2018 Retrospective

Ruth and Chet in front of Denny Falls, South Cumberland State Park, TN

Well, here we are at the end of another year, and our little blog is still going strong.  Thank you, dear readers!  In 2018, we made the decision to cut back a little on the blogging, or to be more precise, to cut back on the outings but to still try to post something every week.  Our social media consultants advised us to use some of our “evergreen content,” which we did by posting short “quick look” posts that revisit some of our earlier adventures dating back all the way to 2015.  I thought it was a good strategy, but was a little worried that our viewership stats would suffer if we weren’t generating new content every week.

There’s a reason our social media consultants are thriving in their careers — they were right!  As I write this, we’ve had 20,577 views in 2018, which is a 66% increase over 2017!  It turns out that feeding, clothing, and sheltering our social media consultants had benefits we didn’t even imagine at the time.  Of course, we love our daughters and would have fed, clothed, and sheltered them anyway.

Though we did cut back on our outings, we still managed 23 hikes and one float trip over the course of the year.  We visited some of our old favorites for new hikes (the Sipsey Wilderness, Green Mountain Nature Preserve, Lake Guntersville State Park, South Cumberland State Park) and discovered some new (to us) places to hike that will probably get return visits in the future (Natchez Trace, Franklin State Forest, Red Mountain, to name a few).  We made only the one float trip, but it was on the Paint Rock River.  Our previous Paint Rock River float trip post is our most-viewed post over the life of the blog, so we were really happy when a company started offering rentals and shuttles on this lesser-traveled waterway.

The highlights for the year?  It’s an easy call for Ruth — Taylor Hollow State Natural Area, an astounding spring wildflower Nature Conservancy property north of Nashville.  For me, it would be the collective hikes we took in Oregon, particularly the little two-mile stretch of the iconic Pacific Crest Trail we covered in the Columbia River Gorge.  Here are a few other interesting tidbits from 2018 for Woodlands and Waters.

  • Counting this one, we put up 50 posts for the year.  It’s the first time we’ve not managed to post something every week, but there were extenuating circumstances — a home internet outage for over a week, and cross-country travel.
  • Of those 50 posts, 23 were Quick Looks and 27 were new content.  Our goal was to have an even split of recycled and new content, so yay for us!
  • We had views from 12 countries in 2018, with 97% of the visitors from the U.S.
  • We had 11,680 visitors in 2018, compared to 7,627 in 2017.  That’s a 53% increase in the number of visitors year over year.
  • Our shortest hike of the year was approximately .25 miles, a short ramble in the Huntsville Botanical Garden.  Our longest was approximately 7 miles of walking in Portland, Oregon’s Washington Park and the general area.
  • Our total hiking distance for the year was 75 miles.  That’s about half of what we did last year, and isn’t a surprise given that we’ve cut back on our trips.  Our average hike length was 3.1 miles.
  • Our one float trip was about 4 river miles.
  • Our adventures took place in four states: Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Oregon.
  • We didn’t have any overnight hikes, but stayed in a CCC-built cabin in Tennessee, a lake house in North Carolina, and three AirBnBs in Oregon.  OK, we weren’t exactly roughing it!
  • We visited three private parks, one county park, one city park, two Land Trust of North Alabama preserves, and one college campus.
  • We visited two state natural areas, one Nature Conservancy property, and one state forest.
  • We hiked in two Oregon state parks, three Tennessee state parks, one Alabama state park, and two national forests.
  • Our most popular new post for 2018 was a post about new trails on the Land Trust’s Green Mountain Preserve, with 306 views to date.  Our most popular for the year was our post from 2015 on kayaking the Paint Rock River, with 1,025 views this year alone.
  • We had some activity in picking up followers on our various social platforms.  We gained 22 new WordPress followers over the year (hello, fellow bloggers!) — about a 25% increase.  We ended the year with 115 Facebook followers, about a 15% growth.  We’ve also got 73 Twitter followers.  Not exactly tearing up the Internet, but not bad for a hyper-local blog.

