not.  The risk of a bear attack is very low, but it is never zero, especially if you respond the wrong way. You might find a bear in your backyard, garage, or even in your car (some bears open car doors!).  Every year, the chance of coming face to face with a bear in Shelton increases, whether you go hiking or not. 

NEVER run from a Black Bear!

It helps to know a bit about Black Bears. We don't have Grizzly Bears in the East. Grizzlies are the more aggressive and unpredictable type of bear. Mother Grizzlies are extremely protective of their cubs. Black Bears not so much. A startled Grizzly will reflexively go on the offense and attack. A startled Black Bear will instinctively run up a tree.  

Black Bears are surprisingly skittish:  They might not look afraid, especially the tamer individuals, but they evolved amongst bigger predators and were themselves attacked for generations. So they are hard-wired to startle easily and flee up trees at the first sign of danger.  Here's a video of cats chasing bears.  Even when a Black Bear acts aggressively, it is usually just bluffing and testing whatever it's afraid of. Use this knowledge to your advantage! 

Bear along the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey

Black Bears are very hungry and have supernatural noses: Black Bears are big eating machines with an amazing sense of smell. Most of their time is spent foraging for things like roots, greens, nuts, berries, and the occasional fawn.  They can smell that peanut butter and jelly sandwich you had for lunch, especially if you wiped your hand on your pants while eating it. And your berry-flavored lip gloss. They would like to know more about that. Their eyesight is poor, so they need to get close for a better look to see if there is something for them to eat. How about that backpack you're wearing? Any flavored beverages in there? Any snacks? The bear can smell them. And want them very much. When I am backpacking, a large part of my daily focus is avoiding any smells that might attract a bear. I have odor-proof bags, don't cook where I sleep, and put all scented items in my Kevlar bear bag that is hung away from the tent. The important thing here is that they are looking for your food, not to eat you (with rare exceptions). 

"If it runs, chase it"
(Never run from a Black Bear)

Bears have a chasing reflex:  Just like my nutty terrier, a bear can be triggered by certain types of fast motions. "If it runs, chase it."   This is a predatory reflex.  Sometimes joggers or mountain bikers find themselves being followed by a bear for this reason. Here's a video of a bear going after a little kid on a scooter. The bear stops when the boy stops (you can almost see the bear thinking tentatively about this situation it finds itself in), and then runs away when a man comes out with his arms outstretched to make himself appear larger. All the humans did the right thing! This is why you never run from a Black Bear. You would only trigger its predator response.  Here's another example of a bear going after a mountain biker. This kid is another hero. He stops and picks up his bike to seem larger and more menacing. It works great! See the bear flinch and turn around when the kid waves his bike. 

CT DEEP trail sign in Connecticut's "Bear Alley"

What to do if you encounter a Black Bear along the trails: 

  • If it's in the distance and not approaching you, everything is fine. Enjoy your bear sighting and all the stories you will be telling your friends.  All of my sightings while hiking have been like this.  One had cubs and was coming up the trail towards me until she realized I was there. She quickly took her cubs off the trail and left the area. PS there are a LOT of bears on the Tunxis Trail. 
  • Your dog is on a leash, right? Right?
  • If you are jogging or biking and a bear is following you, stop. Your motion triggered the bear, so stop the motion (we have received one report of a bear doing this to a jogger on the Rec Path near Pine Lake). 
  • If a bear approaches you: Face the bear. (This happened to me at my tent - the bear was 15 feet away). Make yourself as large and menacing as possible (you might pick up a large branch or hold up trekking poles or a bike and wave them around).  It is OK to swear loudly at the bear in this situation.  Bear can be startled into running by opening an umbrella or snapping a large garbage bag (I can attest that the latter one works very well! The bear just about did a backflip, ran behind a big tree, and peered back - photo below. Yelling had not worked). If there are multiple people around, everyone should get close together and all be as large and obnoxious and menacing as possible towards the bear.  Do not run away or turn your back to the bear even if it charges or makes noises. These are probably bluff charges designed to test you. Pass your bear test by not running away. If the bear refuses to leave, back away slowly and call 911.  Encounters with aggressive bears should be reported to the CT DEEP. 

I had just chased this bear away from my tent
by snapping a garbage bag liner. He's hiding behind a tree.

What to do if you encounter a bear (or coyote) at home:  
  • Be careful not to accidentally corner or trap a bear in a garage or tight space, especially if there are cubs. Back away immediately if you do. 

