Blazing trails with  low-tech, high energy

Basic tools for trail-blazing include, from left, a small chainsaw, short bush axe and weed-cutter with blade attachment.

You’re standing in front of a 20-foot high wall of young pine trees, briars, vines and brush, and you want to get to a point on the other side of the property. What do you do?

This is a puzzle I’ve been studying for the past several months. And when I say study, I don’t mean books. I mean trial and error. Sweat and blood.

I ruled out heavy machinery — bulldozer, tractor, skid-steer — at least for now. I wanted trails, not roads.

I started out with a short-handled bush axe. I was fortunate to get one a few years ago from Donald Whetstone of Centreville before he quit making them. However, I notice there are similar tools on the market.

A machete lacks sufficient weight for this kind of work. A kaiser blade is too bulky since you’re often cutting chest high and even overhead.

The blackberry brambles formed a mass taller than my head. The stalks are thick as your finger and tough and pliable as leather.

If you hit them head on, they just bend or crimp. I learned to chop them at an angle. Better yet, grasp each vine — wearing heavy leather gloves, of course — and slice at 45 degrees. No muscle power needed, just technique.

It takes time to figure that out, of course. And lots of sore muscles in the process.

At first I tried blazing my route in a straight line. That’s how you wear yourself out.

Later I noticed animal trails going more or less in the same direction, and I tried to follow them when I could. That made for a crooked trail, but that’s all right by me.

You can spend hours — days — bushwhacking a section of trail, then turn around and take five minutes to walk back. It’s that thick.

Cutting blackberry canes is like martial art. You slash at every angle, up, down, sideways. Overhand, underhand and across. Redneck kung fu.

And blackberries fight back. Cut one off at the knees and it gets you in the face. They’ll snatch off your hat, cling to your ankles, rip your arms.

Long sleeves are a must, preferably denim. Thick pants, too. Briar britches would be ideal if you’ve got them. Leather gloves, as mentioned. A cap to give your head and face some protection. High boots, preferably snake-proof as you’re in their territory and you can’t see where you’re going.

This is war.

I wear a vest with lots of pockets to hold flagging tape, cell phone and other odds and ends. Cell phone in case of snake bite, injury or heart attack. Flagging tape because if you turn to go back and accidentally detour down an animal trail, you may find yourself enmeshed in thorns.

Once you’ve blazed a path from Point A to Point B with a bush axe, that’s just phase one. That enables you to skim through. Briars still snatch at you when you pass.

That’s when it’s time to break out the brush cutter.

I bought a weed cutter and a brush-cutting attachment that had a circular blade with four square cutting edges. Useless, I soon discovered. The blade just bounced off this stuff.

My coworker Keith Hux told me about a circular blade with teeth like a chainsaw. I put one of those on and watched it chomp through briars and saplings like a Tasmanian devil.

You still have to do the preliminary work with a bush axe. Otherwise, if you slice briars off at the ground, they just stand there, held in places by other briars and vines.

In fact, once you’ve gone through with the brush cutter, you need to go back to throw and push the cut briars out of the way.

Another walk-through is needed to lop off face-high limbs. Even a small machete will work for this job.

Finally, a pass-through with a small chainsaw to remove small limbs, trees and stumps. For this job I bought a battery-powered model with 12-inch blade, just right for this task.

The reward for all this effort is a walkable trail. The downside is sore muscles and joints, and countless nicks and scratches.

But there are many wonderful discoveries. When you’re that up close and personal with raw nature, you see things you’d never notice on the outside of the thicket.

Deer beds, grassy and soft and perfectly protected by masses of briars.

Rabbit warrens, holes amid piles of logs, their droppings in piles.

Coyote sign — here for the rabbits, of course.

Wildflowers. Creeks. Hardwood trees growing stubbornly amid the pines — magnolia, holly, oak, cedar.

Now and then I jump something big — wild hog, deer, rhinoceros. Or at least it sounds like a rhino when it thunders away through the thicket.

Once you get a good, clear walking trail, you can decide whether to expand it. Another pass-through or two and you’ve got something wide enough for a four-wheeler. More than that, better call in the dozer.

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