Rolling on the River: Cycling Around Buckeye Pond on the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

You could say that bicycling is in my blood.  In case you’ve ever wondered, yes, I am actually distantly related to aeronautical pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright.  At least that’s what my grandfather, the family genealogist, claimed.  Before they were tinkering with flying machines, they ran their own bike sales and repair shop, and even had their own line of bicycles.

As a kid I rode my bike all the time, mostly around the farm and up and down the gravel road that ran past it.  Like just about every boy my age, I learned my limits the hard way — by being launched by unseen potholes into brief terrifying moments of being unintentionally airborne, or by having my body grated by blacktop roads unforgiving of miscalculations on the variables of speed, momentum, road width, and the radius of a curve.  But the occasional bruise and/or skinned body part was an acceptable price for the freedom of having my own wheels and the opportunities that came with them.  At the time I thought nothing of it, but as an adult now I marvel that my parents casually accepted my blithe announcements that I’d be out working on my six 25-mile rides for my bicycling merit badge, and I’d be home for dinner.  I think I was 14 at the time.  And I never missed dinner, and I still have the merit badge.

As an adult, I rarely get a chance to pull the bike down off the rack in the garage, but I enjoy it when I do.  Our recent nice ride on the Richard Martin Trail whetted my appetite for a return to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.  The Wheeler is a great place to hike and bike, and especially a great place to birdwatch.  There are several miles of gravel roads, mostly flat or with gentle grades, on the reserve with very little vehicular traffic to dodge.  I picked out a 12-mile loop on the northern side of the Tennessee River between Redstone Arsenal and Decatur and we set off in the morning.

Our starting/ending point would be a gravel parking area off Jolly B Road (spelled as “Jolley B” on some maps).  To get there, turn south on County Line Road, and just before it ends turn left onto Jolly B Road.  Jolly B starts as a paved road, but soon splits with one fork going left into the Refuge, the other fork going right to a farm, and both forks turning into a gravel road.  Once you get onto the Refuge, travel with care (actually, travel with care the length of Jolly B — the paved portion has a sharp curve).  The gravel roads on the Refuge have some pretty substantial potholes in them.  You can get any vehicle with normal clearance down to the parking area, so there’s no need for four-wheel drive, but if you try to do the Dukes of Hazzard stuff on the Refuge roads, you’ll soon find out what it costs to replace an axle.  I don’t know how Jolly B Road gets its name, but I think it might stand for “Jolly Breakdown Road.”  After the road turns to gravel, the parking area is on the right, with one gravel road taking off to the west and Jolly B continuing to the south.

Great ragweed

Our ride started from the parking area along that road to the west, identified on maps as HGH Road.  There are no road signs anywhere on this part of the Refuge, so it’s a good idea to bring a map with you.  We stopped to admire the stands of great ragweed and snow squarestem growing at the edge of the parking area, with muscadines twining up into the trees, then we set off along the straight, flat doubletrack of HGH Road.  My best efforts at Internet research have failed to ferret out why this road (and another we’ll ride on later, JTT Road) are only known by initials.  My guess is they are named for the initials of landowners at the time the land was purchased by TVA in the mid-1930s.  Or perhaps they are the initials of former Refuge supervisors.  Can anyone shed any light on this, dear readers?

HGH Road continues west for 1.5 miles, pretty much straight and level, under the shade of the trees.   There was a good supply of our typical late summer wildflowers on the roadsides with asters and jewelweed being easy to spot as we rolled along.  HGH Road takes a curve to the north, with a closed gate to the southwest marking a possible route to return to Jolly B Road.  We turned north, next to a harvested cornfield.  This stretch opens up, running between fields with a thin strip of woods to the west screening Buckeye Pond.  This was one of the few downhill stretches on our ride.

We continued winding north and west as the road curved gently back into the woods.  We saw stands of lovely mistflower here, and noticed our old friend the Devil’s walking stick in several locations, with its profuse crown of berries.  About 2.9 miles from the parking area, HGH clears the top of Buckeye Pond and forks, with the right fork leaving the Refuge toward a house on New Hope Road.  We took the left fork and headed south, skirting the western edge of the pond.

The west side of Buckeye Pond is pretty similar to the east side.  HGH Road continues to the south, with very little grade change.  At about 4 miles from the parking area, HGH Road tees into John Gordon Road, running east-west.  Remember what I said earlier about bringing a map?  Well, I should have taken my own advice.  We turned east on a dirt road, toward Buckeye Pond, and it was a serendipitous choice since it took us to the pond itself.  Though HGH Road winds completely around the pond, there’s always a barrier of woods blocking the view of the water from the road.  Our side road quickly led to a huge open field, with the northern reaches of Buckeye Pond straight ahead.  As we rode toward the pond, a gorgeous great egret took wing, curving over the field to disappear into the distant woods.  The road was completely spanned by a large and deep puddle, but we were able to find a track to get around the obstacle and continue to the southwest until our road, now a grassy track, stopped completely in a thicket.  Clearly this wasn’t our planned route, so we backtracked to the field and headed back toward John Gordon Road.

As we returned to the field, we saw a large bird take off to our left, loudly gronk-ing as it flew south away from us.  It was a familiar sight — Brad the grumpy Great Blue Heron!  We always seem to run into him when we go to the Wheeler, and he was in his usual fowl (ha!) mood.  He offered to fly down and peck another hole in my bicycle tire, but I declined his kind offer.

After retracing our route to John Gordon Road, we rode west for about .15 miles before re-entering the Refuge by turning left onto JTT Road, which climbed a small hill to reach an intersection at the top.  To the east, a gated track led back toward the southern end of Buckeye Pond.  The more obvious route is to the west, so we took JTT Road until it teed into Rockhouse Road (heading north outside of the Refuge) and Rockhouse Bottoms Road (heading south toward the river).  We headed for the river, reaching it in about .25 miles, and pulled the bikes over to have a bit of lunch while perched on some rocks on the bank.  I had picked up a muscadine on the road earlier in the ride, so I had it for dessert.

After lunch, we headed east on Rockhouse Bottoms Road along the north bank of the Tennessee River.  Since we were on river bottomland, the level road was flanked by the river on one side and planted crops (maybe soybeans?) on the other.  I noticed quite a lot of fragments of mussel and aquatic snail shells in the tilled earth.

Rockhouse Bottoms Road was relatively busy.  It has unpaved access to the river in a few places, so it’s a popular place for launching small boats, and we saw at least one angler on the riverbank.   We met a couple of cars making their way slowly down the road.  Since it is more heavily traveled than the other Refuge roads we had ridden on our trip, it’s not surprising that it is much more potholed.   The potholes are easily dodged, but you’ll need to pay attention, which is difficult when there are such lovely river views.

The ride along Rockhouse Bottoms Road is a little over 4 miles, with a few stands of yam leaf clematis growing on the roadside as your near the northward turn back onto Jolly B Road.  After rejoining Jolly B and turning left (north) to close the loop, it’s only about .9 miles back to the parking area.  On the way north, there are a couple of places where you can get a good look at Blackwell Swamp if you’re so inclined.

All in all, it was a triumphant return to the Wheeler.  The bikes were in fine fettle, the weather was clear and warm, there were several showy late summer wildflowers in bloom, and the ride itself was good exercise without being too tiring.  We covered 12.3 miles according to the GPS track, and best of all, we were home in plenty of time for dinner.

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