Monday, December 27, 2010

Sometimes The Best Kept Secrets Remain a Secret

If you travel or live around North Alabama, you will hear many times about the natural bridges of Winston county, Alabama. Most people have no ideal of anything else around this area that has a natural bridge. By natural bridge, I mean a large rock that branches out and forms a bridge. There are at least two or more to gaze at in Winston county, Alabama. They are all over tourist brochures and talked about all the time as destinations for tourists. Sometimes though, the best kept secrets of an area, remain just that, a secret. My buddy Thomas called me one night and said "Let's go check out a natural bridge with Indian rock carvings over in Franklin county. A camping friend of mine shared a GPS waypoint of the area." I told him to consider it a plan! He came over to the house one night, we programmed the GPS position he had been given in to my topographic software on my computer. We pinpointed and mapped out the roads to get to this place we had heard about.
With the holidays in full swing, and both of us off from work, we tore out on December 27th. We headed out the old two lane highway once called "Highway 24". It parallels a new four lane Highway now that is the official Alabama Highway 24. We proceeded west towards Russellville, Alabama. At county road 81 at Newburg, we turned left and headed south. Fresh snow from the weekend still dotted the country landscape, creating an awesome scene as the crystal clear blue skies and sun blanketed the area. About 3-4 inches of snow fell on the area on Christmas day. An event that has not been duplicated with this much snow since 1963! Heading south on county road 81, we come up to the intersection of county road 81 and county road 38, just north of Oak Grove. At this intersection is one of the strangest things I have seen in years. Right in the middle of the road of county road 38, where it intersects into 81, is a fifteen foot high monument. It is decorated in flowers and is surrounded by 2 foot high walls. Upon stopping and closer inspection, we find it is a World War II monument, built around 1949, and dedicated to a sailor who died while the vessel he was on sunk off the coast of Cuba. How bizarre for such a monument out in the middle of no where! All I can guess is that the family must have lived around this area. It might have been a private road at the time and so the family paid for this elaborate monument to be built to honor there son! Several pictures are attached of this monument and more can be found on my facebook. The link is provided at the end of this article. As we proceed on, we turn onto Highway 81 and continue down to Highway 243. There, we park the truck and head out. Using our GPS units with the waypoint loaded into it, we walk up to the area where this natural bridge is supposed to be. When we come up to it, our jaws hit the ground! Unreal! What a site! An extremely large, perfectly arched rock is before us! Below, a massive shelter! As we snap pictures approaching this, we can see right away that as far as the locals go, it is WELL known. There are signs of fires, the dirt wore down all around the shelter, and graffiti everywhere! Some in the form of spray paint, some in the form of carvings on the rocks, and others from just about any form you can think of to write with.

Upon closer inspection of this amazing place, we realize just how massive it really is. We also find what we were told about. Near the north end of this shelter, we find a massive rock with tons and tons of graffiti. Upon close inspection of some of these, you realize that not ALL of this is graffiti. It is the intricate carvings done by Indians deep into the rocks! How do you know this Rex? Well, for one thing, there about 8 carvings of circles (pictures attached to this blog) that would take hours to carve into the rock. Why would someone take this kind of time to do this? Well, it can be debated that this is "pure de old" graffiti and has nothing to do with Indians. That may well be the case, but what supports this theory is that nearby under the shelter, are two very large Indian Mortar Rocks, or deep holes carved into the rocks that are the classic signs of Indians living here. Also, Thomas, my camping/hiking buddy noticed that a few of the carvings in the rock are very similar to the ones that are in rocks at the Indian Shelter in Bankhead National Forest. A plus pattern, and some other carvings are the same ones found and known to be Indian rock carvings in Bankhead National Forest. Upon further inspection, we find what appears to be an Indian Marker Tree, or a tree very similar to the ones seen in Bankhead. The place has some "intense fascination" to anyone that visits this area. Now, we have no ideal if this is National Forest Property, Tennessee Valley Authority government property, or private property. We took a chance on this and just went! What truly amazes me though on this two findings is this. I have lived in this part of north Alabama for 50 years, and Thomas and I had no ideal of the natural bridge secret pearl. I had no ideal of the World War II monument as well!

Winston county can pride itself on natural bridges for tourists, but Franklin county holds the "gem pearl" when it comes to natural bridges and Indian artifacts. This strange World War II monument still standing just added to and topped the day off!

After all that we found, what could finish out the day? We chose to head to Bankhead National Forest and explore Payne Creek. An incredible canyon of hemlocks, bluffs, old beech trees, and beauty I once again, had no ideal about! We only had a couple of hours to explore Payne creek before getting out before dark (this was a day trip only), but we will be back!

Below is a link to view more pictures of the monument and shelter, and be sure and check out the video at the bottom of this post that gives you a tour of the natural bridge. I hope you enjoy it! Until next time in the outdoors! You will be there!

To view pictures of the World War II monument and the natural bridge, click here or copy and paste this address in your web browser:

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Trail of History and Exciting Moonshine Times Gone By

Well, I had high hopes of telling you about our fun and excitement in the Cohutta Wilderness this time, but unfortunately life is not always going the way you had hoped for. With scheduled deer hunts and everyones schedules, the trip did not happen. We hope to make it up there in mid-January if all goes well.

With that being said, it's time to go back to my backyard playground for another wonderful trip in the Bankhead. As I have told many of you in the past, this blog is intended for any adventures I go on, even though most of these have all been camping trips. Winter is my favorite time of the year for camping and hiking, since most of the bad critters such as ticks, snakes, and mosquitoes are all gone this time of the year. In the wintertime, you can walk, go, and do just about anything you want to do, without fear of snakes or other hazards. You can go where you want to and when you want to............O.K., enough rambling, let's get going on another trip!

After an exciting trip finding a lost horse in the Bankhead, it is hard to top it. We managed to pull off another great trip though by exploring more of the hidden history in the Bankhead. Most people don't realize that the "treasurers" in any forest are off the beaten path. They are away from the trails that take folks from point A to point B. Thomas and Steve, two of my long time friends and camping buddies, link up with another mutual friend, Brett, or "Skippy" as he is called by us, for an unforgettable weekend of history walking in the Bankhead.

Saturday morning, the 18th of December, we start our day by the usual meet at McDonalds for breakfast. After a great breakfast and fellowship talking, we head out for the Bankhead. This time the destination is for a well known creek. What creek you might ask Rex? Well, sometimes, it is safer to keep your sources to yourself. There are so many neat and precious artifacts that we came across, that if I told you the creek, then someone would get the ideal to go and fetch the artifacts out of the area, along with some precious copper that is one of the hottest commodities to steal and sell now days. I hope you understand and respect that, so just enjoy the adventure with us. These unique items are all on display quietly out in the Bankhead to see and enjoy. Our trip leader on this trip is Thomas. Thomas has mapped out some sites on his map from previous trips, and we all have hopes of new surprises!

As we mount our backpacks at the truck, we start off down the canyon. I am the brunt of everyones laugh on each trip. My friends pack very light, and they are always trying to pack lighter. Me, I just cannot do it. I love my "trinkets" and electronic toys too much to leave behind, thus my pack always seems to hit the 50-60 pound mark. The other guys run from 25-40 pounds on every trip. As we head off down the into the canyon that is the beginning of a major creek, we are rewarded right away. We come upon an interesting tree carving. It had "HD Cunningham" carved around the outside diameter of the tree, with an interesting mans face with a hat on it. Date?, who knows?. It could be 10 years old or 70 years old. The face is pretty interesting though. We snap some pictures, take some video, and we head on down into the canyon. It's fun on some of these trips to start at the very beginning of what later becomes a major creek. When you start at the beginning, it is little more than a stream or underground stream that occasionally comes up out of the ground for a while, and then disappears back under ground. Quillen Creek is something like this as well. It appears for a short time as a gentle two foot wide stream and then disappears underground for a while. As we make our way on down the stream, Thomas points out out our first stop. He calls it "Buggy Bluff Shelter". There is a reason for that name. Quietly nestled underneath the bluff is the remnants of a horse carriage. Nobody knows how old this is. His father-in-law who is up in his 80's, says he remembers when two full wagon wheels and a full carriage seat were up under the bluff shelter. Now, some 60 years later, all that remains are the springs, the axle, and some other hub parts of the wheel. Thomas's father-in-law had always heard there used to be a blacksmith shop out in the forest up under a bluff shelter. This may well have been that place. We snap pictures and video of this unique place, quietly hid out in the middle of the wilderness area. We marvel at the relics, talk about the possible past of where they came from, and head on out. As they are all leaving, something tells me to glance down and take one last look. As I do, a large piece of pottery glows in the sunlight beside the waterfall under the bluff. I just about fall and bust my tail to get over the rocks and get to it. Steve comes over and helps me pinpoint my find to get to it. I call the guys back, and we marvel at a large chunk of pottery found less than 20 feet from the horse carriage remains. We take pictures, and we do what we always do....put the piece of history on the pile of other relics and leave them for others to look at, and for time to reveal to someone else.
As we march on down in the canyon, we realize that we need to start setting up camp pretty soon. This will allow us precious time to explore a host of other items Thomas has laid out for us. After about a mile or two of walking, we decide to set up camp. The time now is 11 a.m. The three guys start setting up their modern day expedition hammocks to stay in, while I set up my old standard tent. After about an hour of setup and lunch, we load up our daypacks and leave camp to explore much more surprises ahead.
Along the way, all 4 of us take time to check out just about every Birch tree we run in to. This pays off immensely, as we soon discover more and more old tree carvings. We document each unique one we come across by taking a "waypoint" of the tree with our GPS units, and by taking pictures and video. The carvings start to add up, such as WR.PEAPO-1892, SA. Hooker-1916, WPR-1893 carved on rock near a waterfall, and so on. We find one tree after another like this. One waterfall that Thomas carried us to, has an entire family and several generations of the family line carved into a rock. Apparently the entire family went up out to this site and carved the outline of their feet into the rock. Some of the carvings are pretty fresh, as in 2004, so apparently a family wanted to continue the tradition of some of the early members of the family did some 80-90 years ago, by carving the outline of their footprint into the rock.

