Sipsey Wilderness/Thompson Creek area exploration 

My hiking buddy (Wayne) and I had plans to go and explore a new to us portion in Bankhead National Forest this past weekend. I was excited to get back to my favorite area and find some new things now that the weather had finally cooled down enough to make hiking enjoyable.

On my way to Bankhead, I received a text from another friend (Thomas) that is VERY familiar with Bankhead Forest and the Sipsey Wilderness.  His family had lived in Bankhead many years ago and knows the history and location of many of the special areas and enjoys going to find them.  The text said that he was taking his nephew out this weekend and wanted to know if I wanted to join him.  I quickly contacted Wayne and we agreed that this would be a great experience.  We knew hiking with Thomas meant everything was going to be “off-off trail” meaning no trail whatsoever would exist, but the reward would be worth the journey. I replied to Thomas that we were on the way and would meet them there.

All of us arrived at Thompson Trailhead at about the same time – just after dark.  We had planned to camp in Whiteoak Hollow just before the shortcut up the ridge to the Big Tree.  Although we are all very familiar with this area, it is much more difficult to see and navigate in the dark.  After walking in a circle in the correct area (literally) we decided it was getting late and we would camp at the large campsite at the junction of trial 206 and Whiteoak Hollow since no one was there.  We set up camp and settled in around the fire ring by the glow of a battery operated lamp since there is currently a fire ban due to the drought.

Friday night was cool but not cold and we all kept warm in our hammocks.  There was a short but heavy rain around midnight that didn’t provide any water in the streams but at least kept the dust down as we went hiking the next morning.   Our first agenda Saturday  was to find an old moonshine still site in Whiteoak Hollow.  As we headed up Whiteoak Hollow, Thomas had outlined some carving in a tree that many people pass but never notice.  In the tree is carved “J.C. Riddle 1918” and the name “Amos.” This is significant because Amos Spillers married one of J.C Riddle’s daughters.

This is the kind of information that is shared by Thomas and brings the area “alive” by not just exploring but also knowing the history behind the things we find.

Just east of the shortcut up Whiteoak Hollow we found the remains of two stills tucked away in a bluff covered in Hemlock trees.  All that remained were two rock lined holes on either side of the stream and a few pieces of metal.  While to the uniformed they don’t appear to be much, this was actually a pretty popular method during that time and a sign of that particular activity in Bankhead.  I didn’t take any pictures of this site, though.

We headed back to camp after a few minutes for snacks and planning what other adventures we embark on later that morning.  After a few minutes of discussion, Thomas offered to show us some old home sites and another old still site further down Thompson Creek and some sights on the other side of the creek on the way back.  We eagerly took him up on his offer.

Downstream on Thompson Creek we headed and after a few minutes we left the trail and climbed the ridge following an old road.  Eventually we came across the remains of two old homesteads.  All that really remains are a few stacked stones from the fireplace.

One key to finding things such as this is to remember stacked or symmetrical rocks (such as circles) do not occur naturally and it must signify something.  Sometimes the “why” may not be known but as you research and explore sometimes they can be figured out.  After a few minutes at the old homesteads, we headed around the ridge to the old still site.

This site was further off trail so more item remain.  There were the remains of an old cook pot, a barrel, a metal bucket, some wagon parts, and other scraps of metal.  Just off to the side of one cook pot was the remains of a larger in-ground still similar to the ones we saw up in Whiteoak Hollow.  We stayed here for some time as Thomas showed us pictures on his phone of various sites around Bankhead he has discovered.

Now we headed back, crossing the dry Thompson Creek and climbed a ridge once again.  After a short climb we found ourselves at another bluff line.  In the rocks at the foot of the bluff were several Native American mortar stones and grooves where they had sharpened or shaped other tools on the rocks. This was the location of the infamous “Baby Pig” story that has been told around the campfire on a few occasions.   Next we walked around the bluff to another odd site.

On the saddle of a ridge was a large (10 ft or more) circle of large rocks.  It was way too large to be a fire ring and too symmetrical to be accidental.  In the center the ground had a large depression.  No other markers or identifying items were around.  It was just an odd site.

Climbing down the other side of the ridge we headed roughly in the direction of upstream. After a few minutes we came across a flowing spring.  This was really a surprise as dry as it has been, but the spring was flowing.  We filled and filtered water and headed back to camp, walking up the dry streambed of Thompson Creek.

Upon reaching camp, it was sadly time for Wayne and I to tear down and head back.  As we sat around the fire ring, I looked up and took one of my favorite pictures of the trip.

Although it was a short trip, I had a great time with friends, met someone new, and saw just a few of the things the Sipsey Wilderness has to offer.

