Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Indian "Bird Man Tree" Carving and Suprise Waterfall in Bankhead National Forest

When my friend Thomas suggested we take a day hike to the "Bird Man Tree", I really had no ideal what he was talking about. I was certainly ready to go anywhere in Bankhead National Forest so I told him sure, let's go! As is always the case with Bankhead NF, it is full of surprises.
We left Wren and set out for Leola Road (Lawrence County Road 90) off of Highway 33. We proceeded down Lawrence county road 90 (or also called Forest Service Road 249). We then turned onto county road 89 or also a continuation of U. S. Forest Service road 249. We pulled into the first turn off after getting onto 89. Leaving the truck, we proceeded down the old U.S. Forest Service road 249A. It has been closed to traffic for about 10-15 years. The "blow down" as we often call it or fallen trees was terrible after about 1/2 of mile in. Pretty soon, we came to a very thick grove of pine trees planted by the Forest Service. It was so thick, you could not walk or penetrate the pines, so we went off to the left of the road into a canyon. As we proceeded down about 1/8 of a mile, Thomas grinned when he discovered some writings on a tree. Thomas checks all the Birch trees he can get to. As stated in some previous blogs, Birch trees can hold carvings for several hundred years if carved deeply into them. The carving Thomas found on the tree got both of us excited! It had 1927 carved into the tree as well as 1938. The tree was beside what looked to be an old road that went nearby the tree. That explained the carvings. I am sure that tree could really tell some stories if it could talk. The old road bed looked like it had been used heavily at one time.

After leaving the 1927/1938 tree, we noticed that hemlocks were growing more and more populated as you looked down the canyon. We both knew we were on to something. Neither he or I had been to this part of the canyon before, and from the looks of the growing number of hemlocks, the scenery was going to do nothing but get better. Anytime you see hemlocks or often called "evergreens" by some, it tells you that the canyon has plenty of water flowing, and that the evergreens of moss, hemlocks, ferns and other plants are "dead ahead". The canyons in the Bankhead are so unique and beautiful compared to anywhere else in the country. The normal forest in December is pretty brown, dull, and boring in scenery. The canyons have all the green plants sheltered in them and offer almost a completely different climate. The temperature is cooler, everything is green and appears like it would in summertime. As we proceeded on down the canyon, we noticed it getting deeper and deeper. Soon we found where two streams fed into each other and formed a larger branch. Some 150 feet ahead, a massive 70 foot waterfall spewed the contents of those streams on down deeper into a deep canyon. We had hit a gold mine! A massive waterfall we knew absolutely nothing about! There is no name on the map for this priceless view, so since we were headed to the Bird Man Tree on down the canyon, we simply named it "Bird Man Falls".

The canyon was so deep that we discovered that we could not get down into it without walking an additional 1/2 mile up above through some very, very thick foliage! The terrain was exceptionally rough and to our right up us moving down the canyon was a massive pine thicket that there was no way to penetrate, so we had a very narrow passage of thick foliage to get through on top of the canyon. Upon arriving down into the bottom of the canyon, we headed back towards the waterfall. Along the way were two very different surprises! First, a possible Indian Marker Tree and a "half moon" carved into a tree up near a bluff. There is a special meaning to that half moon you will find out later on as you read. The canyon was FULL of massive Poplar trees in large sizes. I could not believe how large they were. I snapped several pictures of them and collected a few "waypoints" on my GPS unit. A couple of "odd" facts on the possible Indian Marker Tree and the half moon carved on the tree. First, the possible marker tree was pointing almost due south. It also lined up with the carving of the half moon on a tree some 75 yards in a straight line. Way to "chance" for me. I feel like it was some kind of Indian sign or markers pointing to something.

After taking pictures of the trees, we proceeded on up to the waterfall we came upon earlier but could not get access to. BOY was it worth it! The waterfall dropped some 70 feet into a beautiful pool of water below it. It then roared on down the canyon at a pretty fast pace. Thomas and I took our time here, to absorb all the scenery, shoot pictures, and record "waypoints" on our GPS units. This stream eventually empties into Brushy Creek, just downstream from the famous Indain Bird Tree carving. We spent a good 30-45 minutes in the canyon admiring the waterfall. Thomas said he knew nothing of it and that probably very few people knew of as well. We saw really no indication anyone had been here in a long time. It is so remote and such rugged country, I doubt that it has been visited in a while.
After about another 30-45 minutes walking downstream from the falls, we finally discovered our "jackpot". There, down by Brushy Creek as Thomas remembered was still the famous "Indian Bird Man" tree. This carving is very odd. It is like nothing I have ever seen before. It kind of looks like a stick man with a hat and a bird figure face. Thomas Graham, one of my hiking buddies with me on this trip, says the carving was reported by his mother some 10-15 years ago. After further investigation by some experts, it was found that this carving has been found in different parts of the south. It has been carved into rocks and seen with other Indian markings in other states. According to Thomas, nobody seems to have any ideal as to what it means. The moon figure we found up the canyon was the same shape as the one included on the Bird Man figure carved in the tree. Very interesting! As far as we know, nobody knows about the half moon carving we found on the tree back up in the canyon above. The possible Indian Marker Tree and the half moon were marked with our GPS units and we documented them with video and pictures. You must remember that the Indians had no "language or alphabet for many, many years. They went by signs and symbols. An IMAX film crew out of Atlanta walked in about a year ago and filmed this tree. The are compiling a documentary on Indian carvings across the United States and spent some time in Bankhead National Forest filming Indian carvings and markings. Nobody seems to know when the documentary will be released.
After taking all the pictures and video we could take of the tree, we ate lunch at the tree, and then headed on back home. It turned out to be a full day's work to get to this tree, but WELL worth it considering the waterfall that surprised us. I encourage anyone who is in the area to try and see some kind of Indian carvings in the forest. They are very special and really put a perspective on truly how rich in history an area really is. By the way, Thomas took a yellow colored piece of chaulk in with us and outlined the carving in the tree to see it better. After the first rain, the carving will return to it's normal state and not be so pronounced.

A VERY exciting day and a lot of knowledge gained. Another day to be thankful for the great outdoors and the adventures it brings.

UPDATE 11-18-2011: Not very long after this article was written, a storm came through the area and a tree fell on the famous Bird Man Tree. It would take paragraphs to explain what all transpired, but basically through the efforts of volunteers, the National Forest Service allowed the tree to be cut down and preserved in a museum. It is now in Lawrence County at the Indian Oakville Mound Museum. A process of trying to preserve it went underway and I understand it is now in safe keeping for everyone to view now. Attached above are some pictures of the tree that fell on it and prompted it being cut down, as well as early photos when McKinney Graham first discovered the tree and showed it to locals in 1992.

Monday, December 21, 2009

8 Stunning Waterfalls in ONE Bankhead National Forest Day

We have all heard the term "Timing is Everything". This turned out to be truly the case on what started out as a very simple overnight trip in Bankhead National Forest. Almost every trip we go on in the woods, we seek a goal of seeing this or doing all of that. We plan our routes, the camps, the highlights all out. The goal on this trip...Visit and see as many waterfalls as possible. We started out with a total of 6 guys for the trip. 3 of them were day hikers and 3 of them were staying overnight. Rainfall in downpours on Friday knocked our 3 day trip into a two day trip. BUT, the multitude of water and overcast clouds helped us in many ways. It allowed for beautiful pictures since it was overcast, the immense amounts of water yielded gushing waterfalls and added to the beauty, but the extra water meant more problems navigating beside the streams.

