Exploring new frontiers

When I was two years old, my dad was transferred from a job in Denver, Colorado, to one in Recife, Brazil.  I remember nothing at all about living in (or at least in sight of ) the snowy Rockies; my earliest memories are of sun and sand castles and the sigh of the waves. We had no air conditioning in our little house on Boa Viagem beach, but didn’t need it due to the lovely sea breezes that swept through the white iron latticework doors to the front porch and then into the cool tiled living room. Coconut palms swayed in our front yard, and my mom hired local guys to climb up them and harvest the coconuts for us. To this day I don’t really care that much for coconut because nothing I’ve had since can compare to the taste of coconut fresh from the tree and whacked open with a machete. I spent many a day out on the beach across from my house watching the waves wash up on the sand, then hissssss back, leaving dark cool viscous sand perfect for cooling my toes or making dripping turrets for my sandcastle. My love of water started then, but continued throughout my life. I spent my teenaged summers trying to practically live with my friend Elaine, whose family had a lake lot on Ft. Loudon lake in Tennessee. I worked things so I spent many summer weekends water skiing behind their motorboat, or learning how to tack back and forth to get across the lake in their sailboat. We even slept in the bunks in the tiny sailboat cabin some weekends and going to sleep being rocked by the gentle waves of the lake is a fond memory.

Given this history, it won’t surprise folks to know that the “waters” part of Woodlands And Waters is mostly me, so when I was given the chance to try out scuba diving at the US Space and Rocket Center and blog about it, I jumped at the chance.  If you’ve ever been to the Space and Rocket Center, you’ve probably peered through the portholes into thumb_IMG_3987_1024the Underwater Astronaut Trainer, and if you’re like me were at least a little jealous of those lucky space campers who got to try it out. Well, guess what? You don’t have to be at space camp to experience the tank. They offer a short – 2 to 3 hours total – Scuba Experience that any small group can sign up for.  You must be aged 14 or older, those under 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian (who doesn’t have to dive – they just have to be there), and your group must have at least 3 divers. You will be asked to sign a liability and medical waiver, and then all you’ll need is a swimsuit and a towel. All other scuba gear is provided. The price includes a day pass to the Space and Rocket Center so you can make a whole day of it if you like.

Daughter and fellow-blogger Katie and I arrived about 15 minutes before our scheduled time and checked in at the administration building. I’d never been in there before! If you park on the Marriott side of the park, near the Space Camp entrance, then walk towards the entrance, look to the left for a set of stairs leading up to a single glass door. That’s the administration building. We had to sign in and wait for our contact Ben to come get us, but soon we were being led up to the tank, passing some of the administrative offices on the way. It was cool to be “behind the scenes!” We passed over the 80% scale mockup of the space shuttle, then in to the area around the top of the tank. Ben pointed out a mockup of what’s going to eventually replace the ubiquitous MMU (space suit) – the SPS or Single Person Spacecraft. He explained that space suits have to be custom-fitted to each astronaut and are thus incredibly expensive. These one-person capsules would work for a variety of astronauts, and as an added bonus, they could sit in them in a T-shirt and shorts instead of having to wear the cumbersome suits. The mock up is at the tank so that they can test out different escape hatch shapes and see which one works best.

Ben introduced us to Jimbo Wood, who was also going to help train us scuba-newbies. Some of you might recognize Jimbo as long time radio personality who is currently the program manager at WRTT – the Rocket 95.1 here in Huntsville, and where he is also one half of the “Jimbo and Casio”  morning show. What a multi-talented and busy guy! While Jimbo and Ben got out the gear we’d need, we busied ourselves filling out all the necessary legal waivers and things, then we got a brief intro class. We learned things like thumb_IMG_3986_1024why you never hold your breath when you’re underwater. Jimbo gave a great description – if you could blow up a balloon with air at the bottom of the tank, then let it start floating up to the top, it would expand because the pressure on it would get lower as there was less water on top of it. If it expanded too much, it could burst. Now replace the balloon with your lungs – yikes! Always breathe in and out so that the pressure in your lungs has a chance to equalize. We also went over vital hand signals, like “OK,” “not OK,” “watch me,” “stay level with me,” “take me up,” and “I’m out of air.” We also learned the actual American Sign Language sign for “octopus” which isn’t really a scuba sign, but it’s fun to know anyway.  The trickiest one for me was the “thumbs up.” In my regular life, that means “ok cool” or somesuch. In scuba it means “take me up!” A double thumbs up means “take me up real quick!”  The rest of the afternoon I was signalling “take me up” by accident. Luckily, it’s a common problem, and the instructors know to verify first.

After the table top lecture, we changed into our swimsuits and they gave us a T-shirt to put on (the vests are scratchy) and then it was tank time! The tank itself is a near-replica of the tank that was in use out on Marshall Space Flight Center for actual astronaut training. The tank on Marshall is no longer in use, and Ben says it’s sitting empty and rusting. This one is 24 feet deep and holds something like a gajillion gallons of water — ok so that gallons number I made up. I can never remember big numbers – it’s like my brain says “oh ok – lots – gotcha” and then promptly deletes the actual number. The 24 is legit though.  First up, we had to walk down steps into the tank and swim across to a platform on the other side. The water in the tank was 92 degrees. It was like bathwater, but chlorinated. At the platform we were helped in to our BCDs ( the technical term for the scratchy scuba vest),  then we went over the parts of the vest – the respirator of course, and the air pressure gauge, and the deflator thingy. That last one is my term – I don’t remember what it was called, but it was a valve that controlled an air bladder in the vest so that you could achieve neutral buoyancy. We didn’t use that in the tank, but they wanted us to know what everything on the vest was anyway. Next we got our tanks put on, and learned how to breathe with the respirator – particularly how to clear water out of it if necessary. Then they had us try to get down on our knees on the platform so they could judge how much weight they needed to put in our vests to help keep us from floating away. We learned about our masks and how to clean them so they wouldn’t fog up, then split into two groups for going over some  more complicated things. We practiced taking our respirator out and putting it back in underwater, especially working on clearing it. We practiced finding our respirator if it came out and floated behind us. And finally we practiced my least favorite thing – clearing your mask if water got in it. I never did manage to do that without getting water up my nose! But I did get better at it every time I tried so there’s that. Finally, we were ready to descend down to the bottom of the tank to play.