After a snack to eat and some rest at this 70 foot waterfall, we head back down to catch the remains of an old Whiskey Still. The interesting part about this still is that it is totally covered up under a bluff shelter. You can see the outline of stones from the pit, and a very unique and now quiet expense piece of metal is left behind. A very large chunk of "green" material is rolled up and bent up in the old fire pit. It is a sizable chunk of copper! Copper turns green from tarnish, and so it does not take you long to realize this is a sizable chunk of copper! For some modern day scrap metal folks, it would be a treasure. But for this day, it was a piece of history preserved in time in the Bankhead. We snap pictures and video, take some waypoints, and move on. Thomas carries us no more than a football fields length down the canyon, and we come upon yet another old whiskey still. This one is a site to behold! The large vat that they made the moonshine in is still somewhat in tact. Pictures and a movie of it are attached to this article. The still has an old barrel and some of the old containers still in tact of where they hauled the moonshine. This fascinated me since the old containers were the classic containers you saw in movies of people "moonshining". They were the metal type with small mouths on the jugs. Can you imagine this area when it was all running "hot" making the moonshine. Probably not a safe place to come up on, as it was probably protected by folks with guns. An underground cave spring that fed this old still was about 50 feet away. Thomas, Skippy, and I looked inside the cave spring. It looked like it goes about 30 feet back up into the mountain and was about 7 feet tall. We could not go inside the cave because of current laws in the National Forest that forbid anyone from going into caves because of a protected bat that lives in them. So we just marveled at what might be up in this old cave. There might even be some remnants of the old still hidden up inside it. Who knows! Once again, we take waypoints of the find on our GPS, shoot pictures and video, and move on. The sun is going down and winding up another day of adventure in the Bankhead.

We head back to camp, gather firewood, eat supper, and listen to owls call out in the canyon back and forth to each other. The air is dead still and no wind, and the moon was almost as bright as the sun when your eyes adjusted to the darkness. As was typical on most any moonlit night in the Bankhead, the familiar call of the coyotes could be heard, curling the hairs on your back with their calls, and breaking the silence of the woods. With calm winds and no stream to sing us to sleep, the night was very quiet. Too quiet for me, so I reached into my pack and pull out the ole iPhone and go to sleep with the modern sounds of music. What a peaceful night of sleep. The low temperature of 26 degrees kept us all snug in our sleeping bags most of the night. Notice I said "most" of the night. It never fails with me camping. I usually sleep very soundly until about 4 a.m. in the morning. My body always says "Nope, I ain't going back to sleep until you get out of this warm sleeping bag and relieve yourself of water". I lay there every single time, fighting it, dreading it! I mean- who wants to crawl out of your wonderful warm sleeping bag in your undees in 20 degree weather to rid yourself of water? This is insane! It kills me every time to do this, and every time I do, I crawl back in the bag- shivering from head to toe until the sleeping bag warmth catches back up. Once it does though, it is off to blissful sleep again. Such as the case this time. A glow of sun in the tent and a watch saying 7:30 a.m. tells me it is time to crawl out and get going. We eat breakfast around a warm fire, I sip some wonderful french vanilla coffee, and then start packing up everything to head out. Good friends who love the outdoors make any trip special, and such was the case with Brett, Thomas, and Steve. It's trips like this you will talk about for many years. It's always amazing to me on these trips. Two very simple days of fellowship together in the woods, yields tons of memories of it that you talk about for years to come! Such as it is with adventure in the outdoors! It's God's country and his making. No wonder it is special! Keep your outdoor gear together. We are headed out again real soon. The season is just getting started! Thanks for going along with us!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Adventure and a Story of Thanksgiving in the Most Remote Area of the Sispey Wilderness-Bankhead NF

This is one of the easiest stories to write and share with you because it comes straight from the heart. It is a story with a happy ending we all read about in books and movies, but this time, it WAS the real deal. It is a story of adventure and an incredible journey of people uniting in the most remote area of the Sipsey Wilderness in Bankhead National Forest. Not often in our lives of craziness, are we reminded truly of blessings that life can bring you. It is ironic to me that these lessons happen on a Thanksgiving weekend! What started out as a "normal" adventure into the Bankhead, erupted into one of those stories you watch and read about elsewhere. It left me something to tell about the rest of my living years on earth. With such a powerful story to tell ahead, I will be brief in my explanation of the scenery we encountered on this trip.

This story starts on Black Friday, November 26th, 2010. Thomas Graham and Steve Jones, two of my backpacking buddies and true friends, met with me at McDonalds in Moulton around 8 a.m. to start our journey. The weather was cloudy and it had rained all night. We headed out to Bankhead National Forest in North Alabama around 9 a.m. Our target camping site was along Clifty Creek or Braziel Creek. Our goal was to find a number of tree carvings and explore the seemingly unlimited bluff shelters that Bankhead hides. Thomas knew of an Indian carved on a tree that he had marked on his map (copied from another source), and we knew there was a large rattlesnake carved on tree in the area as well. Those are all the tools of information we needed to hit one of the most remote areas of the Sipsey Wilderness Area. For the benefit of those reading this around the world and not familiar with this area. The Sispey Wilderness is an area carved out of the Bankhead National Forest of North Alabama that is set aside for absolutely no interruption to it's ecosystem. It contains over 95,000 acres of land. No logging, use of roads, or any activity is allowed in this area of the forest. It is an area where very little (except foot and limited horse traffic) occurs.

We park at Borden Creek bridge and head out. The weather is cold, windy, and very wet from the previous night's rains. The forecast called for no more rain with clearing and cold tonight. On our way down, we pass the famous "bird tree". I have pictures of it here on previous blogs. It is a very unique a quite intricate carving of a bird right beside the trail. We explored an entire area along a bluff line that geologists would be excited to see. The entire bluff line is filled with "holes" from petrified wood logs that were pressed into the rock many years ago. This was an amazing find in that you could actually see tree bark in many of these holes where the wood had become petrified. We take pictures and marvel at these finds, and then head out to our campsite and planned destination, Clifty or Braziel Creek to camp. Thomas, Steve, and myself decide we want to go up Clifty Creek a short piece and camp. We thought from there, we could explore either creek. Late afternoon yielded us setting up camp, gathering firewood, filtering water, and getting ready for a cold night. The plan on Saturday was to set out and go Braziel Creek. After a long evening (it gets dark around 5 p.m.) with supper, sitting around the fire telling stories and listening to a very cold north wind bringing in cooler temperatures and clear skies, we decide to call it a night at 10 p.m. Sleeping was going to be very easy. With the RIGHT gear, these trips are easy. Good gear means a warm night, a tent you can really depend on if it rains, and an experience you will tell the rest of your life. Since we camped beside a running stream, natures "sleep engine" was beside us. I had two choices as I lay down in my down sleeping bag. Listen to the modern world with my iPod, or listen to mother nature and the stream flowing beside me. Tonight, I chose the iPod and crashed. There was a couple of things different from me with Steve and Thomas that is worth noting. Thomas and Steve have moved on to the newest craze and change in backpacking. They sleep in very sophisticated hammocks above the ground that just came about around 5 years ago. They have down quilt linings that hold heat underneath them. They are the best nights sleep anyone could ever ask for since you can sleep in total comfort. You can even sleep straight. Steve and Thomas have been camping this way for about 2 years now. Me, I have invested way too much money in the traditional "tents" that setup on the ground. I am ashamed to state how many tents I have collected over the years, so I will just leave it at that. Both types of sleeping have their advantages and disadvantages.


