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!