The Saturday after Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel days of the year, and I guess we got caught up in the excitement. But unlike the millions who took to the roads or the air, we did our traveling (well, most of it) on foot.
It was a beautiful warm day, and we were feeling ambitious. We were also feeling the aftermath of two days of feasting and knew that the scales were going to be groaning in protest unless we walked off some of those calories. On our recent trip to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, the volunteer hosts at the headquarters had mentioned that people often hiked on the gravel roads of the refuge. They pointed out a lengthy loop that starts off Alternate U.S. Highway 72/Alabama 20 and hugs the shore of the Tennessee River and Piney Creek before turning back inland to complete the loop. They estimated it was around a 13-mile walk, which is a little out of our normal range for a day hike. But extra helpings of turkey, potatoes, and pie called for desperate measures.
We drove west on I-565 until it became Alt 72/20 and briefly headed north on U.S. Highway 31 until we could turn around and rejoin 72A/20 heading back east. It sounds a bit awkward, but the parking area for the hike is on the south side of the road and it’s not possible to make the left turn into the parking area when you’re heading west because the eastbound and westbound lanes of 72A/20 are split apart at that location to deal with the Highway 31 intersection. After our brief loop-the-loop, we pulled into the unpaved parking area by a gate at 10:40 am and set out on our walk on White Springs Dike.
After going around the gate, we paused to read an interpretive sign that explained how this wetland is actively managed by controlling the water levels and growing seed crops to attract and sustain large numbers of waterfowl. The gravel road stretched straight ahead of us, with stands of trees to either side.
The landscape to the left was a cornfield, with the stalks long since chopped down to provide a smorgasbord for the birds. It was a scene we’d see several times on this hike, as this rich river bottomland is extensively sown with corn, oats, millet, and other crops, now brown and sere and bursting with seedy goodness for our feathered friends. The first small stand of trees on the right was a riot of birdsong, with little birds flitting about in the underbrush. Ruth and I are not birders, but we could see immediately why this is on the North Alabama Birding Trail.
The next field on our left was partially flooded, and it was there we saw our first ducks of the day. Wildlife refuge lesson number one: just because it’s a refuge doesn’t mean the wildlife will sit around and let you gawk at them. Off they went, in a storm of indignant quacking!
By now the Tennessee River was visible to our right, with some interesting stunted trees clinging to the shoreline, with some large industrial facilities visible on the other side of the river.
At around a half mile into the hike, we came across this pumping station, one of several water control devices we’d see on our walk. This particular one seems designed to drain water from the field into the river. It was a pretty view inland from here, as the flooded plain wound through stands of hardwoods in their own autumn plumage.
We ambled along on the wide, flat gravel road, with the river to our right and ducks to our left. After the elevation challenges of our hike to the Walls of Jericho last weekend, we were ready for something a little flatter. After about 1.5 miles, we came to the beginning of the lollipop part of the loop, the intersection of White Springs Dike and Eagle Nest Island Road. We stuck to the right and followed the river, quickly passing the eponymous eagle nest high on a pole. Alas, no eagles were in residence.
The views inland continued to be flooded wetlands with green grasses, reeds, cattails, and seed crops in the background. Ruth spotted our first wading bird out on the river, perched on a submerged tree. In retrospect, I should have brought a longer lens, so if you’re looking for great bird pictures, this is not the blog post for you. Like the ducks, this big guy was kind of jumpy and grumpy, so photo opportunities were limited. As stated earlier, we are not birders, but our best guess is that this was a blue heron or something similar.
This stretch of the road, between 2 and 3 miles from the trailhead, was very pleasant, with big oaks a little past their fall color peak flanking the road. Just before the 3 mile mark (figuratively speaking — there aren’t any mileage markers or navigational markers on this road), the road bent to the right. The riverbank was fairly accessible here, and proved that deer and raccoons are also residents of the wildlife refuge. With the plentiful cornfields around, it didn’t come as any surprise.