Posted in Backpacking, Hammock Camping, Hiking, Report | 1 Comment

Gaia GPS App vs Garmin GPS

I’ll start with a disclaimer: I believe you should first have and know how to use a map and compass when backcountry hiking. The advantage of a map and compass is that it never needs batteries, works anywhere, and is simple to use after you learn some basics. With that being said, I do carry a map, compass, AND a GPS. I try my best to navigate by map and compass and just use the GPS for data collection which I’ll explain later.

An often asked question is which GPS or GPS Application I use on my smartphone or which do I recommend. For the record, where I normally hike is a National Forest with absolutely no/very little cell coverage, heavy canopy especially during the spring/summer, and is riddled with deep canyons which makes Cellular coverage extremely difficult but GPS signal possible. Your hiking environment may be totally different, but this is my frame of reference for my experience.

My “go-to” GPS device is a Garmin e-Trex Venture HC. This device can be purchased for under $100 and has the ability to view the map and track on the device. I have downloaded the topo maps from gpsfiledepot.com for the entire state of Alabama as well as the Southeast United States. There is also a download available called “My Trails” and all three are absolutely free and very useful. I use the Garmin supplied interface “Basecamp” and “MapSource” which can also be downloaded for free. While “MapSource” is an older interface, I am familiar with this program and prefer it. It can be found for free with some Internet searching.

The Garmin GPS has never failed me in the terrain that I typically cover. I make sure to turn on the device at trailhead and wait until it has connected to the satellites and has a good signal to begin tracking my adventure. I have used this GPS on all of the trails in the Sipsey Wilderness in the Bankhead National Forest as well as many off trail adventures. I have never had a dropped signal for more than a few minutes or difficulty obtaining a signal. As I stated earlier, I use the GPS to track my adventure to compare planned miles versus actual miles. After the adventure, I look at the elevation gain/loss, speed, actual track on the map, and waypoints of items that I have marked during the hike.

I have been using the Garmin GPS for several years without any issue. However, I decided to try a smartphone GPS app in addition to my actual GPS to research the accuracy for a backup device. Through trial and error I realized the free apps did not have the features I desired. After using a couple of different apps, I have settled on the Gaia GPS application.

The Gaia GPS app is not free – it cost $19.99 for my Android device. It has a couple of features that I desire for a GPS app. The user can download maps to be used “offline.” When I put my phone in airplane mode the GPS feature still works and I can record my hike to view later while saving battery power. It gives me data after the hike and one neat feature is the ability to share the information with others (even those without the application) via a link.   Here’s an example from a recent hike: https://www.gaiagps.com/public/Ga22vX2IaiT39VVOLX5OTemc

Gaia also has a very extensive help section that will walk you through many topics. Of course, this has to be done when your phone is connected either by Wi-Fi or cellular reception.

How does the Gaia app compare to an actual GPS device? In order to find out, I used both on the same hike. I powered up and set the record track on at the same time and stopped recording and powered off when I completed the hike. Here is the comparison:

Gaia app data:

Total distance: 5.3 miles

Points recorded: 1028

Moving time: 3.0 hours

Overall Pace: 45.20 minute/mile

Total time: 4 hours 1 minute

Stopped time: 1 hour 1 minute

Moving speed 1.8 mph

Average speed 1.3 mph

Ascent: 740 feet

Descent 751 feet

 

Garmin etrex Venture HC Data:

Total distance: 5.2 miles

Points recorded: 399

 

I also used the feature on the Gaia app to export to a gpx file and loaded both into the Garmin MapSource to compare.

The GPS track from the Gaia App:

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The GPS track from the Garmin GPS:

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The elevation profile from the Gaia App:

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The elevation profile from the Garmin GPS:

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After reviewing the data above, I was totally blown away.  This was an out and back hike.  The elevation profile should be close to a mirror image from the middle out.  The Gaia reflects this and the Garmin does not.  The Gaia provided more data and the ability to share with other users.  The Garmin only took 399 points (set to normal) while the Gaia provided 1028 points and I don’t see a way to change that particular setting.

With all of this being said, the Garmin does have the advantage of replacing the two “AA” batteries when needed, while I would have to charge my phone for the Gaia App which isn’t quite as easy, but not impossible. The Gaia does provide more data easily and seems to be more accurate.

I expected the data to be almost identical with possibly the advantage going to the “REAL ” GPS. So, what do you think?  Are you as surprised as I am about the difference?

Posted in Backpacking, Hiking, Report, Testing | 5 Comments

Sipsey Wilderness/Bankhead Forest Group Hang Trip Report

 

 

The week before this hang I was a bit bummed just to be honest. It was unseasonably warm, there was a burn ban, and quite a few people that normally attend weren’t able to make it this year. One of my favorite aspects is sitting around the campfire catching up with old friends and making new ones.