If you are not exactly familiar with the area and don't really care for the details and locations, please bare with me as I explain locations to you while caring you with us on this adventure.

We parked our cars off Cranal Road just past the Wolfpen Hunting camp. Taking the canyon into the Sipsey Wilderness, we wound around past carvings on trees, one of which had dated 1918 on it. The base camp destination was on Eagle Creek , just above Eagle Creek Falls. This was supposedly an old camp for loggers back in the 1940's. Barbed wire is left at the site still and so the "story" goes, the mules used in the logging were kept here. This was going to be our base camp before we ventured on to other falls.

After arriving on Eagle Creek to set up base camp, 3 of us began setting up camp while the day hikers talked and visited around the area. After a weeks worth of torrential rains, the creeks were "roaring" with water and sound. The ground was soaked from a heavy rain the day before, and so finding good firewood was going to be tough. Thomas, a good friend camping with me is always one step ahead in this area. He had talked two of the hikers into bringing two store bought fire logs with us to the camp. As we found our later, these two logs were going to be a life saver. More on that later.

After about an hour for the setup of camp, we all tore out downstream of Eagle Creek anxious to see some more scenery. First stop was the main Eagle Creek Falls. These falls are always a beauty. They used to be even more beautiful then they are now. Several years ago, some trees were downed from a storm surrounding the falls. This killed the dark canopy that once ruled over the falls and protected the moss and ferns from the straight sun. As a result, the sun has parched a lot of the remaining hemlocks, moss, and ferns that used to cover all around the falls, and converted it to a rather boring looking falls for scenery in my opinion. There is little to no moss growing now but still, with the stair step drops it yields for falls, it is still very pretty. We worked our way on down Eagle Creek. Just up ahead, two more nameless waterfalls that I had seen before, but with all the rain we had the week before, these small waterfalls were spewing wide open with water. One of these waterfalls is on the left going down, and then the second one is on the right. They were small but very beautiful. Working our way down the creek proved to be quiet a labor. I have been used to just walking the stream bed in years past down this path, but with the water levels so high now, we found ourselves challenged in every way to work our way down Eagle Creek. Many times, our path would take us up a 45 degree incline and then back down, sometimes crossing the creek back and forth. After about a quarter to a half a mile hike, we came to the intersection of Eagle and Little Ugly Creek. Here, we turned left and headed up Little Ugly Creek. This my friend is one of my favorite stretches out in Bankhead National Forest. No where else can you be right in the heart of the Sipsey Wilderness Area, see so many waterfalls within reach, and see little to no one! You basically have the whole place to yourself. As we hiked our way up the canyon, you begin to notice that you are all in "hemlock country". The tall hemlocks provide a blanket of tropical atmosphere in the canyons of Bankhead. Even in the dead of winter, you can walk down into a hemlock canyon and see green all around you. It is like another world. That is what makes the Bankhead so unique. I have been blessed to travel to Arizona, California, Oregon, Maine, Alaska and many other locations, and NOWHERE will you find such diverse plant growth with bluffs, hemlock trees, and canyons. In fact, you will be lucky to find one single bluff shelter in the Great Smokie Mountains or the Cohutta Wilderness in northern Georgia. There are hundreds and hundreds of bluff shelters in Bankhead. This again, makes Bankhead a very unique place.

As we get closer to Deer Skull Falls, the sound becomes louder and louder. Within 15 minutes of walking, we have arrived. Truly a breathtaking site and worth every muscle of work to get to it. Deer Skull Falls, is actually two waterfalls that come together beside each other. The term Deer Skull was coined to them but actually they are Deer Skull "A" and Deer Skull "B". Deer Skull "A" is on the main branch of Little Ugly Creek, and is not very high, but is unique because of it's glowing orange color "iron ore" that bleeds out through the rock. To the right is Deer Skull "B" waterfall. It is breathtaking when there has been lots of rain. It towers up about 80 feet and drops by steps, 6-8 of them as it makes it way down. Take some time sitting and watching both of these waterfalls. Your mind will relax like you have not felt in a long time. After pulling all of this in, shooting 17,000 pictures (just kidding) of the falls, we sat down and ate lunch. As you sit there and admire the beauty, you suddenly feel very cold. That's because in December with the high temps only in the low 50's, the cool mist blowing off the falls can send a chill down to your bones real fast, especially if you are sitting on a cold rock! Such as the case with me. I had to stand up, move around and finish out the lunch. The chill was soaking in fast.

By now, the time was 1:15 p.m. With short days, we knew we had to get going fast if we were going to see a host of other waterfalls. As we departed, the day hikers decided they would not have time to complete the planned journey and get out to the truck before dark, so they proceeded back up Eagle Creek to go home. That left myself, my nephew, and my good camping buddy Thomas to finish out the journey. As we headed down Little Ugly Creek going past where we had come in earlier, we noticed an absolutely stunning giant tall waterfall on the other side of the creek from where we were on Little Ugly Creek. We took pictures, shot video of it, pulled out the map and realized this was Hemlock Creek Falls. We decided we MUST investigate it on the way back. We could not find a quick place to cross the creek and get to it, so we marched on. Next up on the planned stop was Fernglade Falls. It was on the right side of Little Ugly Creek. We had found a place to cross over the creek this time so getting to it was easy. It was a little bit of a let down. It had a massive Poplar Tree up near it, but was not the tall "falling off of a bluff" type waterfall like I had hoped for. It was more of a 100 foot tall, stair step type falls, with much of it going under rocks and underground slightly. It's roar was incredible, so you knew that it was big. It just was hiding a lot of it's contents in the rocks and underground as it plunged down the 100 feet drop. After a short time here and a few picture snaps, waypoints taken on our GPS units, we were on to the next and last stop......Wolfpen Creek Falls. As we made our way around the top of the canyon up by Fernglade Falls, we found where Feral Hogs had made a massive mud hole underneath one of the bluff shelters up by the falls. Feral Hogs are absolutely ruining the forest. If left unchecked, they will destroy much of the forest. I have seen them take a beautiful hemlock area and root the ground up like a tiller pulled by a tractor, rub all the bark off any trees nearby, and severely scar many of the others by sharping their tusks on the trees. Feral Hogs are basically barn raised pigs that have gotten loose and are managing on their own. Since they grow and multiply like rabbits, they are taking over the forests in the Southeast. I cannot stress enough how much they are destroying the forest.