The road bent back to the left along a shallow arm of the river with plenty of wading birds. We called them egrets. They called us sketchy, and quickly took wing when we got too close. It was in this stretch, about three miles into the walk, that we caught our first glimpse of the I-65 bridge over the Tennessee.
And indeed, the road goes right under the bridge. We paused there for a while to listen to the Thanksgiving weekend travelers zipping along overhead and snapped a few photos. Looking north under the bridge, we spotted the first other humans we’d see on this hike, walking south between the spans toward the river. There are other roads off Highway 72A/20 that are east of the refuge, so if you’re looking for a quicker route down to the river there are some options. Also, if you’re thinking of doing some boating, Arrowhead Landing Road will take you to a boat launch onto Piney Creek.
After the bridge, we proceeded another 1.5 miles along the river, with the road winding beguilingly between the trees and the shore. I should mention that this road is open to hiking and bicycling, and would be a very pleasant and easy ride for all ages. Just before the 6-mile mark of our trip, we reached the end of a peninsula, with the road curving north away from the Tennessee to follow Piney Creek. We stopped here by a cornfield for lunch. Fortunately, we had packed peanut butter instead of turkey sandwiches, which could have led to some awkward explaining to the residents. I imagine it might have gone like this:
Duck: So, how’s it going?
Ruth: Great, thanks! It’s a lovely day.
Egret: I can’t help notice that you’re eating an … interesting lunch. What’s that on the stick?
Duck: So, scaring birds. Do you think that’s funny?
Ruth: No, no, we’re sorry. No offense intended.
Egret: Maybe we’re a little sensitive. Say, what type of sandwich is that?
Chet: Turkey! With a nice sweet hot stone ground mustard… (trails off awkwardly)
Duck: Brad, you want to handle this?
(A grumpy great blue heron flies in and spears Ruth and Chet through their necks with his big pointy beak.)
The road continued to the north, with occasional sluice gates along the way to control the water in the refuge. Piney Creek is quite wide at this point, and we saw several anglers trying their luck from boats.
This is perhaps an opportune time to mention that we were plagued throughout this hike by ladybugs. The stretch along Piney Creek seemed the worst, and it was also in this area that we noticed the first mosquitoes on this hike. We had insect repellent, which helped with the mosquitoes, but it didn’t faze the ladybugs. This was a first for us — I’ve never seen so many ladybugs out in the wild.
Almost seven miles into the hike, there’s a junction in the road where you can go left (northwest) or continue straight to get to Arrowhead Landing. It was here that we spotted two men in camouflage and orange blaze hats strolling into the refuge. Wildlife refuge lesson two: this wildlife refuge is only a refuge for waterfowl. Managed hunts are allowed for quail, white-tailed deer, and various varmints. Of course, it’s deer season, and once again we were out in hunting territory not wearing our blaze orange. We weren’t in any danger since we were sticking to gravel roads, but it’s common courtesy and good sense to make yourself visible.
We turned left and followed Eagle Nest Island Road, skirting a large field and again passing under I-65 at about the 7.5 mile mark. The bridge is much lower here, and makes for an interesting view to the south toward the river.
Now that we had turned away from the water, the road took on a different vibe, alternating between tree-lined stretches and areas with open fields on one side or the other. Around the 9-mile mark the trail was flanked on one side by a nasty ditch with stagnant water and enough mosquitoes to even chase back the ladybugs. We were starting to feel the miles a little by this point, but there was no tarrying along this stretch.
Fortunately, the trail bends slowly to the left away from the ditch through a very pretty wooded area. Shortly before the 10.5-mile mark of the hike, the wetlands again come into view, featuring a birdhouse with a view of the water, and another sluice gate to control movement of the water from one section to another. The intersection with White Springs Dike is just beyond this, and from here we retraced our steps for the remaining 1.5 miles back to the trailhead.
We had thrown down a 12 mile hike, our longest dayhike of the year, and possibly an all-time record for us. I won’t lie — we were feeling it, and were glad to finish the hike before dark. It was going to be a beer and Advil night. Actually, we were so tired we skipped the beer!
Here’s the GPS track of this hike.