Ben was our group leader and he told us that we would be going up and down using the ladder on the side of the pool. We were to stay even with him, and we’d be stopping every couple of rungs to equalize the pressure in our ears. I was really surprised that as we started going down, sure enough, two rungs in I could feel the pressure in my ears already. We weren’t any further down than you’d be in a pool at that point, so I’m not sure why I felt it then, but I did. Maybe I was just paying more attention? At any rate, we were quickly down to the bottom of the pool, and then it was play time. They have structures down there to swim through and “climb” on. There are bowling balls that you can use as basketballs. There is a giant 100 pound ball that you can practice throwing around. There are little rockets, a plastic shark, golf balls, and a set of water-pressure driven rockets that you can shoot to the surface. We all swam around and played with stuff, threw stuff at each other, and floated up to peek out the portholes hoping we could wave at folks outside. Ben had told us that kids just LOVE interacting with people in the tank. Rock, paper, scissors is a favorite, as is the exploding fist bump – particularly if you push yourself away flailing from the “explosion.” I didn’t happen to catch any kids looking in, though – I only saw adults, but Katie did get to interact with some kids and it made her day.

It was all fun until I made the mistake of discovering the tinker toys. They have a set of smallish wiffle balls with bolts attached, and a set of three foot long pipes. Ben saw me looking at them and came over and gave me a bunch of complicated signs. As best as I could figure out, I was supposed to put something together. I had no idea what. The others all came over and we proceeded to build one three legged, er, structure, but we didn’t have enough to make more. Some folks weren’t that interested and drifted away, but Katie and I kept at it. Eventually we figured out that we were supposed to be putting together a single structure – not one for each of us or something – and got all of the pieces attached. Victory! I was kidding about it being a mistake – I’m only sensitive about it because Ben told us later we were some of the slowest people to solve it. Humph.

Too soon, it was time to head back up. Ben gave us the “thumbs up” sign and waved us over to the ladder. He signed “stay even with me” and we slowly but steadily floated/climbed back up to the platform. At the top, we were all smiles – everybody had a great time! We talked about dive courses in the area and what the requirements are to get open water scuba certified. This short course doesn’t really count towards any of that, but it’s a great way to get introduced to scuba diving to see if it’s something you’d want to learn.

I had no idea this was something you could do at the Space and Rocket Center and from talking to people in the last few days, I don’t think it’s a very widely advertised program. It should be, though! It was a blast (rocket pun not intended). Space is often called the final frontier, but there are those that argue that the deep ocean is the real final frontier. I’m not going to get in the middle of that argument, but here in Huntsville, you can explore both at the same place!


Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained: Dismals Canyon Dayhike

The hike was only 1.5 miles long, on a well-maintained, largely level trail, and it took us over three hours to finish it.  And after finishing the hike, we both thought the same thing:  I could happily have taken longer.  Yes, that’s what it’s like to hike in Dismals Canyon.

As Ruth noted in last week’s post, we had driven over to northwest Alabama for a nighttime visit to Dismals Canyon, to view the living natural treasure known as the dismalites. The experience was a little underwhelming, to be honest, but we weren’t there at the peak viewing time. It seemed most of the dismalites were on vacation, or like all other Alabama residents were just trying to find someplace to get out of the heat. Part of our plan was to spend the night and knock off the short little hike on the canyon floor the next morning. We moseyed over after breakfast, arriving a little after 9:30. We were the second car in the parking lot, which can accommodate around 25 cars or so.

We checked in at the general store, after first stopping to admire the porch by daylight. We found out after the hike that it’s a recent addition, and it’s a very comfortable outdoor space, with a large fireplace, comfy couches, and chairs by the bentwood porch rails with a view into the canyon. After paying the day use fee (we got a discount from taking the evening tour the previous night), we headed toward the back of the store, exited onto the deck, and made our way down the stairs to the canyon rim.

Since the general store/snack bar sits at the top of the west end of the canyon, the first few yards of the hike are down stairs to get you to the deck at the edge of Dismals Branch.  This set of steps passes beside a sunny bank with several late summer wildflowers.  It’s a good thing we stopped to snap a few photos, for these were the only wildflowers that we saw on the hike.  Given the extreme biodiversity of the area, it’s a good bet there would be wildflowers throughout the canyon at different times of the year.

But first, a slight digression.  You may be wondering why Dismals Canyon is so named.  There are a couple of theories.  One theory is that the Scots-Irish settlers thought the area was similar to a place in Scotland known by the same name.  A casual internet search doesn’t turn up any place by that name in modern Scotland, and I find it unlikely that anywhere on the blasted plains of Scotland would resemble the lush green canyon in northwest Alabama.  The other theory, as stated by the Encyclopedia of Alabama, is that the area is named for its “dark labyrinths and gloomy passages.”  That’s more feasible, so to quote John Milton in Paradise Lost, we set off “on bold adventure to discover wide that dismal world.”

