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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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