Rapidan Camps Outdoor Plan  
Rapidan Camps Outdoor Plan
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Forest History

Until the early twentieth century, the area around Rapidan camps was largely a chestnut forest.  Chestnut's rapid growth and large mature size led them to dominate the forest, and the value of their straight-grained wood made them popular for lumber.  The trees around camp were cut down for lumber repeatedly.  In 1904, however, the chestnut blight appeared in North America.  The blight's fungus spread rapidly by insects and wind, and destroyed the aboveground growth of practically every chestnut tree.  The Blue Ridge forests were still recovering when the Rapidan cabins were constructed in 1929.  Evidence that the cabins received a lot of sun remains in the fold-down ventilation panels on cabins 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Once logging stopped, the forest around our cabins began to recover more completely.  The dominant tree that replaced the chestnut was the hemlock, an evergreen that shed its needles onto the forest floor, producing a thick carpet whose acidity suppressed the growth of other groundcover.  The porches of cabins 1, 2, and 3 were built around existing hemlock trees, making the architectural statement that cabins were a part of the woods, and the woods were a part of the cabins.  Through the 1960s and 1970s, hemlocks dominated the Blue Ridge, and the area around our cabins became a densely shaded, cool, humid area.  The tree canopy was so thick that sunlight appeared only in small patches that appeared and disappeared as the sun blew through the branches, and much of the area around the cabins had few plants growing through the thick soft carpet of hemlock needles.

Once again, however, a non-native pest has come through and ravaged the dominant tree.  The wooly adelgid, an aphid-like animal, lives on the vital layer of the hemlock just under the bark.  It had been in the western United States since 1924, where it infected western hemlocks, although many western hemlocks survived with natural resistance.  In the 1980s, the adelgid reached forests of the east.  Eastern hemlocks have almost no natural resistance to the blight.  The result has been widespread devastation of the hemlock population, which particularly affects hemlock forests such as the Blue Ridge.  Rapidan Camps spent thousands of dollars in the 1980s to treat the trees to help them resist the adelgid blight, but without significant success. We then spent thousands of dollars to take down the trees, piece-by-piece, so they wouldn't fall on our cabins. However, the vast majority of hemlock trees on our property and in the surrounding forest have died or are in very weak condition. Once again, our forest has lost its strongest trees.

Rapidan Camps Outdoor Plan

With the death of most of the tall trees, the shady canopy has disappeared. The steady rain of hemlock needles is gone, so the soil is no longer as acidic. The result is that many, many plants are thriving in the sunlight and competing with each other. The area between cabins 1 and 2, for instance, became a thicket of vines and short cherry trees, with poison ivy and a few taller trees slowly pushing their way through the other plants. Stinging nettles thrive in some areas, such as the section between Cabin 4 and the road. If we let things go as nature progresses, the result will be decades of slow evolution until taller trees finally re-establish themselves. In the meantime, the cabins would be hot, and the ground would have many unpleasant plants such as poison ivy and stinging nettles.

For the first time since Rapidan Camps was founded, we stand to receive dramatic gains from actively managing the plants growing on our property.

Jim Hazzard has prepared a list of desirable native trees and shrubs.  These are:

Native Trees

  • Red Maple (Acer rubrum) [thrives in moist soil]
  • White Pine (Pinus strobus) [thrives in moist soil with full sunlight]
  • Yellow Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)
  • Serviceberry or Shadblow (Amalanchier arborea)
  • Dogwood (Cornus florida)
  • Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)
  • Common Alder (Alnus glutinosa)

Native Shrubs

  • American Cranberrybush (Viburnum trilobum)
  • American Mountainash (Sorbus americana)
  • Common Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
  • Chokecherry (Prunus virginiata) [except in moist areas]
  • Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
  • Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)
  • Rhododendron (various Rhododendron)
  • Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

On July 19, 2003, Jim Hazzard and four board members of Rapidan Camps met at camp to create our Outdoor Plan.  We divided the camp into areas based on the layout of the land and our cabins, and identified our goals for each area, and how we will achieve those goals.  Following the flow of the river, these areas are:

1. Area Upriver of Cabin 1 (former tentsites)

The natural growth in this area is thick with undesirable cherry trees, with trails along the former roadways closed in 2002.  This is a lower-priority area, but we will conduct basic maintenance to allow its canopy to rebuild itself with the probable goal of restoring the tentsites for renting at some point in the future.  When we have the ability, we'll considerably thin the cherry thickets, leaving the strongest ones approximately 10-12 feet apart, and leaving other trees that have naturally sprouted there.  White pines will grow very tall, and require significant distance between them to thrive attractively.  We'll plant some smaller shrubs in the former roadways, approximately 10 feet from the Rapidan Road, specifically to block the roadways, but allow turnaround space and, later, parking space for campsites.