17pool_top_of_fallsThe first part of the hike is anything but gloomy and dismal.  At the bottom of the stairs, a wooden platform overlooks a pool formed on Dismals Branch by a dam constructed at the top of Rainbow Falls.  The dam was part of a mill that was swept away in a flood in the 1950s. While the mill is gone, its millstone is found next to the trail below the falls.  Concrete steps descend into the pool, and you’re welcome to take a swim there, bearing in mind (1) there’s no lifeguard, and (2) if you drift over the dam, there’s likely a fatal drop awaiting you down Rainbow Falls.

21rainbow_fallsAnother set of wooden steps takes you down to the west side of the canyon floor, with several views of Rainbow Falls.  Though the now defunct mill reshaped the lip of the falls, Dismals Branch drops over an approximately 40-foot ledge here, tumbling over rocks into a relatively small and shallow plunge pool.  24rainbow_fallsThe trail map says that often a rainbow can be spotted in the vicinity of the falls if the sun is shining, but it was a bit overcast so no rainbow for us.  We made our way to the bottom of the fall for a closer look.



26entrance_grottoNow we were at the bottom of the canyon, and we followed the trail away from the waterfall, passed a swinging bridge, and continued to a spot known as Phantom Falls. There’s not really a waterfall there — instead, it’s an auditory illusion, an echo of Rainbow Falls that sounds like another waterfall is behind you in the rocks. But it’s no illusion that you are in a special place, down in the canyon. This area was a swampland before being lifted during the late Paleozoic era, when earthquakes shook loose huge boulders from the canyon walls and opened fissures between the rocks. The canyon is a fairyland of mossy rocks, soaring trees, and amber waters. The combination of narrow canyon and virgin forest has the effect of filtering a lot of sunlight, which creates a land of shadows interspersed with spotlit cliff faces. The northern end of the canyon seems to have been most affected by earthquakes, as there are several areas where rocks have tumbled together in such a way as to form an above-ground chamber. One such example is the Grotto, which has an S-shaped tree framing its entrance.

I’ll digress again from the narrative of the hike to mention that Dismals Canyon provides an excellent trail map, which includes a description on the back of the various points of interest. There is only one trail along the bottom of the canyon, though it has a few spurs to interesting sights and several places in which you can cross Dismals Branch to create loops of various distances. The trail surface is packed dirt, with a few places in which you’ll have to climb over a few rocks. Points of interest usually have a wooden sign affixed to them, and often when the route is confusing because of wildcat trails there are stylized wooden arrowhead signs pointing the way to the main trail.

30view_exiting_grottoBack to the hike now. We passed through the cool grotto, admiring the small steam that runs through it. Though it’s an enclosed space, a boardwalk makes for sure footing and the headroom is adequate. 29pulpit_rock_creviceOn the other side of the Grotto, we took an alternate route to join up with the narrow fissure that slopes upwards to the top of one of the boulders, to a view called Pulpit Rock.

The Dismals Canyon website mentions that it’s typically 14 degrees below the summer average temperature on the canyon floor. 33mossy_passageThey don’t mention, however, that it’s also about 200% of the average humidity! I’m making that number up, but the humidity is a good thing, as it is one of the ingredients for the habitat for the dismalites, and paints the canyon with lush greens everywhere you look.

We continued south through another naturally enclosed area called the Kitchen and at one point noticed a side passage that had been roped off.  34snake_denThis is perhaps a good time to point out that hikers are requested to stick to the trails, to protect the over 350 species of exotic flora found in the canyon.  Though privately owned, Dismals Canyon is a National Natural Landmark, with sensible rules to protect the vegetation and fauna.

36temple_caveOur next point of interest was Temple Cave, a large rock shelter that was home to Paleoindians about 10,000 years ago.  Though this shelter has never been excavated, spear points from the Paleoindian period have been found in the canyon.  thumb_IMG_3946_1024It’s no surprise that the canyon was long the home of Native Americans, particularly the Chickasaw and Cherokee.  This bluff shelter is sited at one of the most scenic parts of Dismals Branch, in an area called the Fishing Hole.  The trail winds here, with the branch to the left, rock walls to the right, and glorious foliage everywhere.42canyon_wall

43dismals_branchThis was my favorite stretch of the trail, from the Fishing Hole down to the bridge that marks the southern end of the trail.  The canyon is broader here, with a more open feel.  Dismals Branch splits and winds among gravel shoals, flowing quietly between its shaded banks. 45end_of_property_steppingstonesThe trail mostly stays within sight of the creek during this stretch, twisting away briefly before crossing the creek on a bridge.  Well, not quite — on our hike, we proceeded a few feet south of the bridge, which had washed away, and crossed the creek on cinder block “stepping stones.”  Red tape draped through the trees here marks the property line, so it was time to turn north.

48champion_eastern_hemlockThe first point of interest on the northbound trip is the Champion Tree, an Eastern/Canadian hemlock 138 feet tall, largest of its species in Alabama.  This is at the extreme southern end of the range for this species.  It’s thought to be 360 years old.  Think about that for a minute — this tree was a yearling when Benjamin Franklin’s father was born.  It was the size of a pencil when John Milton began writing Paradise Lost. I’m no forester, but that tree looked healthy to me, and if so it’s still growing.  The oldest of its species is over 550 years old.  If it can survive ice storms and the hemlock woolly adelgid, who knows how long it will last?  I have to marvel at it.  My great-great-grandchildren may very well pose by its trunk, just like my wife did last week.