As we moved on down what is now Sipsey River, since Little Ugly Creek empties into Sipsey, we came across some very strange carvings on a tree. It looked like someone was trying to be cute, it was Indian Carvings, or just some writing that had faded away badly, we don't know. It sure caught our eye though. We snapped a few pictures and then headed on. Wolfpen Creek Falls requires a pretty good little 1/4 of a mile hike to get to it up the canyon. We walked and walked and I thought we would never find this waterfall. Pressure was mounting on us, knowing that it gets dark very soon, and we were 2 miles from camp through some very rough country. Finally, at 3:00 p.m., we made it to Wolfpen Falls. Well worth the trip because there was also a very impressive side falls up near the main Wolfpen Falls. It had about a 50 foot drop. We snapped tons of pictures, moved on around the canyon and Thomas found an interesting deal. He located an opening up under a bluff that apparently was the opening to a small cave. Thomas, being a bluff and cave lover, asked to borrow my flashlight and proceeded right into the hole! He said it had a small dry room about 10 feet long and 5 feet wide. It was very dry up in it. There was a slight moldy smell though that came out from the hole. I don't think I would want to spend the night in there, but it would make a great tornado shelter. I can only imagine how many rattlesnakes make their way in there during the summer. After admiring the shelter, we realized we needed to get our tails out of there and head back to camp if we were planning on making it back before dark. We left out about 3:15 p.m. headed back at a rather fast pace of walking. We had lights, maps, ham radio, and GPS units to get back to camp with, so we were not worried about getting lost. It was the added danger of negotiating bluffs, slick mud rocks, and the falling danger with so little light that started to get us a little worried. We picked up our pace considerably coming back with a little bit of anxiety. As the evening light got lower and lower, we made it back to Hemlock Falls, the falls I mentioned to you earlier. This is a 60-90 foot waterfall that plunges water straight off the top of the bluff. Man this waterfall will catch your breath....It was so impressive.....We said "we must come back to this one". After snapping several pictures of the falls in VERY low light, we tore out at an even faster pace trying to get back to camp above Eagle Creek Falls. By now, it was 4:30 p.m. and the light was getting very, very, low. As we arrived into camp, it was at the point where a flashlight was needed to see anything. We definitely pushed our limit on that one, but hey!...We got in 8 waterfalls in one day! How many people can say that! After reflecting back of our hard work for the day, it made me even more proud that we pushed ourselves to get all of them in that we wanted to see. I must tell you that with the anxiety of getting back before dark, coupled with the treacherous terrain, my legs were the sorest I have every felt in a long time. I pulled every muscle I had available in my legs that day. Supper never tasted better that night around the fire. There was no problem getting these 3 guys to fall asleep fast that night. We all went to sleep with the roaring sounds of Eagle Creek, roaring from all the water flowing. The only discomfort was the fire. With everything wet around us, people camping here from time to time, we were "flat out of luck" on any decent firewood. Thomas and his store bought fire logs were the lifesaver. We huddled around these tightly until 10 p.m. and then hit the beds.

The next morning was pretty simple compared to the previous day. Get up, eat some oatmeal for breakfast, tear down camp, pack up, and head out home. Another day older, but much wiser in appreciation for God's country and a "flushed out mind" ready for Monday's challenges of life.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Whiskey Stills-Indian Mortar Rock and a History Trip in Bankhead NF

Backpacking and camping on any trip yields different things at different times and sometimes some surprising unique experiences. Like many of the things in life, sometimes what you think might be very boring can turn out to be one of the more fun times you never expected. Over the Thanksgiving Holidays of 2009, my camping buddies and myself decided to try something different. Bankhead National Forest, located in North Alabama had a scheduled deer hunt on one half of the forest lands over the Thanksgiving holidays. The scheduled hunt covered all of the Sipsey Wilderness area that weekend which is our prime playground for adventure! For safety reasons, we decided to stick to the side of the forest with no scheduled deer hunt. Thomas, my good friend and camping buddy, loves bluff shelters and the history of the local area. We kind of put the load on him this time to be our guide and come up with a trip. Thomas picked a route that would be different from our normal routine. Most of the time, we pick an area very few have been nor would begin to think about because it is so remote. This time, Thomas picked the least obvious. He picked an area right behind the central forest tower and work center for the Bankhead district of the U.S. Forest Service. For most people that know us personally as adventurers, this route would be the least one we would pick.

Day 1

Before the trip started, Thomas wanted to show us a very old cemetery located in the National Forest. He took us to a cemetery named Tapsville. It was a very old community that I am sure at one time was alive with activity. The cemetery only had a few graves that could be made out with modern cemetery markers. Most of the graves were marked with stones. Just 100 yards down the hill, Thomas pointed out where the ground was cut out and held an old whiskey still at some point in time. That was neat going back in time and seeing this old cemetery. After that, we piled in the truck and headed out to start our journey.

We parked at a hunters camp full of deer hunters for the big weekend hunt. We pull up, get out, and start getting the backpacks ready. Immediately, the hunters suspect a "different" kind of folks that have pulled up in their area. We didn't pull out the guns, we pulled out the backpacks! It is funny but you get this weird feeling that they are thinking, yeah, some more "city folks" coming out here and clogging up the woods. The hunters that were there in camp gave us some "looks" as we loaded up and hit the woods. The part they don't know is that I hunted just as hard as them for 9 years and gave it up. I found more pleasure in walking the woods I love more than sitting on my tail with it asleep and watching one part of the woods. Everybody has their thing.

The plan was to hike in along a canyon that we had talked about exploring, set up base camp and explore for the next 3 days. The outdoors yields different things to different people. I love the hemlock canyons, the waterfalls, and the evergreens in the dead of winter in areas. I love camping around that type scenery. My buddy Thomas loves bluff shelters and historical artifacts. I too enjoy the history part and exploring bluff shelters. All of us on the trip did. Upon our arrival in the area, we were all kind of thinking that this might not have been such a good ideal. The area seemed kind of generic and bland with your typical winter time woods. After walking in about a mile, we set up base camp. Late in the afternoon as the sun starting setting low, a hoot owl erupted about 50 yards away and shook the woods. We all chucked, commented, and we never heard him again on the trip, but man it will wake you up that close. The moon came up that night with crystal clear skies..... I love those moonlight nights over the forest. Even though you don't see that many stars, being able to see in the woods and hear the sometimes distant calls of coyotes can really bring chills as well as comfort while out in the woods. Our exploring that day had only yielded a couple of interesting bluffs and an Indian mortar rock. I thought to myself that just seeing another Indian mortar rock would make it worth the trip.

Day 2-Surprises

We all slept late. Momma didn't "bang the pots" to wake us up nor did the alarm clock "blare out" that you need to "go to work today". It was simply just the pleasant sounds of birds chirping. I think so many of us forget that the body needs that kind of relaxation from time to time. It does wonders for me and flushes so much of the stress in my life away. The weather was perfect this day. The temp had gotten down to a cool 29 degrees. The forecast called for an absolutely beautiful day ahead with no clouds and a warm low 60's for temps. After some breakfast, we decided to pack up enough supplies and head out all day exploring and not return to base camp until the late afternoon. After walking no more than an hour, we discovered this beautiful "green area" ahead down at the base of a hill. As we approached, I thought we had discovered a really neat swamp area that was totally green. As we got closer, one of the guys said "oh crap!" We quickly noticed that the beautiful green swamp we spotted was NOT a unique swamp area but a massive game plot with green grass! We had walked right into private property! As we all stood their trying to decide if we were truly were on private property, I starting pulling out the map. We all knew there was some private property located in the middle of the forest close to us, but we did not think we had walked down that far. As I started unfolding the map, we all heard a loud whistle coming from the area over by the game plot. It was a definitely a whistle that said ONE of three things.....It said "hey, I am over here hunting- you jerks" or "hey- over to one of his hunting partners on the game plot with him that signaled that some jerk guys were trespassing on our land and headed this way". Either way, it spelled "get out of dodge" for us! We quickly departed and on the way out, noticed a big yellow sign that we had overlooked earlier. It said "Property Boundary-U.S. National Forest Service". O.K., so we are all slow readers, or we just didn't see it!.....That was our excuse and we were sticking to it. The true reality is that with current state laws, they could have shot at us and been perfectly legal. Getting out quickly was a smart thing to do. My heart sunk when it seemed that half of our exploring territory for this trip had been simply cut off. We stopped, talked about our options for the rest of this trip. Do we go out and go to another area to camp? Not enough daylight. Do we just simply deal with what we have left around us to explore? Yep, that seemed to be the most logical plan. We move on.

