Saturday, November 21, 2015

I Am Hopefully Back to Share More With You

After a long sabbatical of life's changes, I hope to be back with you. First, thank you to many of those who E-mailed me wanting to know where I have been and wanted more blogs. I appreciate those E-mails! The reason I have been away is a number of things. First, about 2 years ago, the full time job I have had for some 12 years, was suddenly turned to part-time with no benefits because of the economy. I survived part-time with the job until July of 2015 when they essentially shut the department down and sent everyone home. At 52 years old at that time, it sent me into an emotional spiral down. I have never ever had to worry about a job all of my life. This soured any notation of writing a blog with a positive attitude. It took two years to pull out of that. My wife and daughter are glad I am coming back out of my shell after this bomb in life went off.

 I have been running a video and audio installation company part-time since 1997, so I just rolled full time over to that to move on and survive. Surviving in modern times with the new ACA means working full time to make $1,400 per month health insurance payments for my family, which is a fight every single day, but I won't get into those politics. It just robs me of money to go on adventure trips that I need, desire, and pursue.

Working for your own company takes a lot of your time. Time that I used to have to share blogs with you! My business is going very good now, so I have been going off and on some adventures lately. Hopefully I can get back in the writing groove more to share them with you. I don't think you will see as many as I used to post, but I promise to post some. I have been captivated documenting and sharing trips now with a GoPro camera.  I hope to launch a YouTube Channel in the near future to continue what you have been reading here. Be watching for more on that. Thanks again to those of you that sent me E-mails of encouragement. It has brought me back to you. Looking forward to continuing life's journey of sharing the beauty around us in God's outdoors. Hang on. More coming!
Rex Free

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Hidden Secrets of Turkey Creek-Bankhead National Forest

 It's Not Just a Waterfall-It's a Community Long Gone
Turkey Creek Waterfall
One of the most confusing waterfalls on Turkey creek . It has no name (but is beautiful) and is mistaken by many as Turkey Creek Waterfall as people walk up the creek from Sispey Recreation Area for the first time. They don't bother to walk any further and miss seeing the true Turkey Creek Waterfall. This waterfall actually IS on Turkey Creek, but with it being smaller, most folks term the larger one up stream as Turkey Creek Falls instead.

There are so many places in America that hold a history of the past. As we walk the earth, we tend to think we are the only ones to be here. As we walk in places, we rarely tend to think about the past. Did someone else walk here in this same path? If so, what did it look like? Few even give it a thought. Today on this journey, there are a lot of neat finds, and a question of what this place looked like 80-150 years ago.

A large tunnel routes Turkey Creek under Cranal Road. Many local people have no ideal this exists.
Remains from the Mize Grist Mill Site
As you hike the woods in Bankhead National Forest, you must remember that a lot of what was there before it became a National Forest, is locked in time, undisturbed in many respects. When homesites were abandoned for the U.S. Forest  Service to come in, many things did not get cleaned up. They merely started the slow fading away process that time imposes. One of those areas we are talking about on this day is the Turkey Creek area of Bankhead National Forest. Many people have been here to see the small, but beautiful waterfall and also a small waterfall with no name nearby it.  It is a simple walk to get to compared to other places in the Bankhead. Some have even walked down and visited the old Ford 1936 car shell under a bluff. Those are really neat places to visit, but few have bothered to probe deeper on this creek for anything other than waterfalls and a wrecked car. On this simple day hike in Bankhead, it opens up new questions and lots of great scenes to see if you love this National Forest in North Alabama called Bankhead.
Remains of steps carved in rock at the old Mize grist mill site. The mill was located to the right of this picture. The steps probably helped support lumber for a dam to hold water for the grist mill.
More Steps carved into the rock at the old Mize Grist Mill Site above Turkey Creek Waterfall. Again, they probably were used to help anchor lumber to support a dam structure for the mill.

My hiking and camping buddy Thomas, another friend Tom and myself head out for an all day adventure in two areas of Bankhead. First is Turkey Creek, and second on tap for the day is the Kinlock area. To start off with, Turkey Creek is first.  We head west on Cranal Road off of Alabama Highway 33 in Bankhead, passing the well known Sipsey Recreation area. After we pass the "rec area" and proceed on about a half a mile, topping a tall hill and going down, we pull off to the left side of the road and park at a small parking spot that is the entrance to an old logging road. It is considered by many to be the "shortcut" to get to the Turkey Creek Waterfalls. Many people enjoy parking at Sipsey Rec area, walk under the overpass over Sipsey River, turn left, and head up Turkey Creek. Others that want to just see the falls, take our route.

As we park and head down, Thomas takes me on a separate path I have not been before. This is typical of Thomas, and as a result of a non-typical route many times, he discovers a treasure trove of interesting items on our journeys exploring.  It is a route he had taken about a week before with his aunt, and I am glad he lead the way. He already knew of some of this, but obviously wanted to surprise us with his find. In that respect, he certainly did!  Instead of crossing the road from your parked vehicle on the south side of Cranal Road, we exit out and go off to the south side of the road into the woods. As you do, move west (to your right) and you will come across your first surprise. There is a massive double concrete tunnel for Turkey Creek to flow through. Thousands of people have traveled on Cranal Road (myself included) over the years, but very few know of such a large structure under the road about 20 feet down. We walk through it and take pictures of it. If you do the "little kid thing"and yell or try some crazy sounds, you will hear some very interesting sounds out the other side! The acoustics of this tunnel are really weird! As we move down through the tunnel and Turkey Creek towards the main waterfall, Thomas points out some interesting things he spotted on a previous trip. There are large poles in the ground as if something was situated on the creek. Further inspection reveals some really neat features I had no idea we would come up on. He points out steps carved in the rocks, as well as holes that reveal the classic signs of a grist mill on this creek. As we cross the stream, Thomas finds the foundation of an old building beside the creek. It must be a grist mill! We snap photos and keep exploring. As you keep looking around, we discover that the foundation for the grist mill is on very flat ground, about 15 feet above Turkey Creek. We notice an old road bed that led up to this apparent mill site. Research later shows that this was the site of the Mize grist mill, just off of Cranal Road, that is the OLD Cranal road route. More on that later.  There was a residence nearby this mill, and even a Post Office not far from there. The mill site is really interesting in that it is truly hidden in the leaves and deep foliage. Most people would never have a clue of the history being hidden at this special place in time.
The foundation to the Mize Grist Mill, just above Turkey Foot Waterfall.
 The Old Cranal Road Route