We continued northward, skirting the east side of Dismals Branch, along some tumbledown passages and across a footbridge, until we reached the next point of interest.  Weeping Bluff is an overhang, so named because it seeps symbolic tears for the Chickasaw who were ousted from the area in 1838.  The Chickasaw weren’t keen on losing their paradise, but made better deals than the Cherokee so they were able to sell their lands to the government, purchase land from the Choctaw, and most important, time their treks on the Trail of Tears to reduce casualties due to weather.  U.S. troops rounded up the Chickasaw in the area in 1838 and held them in the canyon for two weeks before marching them to Muscle Shoals, where they started the journey west.  The bluff is dark and gloomy, and the dripping water would make the trail a quagmire except for the clever stepping stones constructed of bags of concrete.

After stopping for a brief snack, we continued northward until we reached an intersection of sorts about halfway along the east side of the trail.  A side trail to the right leads to Secret Falls, a small waterfall fed by a stream that emerges from underground about 3/4 of a mile upstream of the fall.  We scrambled around and took a few photos.  I’d estimate its height at about 8 feet. The water flow was pretty anemic on the day of our hike, but I’ve seen photos that indicate this fall is much prettier when the stream is in full flow.

58tumbled_steppingstonesWe returned on the spur trail back to the creek, crossing on some tumbled stepping stones to rejoin the main trail on the west side, in the vicinity of Temple Cave.  After retracing our steps to the Kitchen, we crossed the creek again on stepping stones to visit the Dance Hall.  This sheltered area was used for rituals by the Chickasaw, according to the trail map.  This was a really cool sheltered overhang, with a “floor” formed by a flat fallen rock, and partially enclosed by a sloping fallen boulder.  There’s a sandy beach on the south side of the dance floor, with a beguiling view of the creek.

64fatmans_miseryThe interplay of the mossy green, the orange sandstone, and the tan shades of rock and sand created a peaceful scene that was tough to leave, but we reluctantly recrossed the creek and headed right at the next intersection, crossing a footbridge back to the east side and turning north again to reach Fat Man’s Misery.  As you might guess, the Misery is a 16″ wide gap in the rocks that was the original entrance to the canyon floor.  The photo doesn’t do it justice — that’s a tight fit!  This leg of the trail is rougher than the others, as there is a bit of rock scrambling necessary to continue north to Witch’s Cavern.  It’s an option to backtrack to the footbridge, cross back to the west side of the creek, and return to Rainbow Falls, where you can cross the swinging bridge and work your way back southward.  We chose to just continue north from Fat Man’s Misery and didn’t have any difficulty in making our way to Witch’s Cavern.

66witches_cavern 67witches_cavernWitch’s Cavern isn’t a true cavern.  However, it’s a cool winding passage between huge boulders, narrow in some places (but easily passable), with one roomy chamber surrounded by more of the ubiquitous mossy rocks.  This particular chamber was the home of one of the conglomerations of dismalites we had seen on our night tour.  Witch’s Cavern was oppressive by night, but impressive by day.  We continued north to the last point of interest, Burr’s Hideout.  This was once thought to be a hiding place for Aaron Burr (of the Burr-Hamilton duel infamy), but the truth is actually more interesting.  It’s true that Aaron Burr was traveling about five modern-day counties south of here when his arrest was  ordered on suspicion of treason.  He briefly fled, but was captured in what is now Washington County, Alabama.

However, there was another outlaw who almost certainly took shelter in the canyon — Rube Burrow, a well-known train robber from 1886-1890.  Rube was from Lamar County, Alabama, about 40 miles southwest of Dismals Canyon.  Burrow eluded the authorities for around two years in northwest Alabama, and at the time was pursued by hundreds of lawmen and the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency.  “Burrow” and “Burr” are similar-sounding names, so you can see why there would be some confusion.  The actual feature known as Burr’s Hideout is another chamber close by Rainbow Falls — so close, in fact, that it feels like you’re under them!  It’s shadowy and damp, and happens to be the home of the biggest concentration of dismalites that we saw on our tour.  So if Rube Burrow holed up there, at least he had a nice view of the “stars” at night.  From Burr’s Hideout, turn southwest to cross Dismals Branch on a swinging bridge close to the foot of Rainbow Falls, where you tee into the main trail and hang a right to climb the stairs by Rainbow Falls to complete the loop.

63dismals_branchDismals Canyon is not exactly a secret.  It’s been featured on TV and on the cover of National Geographic Traveler and other publications.  It carries quite a reputation for its biodiversity and beauty, and it’s well-deserved.  In fact, I’d say it’s the prettiest place we’ve visited in north Alabama and southern Middle Tennessee.  The day use fee is $10 for adults, with discounts for seniors, children under 12, and groups, and is absolutely worth it to experience this paradise. You can also stay there overnight, with two cabins available for rental and a few primitive campsites available in scenic locations.  There’s a bathhouse available for the campers.  And if cooking isn’t your thing, there’s a soda fountain and grill inside the general store where you can lunch and dinner.  In fact, that’s just what we did.  Ruth had a pimento cheese BLT and fizzy lemonade, and I was in a Depression-era mood and had my first slugburger, washed down with a cherry phosphate.  Those aren’t menu items that you’ll find just anywhere!

To paraphrase Milton from Paradise Regained, we “when no other durst, sole undertook the dismal expedition.”  Actually, other people dared make the dismal expedition while we were there, though we didn’t see many on our hike.  It was paradise, and we look forward to regaining it on another visit.

