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.