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.