180 Strikes Again: Dismals Canyon

For some reason, when I’m faced with a directional choice and I have absolutely no clues to go on, I have a tendency to pick whichever direction is the total opposite of the way I should go.  Unless of course I’m in a mall, but I digress. “Old 180” is an affectionate (they swear!) nickname bestowed upon me by my family when I picked the left turn instead of the right one too many times on our travels. Last weekend’s adventure was a “180 adventure,” but not for directional reasons. Let me explain…

Many years ago now, I heard that there was a place nearby where a unique and rare life-form called the “Dismalite” lived. Nerdy-girl that I am, I was instantly fascinated and have wanted to go see them ever since. Dismalites are a bio-luminescent larvae that live only in Dismals Canyon near Phil Campbell, Alabama and in smaller numbers in a few other southeastern states. Dismals Canyon, though, boasts the largest  numbers of these glowworms anywhere. They can number in the thousands here during peak season and light up the canyon walls with a white glow.

In order to see the Dismalites, you have to sign up in advance for a night tour. They currently do several night tours on Friday and Saturday nights. The times vary during the year so your best bet would be to check their website or call to verify times. We got a couple of spots on the 10:00 tour on Saturday night.  Since we had plans Saturday during the day, we opted to drive over Saturday evening, take the tour, and then come back to the canyon the next day for a daytime exploration. There are primitive campsites and cabins available, but camping in August is really not my thing (I like sleeping at least a little bit during the night, which is difficult when it is 100000 degrees outside), and the cabins, while nice looking, required a minimum two night stay which we couldn’t do. We opted to make a reservation at a Best Western in nearby Russellville, AL instead and started off on our weekend adventure after dinner.

It was a bit strange to be driving through the Alabama countryside on the way to a hike as dusk turned to night but other than that, it was an uneventful drive. It took us about an hour and half to get to the hotel and get checked in.  When we made our tour reservations the folks at Dismals had told us we needed to bring a flashlight. We had had the brilliant idea of using our fancy-pants headlamps in red light mode to help preserve our night vision, but hadn’t bothered to double check the batteries so of course when we pulled them out of the pack to check them at the hotel, they were dead as doornails. Luckily for us, the nice lady at the checkin desk had a pack of 5 AAA batteries that she just gave us! Unfortunately, we needed 6, but at least one of the headlamps worked.  We had a backup regular flashlight packed, too, so off we went to find Dismals Canyon, which is an 85 acre privately owned natural conservatory that was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1975.


We had been told to check in at the camp store about 15 minutes before the tour and when we arrived there were already quite a few people there, hanging out on their beautiful deck. Good thing we’d made reservations! We met up with Britney, the staff biologist who was our tour leader. She talked to us about what the Dismalites were and filled us in on interesting facts about them – like the larvae live for 6 months, while the adults live only long enough to make more larvae – usually only one day. She asked us not to touch the Dismalites and also if we saw anything on the trail that shouldn’t be there, we should let her deal with it. I’m not entirely sure what she was referring to there but my mind went straight to snakes. She was welcome to them. She then led us slowly and carefully down a set of stairs into the dark canyon.


Not having been there in the daylight, it was a little unsettling to wind through massive boulders and under rock shelves without having a good picture in my head of where I was going. Still Britney did a good job of keeping everybody together and pointing out dangerous spots. The danger was mostly of the “you’ll bang your head” variety, though there was one spot where she made very sure that we all saw that the bridge we were about to cross had steep dropoffs on either side. She recommended that the kid glued to his cell phone should look up instead. In one place she stopped and shone her flashlight, which was actually a blacklight, on a centipede that glowed eerily in the dark. She told us that things that glowed under blacklight like that tended to be poisonous. Good to know – maybe I should pack a blacklight on my next backpacking trip to scout out nasty things before I set up my tent!


Finally we arrived at a spot that in the dark looked like pretty much any other spot we’d passed, but she had us line up opposite a wall of rock and then turn out our flashlights. Now, my eyes are not the best, and it didn’t help that some of the people in our group had an inordinate amount of trouble figuring out how to turn off their cell phone screens, but it was pretty hard to see anything really. I may have seen a few dots of light way up high, but I’m not even sure I was looking at the right place.

From there, we walked to another couple of spots where there were a few Dismalites glowing away on a canyon wall, but this was not quite what I was expecting. I thought I was going to see thousands of glowing little lights lighting up the canyon, and I saw at best 12  pinpricks of light scattered on a rock.

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Dismalites – photo courtesy of http://www.dismalscanyon.com

To be honest, the much-anticipated night tour to see the Dismalites was a little underwhelming. Now to be fair, I was wrong about when to go so we weren’t there during peak season. Britney told us that late May to early June is the best time, with a second peak in late September to early October. I’ll have to try again then. But now for the explanation of why this was a 180 adventure. My reason for going was to see the Dismalites and I thought we’d hike through the canyon the next day just to have a bit more to write about. Boy was I ever backwards about that. While the Dismalites are interesting, the reason I can’t wait to go back is for the canyon itself.   It is spectacular, but I’m going to leave that for Chet to write about next week.

Butterfly City: Cycling Around Blackwell Run

On one of our previous trips to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, we noticed that while the Wheeler has relatively few officially designated trails, it has a network of well-maintained gravel roads that are good for hiking and are great for cycling. In our quest to find outdoor activities in which we get a little relief from the Alabama summer temperatures, we thought we’d try out some of those roads on our bicycles.

