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!