The handmade footpath

By Andrew CouncillAndrew Councill | Rappahannock News

A rasping whisper of steel drawn across a fallen pillar of the forest is joined by the rhythmic breathing of the sawyer along this otherwise silent woodland trail festooned in fern, laurel, and mountain maple.

By Andrew CouncillAndrew Councill | Rappahannock News

The tempo and tool soon change as percussive blows of an ax are joined by increased gulps of oxygen. Having switched instruments, the sawyer conducts a swift, efficient removal of the obstacle impeding safe, comfortable passage of the Meadow Springs Trail in Shenandoah National Park.

“What might be an easy step-over for some might be a climb for someone else,” says 61-year-old Dan Dueweke, a volunteer with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, as he bucks (saws) and chops an 18-inch-diameter red oak that has fallen across this popular trail leading to Mary’s Rock. “You’re going to have grandmothers walking this trail.”

The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club was formed in 1927 to assist in the construction of the 2,175-mile-long Appalachian Trail, which runs from Mount Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia. The PATC, part of a “cooperative management system” with the National Park Service, now maintains 240 miles of the Appalachian Trail — from Pine Grove Furnace in Pennsylvania, along the crest of the Shenandoah National Park, to Rockfish Gap at the park’s southern boundary.

By Andrew CouncillAndrew Councill | Rappahannock News

The PATC now builds and maintains some 200 miles of blue-blazed foot trails in the park, as well as about 1,000 miles of trails in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., Prince William Park in Virginia, and the Tuscarora Trail (which will link the Appalachian Trail to the planned Atlantic Crest Trail between Alabama and New York’s Finger Lakes).

Four PATC trail crews of up to 25 volunteers help keep park trails clear of obstructive brush and destructive water. Crews are identified by colorful names like N.D. (North District) Hoodlums, Acme Treadway Company (Southern District) and Yankee Clippers. Dueweke, district manager for Central Shenandoah, coordinates the Blue and White crew (named for the native Bavarian Flag of its founder rather than the iconic blaze colors denoting a PATC trail or the Appalachian Trail).

Skillfully wielding a restored 5-foot-long, 100-year-old crosscut saw and a 5-pound, single-bit ax, Dueweke expertly bisects the trunk straddling the trail in minutes.

By Andrew CouncillAndrew Councill | Rappahannock News

“The park usually won’t mess with big trees unless they get a lot of hate mail,” says Dueweke, a retired General Dynamics imagery analyst from Centreville. “Then they call me.”

As a PATC volunteer and overseer he is charged with maintaining the trails between Thornton Gap and Mary’s Rock. His responsibilities include constructing water bars and dams (stone or log obstacles built into the trail to divert water and slow erosion), weed control, refreshing painted trail blazes (white for the Appalachian Trail; blue for PATC side trails) and the removal of fallen trees.

“Blow-downs are the fun part!” he says.

Dueweke joined the PATC in 1996 in the wake of hurricane Fran. “There was an article in The [Washington] Post about all the trees down, there was a call to arms,” he recalls. “The first year with the club it was ‘the saws and ax club’; it was all we did.” Twenty years later Dueweke is a certified sawyer working with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service teaching proper techniques and maintenance for axes and handsaws.

By Andrew CouncillAndrew Councill | Rappahannock News

Adorned in gators to deflect sawdust as well as deter ticks, and saddled with a pack containing wedges to aid saw cuts, water, first-aid kit, insect repellent and finally lashed with his Australian-made Hytest ax, Dueweke routinely shoulders his saw and heads into the back country to tackle reported blow-downs. Though they are banned (along with all engines, in the 40 percent of the park that is designated wilderness area), Dueweke forgoes chainsaws and the added weight of fuel and requisite protective gear in order to travel light wherever the trail may lead.

“I love the satisfaction of the tools in my hand, tools that I have built and restored,” he says, and the 2-inch teeth of his century-old saw make quick work of trees of any size.

According to the National Park Service’s SNP website: “The PATC is responsible for performing all routine and recurring trail maintenance [in the Park]. . . . “Much more than just convenient travel zone for visitors, trails function as a management tool to confine human use, regulate access, and improve visitor safety in difficult or unfamiliar natural conditions.”

With the Meadow Springs trail freed of obstruction, Dueweke hefts his pack and saw and hikes back to his truck parked up on Skyline Drive, where he consumes a granola bar and a couple of Aleve.

By Andrew CouncillAndrew Councill | Rappahannock News

“Trails are a big draw in summer,” he says. “Rising air created by the mountains creates more moisture than out on the flat. If there were no [PATC] volunteers, the trails would weed up and choke off; the park would have to divert resources [to maintenance].”

His breathing now descends to a rest.

“I love being outside,” he says. “I always want to see what’s over the ridge.”

The morning fog escapes its entanglement in freshly leafed limbs of hickory and oak. The mountains themselves seem to breathe the early June sun. Countless trails ascending laurel-laced ridges and descending into shady, forested hollows remain open and accessible — for now.

The dedication, skill and tireless effort of volunteers like Dan Dueweke ensure that visitors to Shenandoah National Park may move freely through the woods, breathe deeply of mountain air and see for themselves what is over the next ridge.