Monday, January 17, 2011

Indian Tomb Hollow-Bankhead NF-A Treasurer Trove of History

Welcome back to another trip of adventure. Backpacking season is at the halfway point and we are in full swing. Planning any trip sometimes can be as hard as pulling a tooth. After 4 failed previous attempts, we had to once again, cancel the Cohutta Wilderness (northern Georgia) trip. After a 5-8 inch snowfall blanketed north Alabama and North Georgia January 9th and 10th, ALL roads leading to the Cohutta Wilderness Area were closed. Fearing that many would not be open by the Martin Luther King Holiday weekend, we were once again, forced to cancel. With our "team" of 7-9 guys planning to go, several of us were determined to go somewhere MLKJ weekend. A poll of the guys seemed to draw a logical conclusion. We could probably access roads in Bankhead National Forest better than anywhere else. Mount Cheaha was discussed, but like the Cohuttas, elevation gave no promising results of being able to access the mountains with the very slow thaw of snow. With people backing out not able to go, came different folks that were able to go. Brett brought both of his sons. By Saturday morning, we wound up with 6 guys headed out. Destination this time: one that all the locals know all too well about-Indian Tomb Hollow, at the edge of Bankhead on the north side. I had been to this site years ago documenting with video, the massive clear cutting of the area by the National Forest Service. This massive clear cutting of the area prompted native American Indians as well local residents to pour out in outrage to the U.S. Forest Service. The massive historical value of the area is overwhelming if you visit this place. Not only was it the site of an Indian war between two different Indian tribes with the graves of over 40 Indians, it has a lasting legacy of history as well of many family settlers in this hollow, mainly the Gillespie families. A large plantation house up on the top of Indian Tomb Hollow, still called High House Hill even today on maps, was a 16 room house with 9 exterior doors. This plantation was the Alexanders who had slaves that helped them take care of the their property. This trip left me with an even greater appreciation of the historical importance of this area. As you read on, you will see.

Saturday morning, we leave our typical high cholesterol breakfast of McDonalds in Moulton and head out. This time, we have Thomas Graham, Steve Jones, Brett Page, a camping friend that we love to go with from Blount county, as well as his two sons, Jason and Zack. A couple of others had to cancel at the last minute because of personal details to take care of at home. As we head out and approach the forest, we are surprised to see massive amounts of snow still on the ground. This is not normal for Alabama! A 8-9 inch snowfall that has stuck around some 6 days later! Thomas had warned us several times in E-mails that we need to really coat our boots down well from the snow and wet. We quickly understood why. Gators, rarely worn by any Alabama Hiker (except the two geeks-Thomas and Rex) were a must on this trip. Thomas and I usually always wear gators even without snow, just to keep sticks, mud leaves, etc., from falling into your boots. Steve never wears them, but decided to carry them on this trip. With 4-8 inches of snow still on the ground, they were a true blessing! Not to leave anyone behind reading this, gators are protective material you put around your boots and legs. They vary in height from just above the ankles to all the way up to your knees. In snow, they keep all snow at bay and out of your boots and keep your pants from getting soaked from the wet snow. On this trip, they were awesome!