2. Area between Cabins 1 and 2

The prime area between Cabin 1 and the trail between Cabins 1 and 2 also saw thick growth of cherry trees, vines, nettles, and other undesirable plants.  We have selected six trees to retain--one cherry tree, one maple, one black locust tree, two poplars, and the already-tall deciduous canopy tree growing there.  We have removed all the other trees to allow those to thrive.  When we have the ability, we'll cover much of the ground with mulch to restore a pleasant area for walking, and to restore the pleasant views between cabins 1 and 2.

3. Area along the Riverbank between Cabins 1 and 3

The riverbank used to have many hemlocks growing on it, and a few other trees.  Between the hemlock blight and the floods of 1995 and 1997, we lost most of the trees on the bank.  However, smaller bushes and vines have thickly covered the area, significantly reducing erosion.  Our goal is to restore much of the view of the river, but also maintain some basic measure of safety to discourage children from getting too close to the bank.  We are considering installing a waist-high split-rail fence several feet from the bank, removing much of the vines and scrubby bushes from the area behind the fence, and planting native shrubs there, especially attractive berry-bearing shrubs that will attract songbirds, such as the American Cranberrybush, American Mountainash, Common Winterberry, and Chokecherry. These plants' fibrous roots will also help to maintain the riverbank against erosion. The materials for the fence are estimated at about $700 for the distance between cabins 1 and 3; the fence idea would be discussed at a membership meeting before any construction.

4. Area between Cabins 3 and 4

This area is recovering reasonably well, and a new canopy is re-establishing itself.  We do not intend significant change in this area.

5. Area between Cabin 4 and the Road

This area is filled with stinging nettles, which are remarkably unpleasant to wade through.  We will remove the nettles, and place a layer of mulch between Cabin 4 and the now-obscured stream.  Between the road and the stream, we'll plant shrubs about five feet from the stream, which should thrive in the wet area.  Songbirds will return for the berries.  We hope to have a pleasant area for relaxing, and restore the view of the only stream running through camp.

6. Area along the Path from Cabin 5 to the Road

This area is also overgrown with nettles and other low groundcover.  Aside from keeping the nettles down for campers to walk through, this is a lower-priority area for now.  Our goal is to remove the low vegetation with weedwackers, and plant shrubs and apply mulch as groundcover.  The stream flows under the bridge Jeff Farrar and Tony Allen constructed along the path, and we hope to restore this to a pleasant place.

7. Area between Cabin 5 and the River, and down-river of Cabin 5

We will remove tree branches growing near the outdoor stone fireplace to reduce the fire hazard, and maintain the trails to the river from Cabins 5 and 3.  We hope to install some stream-breaks along the steep trail from Cabin 3 to the river, to reduce erosion.  We'll thin the trees to allow other trees to grow.  Our goal is to have nice trails and maintain the view of the river from Cabin 5, while promoting the growth of the tree canopy above Cabin 5 to restore its shade as rapidly as possible. One tree we'll unfortunately have to cut down is at the down-river corner of Cabin 5 away from the river.   This tree is close to the cabin, which would be ideal except that its growth is intertwined with a dead stem, and will never be a strong tree and would likely fall on the cabin eventually.

Ongoing plans

Undesirable plants: Poison ivy and stinging nettles are both extremely undesirable, and will be removed wherever they appear.

Tree removal and planting: We will be removing trees at various places around camp to help other trees grow faster.  We will encourage trees to grow between cabins, and as close as 2-10 feet from the cabins to restore the previous sense of the cabins being nestled among the trees.  Trees close to cabins will be pruned to foster their growth without interfering with the cabins, and to prevent fires, special pruning effort will be made to ensure tree branches don't grow directly over chimneys.  We are also planning to plant a new tree through the deck of cabin 3, with the possibility of future plantings in other decks, to restore the camp's signature natural architecture of having trees growing through porches.  We're also monitoring  progress of the American Chestnut Foundation's efforts to develop blight-resistant Chestnut trees, which we hope to plant at camp if possible.

Flagging: From time to time, we flag trees or other vegetation to identify those which should be kept, removed, or treated.  Please do not disturb the flags or labels.

What You Can Do to Help

When you stay at camp:

  1. If you see any poison ivy, please remove it, or at least note its exact location to the registrar when you return
  2. If you have a weedwacker or other trimmer, there are many areas around camp that could use an hour or three of your work when you visit camp.  Please contact camp president Tom Jones if you can help remove undesired plants.  Please do not remove any trees or plants unless you've discussed it with Jim Hazzard or Tom Jones.
  3. If you would like to plant shrubs or a tree, and are willing to dig the necessary hole, please contact Tom Jones as well  Please do not plant anything without speaking Jim or Tom first.

Please come to Work Weekend!

  1. We expect to make a great deal of progress toward our goals during work weekends when the weather is pleasant.  There is much outdoor work to do, from chipping and spreading mulch, to maintaining trails and planting trees and shrubs. Your attendance at work weekends will directly help camp become a more attractive place!

If you have any questions about this Outdoor Plan, please contact one of the Outdoor Committee members, or e-mail Tom Jones.

For questions about Rapidan Camps, please contact the President and Registrar via email.