I had been out in the Sipsey Wilderness the week before and knew just how dry were the conditions. People were driving hours to the “Land of 1000 Waterfalls” to the driest conditions I have seen and there was a very real possibility there may not be any waterfalls, or just a trickle of water at best. I wondered where we could hike that would be scenic, interesting, and worth the trip with the higher temperatures (in the 80’s). The infamous “Sipsey Mile” which feels longer than an average hiking mile isn’t much fun in the heat and humidity of this unusually warm October.

But it doesn’t take much for me to drive the 40 miles or so to my favorite area to explore – so I was going! Having just started a new job I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to arrive until late (possibly at/after sundown), but my new job was nice and I was able to leave not long after lunch. As I drove closer and closer to the Sipsey Wilderness my excitement began to grow. I could not wait to get there! Once again although I probably live the closest, I was not even close to being the first person on site.

Greetings were made and I quickly set up my new Dutch Half Wit. I received this the previous week and this was the maiden voyage and I was excited to try it out.  I was also used my Jarbridge and Costco top quilt for insulation for the first time together to see if it would be enough for the low to mid 50’s.

People continued to arrive and it turned out to be an above average attendance. As much as I enjoy seeing old friends, there were a lot of new faces and it was awesome. It was difficult to get an accurate count because people came and went all weekend, but as a guess there were around 35 people total that came to visit from various states. Wolfpen Hunters Camp is a large place and we had room for  those attending and more room was available on the other side of the camp and surrounding area.

One thing I have quickly noticed about the past couple of hangs in Bankhead is that you will NOT go hungry! Friday night we had Squidbilly’s special recipe Chili with all the fixings which quickly disappeared. People arriving late were disappointed when the pot was empty upon their arrival. There was also a huge selection of things to eat including a cookie cake, chips and dip, fresh fruit, and many other yummy homemade goodies that kept appearing on the table. The tables were full and we nearly ran out of room to put all the new food. Saturday night’s entree included DaddyDaddy’s “Hate Beans” which we enjoyed so much there wasn’t hardly any to take home for leftovers. Hopefully his family isn’t mad at us. There was also homemade Chicken and Dumplings and Jambalaya. Of course, I had to try a bit of everything and it was all delicious. There was some discussion already about what to bring to the next hang. If you like to eat, sleep in a hammock, be included in a great group of people, and maybe even hike (not mandatory) then the Bankhead/Sipsey Wilderness Hang is for you!

After some discussion on Saturday morning, we had settled on hiking destinations. We did manage to take a group picture of everyone present as of that moment, but did not get one Sunday.

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Saturday morning group photo

Since the Sipsey Wilderness has a limit of 10 people per group and we had more wanting to participate, we decided to stick to the Bankhead National Forest where that rule does not exist. First we went to the Kinlock Shelter and stopped by the Kinlock Spring which was actually flowing. This surprised me as the spring is at the top of a ridge and it has been so dry. There was also a small area that had been burned and was still smoking in a few places around the edges. The Forest Service had cleared a burn line around the area and walking on it I discovered this odd little area of moss.

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Mossy Area

 

We walked up the hill toward Kinlock Shelter.

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Headed uphill toward Kinlock Shelter

Once there we explored the area and viewed the Native American Carvings on some of the rocks.

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Kinlock Shelter

 

After pictures and some exploring, we climbed back up the hill out of the shelter and drove the short distance to Kinlock Falls. Once again I was somewhat surprised there was water flowing. It wasn’t much but it was enough for Max “Bubbles” Thrasher to discover a water filled hole that was waist deep and climb in.

 

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Bubbles in the water

 

After exploring the area, taking a few pictures, and pointing out the areas in the rocks that remain from an old grist mill, we headed on to the longest hike of the day.

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Looking downstream at the top of Kinlock Falls

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Looking upstream at the top of Kinlock Falls

 

At this point we were 100% for actually seeing waterfalls and the last destination was almost guaranteed to have water flowing. We headed down the road to Caney Creek Falls. The parking area is visibly marked with hand painted signs coming from either direction.  Park carefully not to block the driveway across the road. This is a very easy trail to follow but there is a bit of elevation change, especially for those not familiar with the terrain in the Bankhead National Forest. The official sign states the falls are 1.5 miles away, but the upper falls are more in the one-mile range. It may be 1.5 miles to the lower falls, but we did not venture down that way.

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Sign on gate for Caney Creek Falls

 

Upon arrival we discovered we interrupted an engagement photo session. We tried to stay out of their way as much as possible although we weren’t entirely successful. It isn’t the largest area and there were quite a few people there.

 

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Engagement pictures at Caney Creek Falls

 

Not to be outdone by his son, Dale wandered into the water at Caney Creek Falls. After a little exploration and snacks, we headed back to camp for a late lunch and rest.

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Caney Creek Falls

 

After the hike everyone was ready for a late lunch and a rest in the hammock including our Mascot Bebop.