 Further walking and exploring yields some interesting things I have never known about, and I have lived around here most of my life of 53 years. It is the grown up site of the original Cranal Road! That was very interesting to me in that we found an old sign on the old abandoned road saying  "Black Warrior Management Area Bankhead National Forest. This was probably posted up on the side of the road in the 1950's.  Clearly, the current Cranal Road was moved up higher than what the original road was in places, and this sheds new light on the old car that has remained as a monument near the creek and talked about  for years by many. It shows that although this car came off a steep bluff and who knows the ture story behind how the car got there or if anyone was indeed hurt while driving it, but it shows that the car would not have had to go far off the old road to land at the base of the bluff. It did not come off from where the road is now. Supposedly, the old story passed down is that someone back in the late 1930's, lost control and went off the road. Nobody was hurt, but the car and horrified people on board supposedly plummeted off the bluff with those people in it! Also, according to what I have read, nobody was injured badly either. One note of interest is the fact that back then, nobody had the equipment to pull a car out of such a steep ravine, or if they did, nobody could afford to pay the steep price to recover the car in this extremely rural woods area of Alabama. Over the years, parts have all been robbed and taken off of it. Old timers in their 80's at the time of this writing say mules carried or pulled the engine and main parts out. Today, only a shell remains, and within the last 6 years, a tree fell and center punched the middle of the body, making it now a truly crushed and warped old car.
This old postcard shows the Sipsey Recreation Area. Notice that the road looks new. There are not even any Forest Service signs showing Sipsey Recreation Area. Also study the old wooden bridge to the right that is still there. You can see that Cranal Road truly has been changed entirely from what it used to be. The old road actually went around to the right side of the hill in the distance. Turkey Creek empties out here at Sipsey River to the left of the bridge.  The new road actually buries the old road on the west side of Sipsey!

This is a section of the old Cranal Road (elevated section), just north of the current Cranal Road. At one time, there was even a Cranal Road Post Office. Mize Mill and Turkey Creek Falls were just a short piece off to the right on the old road as you traveled west on Cranal Road.
Some things will not go away. A section of the old Cranal Road still is still telling it's story of a road long gone in usage.
It does not take a long time to explore more in this small canyon. Another hidden item in this small little canyon is a very small, but very deep Indian Mortar Rock up under a bluff. It is a reminder of a time when Indians lived in this place, and every day brought new challenges and adventures. Beneath the leaves of time in the ground all around Turkey Creek, is hidden evidence of a heavily used grist mill facility built along the creek above the falls, belonging to the Mize family. They owned vast amounts of acreage during that time.
A 1936 Ford treats you as you walk up from Sipsey Recreation Area. If it could talk! This car went sailing off the old Cranal road (with people in it) and dropped some 40 feet off a bluff to where it is today down near the creek.

Indian Mortar or Milling Rock along Turkey Creek
A recent trip to the Lawrence County archives has no mention of the Mize mill,  not a sign. It truly is a
place holding tons of history, long forgotten by those of us alive today. There are numerous books out by Jim Mannasco and Butch Walker that talk about this neat place if you are interested in reading more details about the area. This area actually had a post office (we are still searching for the exact location of it) and on down the road a little further, Turkey Foot Ranger Station built by the Conservation Corp back in the 1930's. It was torn down in the 1970's and the site is growing up in under growth. What a find, and right underneath us everywhere we walked. Buried somewhere is the hidden history of this place, but for most, it is just there telling a story that nobody seems to have records easily of. This place teaches us that just because a "road" is named a certain name, it does not mean the road has remained in it's current path over the years. Improvements and shortcuts are made on any road over time, so some roads change and so does the scenery. Places continue to tell stories long after most everyone has passed on. It's just that most people don't take the time to listen. The trash thrown out the window of a car in the 1930's may be a treasure for someone in the 21st century to find, all because a road changed paths, and locked the item in the leaves of time for someone to find.
After some lunch, we move on over in Bankhead to another very well known historical place, Kinlock. Another blog perhaps, and another day. Thanks for going along with us on this day.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Exploring the Old Covered Bridges and Other Sites in Blount County Alabama

One of the little thought about elements of America is it's rich history, even on a local level in your own town, city, or community. Such is the case in a small area of Alabama called Blount County. Located in the central part of Alabama, this area has something that few places in America can brag about. It's very old covered bridges. In fact, it has the United States tallest covered bridge over water.

 The very first question that comes out when you mention "covered bridges" is this: "Why would you cover a bridge?" The reason is simple if you lived 100 years ago. Strange if you live in the 21st century. The reason they were coverd was to protect the wooden structure from decaying or breaking down as fast. After all, they were primarily built of wood that goes down with time. Early wooden bridges had a lifespan of about 10-15 years if left uncovered. If you have worked 3-7 years building a bridge, then it does not last long in terms of the energy and time spent to built it verses the years it will last! Thus, the covered bridges came about. It is easier to replace lumber on the covered structure than to replace critical timber underneath it. This also provided protection from storms for those on horse and buggy. After all, it would be a muddy, messy road during storms. Why not take cover under a covered bridge?

In Blount county, Alabama, at one time (according to my good friend Brett that showed us around his county that day) there were 12 covered bridges. They are now down to 3 still standing. Floods, arson, vandals, and a number of factors have taken there toll.  Of those 3 left, there are all built in 1927-1934. If you ever want to do something interesting and you might live within driving distance  of these amazing structures, I encourage you to take the time and drive over and see some living history. If you are passing through Alabama, then put it on your list "to do".

One weekend, one of my camping buddies named Brett called and asked me and other friends to come down and stay at his house. My other buddy Thomas and I responded and said we are coming! Since we are all "outdoors guys" and that is what we all do when we get together, it is only fitting that like a bunch of "boys", we camp in his back yard filled with woods! We arrive one Friday afternoon at Brett's house. He and his wife have the red carpet laid out for us in terms of food and accommodations. A large 15 foot high fire place is located in the woods behind his house that Brett built, so we set up our hammocks out in the woods by the fireplace. We cook hot dogs and hamburgers Friday afternoon/evening just shortly after arrival, stay up late and enjoy conversations by the fireplace, and then hit the bed in our hammocks for rest.

