Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Whiskey Still Haven in Winston County, Alabama with 8 Beautiful Waterfalls and Cascades

Seldom do you take off on an adventure trip, and 15 minutes into the trip, you are running with excitement like a 12 year old at Christmas. Normally, you have to travel to get somewhere to have the fun. Seldom does the fun hit you in the face while traveling to your destination! Such was the case one warm winter weekend in January of 2011. Yep, that's right, you guessed it...... ANOTHER weekend out there in that Bankhead National Forest or northern Alabama. With the economy in this country continuing at a crawl, jobs going away to overseas, most folks don't have overwhelming travel budgets. With my line of work, that used to be the normal to travel to adventurous areas of the country and allow me to share my travels with you on this blog. Since the economy has tanked, I haven't been more than 300 miles from my home in the last we all will have to settle for some fun around my home area- Bankhead National Forest.

Our next adventure trip starts out at the familiar site to this blog, McDonalds in Moulton on Alabama Highway 157. The date is Saturday, January 28, 2011. My new close friend and camping partner with us, Brett Page, drove up from Blount county to join Thomas Graham, another close camping buddy and friend. Thomas and I go back many years. We met each other in the Boy Scouts with his dad being the local scout master. Thomas lived down the road from me and so we played some together as well. It is from these roots that we both developed a passionate love for Bankhead. The older we got and traveled around, we realize just how unique this place is. I have been blessed to travel to Alaska 12 times, and traveled all over it. I have been to Washington State and Mount Rainer, Yosemite in California, and the list goes on. NOTHING even comes close to the unique environment the Bankhead offers. My camping friend Sam says that Kentucky has some areas like Bankhead, and that is the first person I have heard to say that.

As the 3 of us embark on our journey, Thomas has it all mapped out of where we want to go. He does a fantastic job of studying Bankhead maps, plotting where bluff shelters, waterfalls, cascades, or even historical things may be. Thomas does something that only a handful of other people do such as those associated with the Wild South organization. Thomas goes and talks to old timers that know the Bankhead. He earns their trust and they know he won't exploit key areas in the Bankhead that the average public would steal or destroy in time. On this trip, he is loaded with ammo (knowledge) for exploring Capsey Creek, one of my favorite canyons to explore in the Bankhead. For those of you outside of this area, this state, or the U.S., Capsey creek is at the southern most end of Bankhead National Forest. It is located due south of the well known Brushy Lake Recreation Area on maps. Very few people explore this area of the forest, even hunters, because the terrain is very rough, steep (by Alabama mountain standards), and thick with undergrowth. It takes a lot of work and determination to explore this part of the country. But the rewards, whoa, well, unreal!