Saturday morning at 7 a.m., yielded a cold 24 degrees. After a warm fire and a hot breakfast, we head out to explore Braziel Creek. we go back down Clifty to Braziel creek. We move about 1/2 mile upstream of Braziel Creek, following the bluff lines that yield endless protected shelters to explore. As we move along, we come upon a site that we encounter a lot. A crumpled piece of tin from a roof, laying on the ground out in the middle of nowhere. This has been a classic sign of a tornado that has carried debris for miles and dropped it here in the middle of nowhere. As I am taking video and pictures of this, I hear Steve holler at me to "come up here". Thomas is already up ahead of Steve and I. As I approach Steve going up a long steep hill holding my still camera set on video mode, I see something that totally blows me away. Standing on the top of the hill, a full sized white horse is perched at the top, looking down on us. Steve and Thomas point out the saddle tangling below it and almost touching the ground. As we approach the horse, it becomes very nervous and prances around in a 50 foot circle, coming back to one spot. We notice blood under the front left leg. We notice several other important things also. The ground is absolutely tore up from it staying in this same area. There are pieces and parts of the saddle everywhere! This horse has been struggling with this saddle for days. The blanket is soak and wet with the saddle and this saddle will clearly be the death of the horse if it stayed on for many more days. Thomas, walks up to the horse and it slowly comes up to him after he entices it with grapes from his lunch. The gash up under the left left is very deep, from the saddle falling down and riding upside down. There is no telling how many miles this horse has been struggling with, nor how many days this horse has been tortured by this saddle riding upside down. This is extremely rough territory to navigate with so much brush, and so this brush had to be pulling and snagging on the horse every painful mile it moved. That may be why the horse decided to find a spot and stay there. The bridle and assembly is broken up and in pieces on the ground. The mouth of the horse was bloody slightly from apparently struggles with this part of the bridle harness hanging on as well for at least a while. Thomas pulled out a handful of grapes he had in his pack and begin to gain even more ground getting closer to the horse. After several attempts, Thomas finally got the saddle off the horse. He was free from the torture of this saddle hanging down! We felt really good at this point. We had relieved this object that apparently caused days of pain and visible deep cuts into her from the saddle being turned upside down and almost dragging the ground. Several thoughts raced through our minds during this time after the happiness of the saddle is off. Is there a person nearby hurt that was riding this horse? Are they possibly dead? Has anyone been reported missing? We decided to spread out and inspect the area. After no other signs of anyone around, we decided we needed to get the horse reported to authorities. But how do you report something like this in the middle of the wilderness in a forest that has NO cell phone coverage? I usually always carry my amateur radio with me, but I left it at the camp, which was a half a mile away. Steve pulled out his cell phone. As luck would have it (or someone above looking out for us), we somehow got weak cell phone coverage (2 bars). Steve stood perfectly still and called his wife DeWanna and we relayed the GPS position of the horse. She was going to take the coordinates and call the Sheriff's department and report the horse. After relaying most of the most important facts, Steve hung up the phone. We then decided to gather up all the saddle parts that the horse had ripped off in his painful ordeal with the saddle hanging below. We 3 decided we had done all we could do for now, and decided to go on exploring the bluffs and canyons further. We left the horse, still standing in his little area that he apparently had been for some time. We explored more bluffs, found lots more interesting petrified wood in rocks. We documented them with video and pictures. With this story going, you don't care to hear much about "rocks" and "petrified wood", so we will leave the details of those things and move on.

Amateur Radio to the Rescue

Returning back to the horse about 1:30 p.m. (we discovered her around 11 a.m.), Thomas decides on one last attempt to bring this horse back to camp with us. This begged the question to all three of us. O.K., lets say he DOES decide to go to camp with us. What then? What if he charges off in the process into the wilderness and here we go again! The horse (we now know as Joe) slowly started easing off the hill with Thomas. Thomas had managed to make a fairly nice little rope out of some vines and got it around her neck. He paced slowly down the hill with us. Thomas in front, Steve behind them, and me with my video camera capturing this thinking, what are we going to do with a "big pet" at camp? As we get almost to the bottom of the hill, the horse stops, starts to "rethink" this situation, turns around, and starts slowly, and then suddenly into a dead run back up to the top of the hill where we got him. I hate to say it, but there was a sense of relief in me. At least we know he will stay put in place. Sure enough, he did. He returned promptly to the top of the hill, turned around and looked down defiantly down at us as if "no, I am not going anywhere!" We then left and headed back to camp. Around dusky dark, we heard a pack of coyotes down the canyon where the horse was camped above. A lump came in my throat with thoughts. To myself- "You don't think a pack of coyotes could take down a horse, could surely not......he would have the upper hand with kicks on them". It was a sad feeling to hear them and think of the horrible "is it possible they could kill him" go through your head.

Around 7 p.m., while sitting around the campfire, the amateur portable hand held radio that I carry everywhere with me, came alive with my buddy Sonny Blankenship's voice. The Bankhead Amateur Radio Club has a radio repeater in Bankhead National Forest. When you are in the forest, if is about the ONLY means of communication with the outside world. The repeater, located in the forest, allows amateur radio operators to communicate to other "hams" within 60 miles of it's location. It even has a "phone patch" to allow a person in the forest (or anywhere in the 60 mile radius) to make phone calls. A privilege that no one with a cell phone is allowed to do, since there is no service for cell phones in Bankhead. Only licensed amateur radio operators can use this repeater. The phone patch has not been working lately, and so I was forced to "wait" on someone to come on the repeater. Once Sonny came on, I ran over and grabbed the radio.He normally tries to "monitor" the radio from his house whenever we are out in the woods. I explained to him what had happened that day. I told him there were many "details" that needed to be relayed such as the saddle was left up under a bluff shelter, the horse appears to stay in one place, etc. Sonny copied all the information Steve, Thomas, and I could think of, including where we were camped if they needed any help. A radio contact earlier in the afternoon with my good amateur radio friend Wes McKay, driving on his way to Florence and making phone contact with Steve's wife, relayed that the owners were notified of the missing horse and were coming out after it. So we at least knew that help was on it's way for this poor horse stuck in the wilderness.

Sonny got on the phone with a uncle to the owners of the horse and he spoke with them on the phone, picked up the ham radio and would ask questions. We would answer them on the radio and he would relay that back via phone. Most all of the information needed as to the best place in, where we were camped if they needed our help, the status of the horse's health, equipment needed to get the horse out, and several logistics questions were worked out. Amateur radio, truly a blessing in time of need! Like a hunter without a gun, or a fisherman without his rod and reel, I never leave home for the outdoors without my amateur radio. In the Bankhead, it can mean the difference in life or death in certain situations.

That night before going to bed at 10 p.m., we tossed ideals around on the fate of this mission to get the horse out. We hoped the owners cared enough to bring out the best. We even wondered if the owners would even care enough to get the horse out. Wow, we were about to experience a shock on that thought! We talked about that a horse, like a human, being used to the comforts of a barn would surely be "petrified" at night all by themselves, especially with the sounds of coyotes in packs at night. Just before we went to bed, we glanced up at the absolutely crystal clear skies above. There were millions of stars to see with no city lights. Just about the time we all looked up commenting on the sky, a massive meteorite streaked across the sky right in front of our eyes. An unbelievable long tail and a long descent across the sky. Wow! It doesn't get any better than this!
The next morning yielded a cold 25 degrees. We got up, started a fire, cooked breakfast and slowly started the day. We had absolutely no ideal what was about to happen that day. As far as we were concerned, unless someone ask us to, our horse story had ended with all we could do. We had told Sonny the night before that if they needed our help, tell them where we will be staying. As we packed up and was just about to head out, a team of horses and folks appeared in camp. They asked if we were the ones that reported the horse. We said yes. After some exchanges between all of us, we were dawning our packs and headed out with them to show them where the horse is or was! Just before we left out, one of the guys in the party wanted to see some pictures that I offered to show. The second he saw the horse, he yelled out to the party-"It's him, It's him!!....Lets go!!! I knew then that we had some people that loved and really cared that this story had a happy ending.