 Horton Mill Bridge

A full day is in store for us on Saturday. After a quick shower, we are off to our first covered bridge to see, Horton Mill bridge, located on Highway 75. It is right off the highway and signs will keep you from missing it. The Horton Mill bridge is the tallest covered bridge over water in the United States. Built in 1934, it spans 220 feet long, and 70 feet high above the Calvert Prong of the Little Warrior River. After seeing one of these bridges for the first time, I observe something interesting. Construction on this bridge, and later seeing the other 2 are all the same. In fact, after seeing the oldest covered bridge in California back in 2007 on a video shoot for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, it and all of these are built the exact same way. They all have iron rods that extend down from the covered structure that supports the main foundation of the bridge. Sounds kind of silly to notice small things like that, but interesting to me and perhaps some others on how they all were built by the same style of construction. Truth be told, that construction practice probably dates back to Europe when the early settlers came over.

 We walk all around the bridge, under the bridge, and across the bridge. We snap pictures and shoot video of just about every angle you can see of it. A trail leads you down to the creek where you can walk up underneath it before it spans out over the water. Boring to some, fascinating to others. I enjoyed every second of it myself. According to history, this bridge was built by 15 men, working from sun up to sun down, supervised by Talmedge Horton. His crew also built the other two bridges we will visit. According to history, Mr. Horton had to ride on horseback to Birmingham, Alabama to receive payment for the bridge. When he got there, he apparently was paid in silver. The weight of the silver riding back to Blount County took a toll on his horses, with the hides being rubbed raw from reading history on this bridge.

Driving over these bridges in your car is an experience as well. If you roll the windows down and drive across, you are treated with a "pop" and "crack" sound every now and then from the wood in the bridge. It is a little "un-nerving" listening to these sounds as you drive across!

The address of the bridge is:
25 Covered Bridge Circle, Oneonta, Alabama, 35121

Palisades Park

After we finish up there we move on over to a special park that few counties have. It is one of the coolest county parks I have seen. I have traveled in many states, but few can claim as cool of a place as Palisades Park. On the internet it is termed "Blount County's Best Kept Secret", and it truly is! My good friend Brett carried us there and I was truly surprised at everything I saw, and in every direction!
What was in my mind, a simple county park we were driving to, turned out to be worth every second of being there. The park is located at about 1,300 feet in elevation. It has the usual swing sets, old log cabins donated and moved there by family members, meeting cabins and buildings to hold most any event, a very old 150 foot U.S. Forest Tower that we had to climb, massive bluffs for the rope recreation folks to practice on, hiking trails, picnic areas, and more. The old forest tower is off limits to climbing, but on this day, the gate was wide open. We just had to check it out. The Forest Tower truly is an historical monument as well. Almost all have been abandoned by the U.S. Forest Service, so that decay away each day. I have read where there is great debate on these structures. The Forest Service does not know what to do with them. They want them torn down, but other folks see a different picture. They want them preserved. The debate continues as these old historical structures decay every day in time.
 At any rate, I was totally set back by the views of this park and you can see when you arrive that it has something for everyone, young and old.
If you can, make sure and take the time to drive to this park.! The views are stunning. Make sure you go over to Meditation Point (see picture below) and absorb the view. Hopefully you will go on a sunny day as we did. You can see for almost 50 miles.

The address for your GPS to get there is: 1225 Palisades Pkwy, Oneonta, AL 35121

Swann Bridge

It was hard to leave such a really neat place as Palisades Park, but time to go see the other highlights of this county before the sun goes down. We head over to another amazing and very old bridge, Swann Bridge. It is the longest surviving bridge in Alabama. It was built in 1933, and is 330 feet long. It spans over Locust Fork. We drive across the bridge with the usually creepy "creaks and pops" of driving over a covered bridge in a modern heavy vehicle and park. As we saw at Horton Bridge earlier, there is always cars parked and people admiring the bridges. In fact, I see some of the same people we saw over at the other bridges, all of us making the circuit.  Again, I notice the same construction type as the first bridge, and the covered bridge I have seen out in California that is said to have been built just after the Civil War. Again, I image construction practices were just about the same across the U.S., even during those times. Swann Bridge, make this your 3rd stop on your tour in Blount County. My good friend Brett grew up and around all of this since he is from Blount County and I was so glad he offered us this tour. More to see, so let's move on!


The directions to get to Swann Bridge are: From U.S. Highway 231 in Cleveland, head west on State Highway 160 for 2.8 miles to Nectar Circle. Turn right (north) on Nectar Circle for half of a mile and then turn right (north) on Joy Road. Follow Joy Road north for 2.4 miles and then turn right (east) on Swann Bridge Road. Just follow Swann Bridge Road for 1.5 miles until you reach the historic bridge.

The address is: 1590 Swann Bridge Road, Cleveland, Alabama, 35049

Easley Bridge
Our last stop for the day before supper, is the third covered bridge in the county, Easley Bridge. 
It is the oldest of the three. Built in 1927, it spans 95 feet and is the shortest bridge. 
It stretches over a small stream called Dub Branch, which feeds the Little Warrior River. This bridge was the least scenic of the three in my opinion, but it's beauty is in the age. The bridges have all undergone reconstruction in 2011 as vandals, weather, age, and time had put them all out of commission at various times. During some of those years, no vehicle traffic was allowed.  This bridge, be it small, is still worth stopping to see, if not for anything but to say that you have seen all 3 very old covered bridges in Blount County, Alabama. It is not that much further out of the way and deserves to be admired.

The address of the Easly Bridge is: 
440 Easly Bridge Road, Oneonta, Alabama 35121


To Top Off The Day
A great way to top the day off for us, and it will be for you as well, is to stop by and eat at a Bar-B-Que restaurant called "O'so Good" Barbeque restaurant. It is located on U.S. 231. Their address is 55545, U.S. Highway 231, Oneonta, Alabama. They did not pay me a dime to pitch them, but they have some good Barbeque to top off the end of a wonderful day in Blount County, Alabama. 
It has a great atmosphere to relax, eat, and talk about the sites of the day. 