In looking back on our goals for 2018, we had pretty much one plan — to cut back on our posting of new content, and we nailed that.  We hoped to post more or less weekly, with about 50% new content, and we were pretty much on the mark.  For 2019, we’d like to keep to the same general plan – post weekly, with new content about half the time.  We’ve got one trip planned already for April to an interesting nearby destination, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we throw in a few dayhikes in areas that would require us to make an overnight trip.  I’ve retired from my soccer activities, which will free up quite a few Saturdays for hiking (and some lawn maintenance, much to the relief of our long-suffering neighbors).   There are news trails finished, planned or in progress on Land Trust properties and we’ll be paying them a visit.  We keep a running list of ideas, and it’s exciting to think about getting out there in 2019.

So happy holidays, dear readers, and wish us luck in working off all those holiday mince pies and gingerbread houses.  As you can see from the photos above from actual holiday sweets made by in the past two days by Ruth and our multi-talented social media consultants, I’m going to have to put in more than a few miles on the trails.

The year in photos

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

2017 Retrospective

It wasn’t always pretty, but we managed it — another year of 52 posts, one every week, chronicling our outdoor adventures in the Tennessee Valley and beyond.  Our social media consultants (I’m serious, we have two of them that we raised ourselves) tell us that we’ve built up an enviable amount of long-form evergreen content.  All the while, I thought we were just walking around, taking pictures, and saying what we did last weekend.  Who knew?

We started this blog in May of 2015, so we’re into our third year now.  It has been gratifying to see how our readership has grown since then.  In our first, partial year of blogging, we had 3,269 views from 1,229 visitors.  In 2016, those number jumped dramatically to 10,444 views from 4,521 visitors.  In 2017 our growth was a little more modest, but still as of this writing you lovely readers viewed 12,101 pages in 2017, with 7,470 visitors over the course of the year.

Looking back on all we did in 2017, it’s no wonder we’re enjoying the holidays by mostly staying indoors!  Here are a few interesting numbers:

  • We posted 48 times on hikes, floats, ziplining, or bike trips.  Sometimes we’d have multiple activities on a single weekend, but we were out and about on the vast majority of weeks during the year.
  • We took a total of 40 hikes during the year, for a total of 157.45 miles.  That’s up a little from last year.
  • Our shortest hike was around .75 miles, on a little amble around the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Chapman Mountain Preserve.  Our longest hike was 7.9 miles, and we covered that distance twice, on the TVA Honeycomb trail and on our hike to Virgin Falls in Tennessee.
  • We had two float trips, both on the Elk River, for a total of 11.6 water miles.  With those two trips, we completed the Limestone County canoe and kayak  trail.
  • After getting our bikes fixed up, we put in two bike rides for a total of 23.3 miles on the Richard Martin trail and a loop out at the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge.
  • Though we didn’t exactly rough it, we had five overnight trips during the year, staying with some friends, in a hotel, in a New England inn, in a rustic mountaintop lodge, and in a treehouse.
  • We visited state parks in Alabama, Tennessee, and New Hampshire.  It was our first trip to seven of those parks, with return visits to five others.
  • Federal properties were also a frequent target of visits, with two trips to national forests, four trips to TVA properties, one to a national park, and one to a national military park.
  • Various nature preserves were also on our list, with trips to the Monte Sano, Chapman, Rainbow Mountain, and Green Mountain preserves of the Land Trust of North Alabama. We also paid visits to one Nature Conservancy property, two nature preserves in the Birmingham area, and one city park in Tennessee.
  • Our most popular blog posts continue to be posts on Indian Tomb Hollow in the Bankhead National Forest (over 1450 views to date) and a float trip on the Paint Rock River (a smidge over 1400 views).  The most-viewed single post of 2017 was on our hike to the Nature Conservancy’s Lost Sink, with a whopping 93 views.
  • We’re not exactly taking the Internet by storm, but we had viewers from 58 countries, with 99% of the views from the U.S.  We had around 20% growth for the year, which is really flattering for our little hyper-local blog.
  • On the advice of our social media consultants, we promoted one of our posts on Facebook and pretty much tripled our number of Facebook followers.  Granted, we had a puny number of Facebook followers to begin with, but now we have nearly 100.  Which means, of course, that every time we post something to Facebook, about two people will see it in their feeds.