We park our vehicles along a forest road and head out down the canyon that Thomas has planned out for us ahead of time. On this trip for the first 2-3 hours of our long journey, Thomas's aunt Pam, an adventurer and Bankhead lover as well has joined up with us. She is walking in a short distance with us and then returning out. No more than 10 minutes out of the truck, we come upon an old whiskey still site beside this stream we are following down into the canyon that intersects at Capsey. After you have seen so many abandoned whiskey stills, you notice that they all are built pretty much alike. They all have the round vat pattern dug out beside a stream. As we stop and talk, take pictures, record video, and make way-points on our hand held GPS units, we decide to move on. As we travel another 100 yards down, yet another whiskey still site is spotted. It is another sunken hole in the ground, which is all that remains but is is a tell tale sign. The parts are long gone, but the tell-tale sign is left for history to record. We do a repeat of documenting all of this and then move on down the canyon following this small stream that is little more than 3 feet wide. As we move on down, a big smile comes on my face. I see hemlocks starting to take the woods over. Hemlocks are my favorite tree in the Bankhead. Why you ask? Well, for one thing, they remain green year round. Second, they grow down in deep, wet canyons that have waterfalls, ferns, moss and everything beautiful associated with a forest. The site of them means beauty is just about guaranteed ahead. Such was the case in this trip as well. As we started seeing the hemlocks, the mud bottom stream suddenly went on to nothing but rock, carving and weaving a path on top of rocks and and making small cascades. I noticed the current in the stream was picking up as well, indicating we are starting the descent into the deep canyon of Capsey. We stop along the rocky cascades, snap a few photos, and then move on down, walking slowly with our backpacks loaded down. As we start descending into the rocky terrain under hemlocks, we are quickly rewarded. WOW! What an awesome waterfall with a blue pool underneath it. Moving on down, we see the remains of a rather large whiskey still that has been blown up by the revenuers some time back. Descending on down, we see two natural bridges of rock! This was most impressive. They suspend like arches up and over, making two natural bridges. The whiskey still is pretty much in tact and made of aluminum. The site under the natural bridges are a different story. Someone has come in and dug the entire area up underneath the shelter looking for Indian artifacts. In fact, it looked pretty sad. There were wooden sifter nets left up underneath the natural bridge (for sifting dirt through to find pottery and Indian arrowheads, 3-4 foot holes and trenches dug, with plastic buckets laying around everywhere. Someone was having themselves a field day in the Bankhead. Of course you should know or guessed by now, that this practice is very illegal to do on public forest land. Evidently, someone had no fear of getting caught. As we are " oohing and ahhing" the waterfall, whiskey still, and natural bridges by them, we hear a whistle from someone. We look around to see where it is coming from. We notice that Thomas's Aunt Pam is nowhere to be found. We soon realize it is her whistling for us to come up out of the spring and natural bridge area some 200 feet up. When we arrive, we smile as she is smiling and see cans laying everywhere on the ground. These cans are rusty and were once a green color 5 gallon oil type cans. To 95% of the folks that would pass through and see this, they would blow it off as trash. Upon closer inspection, we quickly find that these rusty ole "cans", are the leftovers of a major whiskey still "bust" by revenuers. It is totally amazing to me. As the majority of the public that has passed through here, they have not disturbed some rusty ole cans laying in the forest. What they don't realize is that they are preserving the past! These cans are laying pretty much JUST like they did when the entire whiskey making operation was busted up. Upon further inspection, Brett is smart enough (I had no clue of this) to know that most all metal cans have a manufacturers date on the bottom of them. Most all of the cans have 1961 or 1963 on the bottom. Logic and pure guesswork would say this whiskey still was busted up in the mid 1960's. Further inspections of the cans shows axe holes. Ah ha!, yes, these cans were a part of the bust from down below. Thomas says that most of the revenuers would do one of two things, or both. They would throw one stick of dynamite in the still and/or chop the side walls and cans using an axe. Axe holes were all in these old cans. If I were a betting man, I would bet much money that most of the cans have not been moved from the bust on that day in the 1960's. From talking to old timers, including an elderly man that served time in prison in his younger years for making whiskey, most stills are gauged by output in terms of the term "sacker". A "5 sacker" still would be determined that because they used approximately 5 sacks of sugar to produce the vat full of whiskey. Typical large stills went from 10-20 sacker stills. This one we encountered today was probably a 10 sacker still was his guess from listening to the old timers.

After spending some time documenting all of this on video and stills, way-pointing all the information on our hand held GPS units to download to a map later, we pack up and move on. By this time, Pam has decided she needs to head back. She bids us farewell, and we move on down deeper into the canyon. About another 1/2 mile, we come upon one awesome waterfall! Located just down from the waterfall is an extremely flat place to set up a tent. We all decide that THIS is the place to camp, no doubt. The waterfall to put us to sleep like babies, a flat place for my tent and lots of trees for Thomas and Brent to tie up there hammocks. We pitch camp and setup our "base camp" as we call it. We sit down, relax and eat some lunch, and then head out on a long journey. It's only 12:30 p.m., but we have lots of ground to cover! We carry flashlights, maps, and some food to tie us over if we get in past dark. I always carry my survival kit, flashlight, emergency water filter, and ham radio with me on these excursions. You never know what can happen. The only thing we lacked in camp was getting in firewood.

As we move on down the canyon, we see a another canyon feeding into this tributary. It looks impressive with tall bluff walls, and so we turn east and start walking up it. At the end of it, our mouths drop to the ground with such beauty. Right at the end of this canyon, of which the stream goes on back up in the forest a long way but the canyon starts here, is one of the deepest blue holes I have ever seen! What is a blue hole you might ask? Well, in the Bankhead, the water is so clear that with blue skies and deep water, the pools of water at the base of these waterfalls take on a turquoise or bluish color. With the blue skies and clear weather we had that day, they all seemed to take on a blue glow. This waterfall had a long 100 foot rock chute where water came down and emptied into the deep pool below. Whenever we come up on these un-named waterfalls and blue holes, we try and name them ourselves. Thomas decided "Slip-N-Slide" was most appropriate for this waterfall for a name, so off it goes into our GPS units.

Moving on back down the main tributary into Capsey, we found a large flat area to camp beside the creek and notice another waterfall called "Broken Waterfalls". It is about 3 levels or tiers of water falling down, until it reaches the last one, a 15 foot high drop. This was really pretty, but after seeing so much better waterfalls, we simply marked it on GPS, snapped a few pictures, and moved on. We encounter numerous old whiskey still sites that are not mentioned here, but many of them are just sunken holes in the ground, hence the title of this article, 8 whiskey stills. Just a few hundred yards past this waterfall, we find another flat beautiful area to camp at. This one has some streams nearby with iron ore seeping out of them. Some were so bad that the stream was a solid orange color. We mark it on our GPS units as "iron ore camp".

