It was a hot day in mid-July. The muggy air barely moved as I trudged up the dry dirt road. I was working in a forest in Ulster County, NY, flagging the future boundary for a deer fence.
I’d just tied the last length of orange ribbon on a low hanging branch when the first heavy raindrop hit me. The drizzle quickly grew to a downpour, and my cotton tee-shirt was soon plastered to my skin under my work vest. A thin breeze made me wish for the stifling heat I’d cursed a few minutes before. I suppressed a shiver. At least there wasn’t thunder or lightning.
Since I was already soaked, I embraced the situation. The woods often look very different during and right after a big rainstorm. I figured I might see something I wouldn’t have noticed before on a dry day.
The amount of water around me was stunning. Small streams sprouted from nowhere. Ditches that were dry 15 minutes before now overflowed with water. Culverts sprayed like firehoses, and water barreled down tire tracks worn in the woods road.
For most of the walk I enjoyed following clear water as it flowed gently downhill on the road. Then I rounded the corner, and that feeling slipped away. The road ahead of me was a sodden mess. Muddy water ran the trail’s whole width.
This section of road had always been a problem. No grass would grow even though it had plenty of sun. Most of the dirt had washed away. Loose, jagged rocks would give way underfoot and turn a leisurely stroll into a stumbling downhill slide.
We’d been trying and failing to fix this spot for some time. We’d smooth it out by pushing the eroded dirt back uphill from where it had washed during the last big rain. But the problem kept coming back, because we had no idea where all the water causing the erosion was coming from.
Until today. A torrent poured from small gaps between the roots of a yellow birch like an uncapped fire hydrant. On a dry day I never would have imagined so much water could fit through such a small space. Yet there it was.
I fished the roll of orange flagging out of my vest and quickly marked spots for three waterbars downhill from the birch. Once those waterbars were installed, this section of trail stabilized and stopped washing out in every storm.
When you walk your trails on a dry sunny day, you might think they’re fine, that they have no chance of washing away. But take a walk in the rain, and you may be surprised. You’ll quickly gain an appreciation for how important it is to protect your trails from erosion.