As is often the case, the end of the year is a good time to look back on goals that we set at the beginning of the year.  We didn’t really have formal, measurable goals, but our general plan was to do more winter hiking, use our new GoPro camera, to get in a couple of float trips, to do some overnight backpacking trips, and to get in a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains.  We didn’t do too badly — we got in a few cold weather hikes, posted some GoPro videos our on Facebook page, took two float trips, and had a lovely return to LeConte Lodge in the the Smokies.  As for the backpacking…well, these old bones are just too fond of thick mattresses, preferably in enclosed heated spaces.

So now we come to the goals for 2018.  All that activity in 2017 was frankly a bit much for us.  Our experts pointed out that it’s not necessarily the new content that is driving people to our site.  Also, not everyone is a fan of the long-form blog post.  So next year, we’re going to be cutting back on the generation of new content, and will instead leverage some of our evergreen content in smaller, to-the-point posts, with links back to the full post for those who are interested.  Most people aren’t hitting our site and scrolling back 2.5 years to read everything we’ve posted, so it might help to revisit some of those earlier adventures.  We still intend to post more or less weekly, but will add maybe about half the number of long-form posts.

We enjoy taking the trips and writing the blog, but it’s getting pretty challenging to come up with a new destination each week.  There is a finite number of outdoor adventure possibilities in the immediate area, and we were finding that we’d have to travel farther and farther to get to a new place.  With the travel time, we were getting to the point that we’d lose about half our weekend just getting in a hike, and then we’d lose two more weeknights every week putting together the blog post.  There is also the physical wear and tear on our middle-aged bodies to consider, especially as we have other outdoor volunteer obligations, like soccer and trail maintenance.  So 2018 is going to be a year for recharging.  We’ve got a list of places we want to explore, and there will be new content, but we’re going to rest, just a little, on our laurels (or maybe rest on our mountain laurels, as may be the case).

The year in photos

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

Leaf Peepers: Fall leaves from past hikes

This week, Chet and I are in New Hampshire on a fall vacation. I’ve always wanted to see the New England leaves and this turned out to be a great week for us to do that. However, with all the planning and packing, plus some time spent at the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention in Athens (an annual tradition for us), we had no time to get out and hike before we left. Don’t worry – we’re making up for lost time up here and will return with hikes to talk about, but in the meantime, here are a few of my favorite fall pictures from hikes closer to home.

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Happy Earth Day!

I’m a sucker for “Top 10” lists, aren’t you? On this Earth Day 2017, I was thinking about how lucky we are to live in such a wonderful area. We have rockets, and history, and of course, we have lots and lots of natural beauty. More important, we have lots of folks dedicated to preserving those areas so that we can all enjoy them. Whether it be the Alabama State Park System, the Land Trust of North Alabama, the Nature Conservancy, Alabama’s Forever Wild program, or city and county parks, we are blessed to live in an area that appreciates natural spaces.

Huntsville often makes national “Best Places to live” or “Top 10 Best …” type lists, and often one of the things cited as a reason for making the list is the abundance of outdoor activities available close by:

Just to link a few.

I am, you’ll not be surprised to hear, a bit biased towards the outdoors, so I thought I’d put together an “Earth Day Top 10 Area Hikes” list of my own. Whether you want an easy-peasy stroll, or a longer tramp through the woods, we’ve got you covered.  Happy Earth Day from Woodlands and Waters!

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These are some of our favorites from just the Huntsville area. For ideas a bit further away, check out our complete trail listing page. Now #getoutside and enjoy!

2016 Retrospective

Well, we did it — when I press the Publish button, it will be our 52nd post of 2016.  We went a full year of posting weekly trail descriptions, gear reviews, commentary, stories of bicycle and float trips, and tales of outdoor adventures out of our usual routine.  Ruth and I started this blog in May of 2015, so this is our first full year of putting up new content every week.  To be honest, not counting outdoor recreation and visits with family, 2016 has been one of those years to endure instead of enjoy.  But instead of listing all the bad things that happened this past year, I’d rather look back on all the fun we had, summarized in a few statistics below.