The Wheeler is a 35,000-acre refuge for migrating birds, scattered in various parcels along the Tennessee River from Decatur to Redstone Arsenal. It’s well worth a visit, with boardwalks, trails, and gravel roads providing access into the sloughs, wetlands, woodlands, and fields. Its wide variety of habitats makes it a great place to watch not only birds, but also many species of reptiles, amphibians, fish, and mammals. Botanists can also find much to enjoy there, with bountiful wildflowers in bloom almost year-round.

Our particular route for this trip was to drive south on County Line Road, south of I-565, to almost the end of the road. We turned left on the splendidly-named Jolly B Road, and followed it for about half a mile until it forked, with a clearly-marked entrance to the Wheeler. From that point, we drove another half mile down the gravel road to a junction with the more enigmatically-named HGH Road, where a large gravel parking area provides space for several vehicles and even room for a horse trailer or two. I should note that there are no road signs on this part of the Wheeler, so you’re well-advised to have a look at the map before setting out.  01ruth_parkingIn the description below, I’m making my best guess as to the names of the roads we traveled.  We were the only folks there on a Sunday morning as we unloaded the bikes, put on our blaze orange, and got ready to hit the road. Why the blaze? Though the Wheeler is a wildlife refuge, it’s only a refuge for our feathered friends. Hunting is allowed on the preserve with proper permits, and it’s always hunting season for something in Alabama.

Our route was a simple one. We planned to make a counter-clockwise trip around the Blackwell Run, a body of water referred to as a stream, a swamp, or a lake. I’d call it a body of water about 2.5 miles long, fed by small creeks and runoff, which empties into the Tennessee River. A gravel road (labelled on maps as Blackwell Run Road) encloses Blackwell Run, forming approximately a 7.4 mile loop. 13shady_rideWe started the loop from the parking area, turning right and heading south along Jolly B Road. The wide, level gravel road made for easy biking. The surface was pulverized gravel and dirt, with occasional potholes that are easily avoided. Most of the route is in partial or complete shade, so we were able to keep cool by pedaling along leisurely and generating a small breeze.

03blackwell_runLess than a quarter of a mile into the ride, we got our best look at Blackwell Run, or at least a swampy portion of it, from a pullout on the left. The swamp was an impressive sight, with water lilies interspersed with other aquatic vegetation among the knobs of trees sticking up from the water.  Though we didn’t see any waterfowl this time, I expect this could be a good place to spot them.  Just a short distance after that, we spotted the first drainage canal and floodgate of the trip.  05turtle_poolThe Wheeler has a complex drainage system used to route water away from some areas, such as fields planted to provide food for the birds, and to flood other areas to create wetlands habitat.  This particular one was open, creating a deep, still pool which, to Ruth’s delight, had a small turtle swimming around in it.

One notable thing about this trip was the abundance of late summer wildflowers.  We spotted several showy examples along the road, such as halberdleaf rose mallow, tall ironweed, butterfly bush, red clover, common evening primrose, and a couple others we haven’t yet identified.

The flowers themselves were great, but an even better side effect was the plethora of butterflies we saw all along this ride.  We didn’t get many photos, but I know we saw at least eight different varieties out flitting about.

07tennessee_at_rockhousebottomsAbout a mile into the ride, we came to a fork in the road.  To the left, Blackwell Run Road turns east and runs between Blackwell Run and the river. To the right, Rockhouse Bottoms Road runs westward along the banks of the mighty Tennessee.  Though we planned to circle the swamp, we also wanted to try a side jaunt along the river, just to get the flavor.  So we went right, on a long curve that quickly put us on the riverbank.  There are a couple of pulloffs on the left side of the road that give access to the river.  We stopped at one to admire the view, and passed a couple of others with fishermen trying their luck.  These pulloffs would also be suitable for launching a canoe or kayak, but I think it would be a bit dicey to try to launch a larger boat from them.

09rockhouse_bottoms_rdWe pedaled along westward, on a nice wide, dead-level road, with shady trees to the left and a soybean field to the right.  Rockhouse Bottoms Road continues for four miles along this stretch of the river before turning north and connecting into other roads.  08kudzuWe went a little over a mile before turning around and riding past the kudzu jungle on our way back to the junction with Blackwell Run Road.

11swampy_poolAfter resuming our ride around the swamp, we quickly came to the south end of Blackwell Run, a murky green slough disappearing through the trees in the direction of the river.  We heard a big splash as we rode past this pool.  We didn’t see what caused it, but I’ve read that many of the alligator sightings in the Wheeler have been in the Blackwell swamp.  Hmm, something to think about….

12tennessee_blackwellrunThe road reached the riverbank and continued eastward for .8 mile before coming to a prominent access point to the river.  We wheeled over to have a look and startled a large blue heron, who silently rose from the bank and soared across the river.  It might have been Brad, the grumpy blue heron from our earlier trips to the Wheeler but he didn’t hang around for any conversations this time. Ruth couldn’t resist sticking a hand in the river, only to note with mild disgust, “Ugh, it’s like bathwater.”  I guess we’ve been spoiled by cool mountain streams!

At this point the road turns northward and away from the river.  The surface changes a bit here.  It’s still a gravel road, but the east side of Blackwell Run seems to stay a little damper.  The gravel is a little larger and is packed down into dense mud, so the ride becomes a little bumpier here.  The road also split, with a drier fork to the left and a large puddle blocking the entire road to the right.  We went left, which paralleled the road to the right, so I suspect it’s just a workaround for a particularly boggy spot.  14sewage_plantProperty lines cause the road to have a zig-zag effect on this side of Blackwell Run, but the road stretches straight for a least a quarter mile before making a curve to the left or right.  About a mile from the river we came to one recognizable landmark on this section of the ride — a sewage treatment plant on the right.  The odor wasn’t too bad, but we both picked up the pace along this stretch and soon left the smells behind and entered a very shady (in the original sense of the word) corridor.

