Pass the Buck

It’s a bad sign when you’re on a hike and your wife starts talking about flamethrowers.

But let’s begin when the idea seemed like a good one.  We had a fairly busy weekend planned and didn’t have a lot of time for a hike (or more accurately, we hadn’t planned enough in advance to pull off a last-minute camping trip).  I was perusing our list of possible future blog posts and the perfect solution presented itself — a short hike on the TVA Buck Island Small Wild Area down in Guntersville.

Small Wild Areas are pockets of land managed by TVA for recreation.  They are usually pockets of land in the general vicinity of a dam that, in TVA’s words, “are sites with exceptional natural, scenic or aesthetic qualities that are suitable for low-impact public use.”  We’ve visited a few of them, and generally they offer some very nice short hikes with interesting features and/or scenic views.

Buck Island Small Wild Area is easily accessed from AL Highway 431.  We headed south out of Huntsville and turned left onto Buck Island Road just after passing the Guntersville Municipal Airport.  Buck Island Road splits at the entrance to the Gunter’s Landing community.  We turned north and followed the road around the edge of the airport until it terminated at a gravel cul-de-sac with a gate at the far end.  There’s room to park several vehicles here, though we were the only ones there on a Saturday afternoon.

There were a couple of signs spelling out the rules for the Small Wild Area, though it was only identified as TVA managed land.  Apparently you can hunt on the property and can camp there for up to 14 consecutive days.  There’s no developed campsite there or any facilities, but judging from the bullet holes in the signs, apparently hunters are making use of the property.  I guess there must have been some big game standing in front of the sign at some point, since one of the rules is that unauthorized target shooting is not allowed.

The trailhead is not explicitly marked.  Beyond the gate, an unpaved stretch of Buck Island Road was the closest thing we could see to a trail, so we headed off into the woods.  We knew from the trail map that this was a lollipop loop, though the TVA website is a bit ambiguous about the trail length — 1.6 or 2.2 miles, take your pick.

Though we were on a wide level roadbed, it was fairly overgrown at this point.  Since this property is unsullied by any attempt to actually mark a trail, we were left to our own devices to figure out exactly where to go.  About 500 feet down the trail, a gap to the left suggested a possible route, but we knew from the map this was much too early to begin the loop, so we continued down the road past patches of goldenrod, long-bristled smartweed, mistflower, daisy fleabane, jewelweed, and panicled tick trefoil.  A boggy area off to the right seemed interesting, but there were no good views of it.

At about .15 miles another opening appears to the right, flanked by a couple of cedar posts set in concrete.  This spur only goes back around 100 yards, with an improvised firepit and some nearby logs which suggests that this might be meant as a primitive campsite.  At about .4 miles, there’s an obstructed view of the lake, which sad to say, is the best view you’ll get on this hike.  At least there were a few partridge peas to brighten the way.

At about .5 miles into the hike, we saw our first suggestion that we were actually on something that was meant to be a developed trail — a metal sign identifying a sugar maple next to the overgrown road.  I guess some game sapsuckers must have perched on the sign, judging by the bullet holes that riddled it — after all, unauthorized target shooting is prohibited.

We passed a TVA boundary sign which we think actually marks the edge of the Small Wild Area, not an actual boundary between TVA and private land.  This can be confusing, since Small Wild Areas typically exist inside a larger TVA parcel.  We noticed a couple more openings off to the left which could have been where the loop rejoins the trail, but in the absence of any trail marking (seriously!  TVA couldn’t afford a gallon of paint to blaze some trees?) we continued on down the road.  We knew that by bearing right we’d eventually come to a point where the trail would bend to the left and go uphill, and at .7 miles we came to a split where the road continued straight and slightly downhill, with a wide path heading steeply uphill to the left.

The trail climbed steeply for a little less than .2 miles to the top of a hill, where the path was completely blocked by waist-high vegetation for about 30 yards.  We pushed on through to the apparent summit, where a black walnut was identified by another metal sign, but there was no view of the lake from this overlook.  There was a spur trail that may have gone to an overlook, to be fair, but it wasn’t marked and honestly, we were beginning to get a bit impatient to get off this train wreck of a trail.  It didn’t help that after we reached the summit the trail simply disappeared, with no obvious footbed leading down the north side of the hill.  We thrashed around a little, following a manway that offered a passage through the woods, skirting a dry creek bed on the way down, until we emerged onto an old road bed.  We considered options and turned left (south) and quickly got reinforcement in the form of another tree ID sign, this time on a reclining white ash.  Since that was as much navigational aid as we could expect, we continued south and rejoined the stem of the lollipop at about 1.45 miles.

We retraced our steps westward toward the parking lot, while Ruth talked about how a flamethrower would really improve this trail, especially after she noticed the tick trefoil seeds adhering to her.  We returned to the car without any wildfires breaking out, finishing up at 2.2 miles according to the GPS track.

With some rerouting, navigational aids, and maintenance, this could be a nice easy trail with a nice variety of habitats.  Given the trail’s current condition, our recommendation is that you pass the Buck (Island Trail) and head instead to the TVA Honeycomb Trail or the Cave Mountain trails, both of which are in the general area of Guntersville Dam.

On our way back to town, we planned to stop at Natural Bridge and Ghost Creek Falls, an outstanding property on Cottonville Road in Marshall County.  The 32-acre property is privately owned for now, but the owners have given the Land Trust of North Alabama the first shot at purchasing this tract with a natural bridge, caves, and waterfalls.  We’ve never been to this site, but our visit this time was a perfunctory one as a wedding was either about to get started or had recently finished.  We didn’t want to be wedding crashers, so we drove by close enough to snap a rather unsatisfactory photo that doesn’t really give you a good idea of how cool this place is, then headed on our way.  The Land Trust has to raise the money by the end of the year, or else the property will be offered for sale on the open market.   You should check it out next time you’re in the area, or even better, pass a few bucks to the Land Trust to help preserve this property for the public.



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