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Bebop Hanging out and resting

 

 

It was a bit warmer on Saturday night and we added to the fire ring from the night before. We had to be a bit creative because of the burn ban, but it worked. Our improvised “fire” gave off plenty of light to see the immediate area as we sat around.

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Our improvised “Pinterest Campfire”

 

Since it was the weekend before Halloween, we took a short (2 inch) hike to the Wolfpen Cemetery. Walking down Cranal Road looking up at the stars was remarkable as we avoided the vehicles traveling down Cranal road wondering what in the world we were doing.

After viewing the stars and a tour of Wolfpen Cemetery many people commented at the short life span as annotated on the tombstones. It seemed the majority of the sites that were labeled children.  Most of the dates are from the early 1900s. Then I imagined the quality of life including the lack of modern medicine and how the simply just a cold winter could decimate communities not to mention flu, pneumonia, and many other things that are easily managed today.

As we sat around the “fire” Saturday night a car pulled into the campground. The Winston County Law came to visit. He stated he stopped by only because he saw lights from Cranal Road as he drove by and wanted to check on the campground. As we visited the deputies they stated their surprise at the number of vehicles present at Wolfpen Hunters Camp as this was the most he has ever witnessed at a single time. He approved of our campfire and after a short discussion they drove off to keep law in the land.

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THE LAW!!

Sunday morning people began to pack up and leave as many had long drives ahead of them. A few of us stayed and decided to do a short hike to Eagle Creek Falls. Although there was a little misunderstanding (the waterfall was 5 min from camp but the camp was about a mile away) it was enjoyed by all.

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Eagle Creek Falls

After the hike to Eagle Creek Falls just about everyone was packing up to leave or had already left.  I sat around with Dale and Wayne for a bit because I just wasn’t quite ready to leave.

We’ll start planning in a few months for the Spring Hang in the same location usually sometime in April. Don’t miss it or you will regret it.

As a footnote, I absolutely love the Half-Wit and it will become my new go-to hammock.  My insulation worked and I stayed warm but not hot.  I’ll try to do my review of the Half-Wit in the near future.

Below are some random pictures from the trip.  Enjoy!

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Top of Eagle Creek Falls

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On the way to Eagle Creek Falls

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Sipsey toilet paper aka Large Leaf Magnolia trees

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Wolfpen Hunters Camp

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Blue Man

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Unofficial Caney Creek sign

 

Posted in Backpacking, Hammock Camping, Hiking, Report | Leave a comment

Sipsey Wilderness Adventure

 

I had been looking forward to this trip for a couple of reasons. First, it had been too long since I have done an overnight trip in the Sipsey Wilderness. Second, our group contained a great mix of people and experience. A couple of the guys were prepping for a section hike on the AT in June, several had very limited exposure to the Sipsey Wilderness and it was the first multi night trip for one Cub Scout. Lastly, after this trip, I will have hiked all the official trails in the Sipsey Wilderness. The smallest of exception is the section of trail 209 from the 202 junction to the junction of Ugly Creek and the Sipsey River.

Our plan was to drop cars at Randolph and then drive around and depart from Gum Pond. Friday night we were hiking trail 208 to either Hagood Creek or the Braziel Creek area. After camping at one of those locations on Friday, our plan for Saturday included the rest of trail 208 and having lunch around Thompson Trailhead once we were back on water. Saturday afternoon we were going to hike 206 and camp somewhere around the headwaters of the Sipsey River. Either Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning, a trip to Ship Rock and Eye of the Needle was planned along with a stop at the Rippey Cabin on the way out using trail 206 to trail 201. Of course, we would end at Randolph trailhead, drive around and pick up the other vehicles, and go home. Well…… that was the plan.

After meeting and introductions, our group left Decatur, AL right at 3 pm on Friday. After dropping a couple of vehicles at Randolph Trailhead (our finish point), we loaded up and drove around to Gum Pond Trailhead. Six people (including a father and son) and two dogs headed into the woods around 5 pm. We made good time and quickly came to Hagood Creek, snapped a few pictures, and headed on to Braziel Creek. After a total distance of 2.5 miles we had crossed Braziel Creek and found the large campsite where the spring supplied our clear and cold water for the night.

 

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Hagood Creek Bridge

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Looking upstream on Hagood Creek

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Bluff along trail 208

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Camp Friday night

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The 4 legged friends enjoying the trail

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Easy downhill going in

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small fire on Friday night

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Nearly a full moon

 

Hammocks and tents (yes, those things) were set up, firewood collected, water filtered, and food was prepared. Just about dark we heard a large pack of coyotes making a bunch of noise in the distance, but that was the last we heard of them. We reviewed our plans for the next day and had social time around the campfire until people started calling it a night and drifted off to bed. Going to sleep that night we were prepared for the storm in the weather forecast Friday night from our last weather update.