This part of the ride was slightly more challenging, with a handful of small inclines, the bumpy surface, and potholes that had a bad habit of popping up unexpectedly as we were enjoying the few downhill sections.  19roadviewIt’s still an easy ride, suitable for kids, though keep an eye out for one dip that extends completely across the road about a half mile past the sewage treatment plant.  It’s no problem on a bike but would be pretty exciting if you took it at speed in a motorized vehicle.

I was really enjoying being in the shadow of the trees, a cool breeze on my face as I cruised past the wildflowers and among the butterflies.  It actually felt like a warm spring day instead of a summer scorcher!  But my blissful ride was soon interrupted by a loud pop and the sound of rushing air from my front tire.  Yep, it was a flat — a complete blowout.  When I inflated the tires at home before heading out, I noticed that they looked like they had some dry rot and would need to be replaced soon.  Well, soon is now.  We were 7.6 miles into the ride, and I knew we had around two miles at least to get back to the truck.  We weren’t carrying a pump, not that it mattered with the tube shot so badly, so repair wasn’t an option.  After a quick conference, we decided Ruth would ride on ahead and complete the loop, then come back and pick me up in the truck.  Of course, that was assuming she wouldn’t get a flat too!  We both had our cell phones, so off she pedaled while I played hike-a-bike along the road, stopping to snap a few photos of butterflies along the way.

Ruth made quick work of the rest of the ride, reaching the north end of Blackwell Run, then continuing westward for about .25 mile before turning south and continuing along the road through the woods until it intersected Jolly B Road just north of the entrance to the Wheeler.   From there it was a short hop to close the loop and return to the truck, where she called and texted me to let me know that rescue was on the way.  Cell reception isn’t great in that part of the county, but the message got through.   Soon she arrived on the horizon, I loaded up the bike, and we turned around and headed back toward Jolly B.  After having been in the saddle, it was a surprise that the road was so rough in a truck!

Though I didn’t complete the ride, Ruth made the complete loop to finish a 9.9 mile ride. Despite the abrupt end to my ride, I really enjoyed this trip. The road surface is decent, the terrain is mostly flat, there are very few vehicles, and there are plenty of great views. I’m already looking forward to riding more in the Wheeler. That is, after I get the bikes back from the shop!

I Like Turtles: Terrapin Creek Float Trip

A few years ago, somebody in our family came across a YouTube video that cracked us all up. It was a reporter in Portland out at  a festival of some sort trying to get cute kid video. There was a face painting stand and a young boy had just had his face painted like a zombie. She bent down and asked him what he thought of his awesome zombie face. His response? “I like turtles.”  Totally deadpan. This of course put the reporter in an awkward situation, which she handled by totally ignoring the turtles comment and then pivoting away to the rest of the fair. The combination of the total out-of-left-field nature of the kid’s comment, the way he pronounced “turtles,” and  watching the reporter maneuver her way out of all the awkward was just hilarious to me. Thus was born a family catch-phrase. Any time we see turtles, somebody is probably going to say “I like turtles” in a voice and cadence as close to the boy’s as we can manage.

You’d think, then, that when a co-worker suggested we should go to eastern Alabama to check out a kayak float down Terrapin Creek,  I’d make the leap from Terrapin to “I like turtles” immediately and that that would be all it took for me to high-tail it over to Piedmont, Alabama. To be truthful, that’s not really how it happened. I’d had a pretty tough week at work, so honestly all I thought about was “nice peaceful float down a river” and I was in.

We had been told that the best thing to do was to go through Terrapin Outdoor Center, a local outfitter with whom we could arrange shuttle service.  Reservations are recommended and we didn’t make the decision to go until late on Friday, so we had to wait until they opened at 9:00 am on Saturday to make sure this trip was going to happen. They said as long as we got there by noon, they could help us out. That was actually cutting it pretty close, as it’s at least a 2 hour drive from our house and I was still in my jammies when we called. We quickly dressed, packed a lunch,  loaded the kayaks in the truck and took off for Piedmont.

The drive over was an easy one and took us through parts of Alabama I don’t think I’ve ever been through before – Collinsville, Sand Rock, Leesburg, Centre, and the south end of the Little River Canyon National Preserve. It’s beautiful country! Thanks to Waze, we arrived just before noon, checked in with the friendly lady at the rental counter, paid our $15 per kayak for shuttle service, and were given directions to the put in spot. Basically, you drive down what looks like (and probably is) the driveway to a house, unload your kayaks and gear, drive back up to the field by the road to park, and then carry your kayaks down the lovely brick pathway right next to the house and down the concrete ramp to the creek. If you rent a kayak from them, it looked like they’d give you a ride on a golf cart down to the house, then they would do the carrying down to the water. I imagine they’d help you in the boats as well. Having our own kayaks, we were basically on our own, but we managed it just fine.

We hadn’t been on the creek more than a few minutes before I saw a splash and thought “turtle!” and then spotted not just one turtle, but several turtles – one the biggest I think I’ve ever seen while I was on a kayak trip – all sunning themselves on logs. These turtles were unflappable, too. I actually was able to get fairly close to them and get a few pictures before they slipped back into the creek. I’m pretty sure I told Chet right then that this was my favorite river ever!