As we travel up the road that now has a gate blocking it from traffic, we quickly find out that walking with a pack, in very wet snow can be very hazardous and treacherous! I have been in dry powdery snow in Alaska and Colorado many times, but wet Alabama snow is almost like walking on ice! The road we are walking up, is quite sad in a way. For many, many years, even after the Forest Service purchased all of this property, it was a local hangout, for good and bad purposes. During my lifetime of the 60's,70's, and 80's, families and teenagers were always there on weekends. It was almost like Sipsey Recreation area is today. It was just the place to go and get away. One of the things that I gained out of this trip, is just HOW MUCH this area was visited! We lost count and got tired of counting/marking with our GPS, the number of tree carvings of peoples names. More on that later. Moving up the road leading to Indian Tomb Hollow from County Road 86 (dirt road) from where we parked the vehicles, we encounter something I am a little ashamed to write about since I live in this county. As we are laughing, walking, and carrying on our journey, we hear rifle shots up ahead. O.K., I suppose someone is hunting. As we march on further down the trail, we hear a very pronounced, taooow, taooow, taoow, taooow, taooow, of a rifle. Being "guys" that we are, we started trying to decide if it was a 22 long rifle, 22 short, 38 caliber....(type of gun) etc.
As we come on up the trail, we see two very young early teens with 22 rifles, staring at us coming up the trail approaching them. 98.8% of the time, every encounter with anyone out in a remote area is a welcome and enjoyable experience, even if the conversation is only a smile, a nod, or a "how are you folks today" type conversation. This one left all 6 of us getting a little nervous. Certainly when you approach the teenagers, they looked a little nervous that we are coming at them. As we approach them, I notice something that really grips me. I spent most all of my life growing up around guns and hunting with my father. My father always taught me when other people come up, you point your weapon up in the air and rest it on your shoulder. This is just safety and respect, telling the strangers you come up to that you are being safe with the weapon. As we approached the teens, I was very unnerved to see their weapons pointing down at our knees! As we got closer, we spoke to them, one of the teens smiled, and it was hard to stop from chuckling. It could have been a scene from the classic movie Deliverance. As one of the the teens smiled wearing camo coveralls, he had no front teeth! Geeeze...That being said, I will only ever mention this but one time, but starting this year, for the first in my life, I got registered to carry a pistol with me at all times in the woods. Between feral hogs on the increase, and the ever increasing crazy people out there, I decided to do this. Two years ago it was made legal to do in an National Forest in Alabama. So we were not totally helpless out there, but that doesn't help you much when you are approaching someone with a rifle pointed down at you. As we came close to them, they told us they were "turned around" and wanted to know the way to the car. That is odd? There is only ONE road in, and they are on it! Out of safety concerns for all of us, I moved on down behind them while the other guys spoke with them. They smiled, talked a little bit about seeing some peanut jars that someone had put out baiting deer (highly illegal to do in the Bankhead). After a simple conversation with them, we moved on. I was ready to move on anyway as the other guys. Something just did not add up right on them. As we walked along the trail past them, we saw where they had walked and occasionally stuck the gun barrel in the snow. Boy my dad would have chewed me out for such non-sense. Not only is it not safe, but plug the barrel of your gun with dirt, and you will ruin the weapon! Some discussion went on about these two boys and wondering the safety of our vehicles from being broke in to as we depart further away from the vehicles. Soon, the topic was dropped and we moved on down the trail. After a short time, we came upon the "peanut butter jars" they spoke of. Since I don't hunt anymore, I was not aware of this new practice of baiting game. They basically buy a jar of peanut butter, cut the bottom out from underneath it. Take the cap off and nail it to a tree. After you screw the jar on to the lid nailed to the tree, your "bait" is ready to go for deer and a host of other critters. They will eventually lick the entire jar clean as can be. Interesting but again, highly illegal to do in a National Forest. This is called "baiting game".
Moving up and getting off the trail, we come to our first landmark. The famous Indian Marker Tree. These types of trees fascinate me! From my understanding, the Indians started a tree from it's early growth by splitting it in half and tying the tree down with rope of some type (Steve Jones passed this on to us at the site-I had no ideal how they did this). Somehow, if this is done during it's early growth, it will later grow in a split pattern such as a L shape or a goal post pattern. Most all of the L shaped ones point almost exactly north! I have verified this with a compass more than once. Totally amazing to me! There are numerous trees in the Bankhead that are tagged with this and are cataloged on a national website..... if you are interested. This famous Indian Marker Tree is well know throughout the south from books published by Butch Walker and Lamar Marshall-Warrior Mountains Folklore and Indian Trails of the Warrior Mountains. A footnote quickly here on this subject. More interesting information on Indian Marker Trees can be found here if interested. My good friend Tony in Florida sent this to me after seeing my video on facebook. If Indian Marker trees interest you and the background behind them, go to this link

After snapping a group picture here, we move on up to the famous Indian burial site and Gillespie cemetery. Here is a grave marker of one of Thomas Grahams relatives.....James Gillespie, a veteran of the war of 1812 and born before the United States was a country! The Indian markers and those of long past residents of this hollow, are all just stones sticking up out of the ground. With 4-6 inches of snow still on the ground, there was not much we were able to investigate, so we move on. Since all of this hollow was Thomas Graham's kinfolk, he is loaded us with all the history of the hollow. He points out a spring just up the road on the right from the cemetery where the Gillespie home once was. On up from there is the Whiskey Still Shelter that we did not make it to. Yes, there is a reason it was called Whiskey Still Shelter. We travel up Gillespie Creek and start plunging through the snow looking for a camping spot. Thomas had planned for us to camp in a bluff shelter to escape the melting snow, so we marched and marched and marched. As we moved ever so slowly along navigating with packs among us ranging from 25 pounds to 62 pounds (dummy me on that one), we found this was wearing us down MUCH faster than we thought. Walking through this depth of snow in wet snow, is like walking a sandy beach with heavy shoes. It can wear you out fast. One of the most captivating elements of this trip, is to see countless beech trees going up the creek with names carved all over them. It's funny you know.....When you see a tree carving saying 1998 or 2001, you get mad at someone defacing a tree. When you see the same thing done that says 1947, it captivates you. Along this creek and exploring all the canyons for two days, here is a small sample of some of the carvings...

