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.