About 3/4 to 1 mile on down the canyon, we come up on something I have never seen in all the years of walking Bankhead. Just shortly before the intersection of Capsey Creek, I am just about speechless when we walk up on this area. It is one of the largest blue holes I have ever seen in the Bankhead. It is out in the middle of nowhere, totally off the beaten path, and has two absolutely stunning cascades of crystal clear water emptying into them. A picture of it is on this blog. I cannot get enough of this place. I take picture after picture, video after video, and the guys actually walk off and leave me trying to absorb this place. It is so clear, colorful and peaceful, that you want to drop the clothes and dive in for a swim. What an amazing and beautiful place to go swimming. Suddenly, you slap your face and realize, it's 60 degrees, you will freeze to death if you were stupid enough to jump in. Also, in the summertime, you would have to contend with ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, and a host of snakes that would claim the place. Still, we all 3 agreed this place would well be worth the time to come in around June and take a dip in the pool. If we do come, I am bringing swim trunks of course, my snorkel and my mask to explore further. Speaking of this, my good friend and outdoors-man Charlie told me of some awesome fun in the Smokies that he and his buddies would do. The average John Q public looked on them like "dorks", but they would dawn jeans and tee-shirts, put a mask and snorkel on, and just float down some of the streams in the Smokies. I did this with two friends after hearing this from Charlie. We went up to the Jacks River in northern Georgia in the Cohutta Wilderness one summer, camped and all we did was snorkel the stream in front of our tent. Folks, this is a blast!!! When you come within 3 feet of trout, bass, and a host of other fish that don't seem the slightest bit afraid of you, then you come back with some awesome memories. This is an "untapped" sport in my opinion. It is a view of nature that we have rarely even thought about. Charlie was right. THIS IS another way to have fun in the outdoors.

At the mouth of the Capsey creek, it would seem like our journey had come to an end. We pose for a picture together (camera set up on a timer perched on a hiking staff), and head back up. Before we do, Thomas comes walking up grinning . He is holding the front end hood ornament from a very old Ford truck. It looks like maybe out of the 1940's. I told him there is a full body truck laying on it's side in the creek upstream and it may have come from it. We take a few pictures, and Thomas puts it back down for someone else to find 3-5 years from now, once again preserving history in the Bankhead.

Going back upstream from where we came, we take a side stream to the left that we had not been up while coming down. We finally dead end into a rather boring looking 1o foot high waterfall. Thomas says "Let's cut across the ridge and go back over to our main stream rather than taking the stream. Looking up at the woods, it doesn't look like that is a very exciting route to take back, but seeing how it is getting dark, we decide we do need to head out this way. By Thomas making that suggestion, it turned out to be one of the most exciting ideals he has ever come up with. As we move along climbing up the ridge, pushing ourselves along up the long slow steep incline to get back over on the other side, Brett calls out "what's that?". As we look, we see what appears to be airplane wreckage. We start moving on up the hill and a faster pace now. We are throwing out suggestions to each other as we walk up. Our imaginations run wild as we pick up the pace. We start seeing barrels and cans. OK you think to yourself, this is not a plane wreck on the side of the hill, maybe it is just a garbage dump from long ago. When we get close enough, we all three erupt into laughter! It's another large whiskey still busted up by the revenuers!! With this one being so far off the beaten path, you can tell that almost nobody has touched this one! There are cans spread out everywhere. 5 gallon cans, barrels, and all of them have the classic axe holes in them. The vat, made of aluminum and almost identical to the ones we saw earlier in the day, show that the same fellow ran a series of these stills. What a find! We were like little kids, snapping pictures, video, collecting way-points to log this one, and fascinated at how off the beaten path it is. Once again, one look yields a small spring coming up from the ground just 10 feet away from it, the source of all whiskey stills from a time long gone by. We decided that this whole area we explored was once an exciting place to be, or a very dangerous one!!! It depends on which side of the law you are on!

Near dusk, we make it back to camp, round up some firewood and enjoy some more wonderful fellowship around the campfire. As we contemplate the day's activities, we realize that never has so much been found, in such a short distance, in all the years we have explored the Bankhead. What a day! Little did we know, but the next day would knock us to our feet again with treasures!