Saturday morning came without rain as we all slowly made our way to the campfire for breakfast. Finally, we were all packed up and hit the trail as the only rain was a short light drizzle as we packed away our gear. As we were leaving the Braziel Creek Campsite and headed West on 208, we climbed the ridge and saw a lot of burned material on the South side of the trail. We speculated that these may be backfires from the fire in the Sipsey Wilderness last Spring since the valley below seemed to be untouched, but we weren’t sure.

As we made our way down the ridge, a decision was made to alter our plans and take a left on trail 224 since several members of our group had never been to the Big Tree, including the youngest member of our group. He was pretty excited, so we decided to go. We took a left on trial 224, followed it to 204 where we took a right, then took another right on trail 204A. Of course, this brings you to the top of East Bee Falls which was flowing well. We climbed down and enjoyed lunch and a well-deserved long break at the Big Tree. Surprisingly, we were the only ones there the entire time.

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East Bee Falls

After another discussion, we decided to take the Whiteoak Hollow Shortcut to Thompson Trailhead as that would be much shorter (and quicker) than retracing our steps back to trail 208. Every time I go down East Bee through the blowdown it does seem to be getting better but it still isn’t a lot of fun with a full pack. After the multiple over/under from the blowdowns, we came to the junction of East and West Bee for a quick break. After another short discussion (you see the trend?), we decided it was silly to climb out to Thompson when we would just hike South back to trail 209. With a sigh of relief, we headed to trail 209 on a much shorter and easier route.

I have not been on trail 209 since the Christmas Day flood and I was not quite prepared for the condition of the trail. The power of the raging water has totally changed the dynamics of the trail along the river. Whole banks and campsites have been washed away. Tons of sand now cover the trail so it is like walking on a beach in many places. There are sections where groups of large trees have had the soil washed out from under them and the trees are now just laying down. I’m so glad I hiked all but a very small section before the flood. It will take years for this area to recover and it will never be the same as it once was. One thing I did notice was the evidence of wild hogs. It was everywhere. There were some sections that appeared as someone had a tractor and tilled up the area.

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Downed Trees from the flood

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Wild hogs having fun

We took a nice long break at the large campsite just East of the 209/201 junction. After hiking less than a mile, we made a quick stop at the Sipsey Rapids, Ship Rock, and Eye of the Needle. Of course, there were lots of people in this area. After a quick scouting trip, we decided it was best to cross the Sipsey River just below the rapids. We were going to get wet since the water was up a bit and our vehicles were on the South side of the Sipsey River. I think to the amazement of the people watching, we crossed the mid 50-degree water. The water was mostly below knee level with a few deep spots. The temperature of the water was quite a shock to a few people. The current was fairly brisk and the rocks were slippery but we all made it across without any major incident and climbed the bank to claim the large campsite just above the rapids (another change in plans from camping at the head waters). From my information and best estimate, we covered about 8 miles on Saturday.

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Sipsey River Rapids

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Eye of the Needle

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Crossing the Sipsey River

A quick service announcement…. I normally use one certain kind of battery in my GPS and it performs very well. Using my battery of choice, I can usually use a set of batteries for several trips. I did put in a fresh set of the non-preferred battery right before I left. I believe I may have left my GPS on overnight on Friday, but by Saturday afternoon my GPS had drained the batteries. I do know it was 6.5 miles from our campsite on 208 near Braziel creek, through East Bee, down on trail 209 to the intersection of White Creek and the Sipsey River. That is all the official data I have for this trip because my batteries were dead at that point. Use good (name brand/type) batteries in your electronics. Luckily, I mostly use my GPS for tracking and use map and compass for navigation. Service announcement is over.

Our guest of honor – squidbilly – stopped by and joined us after pulling privet on the West bank of Thompson trailhead Saturday afternoon. Some fishing was done in the calm deep water above the rapids, but only received one nibble. The temperature was significantly lower Friday night with the clear skies and there was a bit of wind although it quieted down by bedtime. Most of us did not stay up nearly as late after the full day of hiking, but much laughter and social time was had by all Saturday night.

 

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Father and son fishing

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Group Camp

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A view above the rapids

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Sunday morning view of the river

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Camp Saturday night

Sunday morning brought plenty of sunshine and warmer temperatures was we all slowly climbed from camp to gather around the fire. After breakfast we slowly packed up and headed out to Randolph trailhead. We stayed on the South bank of the Sipsey River and went West to meet up with trail 206. Taking a left, we climbed up to the ridge. We dropped our pack at the end of the driveway and went down to see the Rippey Cabin. Leaving the Rippey Cabin, we hiked out to the Randolph Trailhead using trail 201 covering around 3.5 miles on Sunday.