The next day on our "boy's trip" yielded an even greater surprise, but I cannot publish it, since it was on private property and I respect that. It was a view into a world of an old Indian community site, and man what a day! It just continued to make the weekend one I will not forget for a long time. 
Enough teasing you with that, since I cannot publish that experience, so I leave you with a view into the history of time in a county older than the State of Alabama. If you are in this area, I strongly suggest you devote a day to seeing some sites you will never forget, and a day you will talk about for a long time.  Until the next adventure in God's country, we will see you then!

A great map of the bridges and how to get to them is located at the website address below. 
 It is a PDF map of the bridges:

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Key Mill Branch-Bankhead National Forest-A Historical Site of Tradegy, Beauty, and History Little Known to Many

Preface to late 2012-2013 adventures:
Before we start this adventure, a little note to pass on to you. Since you share adventures with me, you might of noticed the adventures have been a little less lately. That's because in late August of 2012, I was told at my full time job for almost 13 years, that everyone in the department was being put on temporary 20 hours per week with no benefits. The economy going south in the United States has hit me in the gut! When you have worked all of your life without the slightest worry in the world about a job and the trap doors are pulled out from under you, it puts a new perspective on things. My attitude has to be readjusted on a regular basis, or else you fall into a pessimistic view of life. Fortunately, my parents taught me long ago to never count on anything permanent, and so years ago I started a part-time business. Thanks to it, I am getting by and can focus back on the good life in the outdoors again and the values I cherish with my family. My budget to explore and travel has been cut in half, but my passion is stronger than ever to explore and enjoy life in the outdoors. The 2012-2013 winter camping season is here, so lets get going!

A view on one side of the massive shelter looking back towards the other side of the shelter just down stream from the Key Mill site.

Located back in the back of one of the rooms in the massive bluff shelter, we find 1909. The 9 is backwards, as we find so many times with tree and rock carvings. All we can gather is lack of knowledge on spelling and letters  back then.

An extremely large bluff shelter just down from the Key Grist Mill Site. This is on one side of the shelter. The picture above shows the other side of the shelter.

A beautiful swimming hole just up the branch that feeds the old Key Mill Site. How many kids swam in this hole while there fathers were at the mill waiting on the corn to be ground at the mill site. Time only knows.

A very cold morning causes water to lock it's grip on some grass by a small waterfall.

One of several waterfalls from branches that drain into Key Mill Branch.

I have been blessed to have made a couple of trips before this writing, but just did not have the frame of mind to write and share them with you. I apologize for that. One of those trips though, has been a true blessing and I want you to discover it with me. It has opened up my mind of areas we walk and think little of. If those areas could talk to you, you would sit down, laugh, cry, and wonder about past times of those before you. We walk this earth sometimes thinking we are the only creatures to do so. We live only for now, thinking all that has been discovered is discovered by us. If we be truthful with ourselves, we are one of thousands walking the same paths on this earth. With those thoughts in mind,   I want you to take a trip with me to a very neat and untraveled area of the Bankhead National Forest in Northern Alabama, rich in history, and sadly, a site of tragedy in the last few years. It is a historical site in many respects, and reflects many years of human stories worth telling. Before it was engulfed into the United States National Forest program, it was an area where a family raised children and operated a grist mill for years. It is a site where the founder of the grist mill, died from injuries at this site. His father fought in the American Revolution, and he fought in the civil war. It is also the site of a very tragic helicopter crash in 2007 that claimed a young man's life. The stories that make up this site are interesting and sad, all combined with beauty in a small area called Key Mill Branch.
The historical Key Grist Mill Site. Notice the Iron Ore seeping from the rocks.

Worn gears that could tell some stories of days gone by. The gears left from the Key Grist Mill.
Another view of the gear cogs left at this site for explorers to enjoy and for time to hold on to.
Key Mill Branch, named after an area of land owned by Joseph Francis Marion Key, a very colorful character that served in the Civil War and married several times, bearing children with each new wife. He homesteaded this area around the early 1890's. The story of this man is very interesting, and a link to the full story of this colorful character is below. He served in Gettysburg, Spottsylvania, and other key battles of the civil war. His dad served in the revolutionary war. Time does not allow me to slide off into family history here, but I encourage you to read about this man and his family. As mentioned above, Joseph Francis Key had 3 wives. The last wife was one tough women they say. Mary Jane Key, was half a Cherokee Indian and died in 1962 at the age of 101. She operated the grist mill at this site where we are exploring until she was 92 years old. Her husband Joseph, died of injuries from the mill in 1918. Remnants of the mill are still there as you walk the small but beautiful canyon of Key Mill Branch. The canyon is again small but again, extremely beautiful. The site where the grist mill was, still has the gear cogs of the mill, the holes in the rock where the mill perched on the top of the falls, and you get a sense of an area that is extremely rich in history. Iron ore (orange color) seeps out of the walls of this grist mill canyon area. Even the old road bed is still there with ruts in the wagon wheel tracks indicating a heavily traveled road. If you like history, this area is very odd in that you sense this was a hub of activity for many years for many family members. It is all abandoned and left for the elements of time to consume now. Most people passing by have no clue of the history that has happened on the grounds they walk. We hope we can change some of that as you read.