After 10 minutes of walking, we come upon a small little bluff shelter. Upon inspection in the shelter, some very strange lines and grid patterns that are discovered in rocks up under this shelter. To this day, I don't know what they are. It may be iron ore? Someone can correct me on this later after you see the pictures. After snapping pictures of this oddity, we move on up the canyon. We searched the bluff lines walking up high in the canyons. This is fun to do. You never know what you may find.
We discovered some more bluff shelters with small waterfalls running off of them. There are hundreds of these in the Bankhead National Forest. This is one of the things that makes it so unique from other areas of the country. They all hold hidden secrets of one thing or another. As we moved on up the canyon, we spotted the coolest thing. An old whiskey still. The metal remnants were pretty much intact. We grabbed a few pictures and then move on. All of these whiskey stills we find are the same in one respect. They are all next to a small stream and they are all positioned close to a road. Obvious but none the less interesting.

The next place we discovered surprised all of us I think the most. We move up a very boring looking area going up the canyon and noticed some writings on Beech trees as we moved up. Beech trees if you are not aware, are one of the few trees that when carved on, can last for up to 100 years. Many people used to mark property boundary lines using these types of trees. Some very old dates that we have found on trees in the Bankhead are just that. Property line markers. They might say "Smith-1912". On this day, the first tree we came to had 1958 carved on it. The second Beech tree had someone's initials, and 1973. As we walked up another 50 yards, we were set back and puzzled at what we discovered. This Beech tree was lined from top to bottom about 7 feet high. The carvings were so old you could not make out much of the writings. They were mostly peoples initials and dates with one that you could make out "Loves". Upon further inspection and discussion, we discovered a natural spring coming out of the ground right by this tree running into a stream. We decided that this must have been some VERY popular spring site and that people stopped here to draw water from the spring, and then carved on the tree. The stories this tree could tell if it could talk! This would have more than likely happened before and shortly after the government bought up the land to become a national forest. I stood there imagining the years when this was a popular spot. It felt odd and amazing being there, knowing that this site has been long forgotten and slowly fades into the history pages of the area. Life moves on. It is kind of sad in some ways because you realize that YOU are only one of millions people moving through time on this earth. Nothing is permanent in your life.

After a "sneak peek" walking up behind the National Forest Service work center at all of their "stuff" piled out back, we headed back down into the canyon to camp. A warm fire and much fireside chats yielded another moonlight night to sleep by, and this time the temperature only got down to 42.

Day 3-More Surprises

We tore down base camp and hit the trail early on this last day to get out of the area. We had plans to go see some more bluff shelters located in a different area that Thomas wanted to show us. In order to do this, we needed to hike out as soon as possible. We arrived at the truck around 9:00 a.m. After a short drive down the road, we left our packs locked in the cab of the truck and hiked down to 3 absolutely stunning bluff shelters. One was extremely large. TWO of the smaller bluff shelters nearby yielded some beautiful Indian Mortar Rocks. We all agreed that THIS is where we should have set up base camp. Perhaps another time and another trip.

Seeing these mortar rocks really stirs some emotions in me. You realize YES!, the Indians DID live out here. You don't have to just take some middle school or high school teachers words for it. You SEE where they lived and you witness the remains of that. Seeing all of the old whiskey stills has been interesting as well. Growing up in this area, I had always heard there were some stills out there at one time. Just HOW MANY is what floored me. It seems like every other canyon in the Bankhead near a road has the remnants of an old whiskey still. It must have been a really wild place back in the 20's, 30's, 40's, and 50's... The Civil War era probably had it's own stories out here as well, there is no doubt.

Another wonderful time in God's country. Ready for the next adventure....

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Camping Season 2009-2010 is Here!

Well, The summer is over and it is time to hit the woods and the water!
Look for hopefully many blogs to come this season which for us starts in November and ends around April. We are starting off in the Bankhead and have a big trip planned in the Cohutta Wilderness of Northern Georgia in December. First, I have many things to be thankful for and I have a new perspective on life that I would like to share with you if you don't mind. Everyone has a low point in their life and I certainly hit mine this past September. In mid-September of 2009, I was on a video production shoot with two co-workers in Vicksburg, Mississippi for a one week shoot and return home. On Wednesday night, I had to be admitted to the hospital with a "gall stone" attack. In great pain, the next morning they went in and broke up the stones with the intention of sending me back to Huntsville to have my gall bladder taken out after resting 2-3 days in the hospital. On Saturday, I had a massive attack and they had to do emergency surgery. I spent the next 9 days in the hospital with 2 of those in ICU. It has taken 6 weeks for my 11 inch long scar to heal and I am clear to start lifting over 5 pounds now. This little "deal" knocked me out of a work trip to Alaska as well. I was scheduled to fly out in two weeks after the shoot in Vicksburg. This absolutely crushed my spirit because those of you that know me, know how much I love Alaska. The guys went on without me but promised me trips back next year.

I don't know how well I will hold up with my backpacking and kayaking buddies on these upcoming hikes and kayak/camping trips, but I pray I can keep on going the same speed as they do. I am fine now with my health and I just need to get my strength back up. You never appreciate anything until it is hits you in the face and threatens you that you can loose it. I certainly value good health now and do not take it for granted. I hope to share many adventures ahead with all of you in the coming months.

Enough of me, you tune into the blog to hear about adventures and not about me, and adventures is what I hope to bring you soon through my writings and pictures! I also will be posting many pictures of the trips on facebook if you are a part of that. If not, I hope to share some pictures on the blog site as well!

Well, got to get the backpack out and start getting the camping stuff together. Look for the first trip and first blog around Thanksgiving. Until then, I will be walking and packing getting ready for the hikes and paddles. I want to walk the park here in my hometown on weekends carrying my backpack to get in shape. My wife says I will look like a "dork" and says she may walk BEHIND me instead of with me if I choose to do this.....LOL!...Adventure seeking we will go and we be sharing trips with you later! Thanks for being a part and sharing adventures with me!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Cades Cove-GSMNP-Bear Bear Everywhere

I don't normally write a blog from a family vacation, but when it packs adventure in the outdoors as this past vacation did, I could not resist in sharing it with everyone. This all happened in Cades Cove of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.

I will spare everyone the details of my family and this trip since many of you may not know my family at all. I will try and focus on the wildlife and outdoor adventure part of this trip. This trip, my wife and I have made every year for some 25 years. My daughter, now 22 years old, has made the trip with us just about every year of her life.  Also I might add that my wife's parents and some of her brothers and sisters make the yearly trip as well. They are all married with children, so it is a rather large party of folks making the trips around the cove in pickup trucks. This is an added excitement because with that many eyes peering out on both sides of the road, a bear or deer siting is bound to occur. The key is driving slow and watching very carefully. Most city folks blow through the cove and say "I didn't see a thing". A 350 pound bear could have been just behind that tree when you came through blazing at 30 miles per hour.

Cades Cove in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park is one of the most unique areas I have ever been to or heard of in all of my life.  No where else that I am aware of, is a place where from the comfort of your automobile, or from the comfort of your camp chair, experience so much wildlife before your eyes. The most amazing part of it is this.....You never know what you will see, what will happen, or what to expect every time you come here. The more you stay, the more you will see. In my 25 years of coming here, this last trip marks the most bear I have ever encountered viewing. The situation is so bad, that after talking to the Park Service workers, they are on "pins and needles" worried about someone being hurt, or having major problems in the campgrounds from the bear. I will explain more later on this. The way to encounter the most out of this area is to camp and live here for several days as we have done. The majority of most people do not do this. I can respect those that don't, but you must realize that you are missing out on a lot by not staying.