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Headed out to the trailhead

 

That makes a trip total of about 14 miles on a wide variety of Sipsey terrain and saw some of the Sipsey Wilderness highlights including East Bee Falls, the Big Tree, Ship Rock, the Eye of the Needle, and the Rippey Cabin. We waded across knee deep mid 50-degree water and had two great nights with old and new friends. To the best of my knowledge everyone had a great time and everyone came out safely without injury. And that is the end to another adventure in the Sipsey Wilderness.

As a side note,  there were lots of flowers in bloom. My wife loves flowers so I search for them while I’m hiking – it also forces me to slow down and enjoy the scenery as well.  Here are the ones I found this weekend.

 

 

 

Posted in Backpacking, Hammock Camping, Hiking, Report | 3 Comments

Birthday Bushwack through the Sipsey Wilderness

Being unemployed on your birthday does have at least one benefit – you can go hiking regardless of what day of the week! That is exactly what I decided to do since my wife had to work all day and I really didn’t want to be at home by myself while the weather was beautiful. There are many areas of the Sipsey Wilderness that interest me, so I researched some areas that I had been wanting to explore for some time and made a plan for a reasonable day hike.

As I opened my eyes that morning, the weather was perfect and I was ready! Maya (my yellow lab) has been having withdrawals from our adventures as it had been way too long since the two of us had any quality time in the woods together. My pack was ready, so I grabbed a quick shower and loaded up the car. As I was backing out of the driveway, something didn’t feel right. Then I noticed the “check tire pressure” light was illuminated on the dash. Oh No, that could mean trouble! Sure enough, my back tire on the driver’s side was flat.

Maya was returned to the back yard as she looked at me with a strange expression. She must know the significance of my hiking clothes and pack. After putting on the spare tire and providing the wife with an update, my new destination was in order – the tire store About an hour later (minus a screw and a nail in the same tire), I was on the way to the woods. A little flat tire was not going to rain on my parade!

My start time was a little delayed – that wasn’t a big deal. My plan was to park at Thompson Trailhead, go south until Whiteoak Hollow, and follow Whiteoak Hollow almost all the way to the end. I was then going to find a spot to climb the ridge and follow the old ridge road trail (that hopefully wasn’t too bad) to a spot I picked out on the map that I thought I could climb down into West Bee Branch. I wanted to explore West Bee Branch and see the waterfall at the head end and check out a few other areas of interest. When I had finished exploring West Bee Branch, I was going to take the unofficial trail back over to Whiteoak Hollow. If time allowed, I had another area or two that I wanted to see.

I set off right at 11 am – about two hours later than I had originally planned. First off, Whiteoak hollow is beautiful! There is a resemblance of a trail, although the further you go into the hollow, the less visible the trail becomes. The navigation is easy – just follow the creek and there are remnants of previously used campsites along the creek. The creek bottom is fairly flat, mostly free from storm debris, and there are even a few waterfalls not too far from the creek.

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A small creek runs through Whiteoak Hollow

I didn’t venture far from the creek since my time was a little shorter than planned, but there are hints of waterfalls further up than I had time to explore. There were a couple of deep holes that would be great for swimming or cooling off and several cool rock formations. One thing that struck me as odd, though, was this green slime looking stuff growing the creeks in Whiteoak Hollow. I haven’t noticed it anywhere else in the Sipsey Wilderness. My favorite spot was where the creek made a 90 degree turn on a rock. In another location at the base of a small waterfall, a small stone had carved out a large hole in a larger rock from the movement/vibrations from the water.

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Small flowers were blooming

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vSmall flowers were blooming

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View of Whiteoak Hollow

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Small Waterfall

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Hole formed by a rock

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View of Whiteoak Hollow

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Several deep pools were present

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Another small waterfall

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A side view of the 90 degree cascade

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A closer view of the 90 degree turn

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Green Slime stuff growing in the water

Near the far end of Whiteoak hollow it appears that most people take a left at the last creek and climb out to trail 208 a short distance away. I had considered continuing East to Trail 224 (also a short distance away), but decided to backtrack and climb the ridge between Whiteoak Hollow and West Bee Canyon. I saw some old tree carvings although I forgot my chalk to outline them so I couldn’t really make out more than the big “T.”

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Old Tree Carving

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Another old tree carving (I think, but it’s difficult to see)

Following a large drainage to the south, I saw an old logging road and decided it would probably be a bit easier. This logging road intersected with the old road/trail traversing the ridge. Not wanting to go all the way to the Whiteoak Shortcut to the Big Tree, I saw a spot on the map where I thought I would be able to climb down to West Bee. From the ridge, it appeared easy enough, so I headed south following the second drainage down. Although there wasn’t a trail, it wasn’t too rough and I dropped elevation rapidly. Then I heard water. At my elevation, that wasn’t a good thing. In front of me was a 6 foot or so waterfall, but just beyond that was a fairly tall waterfall and there wasn’t any way down in the immediate area.