Part of the Instrument Panel of the Hughes 369A Helicopter
As we first enter into the canyon, little did we know we were stepping into such a gold mine of history and later to find out, tragic area of history. We will share this story with you as you read on. It is captivating. After about 15 minutes of walking into the canyon, we come across a shiny burnt piece of metal laying on the ground. Closer inspection yields it is part of an instrument panel out of some type of aircraft. Wow! What the devil is this about? Looking around further, we find what looks like either a door handle or a tie down point used on some aircraft. Wow, there must have been an aircraft that crashed here some time ago? We take pictures of the instrument panel part, the handle or tie down point, and we move on. As we walk down the canyon, we notice that apparently the U.S. Forest Service burned the area off some time back, because we saw elements of trees burned years ago, and even the aircraft parts were burned. As we move down into the canyon, we are stunned to find a massive shelter near the Key Mill branch. It has two rooms in it. Further inspection yields carvings on a rock inside one of the dark rooms! It has 1909 carved on it, with a 9 backwards. So strange. We come across this all the time on trees in the Bankhead. Is it illiteracy back during those times? Was it a fad? Who knows. Also beside it was the letters KE. Either it is a sorority letters from a college or letters of someone?  The shelter is amazing in it's size, and is well worth the trip to see it. We knew there was one there but had no ideal of it's size. It is just across on the other side and down from the actual Key Mill site. We take tons of pictures, look in amazement at the size of the shelter, and then move on up stream to the mill site. Justin who is with us, has already seen all of this, so we hinge on him on where to go. When we arrive at the mill site, it was a little disappointing in some respects. It appears to be just this small little canyon area that has a rather small 15-20 foot high waterfall. As we approach the waterfall, Thomas, one of my hiking buddies points to the ground. There are gear cogs from the mill! Awesome! We have hit the jackpot! We take tons of pictures of the gears and the area. There are even holes cut into the rock up on top of the falls, indicating where the foundations of the mill were planted to hold the massive gear water wheel and grist mill components. As you listen to the waterfall sounds and enjoy the beauty, you cannot help but think back and imagine a building on top of the waterfall with the gristmill. Wagons bringing corn to the mill, it was a bee hive of activity I am sure in it's time. All of this is now silenced by the sounds of water and forest undergrowth of times gone by. As we decide to venture on upstream from the mill site on the branch that feeds the site, we hit another awesome find! A beautiful and tall cascading waterfall with a deep green/blue water hole at the base of it. Pictures, pictures, pictures. What a place! These kinds of sites make you wish you could come back in the summer and take a dip in the clear pool of water, but then again you think about the ticks, chiggers, snakes, and mosquitoes you would have to contend with. OK, enough of that thought! At any rate, what a place to visit! We discover old road beds that lead to the mill with deep ruts, indicating again, this place was heavily used over the years.
Our camp overnight is rather uneventful other than a few hoot owls and coyotes in the night, but the area we are in is unbelievable! After our return trip home, Thomas digs up the history about the mill, and Justin uses the internet to trace the aircraft crash parts. WOW! What a story to tell on both sides! If you want to read about the family history of the place, then use the link at the bottom and read an article from the Moulton Advertiser Newspaper from 2005. You have got to read it to believe it. This family, and this place are quite a story to tell!
Now, lets focus for a moment on the tragedy of this location in more modern times. Justin's research on this aircraft reveals a very, very, sad, but interesting story. The following has been taken from FAA crash investigation reports. Turns out, this site was the impact area of a helicopter that crashed on May 13, 2007. The story behind this accident is both tragic, but interesting at the same time. Records viewed online about the crash submitted by the FAA are highlighted below. My heart cringes when I read this report and while you read it, your heart sinks to your stomach. This had to be a horrific crash at the Key Mill branch area.

Part of a tie down point on the bottom of the Hughes 369A helicopter.

On May 13, according to various news sources on the internet, a 26 year old pilot by the name of John Scott departed Merkel Field in Sylacauga, Alabama with a newly purchased but used Hughes 369A helicopter that came from Lakeland, Florida. Scott had been flying helicopters since he was 18 according to news reports from the internet. The helicopter he was piloting this day was a 1968  OH-6A Army helicopter that had been refurbished and renamed as a Hughes 369A. It had been purchased in Florida and it was his job to fly it back home. He departed at 4:45 p.m from Merkel Field. He was headed for Muscle Shoals, Alabama/Northwest Regional Airport to refuel and work his way back to his home town in Kansas in "hops", as many helicopters do on long journeys. He checked in with Birmingham airport via aircraft radio as he moved up Alabama. He notified Northwest Regional  Airport by radio as well that he was headed that way. At about 6:30 p.m. over Bankhead National Forest, something horribly went wrong while in the air. He crashed at Key Mill Branch in the Bankhead National Forest. It was not until a couple of days later on May 15th that locals discovered the wreckage, and part of that was due to a massive fire set off by the impact. The story of this pilot is tragic even more so. Apparently, the rotor blades of the helicopter just ripped apart and separated in mid-flight, and the helicopter descended from over 1,000 feet up, dropping like a rock from the sky. The impact was so severe it set off a major forest fire that burned a large part of the forest area, so that is the reason we saw so many trees and evidence of a fire in the area. It was not from a planned burn by the forest service as we presumed, it was from the tragic crash! Here is where the story gets a little more strange and interesting at the same time.  Amazingly, NTSB/FAA officials found near the impact, the pilots personal GPS hand held unit that revealed even more clues to this horrific event along with personal property that was returned the family. The hand held GPS was not severely burned or damaged from the crash and apparently fell far away from the impact and fireball of  the main crash area and fuselage. After examining the data from the hand held unit, the GPS shows the helicopter was traveling towards Muscles Shoals at around 110 mph when the blades apparently separated. The helicopter he was piloting was traveling at 1,314 feet when the event apparently happened. Because of the in flight separation of the rotor blades, it basically broke the helicopter in many pieces. They are scattered all over and around Key Mill Branch area and will be there for many years to come. The U.S. Forest Service  had to build a road back to the crash site for the remains of the helicopter to be removed. Remnants of the road still exist and to this day, the Forest Service employees coin that road "helicopter road". The helicopter apparently burst into flames while in the air because there are two separate areas on each side of the canyon that as of this writing, still show where fires burned around the area. One area is on the south side of the canyon where these parts shown were found. The other main impact area of the fuselage  was on the north side of the canyon and pine trees exhibit fire damage as high as 8-10 feet high up on them. According to the FAA/NTSB report, The exact cause of WHY the blades on the helicopter separated could never be fully determined and  the report also stated aircraft doors, blades, and other parts were scattered in a wide area from the break up in mid air after the blades came off the helicopter. This leads me to believe that as time goes by, other explorers of this area will find pieces and parts left from this tragic day and wonder as we did. The log flight book of this aircraft was never recovered. Did it burn in the crash, or is it scattered into this remote area for someone to find one day? Only time will tell that.  So as I held that piece of aircraft in my hand, truly, sadness pours over me now. Remnants of a horrific helicopter crash that claimed the life of a very young 26 year old pilot one afternoon in 2007 at Key Mill Branch. Life is always full of twists and turns as we walk it's pathways. Bankhead is always full of surprises.As I have always said on my journeys to Bankhead National Forest, you just never know what you will find or experience.

Until the next journey in God's outdoors, we will see you later!