When we arrived to the hill, there he was!!! Praise be! He was holding down his "perch" over the valley. As the party began to show up around the horse that they successfully put a bridle on, a young women came charging up the hill that I had not seen so far in this large party assembled to find the horse. I asked "is that your horse?" A very emotional answer came back as she charged on "yes it is!" With her husband holding the horse, she charged up and starting crying and hugging the horse. I was told by a party member that this was the husband and wife and the owners of the horse, called Joe. I have never seen such an emotional look in the man's eyes. He said very little except to thank us many times, but facial expressions said it all. I could tell an immense relief in his face. The wife, stayed in tears rubbing and hugging the horse. Man, words written here cannot in no way express joys of happiness felt among everyone. It is the "highest of highs" I have been in years. My video instinct in me (since that is what I do for a living), rolled video of the event, with an occasional snap of a still picture every now and then. What an incredible high, with total strangers in many regards, united in the middle of Sipsey Wilderness, miles from anything, to celebrate the life saving of this incredible horse. There is no doubt in my mind. The same rule that applies to humans lost, applied to this horse. If you can, staying put in one place will help you get rescued faster than by wondering everywhere. The fact that this horse chose to stay put, literally saved it's life!

And Now the Facts

This wonderful couple that lost this wonderful horse. When you hear the facts, it stabs you even more in the heart. OVER 3 weeks ago they were riding in the Bankhead with others with their horses. This horse was a prize winning horse the wife nurtured and cared for. It was her horse. Her husband was riding it this day over 3 weeks ago in the Bankhead with others. They said that the horse got one foot in a hole, and began slowly to fall over. In order to protect himself and the horse, the husband jumped off the horse, and slapped it to get it up and going and to keep it from falling on backwards into this hole. After he slapped the horse, it tore out wide open and disappeared. For three grueling weeks, the husband and wife tormented over the loss of this horse. They put up posters everywhere, turned the information to the sheriff's department if anyone called (very smart move since that was our key linking up with them), drove the roads at night in the Bankhead, and told everyone they could think of. To add to the emotional roller coaster this poor couple went through. A report from a guy that he found "parts" of a horse in an area of the forest, lowered any hope of this horse being alive. They even went down to meet the man that claimed he found body parts in the Bankhead, only to sit for 2 and half hours and he never showed up. Our report to the Sheriff's department put a ray of hope. Amateur radio reports to them that night proved to the owners, Pam and Dewayne, that miracles DO HAPPEN.

As we all met at the trailhead about to depart, Pam hugged us all three and Dewayne thanked us many times over. They had asked us earlier where we were going to eat lunch that day. We told them the local Western Sirloin Steak House in Moulton. They said that our lunch was on them today. We laughed and never thought much about it. Later, as Steve, Thomas and I were enjoying steaks for lunch at the restaurant, Dewayne (the owner of the horse) came around the corner and asked where our waitress was, lunch was on him. We thanked him, he linked up with the waitress, and then left the restaurant. Wow, wow, wow......What an amazing day for everyone. After linking up with the couple on facebook and with another member of the party, Kari, whom I have known for a long time growing up in Lawrence county, it just topped the evening. Friends on facebook, sharing an incredible story we will all be telling for a long time. We plan to share pictures and movies of this miraculous event. An event I enjoyed sharing every minute of with you. Hang on, we are just getting started into camping season. Next stop, the Lord willing, will be the Cohutta Wilderness in northern Georgia. We will see you again in the woods!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bankhead NF-Ship Rock, A Civil War Era Saltpeter Cave/Furnace & The Big Tree

Well, It has been a long hot summer. Time to kick in gear and go camping! I made a few short kayak trips during the summer, but just did not have the time to include them on the blog here. I apologize for that. Both of them were a lot of fun. We start the 2010-2011 camping season off right this time. We head to Bankhead National Forest's icon in North Alabama. The so called "Big Tree". Thomas, one of my long time camping buddies, told me that Sam (another good camping friend) had two guys that wanted to drive down 9 hours from North Carolina and see "The Big Tree". The Big Tree, for those of you wondering, is Alabama's largest White Poplar tree (a.k.a. tulip). It has a circumference of 25 feet and stands about 150 feet tall. It is where EVERYONE that comes from out of town seems to go. Most veteran Bankhead NF campers, avoid this area. We seek out the little known areas most of the time, but with guests coming, we thought this would be a good time to revisit this landmark. Thomas, my good camping friend, knows and loves Bankhead. He suggested a route that I had not done before. He suggested we take the standard "long route" that everyone takes to visit the Big Tree. It is a route that follows U.S. Forest Trails 206 and 209 along Thompson Creek and Sipsey River.
Our plans were to follow this long route (5.5 miles) and visit "Ship Rock", along with numerous Indian Mortar Rocks and a Civil War Era Saltpeter Cave along the way. That is the beauty of living close to this area and hanging around with Thomas. He and many of us know of the hidden treasures that the Bankhead holds, that most people have no clue about. This comes from years of hiking, studying, and talking to others about the treasures of Bankhead. So, the plan was to hike the long route to the Big Tree, camp over night close to the Big Tree, and then come out Sunday morning using the unofficial trail "short route" coming out (about 2 miles and an hour and a half of walking) so the North Carolina guys could get on their way back with their long 9 hour drive ahead back home in the Winston-Salem area.

Saturday morning, November 6th-Six of us headed out on a long days journey before setting up camp that afternoon. We park at the Thompson Creek Trailhead and then move along Forest Service Trail 206. The parking lot was FULL of cars, telling us that everyone, their brother, their sister, their cousin, and every Boy Scout troop within 60 miles of the Bankhead was there. I am being sarcastic, but you get my point. A crowded forest we thought. About 2.5 miles ahead, just before Ship Rock, we detour off the trail to a special spot, marked by GPS waypoints by Thomas. It is a little known and a very large Indian Mortar Rock with flint chips laying around everywhere underneath a small bluff shelter. If you are reading this, you might be wondering what in the world an Indian Mortar Rock is? Going only from what I have been told, an Indian Mortar Rock is a hole in a rock that has been carved out after years and years of grinding corn, or other food down for meal. They used the holes for grinding really just about anything down. The deeper the hole in the rock, the more it was used. These rocks that Thomas showed us were very large, deep holes, along with one rock that had many small holes. They were also protected from overhead by a small bluff shelter.
After taking pictures of this amazing and well kept secret, we head back down the trail for another well known landmark in the Bankhead, "Ship Rock". Ship Rock is on all of the U.S. Forest trail maps, and so it attracts hundreds and hundreds of people each year to come and camp by it. What is it? Well, it is a massive rock that is almost perfectly in the shape of the bow (front) of a ship. In the wintertime, with the leaves off the trees, it is pretty impressive! It juts out and stands proud. Many people camp at the base of this rock. After showing our visitors the rock, Thomas then led everyone through the back part of Ship Rock, through the famous "Eye of The Needle" that shows up on all the U.S. Forest Maps. The "Eye of the Needle" is a pretty neat passage. Back towards the end of the Ship Rock, is a unique hole in the rock. If you climb through this hole in the rock, you come out on the other side of a large bluff rock. By doing so, it cuts about 1/4 a mile hike out of the way. You would normally follow Thompson Creek all the way down to the intersection of FS 206/209 trails at Sipsey, but by going through the "Eye of The Needle", you have shaved off some time and distance to keep from having to go the long way around these large rocks and bluffs . The movie attached to this Blog shows some of us coming out of the Eye of the Needle.

After we complete our adventure coming through the Eye of The Needle, Thomas points out numerous Indian Mortar Rocks all around the back side of Ship Rock. As many times as I have been to Ship Rock, I never had the slightest clue it hid Indian Mortar Rocks up against it. There is also a very strange looking rock over on the back side of Ship Rock. It looks like pancakes stacked up, or some have even referred to it as favoring a man's outer parts. We won't go there. At any rate, it is a strange looking rock. Moving on down the trail, Thomas as our guide, checks his GPS (handheld global positioning system) waypoints (points marked and recorded in the GPS from previous trips) for another treasure in the Bankhead very few people, even locals know about. It is the remnants of a civil war era salt peter furnace and nearby cave. It took about another mile or two of walking, but we arrived at the site. Little known to most folks, is a treasure of history preserved in the Bankhead. During and near the civil war, saltpeter was mined heavily for it's use in the making of gun powder. According to Sam, one of my friends along with us, saltpeter is derived from "cooking" a certain type rock in furnaces or open "pits". The substance called saltpeter would fall to the bottom after this process, I presume with water being used. After it dried out, it could then be easily be collected. At this site (picture on blog), you can see the remnants of the furnace, and shortly by this spot is an old cave where they mined to get the saltpeter. I did not climb down to look inside the cave as the other guys did, but I saw some pictures that they took of the inside. Awesome! We all wished we had brought up flashlights from our packs (we left them by the trail) and headlamps to look further! We shot many pictures of the area, explored more, and then headed back to the trail where our backpacks were waiting.