  • We put our boots on the ground — to the tune of 141.45 miles over the course of the year.  That’s actually down a little bit from our 2015 numbers, but one of our goals for 2016 was to do more non-hiking adventures.
  • We went hiking on 33 different days.  Some of those days included multiple hikes.
  • Our shortest hike of the year was 1.1 miles (on a greenway) and the longest was 11.5 miles (in the Bankhead National Forest, of course).
  • One specific goal was to do more float trips, and we managed that, with three kayak trips in 2016 — two on the Elk River, and one on Terrapin Creek.  We logged 17.2 water miles this year.
  • We also had two bicycle trips, one on the Richard Martin trail, and the other on the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge.
  • Another goal was to cast a wider net geographically, which we did by hiking in five states (AL, GA, TN, TX, and NM) and one U.S. Territory (Puerto Rico).
  • We had two overnight stays during the year — two nights in a cabin, and two nights in a yurt.  I think there may be some tent (or hammock) camping in our plans for 2017!
  • State parks are great!  We visited five state parks in Alabama (Monte Sano, Lake Guntersville, Cathedral Caverns, Buck’s Pocket, and Cheaha), two in Tennessee (South Cumberland and Tim’s Ford), one in Georgia (Cloudland Canyon), and Ruth visited one in Texas (Franklin Mountain).
  • Federal lands were also well-represented, with several trips to TVA properties, U.S. Forest Service properties (El Yunque, Talladega, and Bankhead National Forests), and a National Wildlife Refuge.
  • Smaller properties have their charms too, as we made trips to three private reserves, City of Huntsville greenways, a couple of Wilderness Management Areas, and various Land Trust of North Alabama preserves.
  • We really stepped it up on non-hiking experiences this year, with zip lining, jet skiing, and scuba diving trips.
  • Our modest little blog has performed well this year — 10,329 views as of this writing, from 4,454 visitors.  The U.S. accounted for nearly all the views, but we had visitors from 58 other countries.  Some of them might not have been bots.  Last year’s numbers were 3,269 views from 1,229 visitors, but remember the blog was only up for about 8 months in 2015.
  • To judge from our most popular posts (of all time), you want us to kayak up and down the Paint Rock River looking for marker trees.  Well, OK then.

So what will 2017 hold?  Well, Santa Claus was generous to us both this year, with some cool weather gear that will encourage us to get in some winter hiking.  Another gift will add a new dimension to the blog — a GoPro camera — so be watching our Facebook page for video content once we figure out how to use the contraption.  And we have one adventure already booked for April which promises to be a lot of fun!  We’ve been eyeing a couple of float trips in the general area, there are still a few trails we haven’t done in the Bankhead, we’re overdue for an overnight backpacking trip, and I really hope we can squeeze in a weekend in our beloved Smoky Mountains, which we didn’t visit this year.  And new trails are calling….

The year in photos

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

Letter to Santa

It’s 4  days before Christmas and in our house we’ve been bustling around  decorating, shopping, baking, and wrapping. We’re almost ready though – are you?

My family has given me lots of grief this year because I haven’t given them a Christmas list. I just can’t think of a thing I’m dying to see under the Christmas tree this year. However I can think of plenty of things that won’t fit under a tree!  I doubt it will make my family any happier with me, but here’s my letter to Santa for this year:

Dear Santa,

This year I have been … well mostly nice I think. I don’t know if I did enough to be off the naughty list, but if so, I’d like the following things for Christmas:

new trails to hike – long or short, steep or level, I’m not picky! I do realize that this gift will also require the gift of trail maintainers to keep those trails passable, as well as maybe even a few generous souls to donate more land to places like the Land Trust so new places can be preserved. See what you can do.

 

rivers and waterfalls – and the rains to keep them flowing!

adventure companions – both two and four legged

basking rocks and stunning views

wildflowers – of all sorts (but especially my favorite bluebells)

Wild creatures – especially turtles!

A few more, er, non-traditional outdoor adventures would be fun too.

 

So that’s my list. Hopefully it’s not too much to ask. Merry Christmas to you and safe travels, Santa!

Let’s Make It 893

Rickwood Caverns State Park

In just under a week, Alabamians will join the rest of the nation in going to the polls to fill national, statewide, and local offices.  At the presidential level, it’s fair to say it has been a bitter and divisive election, and I’d guess that more than a few people will be glad to see it end, regardless of which candidate wins the office.  There’s a lot of election fatigue out there.