However, I soon discovered some downsides about this particular float. For one, the first section of the creek is right next to a road. It’s not a highway, but I really don’t like hearing road noise when I’m out for a peaceful paddle down the river. The road noise was only a minor annoyance though. What was a little harder to deal with were all the other kayaks and canoes on the creek. I’m going to sound like a crotchety old lady here, but I really prefer my floats to be peaceful. It might have been more crowded than normal because it was the last Saturday before school starts back, but the creek was absolutely mobbed. And mobbed with the kind of people who like to share their music with the whole county. Terrapin Outfitters advertises itself as a family friendly activity, but they aren’t the only outfitters on the creek, and honestly they would have no control over folks once they got on the water anyway. This particular day the creek was full of very loud folks who thought nothing of dropping the F-bomb right and left for all to hear. It’s not that I’m easily offended, but if I’d had a young child with me I would have cringed an awful lot that trip and there were young kids in canoes with their parents or grandparents all over the place.

One more complaint about all the people and then I’ll move on. The water level that day was lower than normal. One graph I saw put “average” discharge at about 141 cubic feet per second and on this day, the measurement was around 86. This meant that it was very easy to get hung up on rocks and little shoals, which is a pain. It also meant that in some places there was really only one way to get through a rocky area, and with so many people on the creek it seemed like every single one of those spots turned into a massive kayak-jam. All it took was one person to pick the wrong path and get turned sideways to block up the whole creek. I can’t tell you how many times I ended up steering myself into a rock just so I’d avoid ramming another kayak.

Still, despite all the people and the noise, I was really impressed with the wildlife I was able to spot. There were, of course, the turtles. We tried to keep count of them and ended the day with a record-tying 9. I also floated so close to a heron I could almost have touched him. Unfortunately for me, my iphone was uncooperative at this point and I nearly ran myself under a tree trying to get a picture. All I got was a photo of where he had been, I’m afraid. I also had another sighting that I wish I’d  gotten a picture of or at least corroboration from Chet! As I was paddling down a quiet stretch I happened to look towards the right bank just as something four-legged and light brown picked its way across a small beach and up a ravine. All I know for sure is that it was too big to be something like a squirrel, too long-legged to be a racoon, beaver, or otter. It seemed about the size of a fox, but it didn’t really read fox to me in the one second I saw it. I’m wondering now if it was a small bobcat or something. Sadly, I’ll never know.

This creek is rocky and while it was shallow the day we were there, there were still some small rapids to navigate. While I was still all in a dither about the turtles, I almost swamped my kayak when I was careless for a second. I got good and wet and my kayak ended up with a couple of inches of water in the bottom.  The rapids or riffles are at most Class I according to the International Scale of River Difficulty, but it is not completely flat. According to Chet’s scale, these rapids were also Class I:  “overall pretty easy, with only about one swearing session per mile.”


Though the creek was shallow, there were quite a few places where it was deep enough to tempt people to get out and swim, and a couple of spots were deep enough that folks  were jumping off rocks or doing flips off tree branches.

One thing to pay attention to, though, is that much of the property along the creek is private property and clearly marked with no trespassing signs. I can’t say as I blame them. Floating along looking at these creek-side retreats made me really wish we had a river house! We saw everything from empty land, to a lot with a rickety looking dock, to a screened in gazebo, to a very nice looking full brick, landscaped home alongside the creek. One house had rigged up a slip-n-slide down the bank – I’m thinking that’s the cool kids’ house!


After we’d been on the water for a couple of hours, we started hearing thunder. We started paddling faster. Soon, we were paddling into a pretty serious headwind as the storm in-flow started rushing past us. Next, of course, was the deluge. We were already wet anyway, and there was no lightning to be seen, so we just forged on. The cameras went in the dry box though, and we didn’t really sightsee at all so there’s not a lot of detail I can go into about that part of the trip. Soon, though, the rain stopped and then shortly after that we arrived at the bridge. We were told by the Terrapin Outfitters folks that after about 6 miles, we’d come to a bridge. This is an important landmark because right after the bridge you are strongly encouraged to pull your kayak over to the right bank, get out, and portage it around a small dam. The day we were there the dam wasn’t very impressive, but I heard people commenting that there is rebar in the middle section and it’s tricky to get through even with little water going over it. We opted to play it safe and hauled our kayaks around the dam. I should note that this is also the take-out point for another outfitter – No Worries Kayak Rentals. It’s a little difficult to tell at first where the Terrapin Outfitters folks are supposed to go, but in the end it didn’t really seem to matter. I’m pretty sure we pulled up at the takeout point instead of edging on around a bit to the closer spot to the portage point, but nobody seemed to care. Also, for future reference No Worries had concessions there. I had not brought any money with me at all, or I might have been tempted!

Once past the dam, there’s only about a mile left of this float trip. We were told to keep our eyes open for a white bank straight ahead and the creek making a sharp left bend. Right after that is the takeout point for Terrapin Outfitters. We found it to be exactly as described, and then joined the swarm of people beached there waiting to get ferried back to their cars.


We chatted with a scout leader from Trussville who was there with his troop of boys while we waited for the very efficient Terrapin staff to load up the kayaks, and then hopped in the back of a pickup truck (with wooden benches provided for seating) and chatted with a couple of women up from Birmingham for a day trip while we bumped along back to where we’d parked our truck. We’d spent about 4 hours on the water and despite the rain, the crowds and the noise, enjoyed ourselves immensely. I’d do this trip again, though I might try to time it next time for a quieter day – maybe a mid week trip? – and also keep an eye on the discharge gauge and try to go when the water is a little bit deeper. After an uneventful trip home, we decided we’d top off the day with a celebratory beer: Terrapin’s Wake-And-Bake Coffee Oatmeal Stout in our Terrapin pint glasses. Because, you know, “I like turtles!”