Driving a John Deere Gator utility vehicle, Harry Shealy barreled down a trail known as Devil's Backbone on Tuesday morning in Hitchcock Woods. Damage from the ice storm earlier this month could be seen everywhere.


There were piles of tree limbs on both sides of the path. A once mighty oak was lying on top of another. Broken tops of pines dangled precariously.


“It's just like it is in town; it's a mess,” said Shealy, who is the chairman of Hitchcock's board of trustees.


One of the nation's largest urban forests is in disarray, and cleaning up its 2,100 acres will take a long time.


“It may be summer before we get it all done,” Shealy said.


Hitchcock Woods has been closed to the public because of safety concerns, but it is scheduled to reopen on Friday morning.


“We've made really good progress,” said Bennett Tucker, who is Hitchcock's woods superintendent. “We are asking people to pay attention to trail-closed signage in areas where the staff continues to work.”


The first priority has been to make sure the trails are passable, and the majority in the 70-mile system will be cleared by the weekend, according to Tucker.


“In phase two of our work, we will concentrate on removing the debris on the main corridor from the South Boundary entrance down to the Horse Show Ring because of the Aiken Horse Show in April,” Tucker said. “Phase three will be continued cleanup of the debris piles along the sides of the trails in other areas. Then we'll worry about cleaning up the areas away from the trails in the 47 management units, which are the different sections of the woods, later on.”


Tucker and Eric Grande, Hitchcock's woods technicians, are doing much of the work. Their equipment includes two tractors with various accessories, such as a grapple bucket and a six-way dozer blade. A local man who has a skid-steer loader has been assisting them.


“We are going to have to hire a professional arborist to do a little bit of trimming for us,” Tucker said.


Small trees and large limbs will be cut up, and the pieces will be sold as firewood. Large trees that were alive when they fell will be salvaged and sold to sawmills or timber companies.


“Now that I've seen a majority of the woods, it's not as bad as I thought it was,” Tucker said. “It's bad; it's definitely worse than it was after the ice storm in 2004. But it's not catastrophic like it was in some of the other parts of the state.


“The combination of the ice and wind is what got some of our big trees,” he continued. “It also got some of our younger longleaf and loblolly pines, which couldn't withstand the weight of the ice along with the wind.”


Shealy and Tucker haven't calculated the cost to clean up Hitchcock Woods yet.


“We have a budget we call 'tree cleanup' that has several thousand dollars in it just for routine stuff, but we are going to far exceed it,” Shealy said.


Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.