For more fascinating reading about Joseph Francis Marion Key and the colorful character of his last wife, Mary Jane Key, go to this website:

The full accident report of the helicopter accident is quite interesting for those that might be interested in this: Go the the website and search accident records for a May 13, 2007 aircraft crash in Moulton, Alabama and read the full report. Your heart will cringe as you read the report. What a horrible way to pass from this earth for a very young pilot. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Canoeing/Kayaking Bear Creek in Alabama

Want some fun in the summertime? Like to canoe or kayak? Do you enjoy days with friends and family outdoors? Look no further than this small "spot on the map" that thousands enjoy every single summer in the south. It is about the ONLY place (during the hot summer months) within 80 miles of it where you can find a controlled and predictable water level every single weekend to float down a creek and have a blast!
I have known about this place for years, and so have locals. Over the past few years, it has exploded in popularity enough to where a commercial outfitter operates on this creek now. Where am I talking about? It's called the Bear Creek Canoe Run in Marion County, Alabama. It is just a few miles out from the small town of Bear Creek.

The Bear Creek Canoe Run or "Upper Bear Creek Run"is a stretch of water that has become famous over the years among those that love small boat sports.  

As described by TVA on their website:
"Upper Bear Creek Reservoir is one of four dams that provide flood damage reduction, recreation, and water supply in northwest Alabama. The others are Bear Creek, Little Bear Creek, and Cedar Creek. The Bear Creek area is popular with all types of boaters, including canoeists and kayakers. The Bear Creek Floatway, which flows from Upper Bear Creek Dam into Bear Creek Reservoir, is a popular spot for teaching first-timers to negotiate rapids and work with the current.
Below Bear Creek Dam, the Lower Bear Creek Canoe Trail provides a more leisurely float, running a total of 34 miles down the creek and all the way to Pickwick Landing Dam on the Tennessee River."

Some more facts on this place as stated on their website:
Upper Bear Creek Dam was completed in 1978.      
The dam is 85 feet high and 1,515 feet long.      
Upper Bear Creek Dam is not a hydroelectric facility. It has no power generators and produces no electricity.
Upper Bear Creek Reservoir extends 14 miles upstream from the dam.

Now that you know the background behind this place, lets talk about the canoe and kayak run. This blog is predominately written for first timers interested in going down this run.  The trip is perfect for whitewater kayaks, canoes of all sizes, and most all kayaks. It is a bit small for a 17 foot kayak but anything below that will work. It is perfect for the popular 9 foot kayaks that are selling everywhere. My wife, being tongue twisted with words talking to my daughter and I about us going out in our canoe and kayaks one weekend, used the term "Cohniacking". We belly laughed at her and the term has stuck in our family. It is the perfect trip for canoes and kayaks or Cohniacking". The trip I have been on many times is stated on the Alabama Whitewater Page as being 7 miles. My GPS twice has shown this to be a 8.86 mile run. Regardless, it is a day of fun you will talk about for a long time! I see many first time whitewater kayakers going down this stretch. It is perfect for anyone that wants to experience moving water for the first time. For the advanced folks in larger kayaks and canoes, I call it "The Chill Trip". A chance to chill out and relax and a chance to chill from the miserable heat of the summer months with this cool dam fed water. The water pours out of the bottom of the dam, so it feels ice cold.

The first thing to do is get there of course. The Bear Creek put in is located on Highway 241 just inside Marion County. For you GPS folks, the put in is N 34 degrees, 16 minutes, 41.21 seconds by W087 degrees, 43 minutes, 08 seconds (WGS84). For you non GPS folks, the put in is just south of the Highway 172 and 241 intersections in Marion County, Alabama (NW Alabama). It is a very small area beside the bridge crossing Bear Creek.  There are NO restroom facilities here so plan accordingly! Ladies take special notice of this! TVA runs the constant flow rate guaranteed of 220 CFS during the summer months only, but this makes it a magnet for boaters since most other creeks are dry this time of year. They only run this guaranteed minimum rate during weekends of the summer months and it ends on Labor Day weekend. You can poke around on the internet and find the TVA site for more information. Just enter "TVA Bear Creek" on a search engine and it will come up.  While we are this subject, another good source to read about this run is  During the summer months, I suggest getting there early, say 8 a.m. till 9:30 a.m. to unload your boats. Past 9:30 a.m. on Saturdays, traffic gets heavy and clogs the parking lot and will sometimes run out into the highway. I have had to unload my boat at times parked out by the highway. That is very dangerous and a pain to carry a boat so far. What really hoses the traffic, is when the one and only outfitter arrives with a van and a trailer full of boats. He or she expects to deliver their boats close to the put in location (understandably so) and this can really clog the  small parking lot. Once you unload your boats, naturally you will want to take a second vehicle to the take out and drop it off. The take out is located on the right side of Highway 172. To get to the take out from the put in, come out of the parking lot, turn left, cross back over the bridge and proceed north on 172. You will wind around up a hill and around a large curve and you will want to stay on Highway 172 proceeding north. You will pass the Highway 241 intersection on your right. Stay on Highway 172 until it dead ends into Highway 237. This is several miles so don't panic about missing a turn. There is a church at this intersection where 172 "T''s into 241, so it is a good "bench mark" for marking your turn coming back from the take out point. When you arrive to 237 at that church, turn left, or Southwest on what continues as Highway 172. At this church intersection that you are at, if you turn to the right, it is Highway 237 to Phil Campbell. Left it becomes 172 to Hackleburg. After you turn left on Highway 172, proceed on down a few miles and start watching for large TVA power lines crossing the road. Down past that a mile or so you will start going down into a canyon area. Look for Yellow posts on the right hand side of the road JUST before the Bear Creek bridge. This is the TVA take out point. Pull in here and I suggest parking up close to the road rather than pulling down as close as you can to the take out point. The reason is, it can get very crowded and if you park there close to the loading area, you might be there a while waiting on traffic such as the commercial outfitter rolling in with his trailer ready to pick up folks and blocking you in.  To my knowledge, there has been little problems of break ins in this area, so don't worry too much about the safety of your vehicle. There is a constant flow of people in and out of this area all day. Same is true at the put in. Once again here, there are NO restroom are changing of clothes type facilities. Guys will sometimes go off in the bushes and change into dry clothes here. The ladies seem to be out of luck.