  • Never leave bear food outside unless they are hibernating. That includes birdfeeders (even empty ones attract bears), garbage, pet food, and sweets or bread on a compost pile. If you find a bear (or coyote) near your building (or tent, in my case), hazing is a good option for the animal's own safety. This involves harrassing the animal until it completely leaves the premises. Respect wildlife, but demand that they respect you. Your home is your territory. Bear and coyote instinctively understand that concept because they guard their own territories. Go ahead and claim your own. The less food that is left out, and the more homeowners haze bear, the fewer "problem bear" there will be. Problem bear that repeatedly enter homes or appear to threaten people are at risk for being euthanized or relocated (which is traumatic for the bear). 
If a Black Bear physically attacks you: This is highly unlikely, but not impossible. Fight back with everything you have. Do not play dead (that's for Grizzlies). 

Do you need bear spray? Not normally, but if it makes you feel safer, go ahead. Bear spray is more often used out West where they have Grizzlies. Regular pepper spray can be easier to carry around and is useful in case of a dog attack (which is more likely than a bear attack). 

Do hikers ever get attacked? Very rarely, yes. On longer backpacker trails like the Appalachian Trail or Long Trail, hikers are carrying lots of food and sleeping in tents. Some bears have learned to target campsites and a few individuals have even learned to bully backpackers into abandoning their packs. At that point, the authorities may need to relocate or euthanize the bear. This is why there are rules on how backpackers need to store their food. 

There was a tragic case on a trail in New Jersey where a group of hikers ran away from a large bear that had been lingering on the trail and scaring other hikers. Once they started running, the bear chased them and killed one of the hikers, which the bear began to eat.

There have also been a few cases in Connecticut where a bears have harassed hikers in a threatening way.  There was one in 2015 that needed to be euthanized after circling a woman and exhibiting aggressive (not curious) behavior. This particular bear had a long "rap sheet." The CT DEEP has wildlife specialists that can better interpret bear behavior to judge whether the behavior is potentially dangerous for trail users. 

So the risk is not zero, and people should have some basic bear knowledge and know what to do. Having said that, the risk is very low. You're probably more likely to be in a serious car accident driving to the trailhead, and that doesn't stop anyone. So go out and enjoy the woods!

Thursday, January 4, 2024

As Muddy as it Gets

White sneakers not recommended
(Indian Well State Park)

So many pristine white sneakers on our hiking trails!  That may work in August, but not in mud season after torrential rains. Hiking boots were invented for these kinds of conditions. 

Waterproof hiking boots work.
(Birchbank Trail)

Flooded section of Birchbank Trail
(a drainage channel was cleared for this to drain away)

Last month we had one of the wettest Decembers on record and there is mud everywhere. In Danbury, it was the wettest December since 1983. There were two major rainstorms on top of saturated ground and high pond levels. The first was around 4" and then we had another 2.5" or so. If it was summer, the tree roots would be sucking up some of that water, but since the trees are dormant, the ground is still saturated, and that water is oozing out of the hills all over the place. 

After clearing out the old drainage channel to the right, 
the water began to drain off  Birchbank Trail

There are certain spots that are always a problem during mud season, but this year we have new ones for your hiking pleasure. These are mostly located where water is seeping out of a major slope, and the trail has captured that water. The fresh layer of leaves that recently fell also interferes with proper drainage in some places. Birchbank and Indian Well have been especially problematic, although they are fine if you have good hiking boots. Even the Rec Path near Silent Waters had a problem with seepage ponding across the trail.  Some other trails, like Nichols Trail and French's Hill, are always muddy during the wet season and should just be avoided until it all freezes. 

Paugussett mud hole after pulling away the downhill edge of the trail, 
creating a drainage channel down the middle, and placing branches
to stop people from walking around and widening it.

What to do? Since water is the source of the mud, trail maintainers first try and get the water off the trail. If there is a side-slope, just scraping the edge of the trail down the hill can be a big help. A very common problem with mud holes, especially in northern New England, is that people try to walk around the mud hole and destabilize the adjacent soil. That makes the mud hole bigger and bigger over time and why trail etiquette is to stay on the tread and walk through the middle of the mudhole whenever possible. Up north this can be impossible at times since the mud can be over a foot deep. But here in Shelton it shouldn't be a problem if you have appropriate footwear for the conditions. 

Scraping off the edges didn't help much for this chronic
wet seep on Birchbank Trail since the seepage rate was so high... a dewatering trench was created on the uphill side
to intercept seepage before it gets to the trail.

Sometimes the volume of water seeping out of the hillside is so great that a channel needs to be dug across the trail. Occasionally a ditch parallel to the trail on the uphill side is needed to redirect that seepage. If there are existing pipes and ditches, those may need to cleaned out.  This is the case for a chronic problem spot on the Rec Path at the northern junction with the Paugussett Trail/Turkey Trot. Water comes off the steep hillside and is normally intercepted by a shallow ditch along the Rec Path that directs the water to a pipe. But that system clogs up easily, as happened this year. The spot is due for an upgrade. 