Arrival-We arrived Friday (May 29th) around noontime at the Cades Cove Campground. There was a light mist of rain and occasional shower while we were setting up our tents. The next days yielded nothing but beautiful weather. For the next 4 days, we would live, eat, and breath Cades Cove. What that means is this...Stay in a tent or camper (tent in our case) without hookups and running water, showers, and all the neat comforts we enjoy. Cades Cove means to spend the night in Cades Cove and make the 11 loop anywhere from 1-4 times each day. In order to do this, you will need to flush some of the modern comforts away like taking a bath every day. You need to learn the meaning of "bird bath" that your mother may have mentioned the term to you when you were younger. Basically, Cades Cove campground has no modern showers and bath houses. Our family usually goes about 3 days and cannot stand it by then, so we drive to Townsend, Tennessee,  pay $5.00 per person and take a shower, then return back to camp. This can be the best $5.00 you have ever spent. This is an incredible place to take children. They can ride their bikes around the campground and to the general store. For those of you that have been to this unique store, they told my daughter that before they started staying open past 5 p.m., they were selling in excess of 450 ice cream cones per day! Again, if you have been to this store, the ice cream (even though it is $2.50 cone) packs an amazing taste. When you arrive at this place, you chuckle because it seems out of the hundreds of tourists going in and out of the store and standing outside. More than half of them are holding ice cream cones.

Normally, every trip around Cades Cove yields so many deer that you see, that by day 3 or 4, you are bored of seeing 25-70 deer grazing in the fields each afternoon. As is the normal for viewing wildlife, morning and afternoon are the best times. We usually don't like going in the middle of the day around the cove because it yields so little of results. Instead, we use that time to hike, bike, or just simply sit around the camp. This year, anytime you drove around the cove, you would be treated with bear viewing....just about always! The Park Service says bear usually start coming in to the Cove more around mid to late June. This is the time the female deer give birth and the bears are waiting on this for a meal. This is also about the time the blackberries and other berries become ripe, so the cove is teaming with bear. For whatever reason, the bear where in there earlier than normal. The situation has gotten so bad that the Park Service is relying on it's network of park volunteers to help patrol the roads and keep traffic flowing. Normally, when you go around the cove, the first hint that someone sees a bear is when the traffic has come to a dead stop. "Bear gawkies" don't take the time to park a car. You just simply bail out and abandon it running wide open with your camera in hand if there is a hint of a bear ahead. The Park Service does not take kindly to that, seeing how traffic can back up a mile or more at times because of this. It is quite funny though. If you see the traffic stopped, the first word out of every ones mouth in the car is "BEAR". This year, the bear are so bad, that park volunteers dressed in uniform were stretched out and directing traffic every time there was a major bear show. We saw numerous mothers with their cubs, some as close as 100 yards from the main campgrounds. The Park Service has already begun transporting some of the problem bear out of the area. In fact, we saw on more than one occasion, the park's pickup truck with bear trap cages in the back.

One interesting note to our seeing bear everyday is the location they were in. Just about the same place every single day! They must have their own territories they stay in.  The closest visitor was a mother and her cub that was about 200 yards off the entrance to the cove. She gave us some VERY tense moments with her. I will tell you about that later. She and her two cubs hung out in the same area pretty much all the time. We would see her in that area at all times of the day except one. The day I hauled a commercial video camera in to get some video of them, they were no where to be found. Murphy's law is always there! I was however blessed to get some great video on the last day of two separate mothers with their cubs.  Another monster sized male bear could be spotted in just about the same area at the same time of day in the afternoon. I never saw this bear, but the family  members saw it it on a number of occasions.


Of all my years of camping in the back country and camping in Alaska, I have never had a problem with bears. I am always more afraid of bear when I camp at Cades Cove than in the back country. Why? Because bear in Cades Cove are not afraid of humans!  This was underlined to me again on this trip. Throughout all of our viewings of bears in Cades Cove, they behaved like normal with bear that are used to seeing humans. I have observed a standard practice with bears in the Cades Cove that are around people from time to time. Give a Black Bear his "space", and he will carry on as if you were not even there. If you invade his predefined space (by his or her standards), then you are about to get a shock. They normally " bluff charge" a person as I have observed over the years watching them in the cove. I was even stupid enough before I knew more about them  to get a very strong bluff charge on myself. I even captured the bluff charge on video as I turned the camera back looking behind me over my shoulder. It was sometime in the early 1990's. I have had 5 or 6 people ask me to find it. I hope to located it and post it here.  A "bluff charge" usually goes down like this. A bear is carrying on their normal activity. They will look up every now and then and check where you are at. If you keep getting closer and closer, at some point, the bear will look up, see where you are, grunt, snort, and tear out after you. They usually stop about 5-10 feet away from you and grunt or snort....telling you to back off!! I have video shot in the late 1990's of one doing just that to about 15  tourists hovering near one with cameras. It was hilarious to watch in that you knew exactly what was about to happen, and when the bear did his bluff charge, you have never seen so many tourists run as hard and as fast a trail to their cars. It was almost to the second predictable. The bear does nothing but eats, the people come in closer. The bear moves over a little bit and does nothing, the people come closer,  and then finally......too close! The bear in Cades Cove seem to know this, so they use this tactic a lot to clear their "space". The worry here is that one day, some bear is doing a bluff charge, spots a very small 5 year old boy running and the instinct kicks in to the bear that this is "prey". The boy gets singled out and well, we all know the rest of that story. That is exactly how a young girl died a few years ago near the Smokies in a National Forest. When the mother tried to stop the bear (she was mauled badly) it was sadly too late for the little girl. Now that I have your attention with this, let me tell you what happened Sunday mid-day on the 31st of May of our trip.  