Cheaha State Park

Here in Alabama, in every statewide election we have the opportunity to extend a world record: our dubious achievement of being governed under the world’s longest constitution.  Its 892 amendments make it the most amended constitution in the world.  It’s 12 times longer than the average state constitution, largely due to this state’s aversion to home rule and local autonomy.  In next week’s election, there are 14 more statewide amendments on the ballot.  At the risk of fatiguing you just a little more, Ruth and I ask you to indulge us in just a little bit of campaigning for one of them.

Oak Mountain State Park

Amendment Two is proposed to protect funding for Alabama state parks by preventing the Legislature from using park revenues to shore up other parts of the state’s budget.  As we’ve pointed out before, Alabama taxpayers don’t fund their state parks.  About 80-90% of the budget for running Alabama’s state parks comes from their users through various fees and charges. The rest of the money comes from earmarked portions of use and cigarette taxes.  In recent years, the state has taken $15 million in funds earned by the parks, intended for their operation and maintenance, to meet rising expenses in the general fund that have not been offset by revenue such as taxes.  At first, such transfers depleted park reserves but didn’t affect park operations, but as the transfers continued, the situation deteriorated to the point that it wasn’t possible to keep all the parks open.  Five parks were closed in 2015, though fortunately four of them have re-opened under agreements with local governments.

DeSoto State Park

Amendment Two has two main provisions.  The first, and most significant, states that money raised by the parks for their operation can only be used for that purpose.  It shuts the door on transfers to other state departments.   The parks, if left alone, are practically self-funding and this amendment will keep it that way.  It won’t raise taxes and it won’t raise fees.  Instead, it gives the Alabama State Parks Division the freedom to perform long-term planning to maintain and improve their facilities.  In the current situation, though it’s possible to forecast park revenues to a certain extent, the parks don’t know how much of the money they raise will be available, so they can’t budget accordingly.  In Amendment Two there are limits put in place, so that if the parks actually raise more than $50 million in revenues (a far cry from their current numbers), the amount of money provided by taxes will be pro-rated.  For instance, if the parks raise $55 million in user fees and charges, $5 million less will be coming their way through the earmarked use and cigarette taxes.

Cathedral Caverns State Park

The second provision has been a source of confusion and has led to much misinformation being spread about its intent.  It calls for an amendment to an existing amendment (ugh, this constitution!) that will allow all of the parks to contract with non-state entities to operate hotels, golf courses, and restaurants in the parks.  This has been decried as privatization of the parks.  The truth is that many of the parks already have such arrangements in place, usually to the benefit of the state since those concessionaires pay the state for the privilege of running those facilities.  This language is necessary because an earlier amendment that funded a bond issue to improve some of the parks stipulated that outside entities could not run facilities in those parks.  The result is that years later, those facilities can only be run by the state, even when outside companies can run them more cost-efficiently and pass the savings along to the state.  And if there isn’t enough money to run those facilities, such as golf courses, the state is forced to close them instead of partnering with private enterprise to keep them open.

Monte Sano State Park

Of course, what you see on the ballot isn’t the full text of the proposed legislation, and our Legislators have an evil genius for sneaking in favors for their cronies in the fine print.  The Huntsville Outdoors blog has an excellent look into the history of this bill and its possible pitfalls.  Though there is some language in the bill that has led to skepticism, bear in mind that this bill wasn’t developed in a vacuum, and that the State Parks Division is in favor of the bill.  Conservation Alabama has an explanation of the intent behind this language, and Greg Lein, the director of Alabama State Parks, has also addressed these concerns in an article on al.com.  I know it’s second nature in Alabama to assume that the government is always trying to pull a fast one (with some justification!), but this amendment looks like a golden opportunity to stabilize parks funding and a way to restore some levels of service.

17ruth_mid_zip
Lake Guntersville State Park

Some people have said that they always vote against every proposed amendment as a protest vote against the convoluted Alabama constitution.  How’s that working out for you?  If you want to cast a protest vote, ask candidates for your state legislature where they stand on calling a constitutional convention to fix the problem, and depending on their answers, vote accordingly.  Even better, when you have your ballot in hand, spare a moment to think of all the Alabama senators who voted in 2015 to eliminate the Forever Wild Land Trust, in direct opposition to the will of the people who re-authorized the program in 2012 by a 3-1 margin (if your senator isn’t Cam Ward, he or she voted in favor of this travesty).  Though this bill was withdrawn in the face of opposition, there are a lot of senators who would be the better target of a protest vote.