Mark Vollaro clearing a log from the Rec Path that was contributing 
to some ponding on the trail.

The same spot after the drainage trench was cleared out

At Birchbank, some of the flooding issues were made worse by a clogged culvert under Indian Well Road. Beside backing up the flood waters, it may have raised the water table. Some of the  lowest parts of Birchbank Trail may have been near the water table line. These are areas where we never had a water problem before. 

Clogged culvert under Indian Well Road

Cleared culvert

If the muddy spot is the lowest around and there is nowhere for the water to go to, then the long-term solution may be to build a bog-walk, bridge, causeway, or well-spaced stepping stones. These are big projects and we can always use more (attention Eagle Scouts!). Nichols Trail, French's Hill, and parts of the Paugussett near the High School would benefit from such efforts. 

The first trail bridge ever built at Shelton Lakes

Sometimes people want to help fix a spot in a trail they use, and that's terrific if it's done right and does not block the drainage. Otherwise, it actually makes the problem worse and creates a bigger problem for trail managers to fix later. Always allow for water to drain off of the trail!

How water should flow off a trail. This can get blocked. 

The above image shows how water needs to drain off a side-slope. It's normal for that drainage to get blocked over time. A trail lip (rim or berm) tends to develop from normal trail usage, while leaves, sticks, logs, and rocks add to what is now a dam. The result is a mudhole. Throwing sticks and rocks across the mudhole tends to make it worse (especially if placed on the downhill side of the trail), as does walking around the edges. Instead, clear the blocked outflow and let the water drain. 

HOW TO HELP: Here are some helpful actions that lead to a dryer trail: 

  • cleaning out clogged drainage pipes and drainage ditches 
  • clearing out blocked drainage channels
  • removing the downhill edge of the trail ("lip") if it's blocking drainage
  • well-spaced, stable stepping stones (that do not block water flow)
  • If there is a slippery mud spot without much water, some bark thrown on the mud can help with the footing (many fallen ash trees are offering up their bark just now)
BUT PLEASE DON'T DO THE FOLLOWING: Here are some things that can make matters worse by blocking drainage. Over time the water level rises and things get worse for the next hikers, and then the trail volunteers have an even bigger problem to address. Please don't add the following: 
  • Stepping stones right next to each other across the water flow, creating a dam (this often happens across Upper White Hills Brook near the Birchbank Chimney). There should enough spacing between stepping stones to allow water to pass. The greater the flow, the wider the spacing needs to be. 
  • Stepping stones right in the middle of a drainage channel crossing the trail (constant problem all over). Just step over the channel. 
  • Sticks and branches tossed across the mud (creating a dam). This is a frequent issue on the Paugussett at Indian Well.  The photo below shows sticks tossed over the top of stepping stones. The sticks are slippery and can cause a fall; they obscure the stepping stones; and they block drainage.  Several times a year they need to be cleared out, so that's just extra work for the volunteers. Instead, use a stick or boot to pull leaves away from the drainage channel. 

Not helpful:
Slippery sticks on top of the stepping stones

Same spot after sticks, leaves and mud were pulled away
to allow for drainage. Note the gaps between stones for drainage
that the sticks had been blocking.

Soon this all will probably freeze for the winter and footing will better. Even then, sunny afternoons can melt the top layer of trail and turn it into a slippery soup.  Hiking in the morning when everything is still frozen can be more enjoyable. And remember to leave the white sneakers at home or wait until trail conditions improve!

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Birchbank Drainage Wars: Episode #179 - "The Culvert"

The Cascades at Birchbank

Challenge question: Where does Upper White Hills Brook flow to? That's the scenic brook at Birchbank with the cascades, two bridges, and a random chimney in the forest. 

Sorry, that was a trick question. It doesn't flow to anywhere, but disappears into the sands of Birchbank. Once the brook hits the big flat area at the bottom of the hill, it braids out into various ever-changing channels across the sandy floodplain.  During a typical dry summer, the water will disappear into the ground.  If it's the wet season, the channels will come back together when they hit the railroad embankment, which acts like a dam to keep the brook from reaching the Housatonic River. 

LIDAR image showing brooks, recharge ponds, and RR tracks
(click to enlarge)

(As an aside, people often assume there must also be a matching "Lower White Hills Brook." There is not. This is a brook that flows through an old Huntington district called "Upper White Hills." So the word 'upper' describes the district, not the brook.) 