After all the sights we had seen so far, it is hard to top that. By about 3:30-4:00 p.m., we reached our campsite destination, the mouth of East Bee Branch canyon, entrance to "The Big Tree". This adventure so far has carried us 5 miles of walking to reach the campsite for the night. The Big Tree is just 1/2 mile of walking from here, but we are saving that for the next day. I love this campsite. This makes about my 5th time to stay here. It is very flat, right next to the creek, and just a "hop and a skip" as they say, down from the Big Tree.

This camping spot also has an unusual memory I will remember for a lifetime. The first time we camped here, Bud, one of my friends spent all night laying outside of his tent, throwing up from so much intense pain. His moans of pains pierced the woods and my heart. You can imagine what went through my head, and my buddy Sonny's head as to "what to do" in the middle of a wilderness area. He insisted he just stay put, and for us not to call for help. The next morning, he was able to carry himself, pack and everything out at an extremely slow pace. The fact that he was carrying himself out was alone a miracle, considering we thought he had the pain and suffering of a man about to die. I would have never forgiven myself if he had. He found out two days later that his body was trying to pass a kidney stone. Bud never ever got to see the Big Tree on that trip nor has he even to this day got to see it. He got within 1/2 mile of the tree at this camp, but pain and suffering that night halted any chance of getting up the next morning and heading for the Big Tree. It became a "pray that I get out of here alive day". I will never forget that night, laying in my tent, listing to Bud's intense groans of pain, terrifying me every minute if this man was going to live or die in the Bankhead in the middle of nowhere. I did some serious talks with the Lord that night in my prayers.

Meanwhile on this trip, Saturday night at camp yielded dead calm winds, yielding a "dead quite" sound in the woods that night. We laughed, talked, and did one of the most enjoyable parts of camping....the fireside chats. That's where you tell stories, learn all the embarrassing stories on each other while growing up, and tell tales that you would never speak of in any other environment. Want to get to know someone? Go camping with them and sit around the fire. Before long, you will be laughing your self to death with their stories. Everyone has some funny and unique stories that happen in their lives. The campfire is the perfect place to share them! At around 10 p.m., we rap up the last stories and retire to our tents and hammocks. As we all start to drift off to sleep, a lone coyote up on the top of the bluff nearby, howls out loud and shakes the ground with that erie sound that nobody forgets. It's the sound that brings chills up your spine, but makes the forest such a special place to visit.

Morning yielded crystal clear blue skies and a quick breakfast among everyone. We had a lot of things to do that day, in order to show the North Carolina guys The Big Tree, get out in time so that they will not have a horrific drive home and get in at a very late hour. We tore down camp, stuck our packs over in a pile, and headed up East Bee Branch for the grand attraction. A 1/2 mile walk on a chilly 27 degree morning carried us up the canyon to the Big Tree. Not a cloud in the sky, autumn color leaves preparing to drop, and that beautiful blue sky, made it a morning that one never forgets. The "out of town" guys were impressed, even though it won't even come in second place to the monster trees in Joyce Kilmer Forest over in western North Carolina. They knew that, but realized that this was our "pride and joy" in Alabama. A tree that has survived several hundred years and withstood the test of time and man's greed for lumber. Of just about all the trees stripped and pulled out of the Bankhead, this one has managed to survive. On this trip, one of probably 10 or 15 Steve and I have taken to this spot, we noticed something different. Absolutely NO WATER flowing over the falls. The Big Tree has two, very special, very tall, waterfalls that add to the beauty. With this summers hottest on record temps, and the lack of rainfall, there was nothing to see coming off the 90-100 foot bluffs surrounding The Big Tree. I shot some pictures to record this, since I have never ever been to this area when NO water was coming off of the falls. After showing the visitors around the area, we all packed up and headed back to our campsite. From there, we loaded up the packs and headed out. This time, we took the "unofficial" 2 mile short trip out. THIS is the way to the Big Tree. Unfortunately, most everyone that comes in out of town follows the traditional U.S. Forest Service trails. The easiest way to see The Big Tree is to park at Thompson Creek Trailhead as everyone does. Follow the trail down to the first branch you come to and cross. After you cross the branch, shortly the Forest Service Trail 206 bears on around to the right and follows Thompson Creek. Instead of bearing to the right, you turn to the left, and follow a worn out trail that most people that know the area take. They might as well designate it as a trail because it is already that from so much traffic. It goes up White Oak Hollow and then you go up and over White Oak. The incline going up the east side of White Oak hollow on the trail will definitely take the breath out of you while coming in to see The Big Tree, but reward you with a nice descent coming back from the Big Tree. Total miles going in-around 2 miles. Total miles going the long way-5.5 miles. So take your pick, a 4 mile hike to see the Big Tree, or a 11 mile hike.

After making our 2 mile journey from the Big Tree coming the short route, we close out another great adventure trip! A total of 9 miles walked in two days, more friendships made with our guys from North Carolina, and another reminder that more camping is full steam ahead with the leaves departing the trees. The chilly nights and crystal clear skies to behold at night in the outdoors! Let's get ready, get packed, and wait for the next weekend to go again! You will be there too so stand by and get ready!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Discovering History Through Rocks, Trees and Trash-Bankhead National Forest

Several people following this blog have asked me "why Bankhead National Forest all the time?" The answer is simple. It is a 20-30 minute drive from my house and to the Sipsey Wilderness Area. We had planned for one or two trips to The Cohutta Wilderness (northern Georgia) or The Great Smokey Mountains National Park, or even a couple of places in North Carolina, but they just did not work out. When the trips like that fall through, we resort to old faithful, The Bankhead.

One of the most enjoyable things to do in the outdoors with our modern GPS technology, is to just simply study a map and pick the most remote area, or the most scenic looking, or the one with the most surprises, and just head out! We rarely follow any "hiking trails" as most folks do. We just cut our own trail. It is THIS way that we come upon surprises and finds that most people would rarely ever see. Such as the case on this last trip. After a "Creepy Night" that you read about last time, this trip was very, very quiet in terms of wildlife. My buddy Thomas has spearheaded the last two trips and led us down some interesting areas. He knows Bankhead well, it's history as well as it's terrain. On this trip, he told us "let's go explore Lick Branch". I thought, Lick Branch? I didn't even know there was a Lick Branch in the Bankhead. Thomas never has failed us on any adventure trip and so Steve, one of my other camping buddies and I were game to wherever.

The majority of the people that do not go into the backcountry forget something. These remote areas were at one time in history, very busy places with PEOPLE. They forget that yes, you still can find remnants of Indians that lived here. I remember my 17 years of working on an Army installation. There were remote areas that people were not allowed to go in to except at various times. These areas were a "gold mine" back in time. Even today, there is an old home place on Redstone Arsenal that is left basically the way it was in the mid 1940's. What this means is....there is still a Model T truck parked and abandoned, buttercup flowers still grow in April-May in a square pattern showing where the old house once stood. Glass jars from the era are still on the ground around the basement fruit pantry. A big dip in the ground indicates on old road bed that went by the house that obviously had lots of horse and buggy and car traffic. Across from this road is an old iron gate fence that houses a cemetery, and so on it goes. There are many places in the Bankhead similar to this. They may not still have a Model T truck parked, but there are still "signs" that point to a different world in time from just a grove of trees that you see. You have to know what to look for when you find an area like this. For example, if you are 3 miles from the nearest road in the Sipsey Wilderness, and you see trees covered up with carvings next to a spring, you can bet your house this was a heavy travelled and popular spot in years past. If the area could talk, you would be surprised at what it would tell. Family outings with their horse and buggy, whiskey stills, adultery commented, lumber mills, grist mills, drinking, you name it.
Thomas has helped me be more "in tune" with this fact when going into the wilderness. It has made me realize that at one time, this area might have been a thriving place where people were there every day. Just in the last 3 of some 13 years of backpacking, coming up on signs of Indians living there has given the place much more respect. I am always amazed at us humans. We tend to treat our planet like we are the ONLY humans that have ever done anything or gone anywhere in any one location. If we humble ourselves and look around, we will find that we are REPEATS of thousands of people that have gone the same exact path.
Well, enough philosophy, let's hit the woods!