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The Ridgeline trail/old road

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Small waterfall up top

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Tall waterfall down below

From looking at the map, there was another drainage just a bit more Southwest from my location. Not wanting to climb back out to the ridge trail just to descend again, I spotted a pig trail. Literally. It was well worn, full of tracks, and it meandered in the direction I needed to go. Unfortunately, it was fairly close to the edge of the bluff and was only cleared about 3 foot tall. Maya had no problem following it, but there were several places that caused me to go around because I wasn’t crawling under the deadfall.

What was only about a quarter of a mile but felt and took much longer, I found a spot where I could safely climb down. I did find a piece of old metal at the base of a small waterfall, but no other evidence of a still, and figured it was storm debris. I slowly and carefully made my way down to West Bee and found a spot for a much deserved lunch.

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I climbed down beside this waterfall

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This looks like a good spot – for lunch

I quickly discovered why not much is said of West Bee Branch. Because it sucks. It is a narrow canyon with steep terrain, full of huge boulders and downed trees, and the hogs have had a field day tearing up the ground. There was no resemblance of a trail whatsoever that I could find. After my break, I ventured upstream wanting to see West Bee Falls, but navigation was tough and slow. I wasn’t having fun. After looking at the time, I had to make the decision to turn around.

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West Bee Canyon

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West Bee Canyon

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West Bee Canyon

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West Bee Canyon

My wife was told about my approximate “get out time” of 4 pm and my tentative route before I left. I try really hard to stick to it so she doesn’t worry – ESPECIALLY when I’m by myself. I wasn’t going to make it to West Bee Falls and back out in time on this trip and be anywhere close to my time limit. It takes me about an hour to hour and a half to travel from the Big Tree to the trailhead using the Whiteoak Hollow shortcut so that was used to determine when I needed to head back.

I reluctantly turned around and began the bushwack downstream. The suck factor was a 12 on a scale of one to ten. After what seemed like forever, I came to the trail leading up to the ridge and over to Whiteoak Hollow. If you have been this way, you know it’s a little climb, but I was so happy to finally see a trail! I climbed up and over Whiteoak with my legs screaming the whole way. I returned to the car and headed home. As soon as I got a signal, I sent my wife a text letting her know I was on the way. The text was sent at 4:06.

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Maya leading the way back down into Whiteoak Hollow

I had covered about 6.5 miles with the majority of if being “off trail” and lots of it being “off-off” trail. What did I learn? Whiteoak Hollow is beautiful and I will probably go back. As much as I want to see West Bee Falls (just because I know it’s there), I’m not sure it is worth the suck factor to get there. West Bee Branch is the toughest terrain I have seen in the Sipsey Wilderness, and not very scenic by Sipsey standards.

I saw lots of new things, had a great time with my dog, and was glad to be out without injury, and FINALLY sitting down in the car headed home. THAT’s a good day in my opinion.

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I had a GREAT adventure with my Dad!

GPS Track

GPS Track

Elevation Profile

Elevation Profile

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Had to say goodbye to an old friend today

imageToday I officially said goodbye to an old friend. We have shared many miles together in the woods since March 2011 and he has been with me through the good and bad.

He was right by my side for countless miles never saying a word when things were rough and I kept going – in fact, he was always ready for an adventure. From the beginning, I knew Charlie didn’t have any legs and I would have to carry him everywhere we went.  I carried Charlie and in his own way he helped me when no one else could.

He had been with me while I traveled everything in red on the map – and that doesn’t even account for our adventures outside the Sipsey Wilderness. Sadly,  Charlie was quietly lost by recklessness.  I was careless one time, didn’t secure him properly and he quietly slipped away to live forever in the woods he so loved. Maybe he’ll get lucky and be found by someone who will cherish him as much as I did. Charlie Compass, you will be missed, but your replacement was in stock at Academy.

 

 

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Bankhead Forest Winter Adventure

Life has been interesting recently and my priorities have shifted so I do apologize for not updating my blog recently. But fear not – you haven’t missed anything because I haven’t done much of interest recently. Until two weekends ago.

I have been volunteering with my church to organize/lead outdoor activities for a wide range of age groups and abilities. A couple of weekends ago we had a trip planned but canceled due to the possibility of snow and/or ice. Since I had planned an adventure and I REALLY needed to get out, I called up my trusty all weather adventure buddy, and we made plans for early Saturday morning.

He picked me up in his 4X4 Jeep and off to Bankhead National Forest we went. The anticipated North Alabama blizzard of a couple of inches did not come to fruition (at least where I live) but we did see a dusting once we begin our ascent into the Warrior Mountains. We really didn’t have a set agenda, but did have a few places we wanted to check out. After driving around on the Forest Service Roads a bit, we did hop out and check out one promising area that held a waterfall just a few minutes from the car.