A cousin of mine ( also husband to my wife's aunt) and I decided to carry a group of the family ranging from ages 5-7 on a "hiking trip" in the great outdoors. Some of the group were his grandchildren. My wife had already made the comment that "it might not be a great ideal to carry the kids hiking with so many bear around". The danger of that passed as all the adults thought of how neat it would be to take the kids out for an "outdoor experience". 
The first short hiking trip was a simple 1/2 mile trail that takes you up high for an overlook of the cove. That went well, only took 20 minutes and the kids were ready for more "adventure". We decided to take them on one of the major trails around the cove. We could hike them down it a short piece and turn around. We took the first trail right at the main entrance into the park. We had hiked no more than 5 minutes down the trail and we spotted a husband and wife with long lens cameras up ahead. They were snapping pictures one right after the other. I thought, all right, some deer for the kids to see. Great! This trail was just inside the woods boarding a large open field to the left. Solid woods were to our right. We promptly marched them up there telling them to be very quiet. When we got up there, I croaked! About 40 feet away from us and the two photographers was a mother bear and her cub! Not good! Bad situation to have grandchildren and cousins holding your hands and by you. Because of the situation and the two photographers not moving, we did not move. We stood there. The mother did not seem the least bit upset at us being that close, although she would occasionally smell over at us, or glance up at us while grazing. The kids were on cloud nine. I was on cloud zero although fascinated at how close we were. My cousin was greatly concerned because he did not want to explain this to his daughter if anything happened. I felt we were all too close but we just monitored the mother and her reaction. So far, so good. Another man had joined us just shortly after we arrived. A man from Nashville whom we passed with his family while walking in. His wife when we passed was really upset at him nagging him with "Honey we going to be late, we need to turn around". I could tell it was not one of those memorable moments with the husband. He was really frustrated that she had enough of this walking. When he spotted the bear after coming up to us, he was just short of yelling at his wife to come on up. He was motioning wildly for her to come up the trail to him and join us all on our "bear gawking".  She slowly made her way up to him in disgust. I thought, when she sees this, here attitude toward her husband will change. Well, it didn't. She looked at it for about a minute and whispered "WE HAVE TO GO HONEY NOW OR WE WILL BE LATE". He seemed to ignore her and stood there popping pictures off of the mama bear and her cub. Finally, he said "go ahead honey, I will catch up" in a whisper tone. "Take the kids and go ahead back to the car, I will catch up shortly". So she promptly did, walking back down the trail as if this bear stuff was really cramping her time. She was walking back and had gotten about about 50 yards down the trail back towards where we all had come. She was with all of her family except a young boy, maybe 7 years old. He was tagging along about 25 yards behind her by himself, between us and the woman. There was an unusually straight path down the trail so we could see a good 70 yards straight down the trail. The little boy was dressed totally in black. Black shirt, black short pants, and black clogs. The mother bear and her cub seemed quiet happy with us, and all of sudden the mother cub stopped, raised up on her hind legs (picture on this blog) and spotted the lone boy walking down the trail. She homed in instantly and started a slow but steady walk down the field towards the boy. The boy had his back turned and did not see what was transpiring. I think the man with us (who later said that was his nephew) did not realize what was going on either. He just kept snapping pictures. I thought, oh boy, kid, don't turn around, panic, and run, or we all might witness something bad here. The woman looking back down the trail at us became alarmed when the mother bear and the cub promptly came into the woods, got on our trail and proceeded to slowly stalk this boy. The bears pace picked up every few seconds closing in on the boy. I was so upset that I did not shoot anymore pictures from this point on. Not only were WE cut off from our path in but if the boy panics and runs, oh boy, anything could happen. The woman or aunt of this boy,  calmly motioned for the boy to come on. He never turned around thank goodness. When the aunt picked the boy up in her arms, the mother bear stopped quickly, stared a few seconds at them, and then turned back up into the woods. The cub following closely behind her. Wow, that could have gone any way in a matter of seconds. After some time, we slowly were able to squeeze by the mother and her cub and get on back up the trail towards camp.  My cousin replied, "Well I believe that will about wrap up our hiking for today! We are DONE with this!" He was absolutely right. We needed to get those kids out of there. The ONLY saving grace is that I was carrying bear pepper spray. I did feel better having it but putting those kids in that type of situation was not good. We won't do it again. I saw exactly what the Park Service is talking about. Given time, somebody will do something stupid and get hurt. Looking back, I truly belief that the mother bear could not see good and may have mistaken the child for another bear, being that he was decked totally in black. The reason I say this is because the bear had plenty of other children to pick from. It could also be that because the child was alone and with his small size, he might have been mistaken for an easy meal. Either way, it shook us up.


You would think with all that happened that day, we would not put the children in harms way again. Well, my wife and I wanted to take the children on a moonlight hike a short piece down the cove. Since traffic is cut off after dark, it is a wonderful and fun thing to do if the weather is clear and the moon is out. With my bear pepper spray in hand, hiking staff in hand, we set out at 10:30 p.m. through the campground and down the cove road. I told the kids to talk and make a lot of noise, be sure and stick together CLOSE, and we would not have any problems out of bears. They did just that, and had no problem making noise. With 9 flashlights shining everywhere and the kids making a roar of laughter and talking, I figured it would run off most anything. We hiked about a half of mile down the road until we got out in the clearing on both sides of the road. The horses that the Park Service uses to ride folks each day in the cove came over and greeted us at the fence line by the road. The kids had a ball petting the horses. We convinced them all to turn off their flashlights and we then gazed at stars. The half moon lit the whole cove up and you could see better without a flashlight then with one. I pointed out the big dipper star and how to find the north star using the big dipper. You know kids. It soaked in to maybe one or two of them. They all had a great time. Hiking the cove at night with a moon is definitely a wonderful experience. My wife loves it so much she insists we do it every year, even if the moon is not out. I will have to say though, I kept one hand holding my nephew's hand and my flashlight, the other hand making noise on the pavement with my hiking stick, and prepared to pull "the ole" bear pepper spray out at any second. I could easily convert to "quick draw Rex". It is only when we got down to the open field that my nerves settled a little bit.


On the very last day, my wife and daughter did what we have started doing every year. Get up very early just as soon as the gate is opened to the cove. We pushed ourselves out of the sleeping bags, loaded up the truck and headed out while 90% of the campground slept. This time, I had my commercial quality DVCAM video camera and still camera. My daughter carried her video and still camera as well. We were sorely disappointed with not seeing much at all around the cove. We were in fact, surprised at how little we had seen. As we got to the half way mark, my wife commented that she had a good feeling the best was yet to come. We might see a bear before we get out. We had made it past the 3/4 of the way journey when bam!....There they were....A mother and two cubs. We jumped out of the truck along with about 4 other folks and quietly, without talking to each other, starting taking pictures. I managed to get my beast of a commercial camera in size out of the truck and turn it on. I thought, I need to put this on a tripod to get steady shots. I then realized by the time I got the tripod set up, it might be too late. We videotaped and shot still pictures of the mother and her two cubs about 100 feet off the road. They were just about out of site and I heard someone startled say look over here!.....I whirled around with the group and BAM!.......30 feet away was a mother bear and a cub standing up BEHIND US watching us watching the other bear!......GEEZE....It must have been Yogi bear waiting to pick our pockets! If they were terrorists, then the ambush would have worked!...We would be dead!......We just proceeded then to watch that mother and her one cub. Again, the scary part is the mother is teaching the cubs to not be afraid of humans. THAT worries me. The two wandered out on the road less than 40 feet away from us! Not a care in the world, other than the fact you would see the mothers eyes look over our way every now and then to make sure we were out of their "space" (Check Out A Short Video Clip Below). In the video clip, you cannot make it out good because of the quality and upload size I was restricted to, but she looks over at us with those eyes glancing every now and then to see if we have remained outside of "her space". Classic Smokey Mountain Cades Cove bear behavior. After about 10 minutes, she wandered off into the dense forest with the cub close behind. What an amazing event to cap off an amazing vacation/adventure/trip. The amazing Smokey Mountains did it again. What a place. Time to plan the next trip.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Fontana Lake-Great Smokey Mountains National Park Back Country

Rain Rain Rain and Sunshine to Leave With.....

What a wild trip. Nothing boring about this one. This will be about my seventh trip to this wonderful place. It always dishes out something different every time. It once again taught me the importance of preparing for the outdoors and it's dangers. As you read on later you will see.

This trip was a little different in other regards as well. A total of 5 of us were going. Two of the guys, my good friends Thomas and David, went up a day early on Thursday. Rather than take kayaks like we have always done in the past, they paid the marina to shuttle them over to Lost Cove-Back country campsite 90, our destination. The plan was for my good friend Steve, my nephew Eric, and myself to join them Friday morning. Steve was going to be shuttled over by the marina into the back country while Eric and I would take our kayaks with gear loaded in them. The journey is a 4 mile paddle by water and 8-9 miles by land. 