We took the path and headed down our 2.5 mile hike to set up base camp. The goal was to camp at the intersection of Lick Branch and Thompson Creek at the northern edge of the Sipsey Wilderness Area to set up base camp. We even thought about going on up Lick Branch to set up camp. If you have read my blogs before, you know that we always generally go in and set up base camp, and then explore. That way, you don't have a 40-55 pound backpack with you all day long exploring. After about a 1/2 mile of hiking down an old road bed from the parking spot, our first stop was Baker Cole Cemetary. It is so old, about the only thing that tells you it is a cemetery is the emblem waypoint on my GPS unit, and two PVC pipes put in the form of a cross with the name painted on the PVC pipes. There were numerous tombstones or "rocks" with carvings on them. They are so old, you could not make out much of anything on them. Thomas carries chalk with him and we chalked them to help us be able to read them better. It worked well. One of them "came to life" so to speak after you run the chalk over it. What is on it is pretty strange. I have attached a picture to this blog and you can see it. I have no ideal on the this strangeness of how it is marked. Maybe someone that sees this will shed some light. The tombstone pictured was about the only one that we could make out some kind of writing.
After a few pictures, we moved on. A hike on down through the woods yielded another strange item. There, laying on the ground, some one mile off the road in the woods, a 10 foot piece of vinyl siding. It does not take a detective to figure this one out, especially if you have a lived in the south. It is a 10 foot section of vinyl siding ripped off a home many miles away and lifted high into the air and dropped in it's place by a tornado. I have seen this before with part of a tin roof laying in the leaves in the middle of no where. You are miles away from the nearest home and laying in the middle of the Sipsey Wilderness, a piece of tin off a roof. Strange. If only it could tell you a story? How for and how high did it come from? So, we move on. After about a mile into the woods, we stop at Thompson Creek where we discovered a large amount of tree carvings at the intersection of Mattox Creek and Thompson Creek. We spent about 40 minutes looking at and reading the carvings. More history to uncover! It appears that several generations of a family have carved their name in the trees. The carving dates and initials range from 1938-1976. We notice right away that many of the older carving dates have the 9 backwards. I would be curious to know why? Is it ignorance or poor education, or does it mean anything by this?

Extremely Detailed Pornographic Carving On A Tree- In our looking around at these clumps of trees with carvings, we discovered one that cannot be described in this blog. It had a lot of time spent on it by carving the male and female in too much detail. Pretty sick to some people but I was surprised at how much time they had taken to carve something in such detail. I refused to take a picture of it at first, and only after the second day coming out did I decide to snap a photo of it. It looked like it had been done back in the 70's or 80's by the carving's looks.

Feral Pigs, Pigs, Pigs-One note here in the blog while I am thinking of it. Throughout our entire trip, the forest was absolutely saturated with signs of wild hogs. There were trails beat down so bad, it looked like humans were traveling them every day. Feral pigs are not native to the Bankhead, and the National Forest Service wants to get rid of them as soon as possible. We saw pig mud hole after mud hole everywhere we went the entire trip. I will not dwell on this point any more because I have talked about them on almost every blog, but they are a massive problem for the Forest Service. The irony is that the weekend we were out there was a scheduled hunt for Feral hogs. We went with "hunter orange" decked all over us and our backpacks, only to find not one single hunter out there in the drive into our location to park. Apparently hunters are not interested to help get rid of this problem. There will have to be some serious trapping of these animals that are not native to the area. They destroy everything, everywhere they go in the woods. The photo on this blog shows what they do to some of the trees by rubbing up against them, sharping their tusks on them, and wallowing in the ground around them, making large mud holes that scare the land. Another picture on this blog shows feral pig hair found on their trails. The situation is getting pretty sad. I won't mention them anymore in this blog, but I could not go without mentioning the severe damage we saw.

By 1 p.m., we finally arrived to set up camp at the intersection of Link Branch and Thompson. 2.5 miles was the total hike from our parked truck. We ate lunch, set up camp, rested a little more, and then Steve, Thomas, and I set out hiking up Link Branch, our final destination to explore. After no more than a 10 minute walk we discovered a neat looking bluff shelter and waterfall. Standing around and admiring the beauty, I heard Thomas say "Hey, here is an Indian Mortar Rock!". Much to our surprise was a beautiful hole carved out in the rock. For those of you wondering what a Mortar Rock is. The Indians ground corn and many other items up using a mortar rock. The deeper the hole is shows how much it was used, so I am told. This one was very deep (see picture attached with this article). We put a GPS waypoint on this find, took some pictures, and headed out. Moving on up the canyon, we saw little else of interest. About 1 mile up is Link Branch Falls. It was not very high and not very captivating to look at. With only about an hour before dark, we headed back to camp.

Nightfall yielded two things. One of the fastest temperature drops I can remember and an absolutely spectacular night of stars. At 4 p.m., the temperature was around 47 degrees. By 7:15 p.m., it was 28 degrees. This was an incredible drop in temperature in a very short time. The low that night was 24 degrees. Me being a weather "geek" as well, I carry a digital minimum and maximum thermometer. Around 10 p.m. that night, with the use of my iPhone and an application in it to help identify stars, we stood and admired God's beauty in the heavens. The north star was easy to pick out, since the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) was prominent in the sky. If you are not familiar how to identify the north star, it's easy. Just draw a line up from the two stars that make up the far end bowl of the Big Dipper. Follow that imaginary line straight up and the brightest star in it's path will be the North Star.

After a very quiet and pleasing night (only a couple of "hoots" from a hoot owl in the distance) with no animal noises like last time, we all got a great nights sleep. Unlike most people, I enjoy cold weather. One of the toughest things for me to do while camping in the cold is this. Getting out of your sleeping bag in the middle of the night to re-leave yourself from excess liquid. It is so hard to climb out of that warm sleeping bag. My body always says, "NO, I am NOT going back to sleep until you take care of this situation, and so I eventually go.

The next morning, we headed down Thompson Creek exploring. Within 25 minutes, we had come upon a bluff shelter that had been camped in many times over the years by an old cooler and trash left around. There were beech trees with numerous carvings of names over the years. One interesting item was a 1970's, 1980's ere steel cooler (see picture with this blog). Since it is protected up under the bluff, it only gets moisture from in the air to add to fuel the rust on it. It is not exposed directly out in the rain. All of this went on before this area was declared a Wilderness Area. So what you see out there, will be pretty much "frozen in time" until it has rusted, deteriorated and is gone. We hiked about 2 miles that morning and discovered a few other bluff shelters. Some of them had some interesting moss and ferns that you do not see anywhere, but for the most part, a pretty weak view of things compared to what we have seen before in the Bankhead. Around 11:00 a.m., we broke camp down and headed out. On the way out, we learned just how quickly a trip can turn into a nightmare. As we were crossing a stream of less than 7 inches deep, a "slick as ice" rock with moss on it, caused Steve to go flying up in the air and land almost sideways in the creek with his backpack on. After some very strong and loud moans of pain leaning over on the bank of the stream, he assured us that nothing was broken. Another lesson of how "fun" out in the middle of "no where" can turn into a long day when your body cannot transport itself out! That is one thing that the 3 of us try and do most of the time when we go together, and that is to be careful and not fall. A person who cannot transport him or herself out with there gear, can absolutely ruin everyone's trip. After some great steak at a popular restaurant out in the country, we headed back to modern civilization. Another great trip outdoors with two good friends. No "animal excitement" or breathtaking waterfalls as in past trips, but a step back in time looking at carvings and Indian traces. I have already started planning the next trip, so stand by and we will head out again soon!

Click below to watch a video clip of one of the bluff shelters we discovered.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Remote Area, Some History, and One Creepy Night I Will Never Forget

Sometimes the "unknowns" in life is what can create more fear, panic, or just simply the "creeps" in any of us than any other bumps in life. Of all the years I have camped in the outdoors among wildlife such as deer, black bear, brown bear, bobcats, foxes, raccoons, etc, none have provoked more "bone chilling", "blood curling" sounds than that of a coyote. As you read further, you will understand and hear just what I am talking about. First, let's start with the beginning of the trip. Thomas, one of my camping buddies and I decided to check out a place on the map called Davis Creek Canyon in the Bankhead National Forest of North Alabama. I have passed by it all my life and never been into this what seems like a massive sinkhole of a canyon for the terrain of north Alabama. Little did I realize what this place holds! Our plan was simple. Thomas had plotted the trip out on a map and I was game to wherever he wanted to go. He had decided for us to go in about a mile down into the canyon, set up base camp, and explore the rest of the day. We parked off of Cranal road, and begin the descent into the canyon. I noticed on my watch altimeter that we were at about 950 feet in elevation. As we started down into the canyon, we saw immediately this was going to be a very "rough" going adventure. All of the area had been clear cut of trees some 10-15 years ago, and so there was very thick and dense foliage to go into. It seemed like we only covered a quarter of a mile in one hour at times. It was tough, thick, and steep going into the canyon. The drop was so severe that we had to really look at the map good to find a way down into the canyon. When we finally reached bottom, my altimeter on my watch showed 650 feet. For North Alabama standards, that is a pretty good drop in elevation, although I realize compared to other areas including Alabama, this in nothing. It IS something when you are carrying 60 pounds of gear in a backpack, I can tell you that. As Thomas and I got to the bottom, we noticed a couple of things. First, there was absolutely NO sign of any human passing through this area in some time. The only tracks we saw were some very large feral hog tracks, and very fresh at that. When hogs roll around in the mud so happy, they want to get the mud off. They will scrap up against a tree and sometimes they wear the bark off. The size of the hog can be determined as well since the mud line on the tree bark will tell you their height. A picture attached to this blog tells that story. Some pretty good sized hogs!