 The run is actually one of the best runs in Alabama in my opinion for introducing people to running water. It is only a Class II at the most for every run except Factory Falls or maybe a class III just at the base of the falls. It is a mandatory portage because area and it is death warmed over if you decide to go off it. Signs warn you but many people can't or don't want to read them. The overall trip will start off with fast moving water and will go into some quiet areas, then pick back up. It goes back and forth like this until towards the end, where there is a small stretch where you have to paddle some, even with the current flowing. There are a couple of highlights of the trip to take in. Not to far down the stream from your launch is the famous "Rope Swing". You see it pictured on this blog. This is where "men become boys", and there is lots of fun here. Be careful because the bank and rocks are very slippery. I know a friend who lost a nice pair of prescription glasses here when his canoe flipped while getting out. If I told you of every rapid coming up, it would spoil the trip, so I will leave that for you to experience. It is spots like this that make it an ideal family trip.

About halfway on the trip, you will approach the strongest rapid on the trip, next to the one below Factory Falls. It is called "The Rock", and is THE place to take a lunch break. Everyone congregates on this rock to eat lunch, hit the bushes for natures facilities, and to relax and watch people go through this rapid which is right beside the large rock. The best thing to do is park your boat BEFORE the rapid. Haul your lunch over to the rock and watch people go down it. You will soon see the best way to go down it. After you eat your lunch, then go down the large rapids. From the rock, you watch people from all classes of society, all walks of life, and all skill levels come through this rapid. Some ace right through it while others turn over and articles in the boat go everywhere. It is great entertainment while you eat your lunch. When the water is low enough, people put on their life jackets and slide down the slippery slope that feeds into the rapids and go through it without being in a boat. I even watched a 5 year old go down it this way, several times! Most women could not stand to watch this and I agreed. The parents seemed so clueless of the dangers in this. If you go down this without a life jacket, I say "stupid is as stupid does". You are leaving no room for any error if you do this. THE ENTIRE area around this rock that has any water on it, is dangerous slick. If you are not careful, it will slam you to the ground like a 350 pound Sumo wrestler. Many like to creep across the stream before the rapids walking and go over to the other side where a natural water slide with an added rope by man is waiting you. You can slide down the rocks at incredible speeds. It is a great place to have a ball and to possibly break a leg if you are not careful. Most of the injuries in Bear Creek happen in this entire rest stop area, so be careful. You can also jump from the large rock off into the water. You can wade your way slowly out to the deep waters below the rapids to cool off. With the water being fed from the base of the dam, this is the most welcome water you could ever ask for in the middle of the summertime. The entire trip, the water is so cool, your body begs to take a dip. It is the perfect middle of the summer fun. I have been down this stretch in January, and you have to really watch water levels then, because it is not controlled. It is at natures mercy. It can be a fun float trip, or a raging dangerous place to be. If you search the YouTube channel, you will find bold kayakers going down Bear Creek when it is roaring, even down Factory Falls. Factory Falls with this high water level can be done fairly easy by experienced kayakers, but during the summer months, it would be a death trap to try it. You would plummet straight down into a large bolder.


Just a couple of hundred yards past the rock, you come to the mandatory portage of your boat on the trip-Factory Falls. Stay to the right side as you approach this area and pull your boat up onto the rocks. Use this moment to walk to the left over and look down at Factory Falls. It is a great time also to look over and see where you will be putting your boats back in after the portage. Some bold people put them back in on a class III rapid just below the falls. Unless you are somewhat experienced, I would not recommend that. You should put your boat in just about 20 feet past that last rapids. Here the water is calmer and you can put your boat up in a calm area  (eddy) while waiting on your party to get all the boats in the water with you. The picture above shows the put in point just below the rough water. Other boats are waiting on this boat just to the left out of the field of view. Take your time portaging your boats down to the put in point below the falls. It is all rock and a great place to slip and fall.

 At the time of this writing (August-2012), Strong storms a couple of months before dropped trees left and right along this last stretch. It is so bad that there are about 4 trees you will have to navigate through because they have fell into the water. It is not a major deal, but if you are not careful, a great place to try and do the limbo, and the creek will win! Take your time on this last half. You are finished with all the fast moving water that will make beginners nervous. Enjoy the trip, and if it is hot enough, it would be a great time to pause for one more swim. A cue that you are getting close to the take out point is power lines crossing the creek. Not to much further down you will see the bridge or Highway 172. Go under the bridge, shoot through some small moving water and on the right up ahead is some concrete steps. MAKE sure everyone in your party is aware of the take out point. Miss this and you will go for several miles before the next place to take out is. Worst case you would come out by the Bear Creek Outfitter by another highway, but you will be doing a lot of paddling because the water goes down to little flow rate by that point. Most trips I have taken show a put in around 9:30 a.m. and a take out from 3:30-5:00 p.m., depending on how long you stay at the rope swing, the rock or elsewhere. Have fun, be safe, and be sure and relax on this trip. Regardless if you are a veteran whitewater kayaker, or a first time canoe or long boat kayak paddler, this trip has something for everyone and almost any small boat. Don't have a boat and want to go on this trip with friends or a group? Check out the one and only outfitter at Bear Creek Canoe Rentals out of Hackleburg, Alabama. Their address and phone number are located on the web. Last question many might ask is, "Can I camp overnight along this route?". The answer is definitely NO! It is ALL private property along the way. TVA has campgrounds around Bear Creek Reservoir. You can find out more by poking around on the internet. One of these days property owners are going to stop the casual use of their property if the trash gets out of hand. I dread that day if it comes. Also, the water level at dark is returned to normal which is little more than a wimpy creek with little to no water flowing. At sunrise Sunday morning, they crank it back up. Remember, the water flow only runs like this during the weekends and only during the summer months! See you outside for another trip again down the road!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Burgess Falls-Tennessee's BEST Kept Secret!

America has so much to offer in terms of beauty and history.  Much of what it has to offer is hidden "under the radar screen" for people to easily find and explore. Such is the case with a discovery a good friend of mine made in July of 2012 in the southern part of the United States. He shared the discovery with me and oh am I glad he did!


