by Lee Armfield Cannon
Rock Creek Park is one of the largest urban parks in the country, but all that natural area is still too close to human habitation and industry to operate as a completely independent ecosystem.
In other words, if something goes wrong in the park or on the trails, someone has to fix it.
A hike down the Soapstone Valley Trail, the Forest Hills extension of Rock Creek Park, may not be foremost in people’s minds on a cold winter day. But plenty of people are on the trail, some of them working unnoticed. In every season, dozens of National Park Service rangers and workers, as well as hundreds of volunteers, work to keep Rock Creek and the park healthy, clean and usable for residents and visitors. Two of those volunteers are Alex Sanders and Devin Rhinerson.
“Our work tends to be cyclical,” Sanders says. “We don’t do much digging or work on stream crossings in the winter months, but instead focus on blowdown removal and closing social trails.”
Social trails are diversions from the main trail created by trail users, often leading to small camp-out spots. Trampled plants and trash from impromptu parties become a problem here. Sanders’ works closely with the National Park Service, but he also has a degree of autonomy in addressing specific problems on the trails that fall under his purview.
“Our most significant preparation for winter is to clear fallen leaves from check dams, stairs and water bars,” Sanders says, referring to the railroad ties embedded along the edges of the trail in places where erosion is heavy. “The leaves can accumulate behind these structures and compromise the ability of water bars to divert water away from the trail.”
When the temperatures rise, “we turn back to structural work: Erosion control, stream crossings, step and bridge construction and repair, and so on.”
Sanders says the DC Trail Crew does this more intensive work about 15 to 18 times a year. In addition, volunteer overseers work year-round.
The overseer of our neighborhood’s trails and streams is Devin Rhinerson. Rhinerson is the volunteer coordinator for Soapstone Valley Trail, the finger of Rock Creek Park that extends into Forest Hills. He sought out this role so he could spend time outdoors and get some exercise, while also helping out in the community. He figured there was no need to hit the gym if he could fit some hiking and labor into his usual nine-to-five office routine.
While searching the National Park Service website for opportunities to get involved and get out in nature, he saw plenty of notices posted about one-day trash-cleanup opportunities, but it wasn’t quite enough. He contacted the National Park Service directly, and a representative told him about the Potomac Appalachian Trails Club, which had the opportunity he was really looking for: The chance to take a leadership role in maintaining a stretch of trail in Rock Creek Park.
“Soapstone Valley Trail is my beat,” he says, “but I didn’t really know the trails until now.” He goes out once or twice a month by himself, with friends or with other volunteers from the Potomac Appalachian Trails Club to check the health of the ecosystem, correct damage to the trails and remove safety hazards that could threaten trail users.
On a typical day, he needs little more than the roughly six-inch fold-out saw he carries in his back pocket. One late fall morning, he let me tag along as he headed out early to do some basic maintenance on the Soapstone Valley trailhead on Albemarle Street. The weather was overcast but mild. Occasionally a low-hanging cloud passed, scattering a dribble of rain, but for Rhinerson, it was nearly perfect weather for working on the trail, just cool enough.
Before he even stepped onto the trail, he was already pointing out areas of erosion, which is perhaps the single biggest threat to the trail and Soapstone Valley in general. (See: “The Soapstone Valley Trail is endangered”) The drop-off from Connecticut Avenue is steep and the paved area that drains into the creek is large, so water is always rushing through the valley.
Some problems are specific to fall and winter, Rhinerson says.
“We put a lot of man-hours [in 2014] into minimizing the impact of erosion by re-routing the trail away from certain areas and making improvements to steep slopes,” he says. “But the rain and snow will undoubtedly impact the trail in ways that are not always immediately visible or predictable.”
A few steps down the trail, Rhinerson paused to clear fallen leaves out of a runoff ditch, dragging the leaves out with the heel of his boot. He showed how the ditch catches rain and runoff as it runs down the hill and diverts it off the trail, before it can erode the staircase built of railroad ties that brings the trail closer to the stream. He had to speak loudly because of noise from the construction project going on behind him, the apartment complex going up between the Franklin Montessori School and Park Connecticut on Connecticut Avenue. It seems like such a large project would have a huge impact on the Soapstone Valley Trail, but Rhinerson pointed to the fence of plastic sheeting running the length of the project, there to catch debris.
“Luckily,” Rhinerson says, “the construction is having little effect on the creek. Natural erosion and downed trees are a bigger problem.”
Rhinerson has a stash of saws and other small equipment at the Rock Creek Park Nature Center, because heavier equipment for major projects is kept at the Potomac Appalachian Trails Club headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia. Having some local equipment saves him time trekking back and forth to Fairfax when he is working on the trail. However, the National Park Service does not allow volunteers to use heavy machinery in their work. That means each tree that falls has to be cut by hand, which Rhinerson says can take hours.
“We’ve had a busy year on Soapstone, with more than half a dozen large downed trees across the trail. I understand this is far more than usual.” Rhinerson says.
When trees fall on the edge of a slope or into the creek, they can increase the rate of erosion underneath them. That phenomenon became an issue recently, when a tree blew down directly on a stream bank and was causing the bank to erode away, until the flow of the stream nudged it away naturally.
“This natural assist was fortuitous because of how problematic the tree was for volunteers,” says Rhinerson, “since we can’t use chainsaws.”
Rhinerson paused in his hike again, this time to watch a family of deer, five or six total, walking along the opposite bank of the stream. The deer were nosing around in the underbrush but stopped to watch him, twitching their tails, before they moved over the rise and out of sight. Further on, he stopped to pick a few tendrils of English ivy off the base of a tree trunk.
“Invasive creeper vines species are a big problem in this area,” he says. “The English ivy that people love in their yards is actually not native and it can take over. I cut it down whenever I see it.”
Other volunteer groups work on the trail along with Alex Sanders, Devin Rhinerson and the PATC. One is the Student Conservation Association, an organization that connects high school and college students, as well as recent graduates, with opportunities to volunteer for conservation projects nationwide.
Another is the Rock Creek Conservancy, a local nonprofit that focuses exclusively on Rock Creek and the parks, trails and waterways connected to the creek. A third is the Washington, DC-based organization Casey Trees, which is dedicated to protecting and restoring the tree canopy in the District. Casey does a lot of invasive creeper species removal, along with Rhinerson.
Even with so many hands on the trail, there is plenty of work to go around. Early mornings on weekends or weekday evenings when there is still light, visitors to the trail have a good chance of catching Rhinerson, either working alone or with a group of the volunteers, sawing away at downed trees or wedging new water bars into place.
He knows the run-off from melting snow can be just as heavy as the rains in the spring and summer, so he will be coming out once a month or so, as usual, all winter.
For those who hear the call of the trail, as Rhinerson did, there are plenty of ways to help protect and maintain the natural treasures in the neighborhood. Reach out to these groups for opportunities:
Alex Sanders is also seeking volunteers to clean and maintain the newly restored Broad Branch and Linnean streams. You’ll find more information here.