Sunday-February 29, 2011

We break camp early because we found out we had more time to explore on this trip. Our wives were away and would not be home until Monday, giving us "boys" a little more time to explore rather than run home fast to the family. I only wanted to get back in time for church that night, but other than that, I was open to a full day of God's creation. Brett and Thomas agreed, and so we decided to explore the south side of Capsey. We looked on a topo map, studied the terrain, and decided a good route to go in on the south side of Capsey. On our way out Sunday morning to the vehicles with our packs on, Thomas's aunt Pam left us a present she found in the mud. It was a gear from an old grist mill! Wow, what a find! We marvel at it, take pictures of it, and place it up on a limb away from the stream for hopefully others to admire history here and enjoy another 50 years. I only hope someone will not steal it for keeps at there house. It belongs here in the museum of the Bankhead that belongs to the people. After marching our way out, which seemed like it did not take long since I had all 40 pounds of my food I brought in (just kidding of course). We moved around on the south side of Capsey, slowly creeping along in our vehicle while Thomas studied his GPS. Finally, Thomas says "right here. Park right here." We get out, load and gather some day packs, food, water, cameras, gps units, etc, and head out. Just 10 minutes down the canyon, we come upon a beech tree carved to death with all kinds of markings. At the top of it about 5 feet high, it had the letters in bold KKK. Underneath it, it had the names of about 3 or 4 guys. There were two rebel flags carved on the tree and the dates of 1976 or in the 70's, I cannot remember without looking at pictures. Very faintly on the tree was something that I still wonder about. You could barely make it out but it said "November 15, 1860. Is it real? Who knows? Maybe this date is the date the KKK was formed by Nathan Bedford Forrest and others, I need to research and see. Or, could it be that this really is a real date carved back during that time. We will never know for sure. We marvel, take pictures, and move on down the canyon. We hike all the way down, over 1 mile to Capsey, and see nothing. We are tired and a little frustrated now. We sit down, grab some lunch on Capsey. I shoot some pictures. Capsey is ALWAYS beautiful, and so I snap pictures left and right. After lunch, we decide to take a different route back. Instead of backtracking, Thomas and Brett wanted to go back up the steep hill and go over one ridge into the next canyon. It didn't matter to me, because I was a little tired, was not really looking forward to the 45 degree incline all the way to the top, but I too did not want to backtrack. As we arrive at a plateau up on this ridge, but not totally to the top, Brett notices some rock outcroppings and some small bluff holes. He says to Thomas, "I wonder if there is anything up there?" Thomas, who cannot turn down investigating one single bluff shelter that he loves hiking to, says, "let's go see". About this time, out in the middle of nowhere, my iPhone starts ringing! Geeze, we are not supposed to have cell phone coverage out here! I look at the caller, my wife, better answer that one! We chat about our trip and when I hang up, I here Brett and Thomas hollering to "come on over here". As I move up to the bluff shelter up higher, they yell "Do you have your flashlight!!!" I yelled back "NO!"....I hear a reply in unison.......ahhhhhh. When I arrive, it's a 3 room type shelter up in the rocks. Awesome!!!!!! Not deep enough to call "a cave", but what an awesome shelter! We snap a thousand pictures, walk in it using the light off my iPhone and explore the insides of it. Brett calls out to come "check this out!" We exit out, look up on a beech tree parked right beside one of the three entrances. It has the dates 1935, 1938, and some initials of some people on it. Wow! What a cool find. Imagine what they were doing back then when they carved this over 60 years ago! We gasp, laugh, shoot pictures, admire, and wonder the story on this place. What all went on here many years ago? The most interesting thing....This place is in the most least suspecting area you could imagine! It is not even really close to any tall bluffs!

Walking out to the road, riding high on our find, Thomas notices something right off the road. It is a deep long vat made of of concrete walls with steps going down into it. He says "hey, a government dipping vat!" I had not the foggiest ideal of what he was talking about, and neither did Brett. Thomas explained that in the early days, the government built concrete vats and filled them with chemicals. They then invented the public to bring their livestock and run them through the vats to kill off insects, etc. on the cattle. I laughed and said, "they probably had them filled with DDT" (a very toxic cancer causing chemical- banned years ago). Brett and Thomas laughed and said I was probably right. We shoot pictures, take way-points, and head out, this time, for home.

As we walk out on the main road to get to our vehicles, celebrating our trip and planning the next one, rain starts to sprinkle on our windshield just as we are leaving. Man ole man ole man, what an awesome trip. They just never stop with excitement in the Bankhead.

Much more trips to come so stay tuned. For more detailed and personal pictures of the trip, for a limited time you can go here and view them on my facebook. Thanks for going along with us on the trip. I hope you enjoyed it! Rex