03 April, 2012

Clearing Trails: Turtles, Poison Ivy, and Heavy Equipment

This past week was our Spring break and so of course, I had a project!  It is a giant project and although I knew I would barely make a dent in it, I was very excited to begin!  The project is as my post title suggests, clearing some trails through the woods behind our school.

I did some research into trail clearing before I began to even think about this and I found out there are a variety of ways to tackle this project.  Some people suggest machetes, some suggest chain saws, and yet others recommend heavy equipment.  Not having any of these readily at hand, I worked with more basic tools, a rake, a small branch saw, and a shovel.  As I said, I knew I wouldn't make serious progress, but I had an achievable goal in mind, dig out our entrance to the forest, the gate!

Here are some shots of our gate, early last Fall and over the Winter.  See how the gate looks so much lower than the ground just before it?  That's not just an illusion created by the photographs.  The ground is a good step and a half higher on the playground side of the gate.  This shouldn't be a problem because the gate opens into the forest, but it is because (I am guessing) over the past years, soil and debris have washed down the step and a half, and completely blocked the gate!  Additionally all sorts of roots (especially poison ivy) hold the soil and debris firmly in place.

Early Fall
I tried to dig it out this past January, and instead of simply digging out the soil, debris, and roots, I dug out a hibernating turtle! I felt terrible.  He looked at me as if to say,

This is not actually the turtle I dug up, but his expression is quite similar!

 Hey!  I was sleeping!  What is your problem?!?! 

Needles to say, I decided to wait until Spring before I again attempted to clear out the gate.

So this past week, Spring arrived along with our Spring break so I decided to again tackle the gate, and begin to clear a trail.  I assembled my tools, and began.  About 6 hours later, I had managed to clear and open the gate (thankfully, without disturbing any turtles), and begin to clear a path into our woods.  Doesn't it look inviting?  It seems to me to look especially inviting because it has been very hot this past week, about 90 degrees F!  Let me whip out my calculator so I can convert to Celsius for you non-Americans.  Hmmm, it seems that is about 32 degrees C.  Yuck, right?  

So my natural instinct was to head right through this lovely gate and into the shade of the forest.  Well, except for this . . .

Yup, this is pretty much entirely poison ivy.  If you don't happen to have poison ivy in your area, be very grateful! It is nasty stuff.  If the plant oil touches your skin, you will most likely break out into a yucky and very, very itchy rash, from 24 - 72 hours afterwards.  It really only takes brushing against any part of the plant, leaves, stem, or roots, and I am toast.  The plant oil also sticks to tool handles, latches of gates (wonderful), items of clothing, pets' fur, shoes etc.  It can remain a "danger" on these items for more than a year!  

Leaves of three, turn and flee!
I was prepared for the poison ivy in our woods.  I wore long sleeves, hiking boots, a long sleeved shirt, and gloves. I came armed with not only my tools, but also weed killer.  I tried my best not to touch any of the plants, but I must have inadvertently touched some because my forearms, neck, and my chin are covered in poison ivy rash.  Rats!  

So after itching a lot, slathering on tons of calamine lotion, and generally being absurdly angry at a plant, I began working on plan B.  I realized that not only was clearing multiple paths by hand going to take a ridiculous amount of time, but that if I did so, I would most likely spend the better part of the next decade  covered in calamine lotion. I started calling local tree companies, and through one of them found a man who owns a marvelous sounding machine.  Though I have never seen it, it sounds like the kind of machine you would not want to see featured in a movie about how builders are clearing a rainforest in The Amazon.  It does sound however, like a marvelous way to create trails, and like it would spare me  (hopefully) some weeks and weeks of itchy poison ivy rashes.  

So the next step in creating trails in our school's essentially untouched forest, is for me and a few other teachers I have recruited to don protective gear, and mark out where we would like our initial trail to be.  The we will ask Dave, the man with the marvelous mulching, munching, brush clearing, poison ivy sparing machine how long he thinks it would take him to clear it.  Then we can spray the trail, trying to get rid of the poison ivy, and figure out how we would like to edge it - keeping in mind this area floods nearly every year.  

Piece of cake, right?  

But whenever I get really overwhelmed by the task or freak out at the acres and acres of poison ivy, I remind myself how amazing these trails and access to these woods will be for children.  I took my own children down to the creek in the woods, during a short break from our gate excavation. (And before you ask, they did not get poison ivy rashes.  Phew!)  In the forty five minutes of so that we were down there we saw . . .

a frog
a snake
an owl
two box turtles
raccoon tracks
sticks chewed by beavers
deer tracks
countless birds and insects.

And that is only the wildlife!  There also obviously many varieties of trees and plants, and once we get rid of the poison ivy, we can plant more shade loving native species.  

Not to mention the benefits of climbing fallen branches, exploring a "wild wood", and all the other benefits of connecting children with nature!  

I will be writing much more about trail clearing, poison ivy killing, marvelous machines, and connecting children with nature in the woods at our school, in the weeks to come.  Until then however,

I think I should go and put on some more calamine lotion!


  1. What a huge task!!! Fair play to you Karen.... I ove your outdoor area! So muh space! SO much to discover!!!

  2. Not easy job to do, but you'll be so happy after! And your kids will enjoy so much!

  3. All these would definitely be easier if you opt for heavy equipment rental services within your area.


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