One of the smaller recharge ponds. 
The water level dropped after ice formed.

Water in the man-made channel along the railroad tracks will make it's way to the first of several man-made groundwater recharge ponds that feed a wellfield operated by the Aquarion Water Company. The wellfield is only used in times of drought, since it's expensive to pump the water out of the ground and up the hill and yonder to Means Brook Reservoir.  The recharge ponds were originally designed for Housatonic River water to be pumped in, but are now filled exclusively with Birchbank runoff.  Aquarion's pipeline goes straight up the precipitous hill at the trailhead parking lot. Pro tip: Don't try to walk up the pipeline, it's steeper than it looks.

That's how the drainage normally works at Birchbank. There are some smaller intermittent waterways that spill down the hillside to feed the recharge ponds, like the little brook near the bench. But every so often, maybe once or a few times a year during the rainy season, we'll have a lot of rain when the recharge ponds are already full and can't take any more water. At that point, the excess water runs south down a man-made channel at the base of the railroad tracks to an old culvert that crosses Indian Well Road and the tracks near the trailhead. It's right where the road crosses the tracks. 

This old culvert channels floodwaters across
Indian Well Road and the tracks

Did the brook always disappear into the sands or was it diverted and captured?  LIDAR images seems to show an old channel going straight to the Housatonic, although it most of the water probably always sunk into the sands because the railroad track were built right across the channel with no bridge or culvert.  The recharge ponds were not built until the 1970s. 

At any rate, that all seemed to be working pretty well. Occasionally the emergency overflow channel would get clogged up with fallen trees at the south end, and then the floodwaters would jump the channel and flow across the Plant Management Area, spreading invasive seeds. A volunteer trails crew recently cut up some of the logs that were blocking the channel. 

And then, during an exceptionally rainy day last week (maybe 4" on top of saturated ground), we were sent the picture below: 
Birchbank Trail. That's not good.
(Photo from Ted)

We had never seen the water that high. In the past, it never even got up to the trail, and now it was a foot or two deep on the trail. A few hours later, the water had receded by about a foot, but was still up to the top of the old stone culvert and swirling into it with great force and (photo below). 

Flood waters going into the culvert

As we suspected, when the flood waters dropped, there were some logs, branches, and leaves clogging up part of the culvert. Once the water level receded to a safe level, the clog was ripped apart, and backed-up water really gushed into the culvert. 

Yup. The culvert is clogged. 
(Photo about 1 week after the flood)

The biggest log was too heavy to drag away. After about ten days, the channel was completely dry and the log could be safely cut up and removed. The surrounding thorny brush was also cut back. It had been catching leaves and sticks and made access to the culvert difficult. Once the work was done, the old stone culvert was revealed. It may date back to the 1800s and is pretty big inside (maybe 5 feet tall?). Take a look. 

All cleared!

This is the same view point as the previous flood photo 

The culvert was cleaned out just in time as it turned out, because heavy rain was forecast for that night. The channel was also cleaned out where flood waters had created dams. The next morning, water was everywhere and once again flooding Indian Well Road at the state park. What would Birchbank look like? 

The culvert. Wow. 

But the trail isn't flooded. It's a normal flood.

It was surprising how much water was flowing through the culvert considering the channel was bone dry the day before. Good thing the log had been cut up and carted away the day before, or it would have been blocking the culvert again. At any rate, we're now aware that we should be checking that culvert routinely or the trail can get flooded. 

Saturday, December 9, 2023

Rigging Up These Lights

Bill Dyer had a bright idea to put holiday lights on the Trails Barn, so Saturday we did.   We added lights on the Old Barn too.

Bill, Mark, Ellen, Val, Luis, Mike, Mark & Terry fiddled around with lights, unrolled extension cords, plugged in plugs, set time on timers, didn't fall off ladders, hammered nails without hitting thumbs, ate some doughnuts, and did whatnot to put lights on the 2 barns and the trees this morning.

The New Barn and the winterberry bush were very festive looking.

Hank the Hiker was spinning on the cupola this morning.  The wind was unsettled with the storm coming up from the south.

Mark was tacking in some nails for lights, and Mike was steadying the ladder so it didn't tip over.

Luis, Bill, Ellen and Val were also stringing some lights on the Old Trails Barn.

It was a busy morning around the barns; a lot of folks were using the dog park, and Allison, Paul and other volunteers were working to put the flower gardens to bed for the season.

Came back at dusk and the timer was working.  The Parks & Rec folks are going to hang some additional lights along the Barn fascia next week, and some wreaths should be going up too.  It should look nice for the holidays.