Storm Cleanup: Old Colony Rail Trail Nearly Clear Of Trees And Debris

By: Kat Szmit

Topics: Storms

The sign indicating Volunteer Park in Chatham stands in front of one of several trees downed as a result of last week's storm. Parks Director Dan Tobin said much of the cleanup has been completed.  KAT SZMIT PHOTO

HARWICH/CHATHAM – The Old Colony Rail Trail, the stretch of the Cape Cod bicycle path that runs from Harwich to Chatham, is a popular and busy corridor during the summer months and didn't go unscathed during last week's damaging storms. But the good news is that the majority of downed trees, limbs, leaves, and pine needles have been removed from the pavement or swept away.

In Harwich, which saw the lion's share of damage after an EF1 tornado touched down in Harwich Center, there were a number of trees down across the path, particularly between the underpass near the roundabout where the Cape Cod Rail Trail meets the Old Colony Rail Trail and at Route 39 near Lover's Lane.

Lincoln Hooper, director of the Harwich Department of Public Works, said crews took to the trail in the early morning hours of July 27, cutting up trees and feeding the pieces into wood chippers before a massive blower removed sawdust, smaller branches, leaves, and needles.

“They started at 6 a.m. and it took them three or four hours,” said Hooper, who added that the crew started early to better avoid cyclists and walkers, which proved fairly successful until around 9 a.m. “We drove our chipper truck down to each site, cut up the trees, fed them in a chipper, and got a ride-on blower to go down the track.”

Hooper said that as the trail became more populated with people, the work of tree removal crews turned to more of a start-and-stop effort as they waited for cyclists and walkers to pass. Closing the trail, he said, wasn't a viable option.

“Even if you did put up barricades people will just go around them,” he said.

Hooper said a clear difference between the July 23 storm and the last storm with significant tree damage, Hurricane Bob in 1991, was that with Bob there was plenty of warning. This time around the storm came fast and furious, catching much of the Cape off guard.

“It's summertime on Cape Cod,” Hooper said. “It's a very popular destination. Bob, although it was in August, came with lots of warning so all the tourists left. Here, we had no warning. Having to navigate all the roads and congestion adds a challenge to [the cleanup].”

An area off the Cape Cod Rail Trail in West Harwich that was hard hit was the Bell's Neck Conservation Area, which saw numerous downed trees along Bell's Neck Road, as well as along the hiking trails and the road that leads to the footbridge where visitors often fish or net crabs. As of Friday afternoon, at least one and possibly two large pines were blocking the parking area immediately at the entrance to the footbridge, and a smaller tree was partially in the roadway leading to the footbridge.

Hooper said that because of the extent of tree damage in Bell's Neck, the town is currently seeking a price for the foresting equipment necessary to deal with the damage.

“Bell's Neck is littered with fallen trees, so we're getting a price to absorb the magnitude of the problem,” Hooper said, adding that ensuring all roadways are clear is the town's first priority. He added that the bike path ramp leading to Monomoy Regional High School, which has been blocked by several downed trees, should be clear by the time school starts on Sept. 3.

Although Chatham didn't see quite as much damage as Harwich, there were still some trees down on and along the bike trail, with crews still at work on several areas as of early this week, especially between the Spur to Volunteer Park.

Chatham Parks Director Dan Tobin said the effort regarding the trail cleanup has been similar to that of clearing roads.

“There was an initial effort similar to roads in Chatham to get the trail open and at least safe to ride or walk, and that's pretty much been accomplished,” Tobin said. “The spur to Volunteer Park is still being tackled this week.”

Tobin said that similar to Harwich, crews were able to venture onto the trail to cut up downed trees, and added that the town might be getting some help from Chatham Airport, which has a new power broom that will go a long way in helping remove leaf and tree litter that poses a potential slipping hazard.

“We're working on that to keep as much debris off the trail to prevent slips and falls,” he said, adding that while the trail's popularity with walkers and cyclists hasn't prevented cleanup efforts, it has slowed them down. “People are good and we try to anticipate that they need to get around the work zone. Just like working roadside, you need to have a detail to help people get by. It's just having the resources and personnel to manage that while other personnel are dealing with the problem and getting things removed. That's definitely a challenge.”

Tobin also noted that some of the trees on town property fell onto privately owned yards, affecting abutting properties. Tobin said the town has been working with homeowners regarding the removal of those trees, but overall the cleanup efforts have been successful.

“We're down to the finer details now, but at least people can get around and have power,” Tobin said.