Travel to Fontana Resort Village

We departed Moulton around 2 p.m. on Thursday the 7th.  The drive was uneventful and arrived at Fontana Village Resort around 10:30 p.m. eastern standard time. Fontana Village Resort is a very neat place to go if you want to get away from the commercial side of the Smokies. It is a privately owned hotel and resort complete with cabins, lodge, restaurant, marina, swimming pools and water slides. It is all located what appears to be out in the middle of no where, and it it is for the most part.  There is no cell phone service to be found, so if you go, you will be blessed with no one calling you. They do have Internet service on a computer in the lobby and WiFi is available throughout the lodge.....but that is not the reason to go to this place. It is quietly nestled by the edge of the Nantahala National Forest on the south side of Fontana Lake.  On the north side of Fontana Lake is The Great Smokey Mountains National Park. This area is incredible in the fact it has not been commercialized. There is no room thankfully for it to occur. The only private land around is Fontana Village. This makes it the best in my book to take the family to the outdoors while still enjoying comfort, or you can taste the raw outdoors totally isolated from society. 

Day 1-Start of Trip

Well, back to the trip. Friday morning we woke up at 6 a.m. and found a line of storms moving in while watching television in the lodge room. We watched a line of nasty storms move in on the lake and lodge, so naturally we decided to wait before marching out in to the mess. As we watched skies turn from dark to almost black, we thought about Thomas and David already out there, hoping they were fairing the nasty storms with lighting and rain.  Mr. geek here carried a weather radio around in the lobby as we watched this move in, and yes, the siren on it went off at least 2 times declaring a Severe Thunderstorm Warning. The storms went through about 11:00 a.m. and the weather finally cleared. That was our sign to head out! We departed and made it safely to campsite 90 around noon in the kayaks. Steve took the leisure 10 minute $50.00 boat ride and beat Eric and I there. Steve has a kayak but is having surgery soon on his shoulder, so no kayaking for him for some time. Kayaking over across the lake into the Smokies is a soul stirring experience for me every time I make the trip. When you are one foot above the water paddling in your kayak and you come around the bend from the protected part where the Marina is located, the full extent of the tall massive Smokey Mountains National Park always takes my breath. The Natahala National Forest with it's tall mountains is behind you. You feel so small! It is a reminder that YES, that is why I come here every year. For those of you that love the outdoors and scenery, no feeling comes close to the relaxed calmness that occurs when you see something like this. It sucks away every one of the worries and concerns of life I have in me.

Beauty, Sunshine, and then RAIN

After setting up camp and relaxing for about 4 hours, we felt our first of what was to be a regular routine ever hour or two our entire trip......rain. We came prepared for this though and set up two tarps that gave us a roughly a 14 by 18 foot space to kick back in our chairs, talk, eat, and even cook anytime the rain started. Since 3 of the guys were shuttled over instead of paddling in a kayak like Eric and I did....They brought all the important things that keep men happy.......FOOD!  Steaks, hot dogs, bacon, eggs, and hamburgers were the order of the day with these guys during the trip.  Since Eric and I came over on kayaks, we had the dehydrated backpacking foods, one notch above TV dinner quality. Space is premium in sea kayaks that we use. They just don't have room for grills, coolers, and large lawn chairs. The guys were nice though and shared some great food with us.  I realize everyone is different, but for me, it is hard to beat a nice hot cooked meal, sitting dry in a chair under a tarp, and watching the bottom fall out with rain around you. You stay toasty dry under your tarp, and watch mother nature do it's thing.....while us humans do ours.....EAT.  

Relaxation Reward From A Long Day.....

Late Friday night just before midnight, while sitting around the campfire, we watched an awesome full moon come out over the lake and forest. I asked Eric if he was up for a moonlight paddle on the lake and he said absolutely! This was yet another soul stirring experience in the wild. As we launched our Sea Kayaks out onto the lake, a chorus of bull frogs, ranging from the tuba bass to tenors, sung while we launched without the slightest need for a flashlight.  The lake was mirror smooth, the frogs were singing, the moon was bright, and my mind has been taken a thousand miles away from any cares or worries on this earth. THIS is the reason you kayak over for these trips. This is what puts you in the middle of mother nature. Always at these times you realize that mother nature doesn't worry about tomorrow, it only excepts today for what it is. Eric and I paddled around for about 3o minutes, quietly listening to mother nature sing here song. I cannot think of a better way to close out a day.

Day 2

The original plan was for some of us to hike 3 miles up to Shuckstack, an old Fire tower at 4,020 feet in elevation up above us. When we listened to the weather radio, we decided it was not a good thing to do with severe storms forecast. It was a good call too, because we saw our share of tornado watches, sever thunderstorm watches, and isolated storms with up to penny sized hail forecast. In lieu of all of that, we decided to just hike nearby the camp. Eric and I kayaked up the what normally would be a rocky creek that we we camp by, but because of the massive rains, it had become a lake.  Our 17 foot and 14.5 foot kayaks cannot normally do this kind of thing with a narrow rocky creek that you can almost walk across any other time of year, but with the creek having flooded and turned into a lake, it enabled you to paddle in places you had never been.  As we rounded the curve at one point, an extremely large water snake, probably 5 foot in length, was coiled up on a stump taking in some solar rays. It was brown in color and no wedge shaped head, so I felt a little better knowing it was not a poisonous cottonmouth.  With the current so strong and moving fast, we played in the rough water with our kayaks for some time. Also amazing was the number of trees and driftwood pouring down out of the mountains. There were logs running 20 feet in length that drifted by our camp. Amazing considering the journey they may have taken coming down from the mountains. One of the most amazing things we witnessed while kayaking was mother nature at it's finest. There were "mounds" of what looked like "dirt" floating down the flooded creek in the current. Upon closer inspection, we found it to be a mound of millions of ANTS! They were all clinging to each other, making this small little 6 inch high mountain floating down the stream. As we shot pictures of this and watched with amazement, I noticed one mound just slightly grazed a small blade of grass where the creek had flooded the land. The ants that touched it, hung on to the plant and the whole mound stopped in it's tracks! The mound just stayed in place there. I noticed that all of the ants worked together, clinging on to each other, and ANYTHING they touched. How amazing is that! O.K. I confess. The little boy came out in me and I had to see what would happen. I took the paddle and splashed some water into this mound of ants floating on the water. Guess what, Some of them broke off in nickel and quarter sized chunks away from the mound. Check this out.....After some time.....the little chunks made their way back to the mound and were immediately locked onto by the mound colony. How's that for mother nature! After witnessing this, I honestly believe that ants cannot be killed at home. They just keep coming back. And to think we just take them as ants.....They are amazing to watch.

Unprepared in the wilderness as so many are....