I was traveling north one Friday morning with my wife and daughter up the great state of Tennessee to a place called Sparta for a weekend wedding. I had been asked to run audio at a small church for a friend of mines son's wedding. We were staying in the city of Cookeville, Tennessee Friday night with the wedding on Saturday. My good friend David, along with others from my local church were driving up that way as well. On Friday of the drive up, I opted to travel the back roads and end up in Cookville rather than take the usual GPS routing on interstates. David, with his family, decided to do the same thing as well. The mistake I made was selecting to go to a store in Cookeville and shop upon arriving. David was looking for a place of nature to take his family, so he was looking for signs pointing him in the direction of nature and trails. David chose to follow the signs of a little known State Park to go see. I am glad he did!

Friday afternoon, when we met up at the hotel we were staying at, I asked him, well, did you find anything? With a look of anxiousness, he replied, "oh yeah, I got to show you a place that we found!" In a conversation later on after we got moved in to the hotel room, we decided to head out early Saturday morning about 6 a.m. and check it out. The wedding was not until 2 p.m. so we decided we had time to check it out and get back in time. I was up for adventure and exploring, but had no ideal what lay ahead and how it would change my outlook on what I have seen in the south so far.

The Exploration Begins

Saturday morning, David and I head out with him as the driver. We head south out of Cookeville, Tennessee. As  we get off the beaten path onto some roads, it is clear we are headed into the middle of no where. Very few signs dot the landscape as you drive along. Only an occasional 3x3 brown sign with white letters that says Burgess Falls State Park with an arrow. As we pull in, I am somewhat disappointed. A very small mini-park is all I see with a small building for the headquarters, playgrounds, picnic tables, and a restroom. The sign says park closes 30 minutes before sunset, opens at 8 a.m. No one in the park after dark. This is not even a campground, it is just a day use picnic area I thought. That is about it. As we exit out of the van, David says "wait to you see this." I am thinking to myself, from what I have seen so far, it doesn't even come up to the expectation of a "State Park".  As we start out walking down a fairly large trail beside the creek (Falling Creek it is called), I see what I would call a fast moving river instead of a creek. There is a sign that says "100 foot waterfall" on the first sight beside the trail. The usual water flowing sounds abound! The scene is pretty and well worth the time to stop, take pictures, and admire. As you move on down the trail, you come upon what appears to be an old bridge with the cables still in tact that supports beams that go across the creek. This shows that some kind of bridge from long ago that extended across the creek. It looks very old, so I stop to take pictures of it. As we move down the trail, we notice lots of tributary streams that normally empty into this creek and flow under the trail/bridges along the way, but with the drought going on lately (July of 2012), nothing excess is flowing into the stream. It is all dry, however, the main river or creek rages with water flowing and the noise is intense. As we move on down, we come upon a sign and we can hear the noise of another waterfall. A sign says "Middle Falls". We soon see a beautiful waterfall that has a sharp slope on it. Water is raging down this slope and the waterfall is wide and beautiful. I snap some pictures and shoot some movies of it. You have a great vantage point to take pictures of the entire falls. David says "and now for the grand waterfall, lets go". We move on down the trail and come upon a site I have never witnessed while living or traveling throughout the southern United States. It was this massive, monstrous, shaking the ground with thunder loud, waterfall! An observation deck allows you to move up to a point and get a view that is soothing to the soul. It is a massive canyon that opens up with this massive waterfall spilling into it. It is like a scene taken from South America, on a much smaller scale. I am beside myself with words, so I just start snapping pictures and taking video left and right. David had brought his family up to this point the day before and had to turn around and head back. It is a 3/4 mile trail to this point and easy walking, they were just out of time. After I bathe in this beauty from the observation point, David smiles and points to a sign and says "are we up for the challenge?". The sign says "To the base of the waterfall-Difficult Hike" or something similar to this. We both say, hey, we got to do this! We head down the trail and wind around getting closer to the top edge of the falls. The noise is intense. As we get right beside the top base of the falls, we see some elaborate metal steps going done to the base of the falls. A long descent in 2 or 3 sections. We head down. As we get to a level spot, we see we are about half way down in the height of the falls. I pause to shoot some video and snap some more pictures. We continue on and realize at this point, we are going to have to climb down rocks to descend to the bottom of the falls. We finally arrive at the bottom and he and I are really taken back. You don't know what to say. This massive and tall wall of water is tremendous in terms of size, noise, and beauty. There are what is called "Katabatic Winds" that cause a tremendous and continuous 20-30 mph winds that race outward from the base of the falls. It has a jet mist spray and the foliage is roaring back and forth from the outflow winds of this waterfall. There is a vat of 2-3 feet of dirty foam that is in on one side of the waterfall that "jiggles" every now and then from the strong outflow winds. Occasionally, you see a chunk of foam blow off from this and sail off into the wind. David and I are beside ourselves. We are on an emotional high. I have traveled all over Alaska and I have seen waterfalls there, as well as in Washington State, Oregon, California, North Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and other states. THIS waterfall is THE most beautiful waterfall I have ever seen in the Southern United States. Little known, little talked about, off the beaten path, hidden from the majority of the public, and absolutely one of Tennessee's BEST kept secrets in my book!

Rich in History

This area is teaming and rich in this countries history. The land on which this very small 150 acre park rests dates back to 1793. Thomas Burgess, was paid his final veterans compensation for service in the Revolutionary War with a land grant from the newly formed United States Government.  The Falling Water River played a central role in the nearby logging and farming community in later years. The river once powered a grist mill and a sawmill. The City of Cookeville recognized the power production potential of the river in the early 1920's, long before the Tennessee Valley Authority or TVA was formed. An elaborate gravity-fed piping system channeled water from a concrete dam (still there) down flumes and across the creek with an elaborate bridge of cables and supports (still standing to see) and weaved it's way down to a pump house (foundations still there) near the base of the falls. During it's path, it even when through a tunnel in the mountain (now closed off to the public). The power plant where this ended provided power for the area and for Cookville. In later years when TVA was formed in the south, they rendered the the system obsolete and it was all shut down. The remnants of this site remind us of the resourcefulness and engineering skills of the people in this area and from this time period.


Regardless of where you are reading this blog from, put this area on your "must see" list. It will only take you a half a day or a full day to explore, but you will never regret it. I plan to spend many more trips up here to explore this absolutely beautiful and historical place in America at a tiny footprint in the road called Burgess State Park.