We saw right away that this area is way to low of an area to set up any base camp, and so we hiked on up the canyon. After some 3 hours, we happened to notice on our GPS units, it said "Gum Pond Historical" on the map database in them. Hmmm. That sounds like we need to check that out, whatever it is! When we got closer to the waypoint that our GPS units already had on the map databases in them, we put our packs down by the creek and took off up the canyon. We did a "go to" on our GPS units to lead us to what was marked as "Gum Pond Historical". As we used our GPS units to help us "home in" on the point, we discovered something really cool! A late 1930's, early 1940's truck wrecked on the site of once was a narrow road down into the canyon. The truck was partially in the ground, with pieces and parts scattered about. We took pictures of it and I have them posted here. We could only "deduce" that a log truck must have gotten away and went down the steep hill, smashing into the rocks, or some guys had too much moonshine one night and totaled the truck out. It also had some signs like maybe a bulldozer later on tried to squash this truck up. We don't know the real story, but it was so cool to come up on such an old artifact. As we proceeded on up the steep hill to the top of the bluffs, I finally came to within 4 feet of the waypoint on our GPS map that said "Gum Pond Historical" waypoint. Nothing here but dense mountain laurel, and a beautiful view of the canyon. The history of this point has me curious and I plan to check into it further. It was obvious from the truck wreck, the old road bed, and other clues, that this was once a thriving place, perhaps before the U.S. Forest Service bought all the property up many years ago.

After lunch and a break, we set out for a place to camp for the night. We decided to go up one of the canyon walls or inlets close to our take out point going home on Sunday-February 14th. We found a pretty nice and fairly flat place to set up camp. It had a tall 50 foot waterfall not far from us, a small stream that ran right by the campsite, and plenty of downed trees for firewood. As dusk fell, this is when the "creepy part" of this simple little adventure trip begins. Our campsite was about 1/4 of a mile up from the main Davis Creek canyon. We were in a small little inlet that was a part of the main canyon. There was nothing but steep 40-60 walls in a U shape all around us, with two waterfalls emptying into our canyon. We were camped in the middle of this U shaped inlet. We had discussed early on HOW we where going to get out of this canyon, but we were both too tired to think about it on Saturday. We decided we would get up early Sunday morning and scope out the place first with no backpacks, before we hauled our gear going in circles trying to find a way out. Sitting around our campfire at dusk and eating supper, we heard this yelling sound coming from down in the main canyon. It went over and over. There was no break. Thomas said "I wonder if that is Sam?". Sam was a friend who said he may or may not be able to join us. As we continued listening, it was apparent that this yelling was not a person, but apparently a coyote. It sounded like it was down at the junction of the main canyon and this inlet were were camped in. The canyon is so deep that sound projects very well. This yelling or actually howling by the coyote went on for about 15 minutes. I have heard many coyotes in my time, but none last this long or sound like this. Usually you will hear the "yelp" sound in with the howl that is so classic of coyotes. As the evening progressed on, he begin to start howling again, repeatedly howling over and over. There was no moon so we had a very sharp pitch black night. Only the light from our fire showed evidence of where we were. Thomas said "Can't you record that coyote with your Iphone?". I told him yes, and so I ran over to the tent and grabbed my Iphone, brought the application for recording up, and we sat there on standby while we continued and finished our supper around the campfire talking. The small stream was right behind us, and it was making a soothing sound, but when this guy fired up with his howls, it would easily overpower the sound of the stream. After some time sitting and talking, the coyote cut loose again. I turned the recorder on and what we heard then is what you hear on the movie attached. THIS TIME, the coyote heads up the canyon towards us! NOT KNOWING things can send some chills up your spine. First, is he in the canyon or on top of the canyon rim? Is he rabid? Is he hungry? Is he calling for a mate or fellow companion? Is it REALLY a coyote or is it a wolf (as far as I know, we have no wolves officially in Bankhead NF)? Is he "ticked off" at us being there? Does he do this every night? Is he calling for the "troops" to check us out further for food? Thomas nor I never really feared for us having any real problems or us being in true life threatning danger, but the "UNKNOWNS" can really drive a fellow into some creepy thoughts! That blood curling sound can really work on your mind. It's also interesting here to point out some things. You get all types of reactions from people after hearing what we experienced. My wife laughed and said she would have loved to have been there and experienced that creepy sound. Others said I am absolutely crazy for being out there with that creature tormenting us like that. Everyone has a different reaction and thoughts on an experience like this. Anyway, getting back to the recording. The coyote proceeded up the canyon howling. After it PASSED by us howling, we then both deduced that the coyote was walking the rim of the canyon and not IN the canyon. I must tell you that as chilling of a sound that it makes, it gets OLD REAL FAST. I think the "not knowing" is what wears on you. Thomas laughed and said that I would be surprised probably of how small of a coyote this was and it was probably pretty skinny. His view is that perhaps this was a "loner" type coyote, kicked out of the pack. I hope he was right, because with a sound like that, I had envisioned a nice healthy 3 foot high wolf that was having his sights set on us, at least that is what my mind was leading me to believe by the bone chilling sounds it made.

After some 20 minutes of this tormenting, it stopped. I needed to contact my family anyway by ham radio and let them know we were both fine out here in the backcountry. Where we go in the Bankhead, no cell phones work, and so your only communication with the outside world is through ham radio. I think my talking on the radio finally ran him off, because we never heard him again. About 10 p.m., hoot owls cut loose not far from us. They too can send out a creepy sound, and so this just added to the already bizarre night. At 10:30 p.m. we both retired for the night to our beds. Thomas in his hammock some 50 feet away, and me in my tent. I was so tired from the 4 mile hike that day that I crashed immediately into a deep sleep. Around 11:30, I awoke to the familiar sounds we hear a lot of lately in North Alabama, even in the rural areas and not just the forest-It was the sound of a full pack of coyotes yelping and on the chase of something down in the main Davis Creek Canyon. I lay there a few minutes listening to them, and then rolled over and went back to sleep. Around midnight, I awoke to the strangest sound I will NEVER forget. I heard up on the top of the canyon, a repeated over and over-"grunting sound" that sounded just like a constant grunting sound a black bear would do. I was nestled in my zero degree mummy sleeping bag with the bag zipped up all around me. The only thing showing was my face. In order for this sound to wake me up with this insulated bag all around my head, it had to be pretty loud! In hearing this, a wave of panic set up in me with "what the crap is that?" I immediately begin to wrestle trying to find the zipper and get out of this mummy sack sleeping bag that locks you in. I had a large knife beside my sleeping bag and I fully intended to get to it as fast as possible. As I finally ripped free of the sleeping bag, I heard two last grunts out of this 10-15 second constant chilling sound. I grabbed the knife, got ready to get out of the tent and that was it. Nothing else heard. The only sound from then on was the stream flowing, and the snore of Thomas in deep sleep, out for the night in his hammock. He didn't hear a thing obviously. I lay back down in my sleeping back, churning over in my head, what the crap could that have been? We supposedly don't have any black bear in Bankhead National Forest. I don't know of anything that big that could make that kind of grunt. Then it dawned on me. Could it have been a very large feral hog? Possibly. I then begin to tell myself that as I tossed and tumbled all night trying to go back to sleep. The crack of daylight seems to always relax anyone nervous of the dark, and such was the case here. I wanted to go back to sleep and sleep until 10 a.m., but sleet and snow were forecast to move into the area later on in the morning, and so at 7 a.m., I begin to pack my things. I awoke Thomas by my noise and so he joined in as well. We ate breakfast, explored the canyon more and found a very, very, steep place to get out of the canyon pretty close by to camp. At 9:00 a.m., we begin the slow journey of hauling our backpacks and ourselves up a 45 degree incline in thick foliage. There was a trail that went around the perimeter of the canyon we were camped in. There was dung from deer and feral hogs on that trail. Thomas and I decided that this was the trail the coyote was taking to as he tormented us during the night. We made it back to the truck and completed a 6 mile journey that started early Saturday morning, the day before. It was an adventure we will talk about for a long time, but in some ways, the creepiness of it made me glad to get the heck out of there! I will always wonder.....a stray small and puny coyote, or some healthy wolf. No one will ever know. From the chilling, blood curling sound it left in me, the panic in my mind would say it was a 7-10 foot high wolf. Listen to the coyote sound below by clicking on the play button and adjust the volume up on your computer. As you listen to the coyote sound below, bear in mind that the microphone on my Iphone is not as sensitive as the ears, and so the sound you hear was actually about 2-3 times louder than the recording! I still hear that "bone chilling sound" in the back of my mind.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Exploring Little River Canyon National Preserve in NE Alabama

No matter if we like it or not, or we will acknowledge it or not, weather decides what we do in our lives. Such is the case with our 3 month long planned trip to northern Georgia's Cohutta Wilderness over the Martin Luther King holiday in 2010. Another setback is the crew of about 6 guys, starting dropping like flies as the date got closer. Heavy rains forecast days in advance had me frustrated, especially since I had packed for this trip one week in advance, food and everything! As the long weekend came closer, it became evident that we needed to change plans. Rob, one of my camping buddies and expert guide for the Cohutta Wilderness called me a few days before and said that we need to modify our plans. He said river levels would be so high that we would not get much out of the trip. Since camping and hiking in the Cohutta Wilderness requires so many stream crossings, it became evident that this trip was not meant to be. We tossed around options and finally decided on a new place to explore.......Buck's Pocket Canyon over in Northeast Alabama. If time permitted, we would move on to Little River Canyon National Preserve.