-Cleo, Jake, Linnie Parker- No date
-????? (name of someone) March ?? (unreadable), 1932
-B. Yeager- No date
-??? ???? 1887
-Roy McVay
-Tom McVay
-Esther 1922
-Pinhook Alabama
-Picture of a house with smoke coming out of the chimney (we assume High House Plantation House)
-Jeff B 1973
-T.D. 1953
-JWB 1973
-TW Bankr
-??? ???? 1932
-DS 1965
-CN 1959

Of all of those mentioned above, only a handful are known as "famous" carvings in the unique place. It is the Small Snake Tree, and the Big Rattlesnake Tree (On cover of this article). They are believed to have been done by Indians. The Big Rattlesnake Tree was debated among us for some 10 minutes as to if it is real or a natural formed figure of a snake. It also has a bird and a beavers tail above it. After about 10 minutes of debating if it could really have been done by Indians, we moved on. I personally think it was. What is interesting to note here is that the "bird" above the snake figure, and the beavers tail, is about 20 feet above the ground. The snake figure alone is some 10 feet long. One might easily question the big rattlesnake as being natural and just looking like a snake, but the bird figure (on cover of this article) being some 15 high up on the tree, does make one wonder that indeed this might have been done by Indians. Bear in mind that carvings on beech trees can stay on there for 100 years, if deep enough and wide enough. Also, a good friend pointed out that carving on a tree DOES NOT make the carving move up higher on the tree as it grows. It stays at the same level it was carved. The tree grows up and the carving stays the same height. Knowing this, makes one more aware that yes, this could have easily been carved by Indians.....or....someone in the late 1030's had a wooden ladder and lots of knows?

With such a labor intensive efforts getting around in and through the slick snow with backpacks, it took us way longer than we intended to, finding a nice dry place to camp. We finally wound up in the back part of the Indian Tomb Hollow. We found a fantastic large and tall bluff shelter to set up tents under. Brett had his two sons set up beside me in one tent. It was actually just right. Two tents was about all the room we had. The modern day "hammock guys" with their high dollar expedition hammocks set up on around the bend of the bluff shelter down in the woods. I have talked about in previous forums about these modern day high tech hammocks. Due to such a wide and diverse audience reading these forums, I will spare everyone talking about them. They are very nice, lightweight, and extremely comfortable to camp in. With so many tents at the house, I have not made this "black hole" plunge yet, as most all hobbies can become.

Nice dry wood was found all up under these bluffs that extend around the canyon, so within about 30 minutes, we had a ton of good quality dry wood to burn and keep us warm for the night. Most people do not realize that is one of the sweetest things about Bankhead. With so many bluff shelters, you can find a nice dry place to camp out of the elements, and you feel like you are "cheating" while camping sometimes. One can see how easily it was for Indians to live out in the Bankhead or similar areas with so many bluffs to protect them. They can block wind and rain so well, that you wonder why you even need a tent or hammock. Just sleep up in these shelters! As for me, I like my walls of privacy and "mental" wall barrier to keep folks and critters out. After getting set up and getting firewood in, with water filtered for everyone, we set out to explore more. By the way, several of you have asked me "how we get our water" while camping. It is so simple now days, you feel guilty. There are a number of companies making water filters. They come in the form of pump water filters or gravity water filters. I usually bring my "group" gravity type water filter and the whole bunch uses it for their drinking and cooking water. You simple fill up a bag that has a filter in it. As gravity pushes on the water, it is forced to come down through the filter and into your container. Getting a drink could not be any easier now, thanks to modern day marvels.

After setting up camp, we decide to move on up Indian Tomb Hollow towards the back east side of the Hollow (for those of you interested on following us on a map). We move back to the very back of the canyon, and are instantly rewarded with one large and tall beautiful waterfall. It is about 40 feet tall with icicles that extend down around 20 feet. We snap pictures left and right. As we move around to the south, we come across two waterfalls that are beautiful as well. All of the waterfalls in Indian Tomb Hollow are small in height and water flow, compared to others in the Bankhead, but they are beautiful in their own right. What Thomas and I quickly learn, is that each of these waterfalls and bluff lines, are packed FULL of old tree carvings, with dates all over the spectrum. Up until the 1980's, one could easily pull your car up into the hollow, park near the Indian Marker Tree, walk up any of the canyons with a picnic lunch, and enjoy the scenery. Such must have been the case hear for many, many, years after the U.S. Forest Service purchased it. There is so much irony in this place that I don't have time to tell you about. One of the many ironies was this. For so many years, this was a popular well know public place to come and show the family. Back in the late 1980's, lumber greed and greed among the managers of the Bankhead National Forest, they came in and "clear cut" the mess out of this historical place, with seemingly NO regard for it's historical significance to the public and the nation. Locals became outraged! Native American Indians from all over the south rose up, banded together, and made a very pronounced and "media touted" stance against the U.S. Forest Service. This was bad Karma for the forest service. Shortly after this, the controversial Forest Service ranger "retired", and a new since of "sensitivity" arose out of this incident. This was the "tip of the iceberg" compared to the raping of the land being done all over the forest, but this one incident that put the U.S. Forest Service in "hot boiling water" with much of the local public. As is so typical of any government agency operation and just one of the jokes sometimes of our government. The U. S. Forest Service apologized for clear cutting this hollow without proper archeological studies, barred the gate where none of the average "John Q public" could access this site (with the seemingly need to "protect it" now) anymore without extensive walking.
The irony of this is that the U.S. Forest Service forever blocked many of the public from accessing (which they had done for years and years) a part of what they (the U.S. Forest Service) had destroyed! LOL. Oh well, enough of politics. Moving on....