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Just a few minute walk from the car

 

From there, we had heard about a nice waterfall that was not marked on the map. After a minute or two, we found our starting point – an old cemetery. I thought it was interesting that the markers were mostly modern but the dates were in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. The oldest marker had a date of 1833, but there were many graves just marked with plain stones that could have been older.

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new marker – born in 1827 and 1833

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old marker – born in 1864

After surveying the cemetery, we headed toward our destination. To summarize, we saw a small 6 ft waterfall and turned around. After we returned home, we discovered that if we had continued there was a huge bluff shelter with a waterfall about a fourth of a mile further. Oh well, now we have an excuse to return. We did manage to catch some pictures of snow and icicles, though.

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Icicles and snow

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Waterslide

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Small Waterfall

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Being underwhelmed by what we had seen up to this point, we decided we should check out at least one more spot on the map that we had been wanting to see. After looking at the map to decide the best route, we headed down another Forest Service Road and parked at a clear cut area. After following a logging downhill, we finally came to Collier Creek.

Here we saw something interesting – an underwater bridge. It was a fairly wide wood bridge resting on the creek bottom. It didn’t appear extremely old, but it was out of place as there didn’t appear to be a crossing at this location, and bridges are a pretty uncommon sight in Bankhead. I’m making the assumption that it was washed downstream by the recent heavy rain, but I may be wrong.

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Bridge under cold cold water

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Some idiot wading across when there’s snow on the ground.

After looking downstream, I decided to tough it out and cross the stream here. The far side of the creek was fairly level,easy terrain and the near side appeared challenging to say the least. Yes, the water was extremely cold, but I was thankful my quick draining shoes and wool socks. After a few minutes, we arrived on the top of Collier Creek Falls. There are two stone columns here dating to the early 1900’s (I’ve heard 1907) built to support a mill at this location. The only problem was that it was the end of a box canyon and we did not see a way down to the water and base of the columns.

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The top of the columns are visible on the left

Seeing the resemblance of a game trail to the left, we decided to go downstream to find a way down. The trail (which is an over-exaggeration of what we were following) continued downstream and it seems that every 50 feet or so we heard another waterfall. We continued to explore safe options down to the water, but the walls of the canyon were nearly vertical. Finally, I made the call. If we could not find a way down to the water in the next few minutes, we would have to come back as I was running out of time until the time I promised to be back.

I told my adventure buddy that I would check one last time to see if I could find a way down and went toward the edge of the bluff to explore my options. Alas, once again it was too steep. Dejected, I climbed back up to where we had split ways only to find trees instead of someone waiting on me. I wasn’t worried – I figured we was also looking. I took the few minutes I had to shed some layers for the hike out, drink some water, and have a quick snack.

Then from the distance I heard a voice. It couldn’t be – the voice was below me! He had found a way down to the water! I followed his directions, climbing down and came across the beauty.

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Shangra La Falls

Although this appears tropical, this is North Alabama in late January with snow on the ground. The green are mostly Hemlock trees and Mountain Laurel. Although we swore the water was blue because it felt like ice, it is actually from the dissolved calcium from the limestone rock. This was gorgeous and worth every bit of crossing cold water, climbing through Mountain Laurel and following a game trail. We decided to go upstream to the stone columns and hopefully find an easier and shorter route out of the canyon.

With the recent rain, the water level was up a bit. That is great for waterfalls, but it is not so great when you are hiking up a creek without a trail. If there was a trail, it was underwater. We didn’t care – we had found a way down to the water and now just upstream was our destination.  Lots of pretty things to see within a short distance.

 

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Icy Branch

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Icy Bluff

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Another waterfall

Around every bend was another cascade or waterfall. I’m sure several of these are only active during and following a heavy rain, but it was awesome! There was a place or two where the water covered the entire floor of the canyon and we were forced to climb up the waterfall very carefully.

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cascades

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more cascades

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cascades/small waterfall

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ripples in the rock formed by the water

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everything was frozen and cold

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another waterfall

Finally we arrived at the base of the stone columns. After pictures and a quick snack, we decided to head out looking for a shorter way out since we were not excited about retracing our steps on the way in. After a few minutes, we found a narrow ledge that if we could climb onto it would allow us to climb to the ridge line and bushwhack our way back upstream.

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Collier Creek Falls

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Stone columns at Collier Creek Falls

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Collier Creek Falls

Luckily we made it without anyone getting hurt (it was still pretty icy and slippery) and we made it back to the Jeep in record time. It took a long hot shower and some thick wool socks under a blanket for my feet to feel warm again – but I would do it again without thinking twice.

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