Lately, it seems that no matter where I go, something happens to someone out of bad luck or just not thinking. You may remember from my other post the story at Sipsey of the two guys dumped out of their boats? Well, this time, it was another two gentleman with bad luck, and this time, they were much older hikers.
Around 6:20 in the afternoon, we were all cooking supper under the tarp and having a merry old time. A gentleman in his mid 60's came walking down to camp from a trail going up the mountain. He walked up and asked if the shuttle from the marina had already come and gone? He said he and his partner were supposed to have caught the 5:00 p.m. shuttle back to the marina. He said they had been walking all day. We all told him that we saw a pontoon boat arrive shortly before 5:00 p.m., stay for about 30 minutes and then leave. He said they were running late because his buddy was having trouble keeping up the pace.  His hiking partner soon appeared and looked very tired, but in good spirits. We tried to convince them to stay with us. I had brought an extra 3 man tent to put supplies in out of the rain and was happy to share it with them. They went over and talked among themselves and then thanked us and said their wives would be worried sick. They said "we'll just hike on out".  Severe storms were forecast that night, a severe thunderstorm watch was currently posted for the area, and it would be getting dark soon. We tried to give them food and water but they declined, thanked us and left out going back up the mountain. We shook our heads and went back to eating. For some reason, it really upset me. I was worried about these two gentleman. I am always somewhat paranoid of severe weather, and these guys were "Wal-mart" style hiking out in the middle of no where. They had on short pants, an Outdoor Products very small day pack, and no compass, GPS, or even maps! They looked like the type that just said...."Let's just follow the signs the Park Service has up on the trails.  The back country of the Smokies is no place to play around. Hypothermia, snake bite, storms, and a long list of things that can kill you could be talked about here, but we will move on. Around 7 p.m., the marina pontoon boat showed up again to pick them up. When we explained what they did, the guy on the boat said "WHAT!...They went on!.....That's a 6 mile hike back". He then shook his head and said "There's no way they will get back tonight". We discussed that they both were ill prepared for this, storms were coming in, and they were putting themselves in jeopardy by doing this. He said he would call the Park Service when he got back and he said that if they come back to camp, do not let them leave again. I will be back in the morning to get them.  He stuck around for another 30 minutes after we blew safety whistles and a fog horn (canned air horn I carry in my kayak for emergencies) to hopefully cause them to turn back and come back down off the mountain trail. No luck.  At 7:30 p.m. with rain and darkness setting in, the pontoon boat left. For some reason, this whole situation really shook me up. My buddies at camp assured me they would make it out.  I guess the part that really bothered me, is that in all my years of coming out here, I have learned you take nothing for granted. Nothing is out here, so if you need it for survival, you darn well better have it. I am totally shocked at people that we come up on the trail with, that have nothing, sometimes not even what I would call bare essentials. I guess their thinking is that someone will find them. Me, I never want to assume anything. I guess I am over cautious.  I just cannot walk 10 miles out in the middle of no where with one bottle of water, a raincoat and short pants. Upon our arrival at the marina on Sunday, we learned they made it out around 10:30 at Fontana Dam, some 3 miles from the location of the marina where they left in the boat from earlier that morning. I still shake my head over what people will do, without much thinking of the essentials needed in the back country.

Day 3

Eric and I left around 8:45 in the morning to get a jump on the shuttle guys. The marina shuttle was to arrive at 10:00 to pick them up. Departure yielded us an absolutely beautiful blue sky morning with mixed clouds. The lake was about as smooth as I have seen it, and the trip over was a pleasant and relaxing paddle in mild water.  As I turned back around for one last look before going around the protected cove of the marina, I glanced back for one last breathtaking look of why I come here every year for.....Those powerful, beautiful, and soul stirring Smokey Mountains. Something else to look forward to next year as we go through our journey of life. 

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sipsey River Canoe Trip

In my quest to find some weekend adventure, I noticed the Huntsville Canoe Club was planning a canoe trip down the Sipsey River in the Bankhead National Forest on Saturday. I am a member of the club, so I replied on the club's forum that I would be happy to join the fun. We had 9 boats and 11 people show up. One neat thing about these kind of events is that you never know who you are going to meet up with and spend the day with. I knew only two of the eleven people that went.

We did the "usual" canoe trip that hundreds of people do each year in the Bankhead. Launch the canoes at Sipsey Recreation Area and take out on Highway 33 on the way to Double Springs. It is about a 11 mile trip.  After meeting them at Warrior Mountains Trading post, we launched from the Sipsey Recreation area around 10:30 a.m. The water level was just about right for a smooth ride and no log jams. If you have ever been canoeing, log jams can really mess up a good trip and I have been on trips where you felt like you pulled the canoe as much as you paddled it!   Around 12:30, we stopped at a beautiful bluff area for lunch.  As it is with many of these trips, you get a full array of skill levels and all kinds of boats. 10 years ago, everyone that showed up would have the standard old canoe. Today, they may show up with 7 foot kayaks, sit on top ocean kayaks, very large canoes, and the list goes on. We had several people who had not been down the Sipsey river and also had not been in a kayak or canoe very much. Those people are the ones that make you nervous going on the trip, because you know (and they don't) that one tip over and a soaking may mean hypothermia setting in or not. Many of them don't even bring a change of clothes for this, and so with temperatures not getting out of the 50's all day, without other people to help you though the situation, it can get from bad to worse quickly. Most people don't realize that water related deaths are more from hypothermia than the accident itself.

Three highlights of the trip were this. The beautiful bluff area about 3 miles into the trip where we stopped to eat. The absolutely stunning Hurricane Creek Waterfall that is about 1/4 of a mile off of Sipsey. It empties into the Sipsey River about 7-8 miles down on our trip. See picture of Hurricane Creek Falls. The last highlight of the trip was one where you really feel sorry for someone.  At about mile 9 of the trip, we came upon this gray-haired man who looked in his mid to late 50's, standing in waist deep water clutching tightly two 7-9 foot long kayaks. That looked strange? When we got down to him (I and a couple of others who were in the lead of our party), we asked him what was wrong? He said he and his buddy lost control of their kayaks and flipped over back at the 100 yard dash and he lost his paddle, his $250.00 Magellan Meridian GPS, and his shoes. We asked where his buddy was, and he said he is walking beside the creek back up from where they lost control of their boats. I felt really sorry for the guy. He was in short pants, it's 56 degrees outside standing in creek with a temperature in the upper 40's. The 100 yard dash he is talking about is something everyone that canoes Sipsey knows. It is a stretch of fast moving water, class 2 or 3 depending on the water level (class 1 is pretty much calm water), that is supposed to be the fun of the trip. This 100 yard dash is fun to ride unless you wind up like these guys. The new folks with us were periodically questioning us about this 100 yard dash, with a little bit of "nervous tone". It is nothing though. Just a lot of fun....but somehow, these two guys we came up on, must have really hit it wrong! 

After helping these guys for a few minutes, some of our folks helped him find his paddle, but no luck on the shoes and the expensive GPS unit. This guy had a great attitude over it. With my conservative raised background, I would be sick for days losing that much money. He said the GPS unit floats, so someday, somewhere, when someone least expects it, they may get rewarded with a GPS unit. As we were resting in our canoes/kayaks on the side of the bank at one point waiting for the rest of the crew to catch up, I discovered some cheap aluminum cooking pots and pans on the bottom of the creek right underneath my canoe. With some help, we were able to gather the items up and collect the "trash". We all laughed and said they must have come from another "dump" of a canoe or kayak at the 100 yard dash upstream. As we came up to the take out point, the line was sort of "bottle necked" waiting in line to pull our kayaks and canoes out of the water. I looked back and there, sitting in the kayak with his white legs propped out of the cockpit of his small kayak, and still in short pants, was the man who dumped out back at the 100 yard dash. Shortly behind him was his partner paddling up. As we loaded boats for the next 20 minutes, I noticed this guys partner never ever spoke to him. Evidently, he was not in a "good mood" over their spill, and he never smiled the entire time we loaded boats...Oh well..That is why they call it adventure!.....At 5:40 p.m. I came flying in the driveway (running later than I thought I would be). My wife and daughter had steaks going on the grill outside and both of them wearing coats.  Another adventurous day in the beautiful Bankhead National Forest, and my mind "cleared" to face the work week.