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!