After watching weather radar and listening to forecasts, we decided to drop a day off the planned trip and meet up on Sunday at noon. It just seemed like the best thing to do unless we wanted to spend part of our long weekend hovered under a tarp wishing we had dry firewood. Once we met up at Buck's Pocket, the rain continued to come down. We were impressed with the canyon, but with rain, fog, clouds, and overall "mess" we just could not get the views we wanted. We also decided that Little River Canyon was the place that we really wanted to go to, since anyone that had ever been there raved at how beautiful it was. So that was the ticket.......head for Little River Canyon. The only problem we found in this plan was that The National Park Service allows NO camping within Little River Canyon. What a bummer! We still had to check out this wonderful beauty, so the next best deal was to go on over to Desoto State Park, camp in their primitive camping area and then launch a full blown attack on hiking Little River Canyon Monday morning. We arrived late Sunday afternoon to Desoto State Park's Primitive campground. It is a neat little area that allows you to lock yourself in to the campground. This adds new worlds to security and safety in a public camping area. This is great, and allows for no "riff-raff" to ease in to your campground and steal some goodies and leave quickly. They have to have a physical key to get into the campground. We quickly found out WE were the ONLY ones in the entire campground, therefore leaving us free to pick any site we wanted. To protect us from the now brutal winds that were coming out of the west, we picked a group area behind some pine thickets. You have to remember that this campground is up around 1,300 feet, and so were stuck in clouds, fog, and a mess! I thought I had lost my wallet as well. This tends to add excitement to the afternoon. After making myself absolutely sick with worry, I finally found it laying in the tent. I think the next thing to being naked in the middle of downtown with no clothes on and your friends passing by and seeing you, is to be without your wallet. If my heart were running a marathon, It just ran 10K in 1o minutes.
Night time turned out to be a pretty depressing site for most folks, even for hard core campers. If my buddy Rob had not brought firewood from his home in Chattanooga, we would have been totally miserable. Camping at 1300 feet in a cloud bank (fog) can wear on you. Everything is damp, everything is cold, and nothing but a hot meal could deal a blow to this mess! Ah yes, a hot meal! That did the trick along with a warm campfire. Some warm French Vanilla coffee does wonders as well. How many moments in the wild are warmed from worries with a fire. That fire was worth a million bucks! We sat around talking. Campfires are some of my favorite times, no matter what the condition or the temperature. Sharing stories with camping buddies is hard to beat.
After a good nights sleep listening to all the sounds down in the valley all night long from trains, dog barks, to "back up beep" indicators on commercial vehicles, we were ready to go to Little River Canyon by 10 a.m. A hearty oatmeal breakfast and hot coffee will start the day off good. The sun peaked through the clouds around 10 a.m., yielding a crisp, clean, clear blue sky to greet us all day long. After a short 20 minute drive and our arrival, I was set back right away with such beauty of Little River Canyon Falls as I crossed the bridge on Highway 35 and turned in. Most everyone's first stop is Little River Canyon Falls just off of the highway. This is your first clue that many more wonderful sites are coming your way. The Little River Canyon National Preserve, has only been under the National Park Service since the 1990's. Little River Canyon, is little known to locals of what a treasure it really is. The Little River Canyon is one of the nation's longest rivers that travels on the top of a mountain, then plunges off the Cumberland Plateau at the head of Little River Canyon. The Canyon starts at 1,900 feet up in elevation and drops to around 650 feet. That is a pretty amazing and a fast drop in some 20 miles of the canyon! You can imagine how the current rages with this steep of a drop. The water remains a beautiful green looking color, even after a lot of rain we experienced the day before.
Little River Canyon Preserve offers something for everyone. If you don't even care to get out of your car, you can drive the outside rim of the canyon and enjoy some scenery like you have never seen before. If you get out of your car at each overlook, you will be treated to stunning views of the canyon. If you do this, take binoculars! If you care to do as Rob and I did and go down in to the canyon, you will leave with views that you will never forget the rest of your life. The best place to go down into the canyon as we did, is at Eberhart Point. This is a very old site that was once the site of a sky chair lift that for a fee, would take you down into the canyon. It was privately owned. Remains of the old site are still down there and can be seen in the pictures I have taken of the trip. There are still concrete pillars and old concrete picnic tables left over from these bygone days. It must have been a neat spot in it's time. I don't know, but one would only surmise by the name that Mr. Eberhart ran the sky lift and picnic area in it's time. GETTING down to this neat place is where the stamina comes in. From the high point of Eberhart Point where you park your car, to the bottom of the canyon is about a 400 foot drop in elevation. The old winding road going down to the bottom of the once sky lift location winds down at approximately a 45-50 degree slope. There are park benches every 300 feet. There is a reason for this! It is a under a quarter of a mile to the bottom of the canyon, but it will feel like 2 miles to the top when you decide to walk out! The river bottom greets you with old building and ground remains from the old chair lift. The walls of an old stone building, which looks like pre-1940's is there as well as picnic tables that look like out of the 1940-1950s. There is a non official trail that leads along the river going south into the canyon. THIS is the trail you want to take. When you look around, you are suddenly stunned and a little confused. THIS scenery does not look like Alabama! This looks like the cliffs in Northern New Mexico, or the hills of Northern Virginia. This place does not even resemble the normal terrain of Georgia, Alabama, or Tennessee. It is like a mini Grand Canyon in some ways. Taking this trail I mentioned going downstream will take you along the roaring sounds of the raging river, as well as yield breathtaking views along the way. If you have the time, go up to the north of the canyon from the picnic ground as well upstream. You will eventually come to Brooks Branch which runs in to Little River. When you get to this point, look up and see the mighty tall Crow Point towering way above you. If you look closely, you will see a small point or two of people at the top looking down at you! That's exactly what they look like, small points! This view is shown on the blog, showing the intersection of Brooks Branch on the left, coming into Little River and Crow's Point towering in the middle. About an hour or two walking downstream from where we descended into the canyon, we came upon a tree with either a snake carved in it, or a map of the flow of Little River. It appeared to be very old carved into a birch tree. Is it Indian? Is it fairly recent?....Who knows. Toward the close of the day, Rob and I came up out of the canyon, climbing slow and steady up that LONG incline trail towards the truck. When we arrived, we found that the kayakers whose boats were on top of their vehicles parked up with us, had apparently taken the kayaks and descended down in the canyon to do some true whitewater kayaking. I don't whitewater kayak, only long boat kayaking on the river or on lakes. From some of the current that I saw, it would appear that the odds of death boating in some places would be around 70%. I would have loved to have watched them kayak this raging river. Rob and I closed the day out by going by and stopping at High Grace Falls, believed to be the tallest waterfall in Alabama. As we were leaving, Rob and I realized that this Canyon goes some 20 miles. We had only been about 10 miles down it. We barely even scratched the surface! Maybe another day. I certainly hope so. My only complaint is that the Park Service allows absolutely NO camping whatsoever. I don't really understand that but we go with the rules. Rob and I talked about the wonderful possibilities if you could camp in the canyon. A base camp set up on the stream, and nothing but beauty to explore for days. Maybe one day the Park Service will open this up for camping. But in the meantime, this place has something for everyone. From the casual person who wants to see nature and never get out of their car, to the person who wants to stop at each scenic overlook and take in the beauty, to the hard core hiker who wants a challenge and to be rewarded with some of the most scenic beauty in Alabama. Put Little River Canyon on the calendar if you are passing by that way. I can guarantee you that you will not regret it!

For more pictures and video shot down in the canyon during the trip, go to
Click on the Photo album titled "Buck's Pocket-Little River Canyon". It has short movie clips contained in it as well.