Buck’s Pocket State Park

Approving Amendment Two will secure the future of funding for Alabama’s state parks and prevent the need for hare-brained schemes to keep the parks open.  We’ve traveled to state parks in Tennessee and Georgia many times over the past couple of years, and though Alabama has every bit the natural beauty (and more biodiversity), our facilities and amenities are badly lagging behind those of our neighbors.  Amendment Two can help us realize the potential of our parks.

So as you head to the polls on November 8, spare a thought for our state parks and approve this modest proposal in Amendment Two.  After all, if 892 amendments are good, 893 amendments must be better, right?

 

 

A Walk Down Memory Lane

Lately, I’ve become aware of one side effect of getting older:  it doesn’t take much to send my mind back into the past.  Often for me, the trigger is a smell, particularly the scent of a flower or tree.  mimosa_blossomsOn this latest occasion, I was mowing the lawn and caught the scent of the mimosa blossoms hanging over the fence, and I was transported in time across the years to the front yard of an old house on our family farm in Tennessee.  It was a shady spot, shielded from the sun by a mimosa, a catalpa, a maple, and an elm tree.

I had lots of fun, and a few adventures, with my friends and family in that front yard.  We set off fireworks there, and played softball, and were chased by a skunk once.  More than once I was stung by wasps who took a dim view of my throwing rocks at their nests.  We were outdoor kids, with forty acres to roam over, and it was glorious.  I’ve had to come to terms with the likelihood that I’ll never be a great writer because I had such a good childhood.  Overall, it’s an acceptable trade.

In looking back at my younger years and how they shaped my love of the outdoors, one activity looms large:  my time in the Boy Scouts.  Our troop was very fortunate to have Mr. Dave Vondy as our scoutmaster.  Like my dad, Mr. Vondy worked in Oak Ridge in some high-tech job that probably involved weaponry, but he spent one evening a week and one weekend a month riding herd over a motley crew of adolescents and teenagers.  Naturally, I had no perspective on this as a kid, but now I marvel at how he found the time, energy, and patience, and I tip my metaphorical hat to any Scout leader.  It was a point of pride for Mr. Vondy that our troop camped overnight at least once a month for nine months of the year.  We also practiced our fire building and outdoor cooking skills on the ridge behind his house on non-camping weekends, just to keep our skills sharp.  Being outdoors, and camping in general, is bound to take you to some special places and to give you some lively stories.  Oddly, the worse the experience is at the time, the more vivid is the memory.

In 1978 a few Scouts made a bicycle trip to Coytee Springs. I'm on the left, up to shenanigans with Jeff Vondy, the Scoutmaster's older son.
In 1978 a few Scouts made a bicycle trip to Coytee Springs. I’m on the left, up to shenanigans with Jeff Vondy, the Scoutmaster’s older son.

One such memory is of a place I didn’t appreciate at the time.  Back in those days, O Best Beloved, the mighty Little Tennessee River ran free and unfettered from Chilhowee Dam in Maryville to the mouth of the river, where it joined the Tennessee in Lenoir City.  It was a lovely river, much like the Flint River here in north Alabama.  It was an easy matter to head a few miles upstream and put in canoes for an overnight float trip, and we did it a couple of times during my scouting years.  Our stopover spot was along a grassy patch of river bottom land at the base of a ridge, which featured a large pool known as Coytee Springs.

koytee_springs_stream
The stream that ran from the main spring, down to the river (visible in the background).

Even as a child, I recognized that there was something special about Coytee Springs.  My regard for the place was based in the present — it was shady and cool, even in the summer, and the large flat grassy area near the river was a terrific place to camp.  The main spring itself was remarkable.  It was an elliptical pool about 12 feet long and around 8 feet wide, and though none of us waded around in it, it looked to be over 3 feet deep.  The water was cold and readily available for drinking or boiling.  The main spring also had a sizeable crop of watercress growing on its surface, which was no doubt the first experience with eating watercress for most of our troop.  A little stream ran from the pool down to the river.  The ridge behind the spring yielded a good supply of firewood for our campfires, and there were a couple of grapevines up on the hillside that made for some good swinging.

