'Smithereens': Isabel KO's county's busiest trail

If a tree falls in the woods, will you hear about it? What if it happens during Hurricane Isabel and closes part of the county's most popular footpath? Well, you're hearing about it now.

When the massive tropical storm marched through Central Virginia on Thursday, September 18, Monticello lost the trail wending to the base of Route 53 when several massive trees came crashing down.

"It got blown to smithereens," says Peter Hatch, Monticello's director of gardens and grounds. "It'll be out a while." He says Monticello has received "six-figure" repair bids, which they've sent to their insurer.

Since its opening last year as part of a $7 million project, the trail, Hatch says, has attracted up to 35,000 hikers, bikers, and wheelchair-riders along its gentle two-mile climb through the woods.

The subject of The Hook's December 12, 2002, cover story, "Fancy footwork: meandering to Monticello," the trail offers a signature feature in the form of a .8-mile-long boardwalk that gently arcs through the trees– some of which became the route's undoing.

About 100 yards from Mountaintop Farm, the destruction is obvious: A mature hickory has knifed through the yellow pine deck and side rails. Another 100 yards or so southward shows evidence of the havoc wreaked when an oak tree crashed diagonally through the elevated structure.

"This is the worst," says Gerry Sackett, who estimates the height of the oak at 90 feet and the length of boardwalk it removed at 60 feet. As project manager for Abrahamse and Company builders, Sackett oversaw construction in the dense, steeply sloped forest. His task included directing a bucket brigade.

"They literally carried concrete in five-gallon buckets to avoid impacting the slope," says Will Rieley, the landscape architect who designed the trail.

The slope here at the oak's destruction includes a stream which lies about 25 feet below the splintered boardwalk. Suddenly, a figure appears from across the chasm.

"I just have to back up so I can get a good running start," the man jokingly yells across the gaping void. It's Stan Grant of Orange County, who somehow must have missed the temporary orange snow-fencing, the locked gate, and "trail closed" signs. But what a reward.

"This is much prettier than Orange County," says Grant, who's visiting Charlottesville for a conference. "This is an incredibly beautiful path."

One of the beauties of the Saunders-Monticello Trail, the path's official name, was removal of the overhead utility lines that used to mar the side of Route 53. Tucking them under the boardwalk offered no protection against falling oaks, however, and a major Sprint fiber-optic line was severed in the storm.

Sackett estimates that repairing the damage could take up to three months, and work may not begin until spring. Until the boardwalk is fixed, only the lower section, below Carter Mountain, remains open.

During planning for the trail in the fall of 1996, Hurricane Fran hit Central Virginia and felled several trees near the trail site. "We always wondered what would happen in another hurricane," says Sackett.

"We didn't anticipate," adds Rieley, "we'd have it whacked in three places in one storm."

"I like a little calamity," says trail builder Gerry Sackett, inspecting the damage.