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....