On one of our overnight floats in 1977 or 1978, Mr. Vondy took the notion that we’d try traveling light.  Instead of hauling our canvas tents, we’d go minimalist and sleep under the stars, with only our sleeping bags and a piece of plastic as a ground cover.  It was a cloudy day on the river, but we made good time and reached Coytee Springs with a few hours of daylight to spare.  Once there, a couple of different camping philosophies became apparent.  The older boys (teenagers all, including yours truly) took an optimistic view of the overnight weather, and tossed down our plastic and offset our sleeping bags to one side, so that we could pull half of the plastic over us to form a sort of water-resistant Boy Scout burrito.  The adults in the group, along with the younger kids, scavenged up a bunch of short sticks and twine, and by pooling their resources built a bizarre 30-inch tall labyrinth with sleeping chambers and a pitched, though patchy, plastic roof.  The burrito tribe jeered at this elaborate engineering and spent our time looking for arrowheads and generally goofing around.

The rain started around midnight, and at first the burrito method seemed sound, as long as one didn’t move around unnecessarily.  After the rain transitioned from a light shower to a more determined downpour, I felt a wet spot down near my feet, and it slowly grew as the rain pounded on.  Before long my sleeping bag was completely soaked, and by the bitter cries of my companions I knew I wasn’t the only one in for a soggy, cold night.  Even worse, the ragtag plastic labyrinth was holding up well, with the adults and our inferiors sleeping merrily away, oblivious to our misery.  They had even dug a shallow drainage ditch so the water wasn’t even seeping in from the sides.

But then their luck changed, as one of the youngsters near the center of the labyrinth rolled over and knocked down one of the sticks supporting the roof.  Water rushed in through the gap, causing other sleepers to startle awake, and they sat up and knocked over more sticks, and the whole contraption collapsed onto the shrieking mob.  Oh, it was a most satisfying sight for the burritos, and our laughter warmed us for a few minutes.  The little ones and the adults clambered out of the wreckage and made a beeline for the adults’ cars, where they spent the rest of the night in the dry.  The older kids, of course, pretended that we were all fine, so we tried to preserve our dignity while shivering away until first light gave us the excuse to jump up and start our breakfast fires.  Except, of course, all the wood was wet, so we had to wait for the adults to wake up and retrieve the firewood they had stashed in their vehicles.

Now, as an adult, I’m able to go onto the Internet and gain a whole new perspective on Coytee Springs.  The adults probably knew it at the time, and maybe they told us, but Coytee Springs was a sacred place to the Cherokee.  According to this article by a local resident, the springs were considered to have healing powers, and the site of the springs was so sacred that treaties and agreements made there among the tribes were never broken.  I do remember the adults telling us that we wouldn’t be able to canoe the Little Tennessee, at least not as it was, because Tellico Dam was nearly complete and the impoundment of the water would create a large reservoir that would completely cover Coytee Springs.  coytee_mapIt didn’t seem possible, and a court battle over the endangered snail darter and subsequent court rulings (even one from the U.S. Supreme Court) gave us some hope that our river would remain as it was.  But Congress came up with legislation to exempt the dam, and in 1979 it was completed and the villages of the Overhill Cherokee and the sacred springs disappeared under the waters.  Google Maps remembers where the springs used to be.

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The ridge behind Coytee Springs

So, there’s no going back to Coytee Springs, except in my memories and in a few lousy photos I took of a place that I thought would always be there.  The area upstream of Tellico Dam is now developed on the west side and portions of the east side, but there is a consolation prize.  Tellico Lake is now the site of the East Lakeshore National Recreational Trail, a 30+ mile trail system that winds mostly along the east side of Tellico Lake.  There’s even a Coytee Loop Branch trail that runs along the top of the ridge where I used to gather firewood and swing on grapevines.  Now it’s at the water’s edge.

Just before TVA finished Tellico Dam, they went along the river and bulldozed the river bottoms and up the ridges, so that the trees wouldn’t form snags as the river rose above them.  I’ve seen photos of Coytee Springs after the trees were cut down, and they’re painful to look at.  But the waters of Coytee Springs still flow, albeit somewhere along the bottom of Tellico Lake, and I hope their powers of healing and peacemaking are still working their magic for my old hometown.

 

 

Ruth’s Top Five Waterfalls

As you may have noticed, last weekend was a beautiful one in the Tennessee Valley. We had blue skies, temperatures in the 80s, and not much humidity. Perfect spring hiking weather! Despite all that, we didn’t get a hike in at all last weekend. Instead, we drove down to Monroeville, AL to watch their iconic production of To Kill A Mockingbird. This play, an adaptation by Christopher Sergel of Harper Lee’s cherished Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, has been put on in Harper Lee’s hometown by a local group of amateur actors since 1991. You can’t beat the setting – the Monroe County Courthouse is where Harper Lee’s father, the inspiration for Atticus, practiced law. We even were among a small number of audience members that got to sit on the stage during the courtroom scenes. It was like we were a part of the action!

We enjoyed the performance very much, but it did leave me with no hike to tell you about this week. However, I did launch a new menu page over the weekend – a Waterfalls page. Similar to our Trail Listing page, this page will list the waterfalls we’ve visited, a link to the blog where we talk about it, and a rough idea of how far away it is. In honor of our new page, I now give you my top five waterfalls from the last year or so. These are not in any particular order – it was hard enough to narrow it down to five, much less rank them!

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Sougahoagdee Falls

Sougahoagdee Falls, Bankhead Forest, Alabama.

This 70 foot fall nestled in a hollow off of Brushy Creek in the Bankhead Forest is a beauty. Bluffs rise from the creek to form a natural bowl with the falls spilling over from above at one end. Ferns and lush greenery make it feel a little like some kind of hidden Shangri-La. The trail to get there is an added bonus. Though unmaintained and unmarked, it’s pretty easy to follow, and as an added bonus it takes you past four other smaller waterfalls. That’s a total of five waterfalls in one reasonably easy five mile out and back hike!

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East Bee Branch Falls

East Bee Branch Falls, Sipsey Wilderness, Alabama

This waterfall in my beloved Sipsey Wilderness is described as being either 70 or 90 feet tall. It’s a little difficult to get to – the shortest hike in is about 10 miles round trip and the trail getting down into the canyon is unmarked and difficult to make out – but it’s worth the trip. The canyon itself is beautiful, and boasts East Bee Branch Falls, the “Big Tree” (the largest yellow poplar in Alabama), and a second smaller but equally beautiful waterfall.  It’s a popular spot so you’re unlikely to have it all to yourself, but don’t let that stop you!

 

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Savage Falls

 

Savage Falls, South Cumberland State Park, Tennessee

This 30 foot waterfall is just about two hours north of Huntsville, in the South Cumberland State Park.  The trail in is an easy 3.2 mile out and back. Just before the falls, the river goes over a lovely set of cascades. The cover photo we use for our blog is a shot of those cascades. After the cascades, a set of stairs leads down to the basin where you can get a great view of Savage Falls dropping into a beautiful plunge pool.

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Burgess Falls

Burgess Falls, Burgess State Park, Tennessee

This is probably the most impressive falls of my picks as far as setting and height. The approach to the falls is along a 1.5 mile out and back trail which, like the trail into Sougahoadee Falls, gives you bonus waterfalls. In this case, you’ll pass a 20 foot cascade, the 30 foot upper falls, and the 80 foot middle falls before coming out on the rim of a canyon with 200 foot sheer walls. Burgess Falls itself drops 136 feet into the gorge. It’s impressive from above, but you can also take a trail and some stairs down to the bottom and view it up close.

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Cheaha Falls

Cheaha Falls is not the tallest fall, nor does it drop into a stunning deep gorge or have the greatest volume of water, but I loved it anyway. You approach this fall along an easy 1.87 mile out and back trail which leads through woods. The trail takes you to the top of the falls, then leads down into the little basin filled with tumbled boulders. Cheaha Creek spills 30 feet into the basin to form the falls.  Perhaps we were just lucky, but when we were there, we had it to ourselves and I think that maybe added to its quiet charm.

So that’s my top five – what do you think? Are there waterfalls we’ve been to that you like better? Are there any you think we should go visit? Let us know in the comments!