We move on around the canyon and check out more bluff shelters. It's getting dark now, so over half the crew splits up and goes on back to camp, while Thomas and myself continue on exploring. Just before we all split up, we discovered twin waterfalls that were beautiful with icicles. Just about dusk, Thomas called me over and said, "hey look. YEAGER is on this tree". As we further inspected, it was the name of a guy whom we both knew very well in high school. He was close to our age, and died of cancer a few years ago. Wow! It hits you. His name does live on, for another 50 years or so in this beech tree!

The campfire that night was totally awesome! Here we all sat up under a very dry bluff shelter, the moon out full, lighting the snowfall up like it was daylight. Man, I wish I could share a picture with you of that. It was so peaceful. To top it off, on time as they most always do, the howl of coyotes down in the hollow just added another cap to a wonderful evening.

Now, time for some humor folks! I can't believe I am writing this to share with the world, but hey, if we can't laugh at ourselves, who can we laugh at? About 9:30 p.m., I told the guys I had a "nature call" to make, and departed for the woods. As I was searching for a place to relieve myself, out of laziness, I decided to park on the side of a hill. I dug a deposit hole with my feet, squatted down to the ground and relieved myself. As I was enjoying the peaceful and absolutely cloudless night with all the stars, the moon, and the snow making it ten times brighter, I leaned over to get my toilet tissue in a freezer bag (to keep it dry). I leaned over pretty far while remaining in the squat position and my fingers bumped the freezer bag with my toilet tissue in it. I suddenly in disbelief, see this bag take off like a sled down the hill, racing at what seemed like 50 miles per hour, like a pinball machine, bouncing off of sticks and trees as it made it's way to the bottom of the hill!!!!!!DANG! Just my luck!!
Man! What do I do NOW! As I sat there in the squatting position in disbelief, I sat thinking about my options. Wet cold snow?, no way! Wet leaves under the snow?, NO WAY. Well mess, I guess there is no option but to hobble down the hill with my britches down. Like an 80 year old man, I hobbled down the side of the hill with my britches down, slowly inching little by little on the snow slick hillside. A panic suddenly came over me....if I slip, how is this going to work out? Face first? After what seemed like 30 minutes, I hobble down the hill to my precious paper holding my pants up and as low as I can. Let me tell you folks, there are some sharp briars out there in Bankhead! Never in my life, has Charmin paper been so important to me. Man, I don't wish this on anyone! Done deal, lets go back to camp and not breath a word about this to the "guys". They will haunt you for years over this story.

That night yielded a peaceful quiet one with the gentle sounds of water dripping from the bluffs above. The next morning, a beautiful sunrise greeted us with still signs of snow around. It got down to 27 degrees. Not bad cold for camping weather. A breakfast with this sunrise view is hard to beat, and double hard to forget!

Sunday morning, we headed out. We were supposed to stay until Monday, but with such treacherous conditions and a 90% chance of rain Monday morning, we decided to pull out early. As we do, we come across one of the neatest elevated bluff shelters I have ever seen in the Bankhead. The guys ahead of me discovered this room type bluff shelter, elevated up some 50 feet and even with a beautiful waterfall. It overlooks the hollow. What an incredible view, protected and out of the elements for the most part. I hope to have it posted to this blog. If not, you should be able to see it on my facebook links below if not now, very soon. An incredible place.

About 12:30 p.m., with full packs on and heavy weights making it flat dangerous to wall up steep hills, we decide to head to the truck. We arrive at the vehicles (windshields in tack), unload our gear, shake hands and all depart from another amazing trip in life. We all decide to continue this journey in another 2 weeks. We discuss about coming back to Indian Tomb Hollow, because we missed seeing so many more of the sites. The famous 1992 State Champion Cucumber Tree, the Whiskey Bluff Shelter, and a host of other neat things to explore still await us here for the next time. As Brett and his sons, Zack and Jason head back home south, Thomas, Steve and I head for a steak meal before going home to our families. A good meal with good camping friends is hard to beat, next to your family. Until the next time....we return to the routine of work and making a living. Stand by with your gear, we are headed out again soon!

Thanks for going along with us. Until our next adventure!

For more pictures from this trip....visit the link below: