“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Backpacking Denali National Park

When we backpacked into the wildness of Alaska’s Denali National Park, we thought that if we had any scary wildlife encounters it would be with the park’s plentiful grizzly bears. Mainly because when we picked up our backcountry hiking permit, we were required to view a video that advised what to do when encountering a grizzly. If you have any doubts about hiking into grizzly country that video will not ease your fears of being mauled by an 800 pound bear—close ups of roaming, growling, angry bears does not put your mind at ease. Trust me. I was ready to trade my tent for a hotel room ten minutes into the movie. But we struck out into the wilderness despite our apprehensions.

What the video didn’t mention was what to do when being charged by a 600-pound caribou. So when we spied a bull caribou grazing in the high tundra of an alpine mountain valley, we watched him disappear behind a ridge and continued hiking. We still didn’t give it much thought when he reappeared behind us over the ridge. But when he advanced belligerently with his head held high and his neck puffed out, we knew we had a problem. We were momentarily stunned, uncertain as to what to do. We were above tree line--no trees to climb. And the terrain was open and stark--not even any boulders to hide behind. We jumped up and down, waving our arms and yelling, which seemed only to provoke him more. Only when we clapped our hands did he stop charging and stamp his feet, staring at us as if finally realizing ”Hey this is not another caribou.” He stood motionless for a moment and then trotted back to the ridge, pausing for a final backward glance before melting into the Alaskan fog. He had come within 75 feet of us and my heart was racing.

Somehow this did not seem out of place in the raw wilderness of Denali. I guess when you are wandering through six million acres crammed full of incredibly scenic spruce forests, sub-arctic tundra, broad river valleys, caribou herds, and soaring mountain peaks nothing seems extraordinary. In a park that stretches more than 100 miles from end to end, and is larger than the state of Massachusetts, some animals may never have seen a human so they don’t know what to make of us.

This is a wild land and one not to be taken lightly and we had a real sense of stepping into the unknown when we hopped off the backpacker bus that shuttles backcountry hikers through the park. Only one road cuts through Denali; a two-lane gravel road that bisects the park from east to west and the buses are the only mode of transportation allowed—private vehicles need not apply. We hopped off into a gloomy drizzly day and trekked up into the high plateaus bordering the highway. We tramped through chest high alder thickets, whistling and talking loudly to alert any browsing griz along the way.

It was July but still brisk in the Denali outback. We hiked for the day and set up camp on a high shelf at 5000 feet on the shoulder of a mountain overlooking an open valley and a winding river. The wind whipped up a storm blew in overnight and our tent was buffeted all night long. A cold driving rain and low clouds enveloped our campsite, driving temperatures down into the mid-40s. The sun never sets in Denali in July and we slept through a dull light—fitfully, alert for griz prowling through camp. We never saw Mt McKinley's peak during the entire trip—the gloom set in for days, obscuring the mountain’s peak

The trip was incredible, awesome scenery, abundant wildlife and that sense one gets out in the wild, away from civilization and help. It feels good to be in wilderness and we came back cold, wet, tired, dirty and exhilarated. And yes, we did see griz, many in fact. But the caribou proved our fears were misplaced.

Road Rash and Worse

“There are two kinds of riders, those who’ve been down and those who are going down.”

Somehow, I knew it was going to happen before it went down. Without trying to sound like some kind of mystical psychic nut case, when I saw the Ninja come wide around the turn, I wasn’t surprised. Something along the lines of “yep, there he is” rushed through my brain.

The silver Ninja drifted wide around the curve into our lane from the other direction, plowing full speed into my buddy Rick, who was minding his business on his Honda Shadow Aero just ahead of me. A tremendous blow followed—more like a loud thudding “Oooomph” than those crashing, tearing sound effects you hear on TV, a literal explosion of plastic body fairing, metal engine parts, searing exhaust pipes and—worst of all—human bodies. Shrapnel flew in all directions, both riders flew into the air and crashed head to head into each other then fell in a heap on the ground. Both bikes came down simultaneously, one landing on top of the down riders. Jerry, another of my riding buddies, dumped his bike behind this carnage to avoid piling up into the mayhem and out of my left peripheral vision I watched a green Ninja go down, sliding down the highway in a shower of sparks, the rider following in leathers. All of this happened in mere seconds.

We had been riding—twelve of us, a group of friends who gather a couple of times a year—for two days through the twisty mountain roads of Tennessee and North Carolina. Our semi-annual trek took us to the tiny town of Bryson City, North Carolina where we used a local campground as our staging area for day-long rides on the area’s meandering and scenic asphalt.

Our featured ride is always Deal’s Gap, an infamous stretch of Highway 129, a narrow, snaking ribbon of extremely twisting road that famously features 318 turns in eleven miles. The Gap, known commonly as the Tail of the Dragon, carries an almost mystical reputation with bikers and sports car enthusiasts and on any given weekend you can expect to see dozens, often hundreds, of riders and drivers tackling the curves, many at high speed.

The Gap is also notorious for accidents and fatalities, a grim roster of which is kept on the website http://www.tailofthedragon.com/. The danger is part of its attraction and the accounts of accidents seem to add to its mystique. In 2009, five fatalities were recorded on the eleven miles. The number of injuries and metal-bending off-road excursions is not known. Suffice it to say that of my many trips to the Gap, I’ve never come away without seeing at least one mishap. And, yes, I guess that was part of the attraction for us. To ride the Gap unscathed makes for great tales around the campfire.

So we spent the weekend riding the scenic byways of the area; the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Cherohala Parkway, twisting North Carolina Highway 28 and other back roads that offered rollercoaster thrills. We ran Deal’s Gap three times.

We had just come through our third Gap run and stopped at the bottom to regroup, all of us in high spirits. The adrenalin was still pumping and we were ready for a leisurely cruise through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our plan was to ride Foothills Parkway, a gentle, wide and smooth strip of road that offers easy laid-back touring along the ridges leading into the National Park. We were less than ten miles down the Parkway, traveling at no more than 40 miles per hour when the Ninja hit.

Parts were still tumbling down the road past me as I clamped down on the brakes and dove to a stop, my front tire less than ten feet from the ugly scene in front of me. I jumped off my Speed Triple, threw my helmet on the ground and ran to the Honda, lying on its side with gas leaking onto the pavement. I remember someone else next to me also lifting the bike—to this day I don't know who—and we both pulled the bike off the two riders and literally threw it down behind us.

The sight underneath the bikes was ghastly. Both riders lay flat on the pavement, facing each other head to toe, just as they’d landed after their bodies smashed into each other in midair. In my confusion I couldn’t remember who had been riding in front of me so I looked at his face to see who had gone down. I couldn’t tell, all I could see was a bloody mess but I recognized the helmet and realized it was Rick. The other rider’s full face helmet was cracked almost in half in front. Rick’s left hand was nearly severed, hanging only by the skin and a thin strip of muscle. Two bloody white bones protruded from his wrist. The left side of his face was mangled and bloody, his nose hung loosely from his face. He was bleeding profusely from his mouth and the gurgling sound with each labored breath was ominous. The other rider looked remarkably untouched, hardly any outward signs of injury but he was unconscious and his breathing was very shallow.

We were far back in the Smoky Mountains with no cell phone service. Luckily, a ranger station was just up the road and a rider sped ahead for help. A couple of park service volunteers were on the scene in minutes but it seemed like an eternity before professional medical help and Park Rangers arrived to attempt to stabilize both riders (the other two riders who went down did not need hospitalization). A med flight from Knoxville was called and it was almost an hour before the chopper arrived. In this hour Rick bled profusely—there was a crimson stream a good twenty feet across the road--and both riders stopped momentarily breathing at least once.

So what’s this all about? More than just a gruesome recounting of a random and tragic accident. It’s about a loss of confidence, that it-can’t-happen-to-me attitude that we all carry so self-assuredly astride our bikes. Rick didn’t do anything wrong. He was on an easy ride, doing everything right, enjoying life when instantly everything changed.

It’s been a while since the accident. Rick recovered, though he still has lingering effects. The Ninja rider suffered serious head injuries, prognosis uncertain. A lot of uncertainty and reassessment went on. Reading about the toll at the Gap is one thing, to actually experience the results, to see mangled flesh, hear perhaps the last breath, feel the warm blood on your hands—it changed the whole game. It affected us in different ways. Some quit riding. I’m considering selling my bike. Does this make me a wuss? Am I overreacting? Maybe, all I know is that every time I ride now I’m constantly peering around the next curve, wondering if someone is going to come screaming around and cross into my lane. The freedom that riding offers has been taken away. Will it return? We’ll see. In the meantime my Speed Triple sits in the garage awaiting its fate.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Tennessee Spirits & Wine Trail

The top dog of Tennessee whiskey making, Jack Daniel Distillery, couldn’t be more picturesque. Snuggled in the lap of a broad valley, the visitor center is a grand introduction to the scenic beauty of south central Tennessee and to the 150 year old tradition of Tennessee whiskey making.

This largest and best known of Tennessee’s spirits making companies anchors the Tennessee Spirits & Wine Trail, a collection of five very different and unique wineries and distilleries within a 45 mile radius of one another. In addition to Jack Daniel Distillery, the trail includes the George Dickel Distillery, Prichard’s Distillery, Beans Creek Winery and Tri-Star Vineyards and Winery. Hitting each venue on the trail makes for an appealing day’s trek through some of the most striking scenery in the area highlighted by friendly and interesting proprietors and employees eager to share their stories and—in most cases--let you taste their finest concoctions.

Our first stop on the trial is Prichard’s Distillery just east of Fayetteville in Kelso. As we pull up to the distillery building we think we are lost. Surely this seen-better-days brick building—a former school and former community center--can’t be the place. But we are beckoned in by Connie Prichard, who along with her husband Phil, own the distillery. The building’s appearance is deceiving. Inside the old building the Prichards have developed a modern distillery with gleaming stainless steel tanks and copper pot stills and the clash between the old-fashioned structure and the contemporary workings inside are a captivating contrast. In the midst of renovations that are slowly turning the building into an inviting tourist stop, the Prichards are running Tennessee’s only rum distillery. There are only five rum distilleries in the United States and this is the second oldest (the oldest is in New Orleans). Connie and Phil have been making rum since 1999 and in that time their rum has matured into one of the finest on the market and an array of medals and awards honoring their rums lines the walls of the tasting room.

The distillery tour follows the rum making process from raw sweet Louisiana molasses to the sweet almost brandy-like end result. After the tour you can get a taste of the product (unlike the other two distilleries on the Trail which are located in a dry county) and the tasting proves that the Prichards produce a world class rum—a fact driven home when Connie says that her husband Phil is in Germany on a marketing trip. They produce a variety of flavored rums but my favorite is their straight rum. They also produce a bourbon based liqueur called Sweet Lucy that is exceptionally sweet and smooth. Be sure to ask Connie and Phil how it got its name.

We’d like to linger over a glass of Prichard’s finest but we head up the road to our next stop, Jack Daniel Distillery. The distillery tour introduces you to the modern world of high tech, large volume whiskey making in a state of the art facility that still follows the original recipe that Mr. Jack Daniel conjured up over one hundred years ago. This is the oldest distillery in the country and produces the top selling whiskey in the world.

Everything about Jack Daniel is professional, including the tour that starts with the production of the charcoal that is used in the mellowing process that gives the whiskey its unique taste. About an hour later at your final stop on the tour you see the golden liquid that results from the multi-step process. Walking through the distillery is a sensory overload of warm malty aromas and rich colors. Everything in the brick and wood visitor center and the factory seems to gleam—the stainless vats, copper pipes, brass railings, even the wooden floors have a welcoming sheen. It is somehow comforting to know that this spot has been producing the same product, in the same way, for a century and an half. That history is source of pride for Lynchburg, especially today when so many companies are going under.

The drive from the Jack Daniel parking lot to the George Dickel Distillery in the tiny town of Normandy is backroads Tennessee at its finest. The winding country roads follow valleys and fields past fenced farms and grand old houses. At Normandy, a narrow two lane road meanders over rolling hills and borders a sparkling creek up into the gentle hills of Cascade Hollow. Turns out the creek is the reason George Dickel was attracted to this area. And it’s the same reason Jack Daniel was: the pure iron-free water here is the key to good tasting whisky.

George Dickel Distillery may be smaller but they don’t give up a thing in pride to Jack Daniel. Our tour guide Lou was quick to point out that the differences in the process George Dickel follow results in a much different taste between the two products. Revealing a friendly rivalry with their larger neighbor, Lou swears that the double distilling and cold chilling of the George Dickel whisky results in a much smoother and more mellow sippin’ whisky. He claims he’s a former moonshiner so he ought to know. In contrast to the Jack Daniel Distillery, this operation still uses the old-fashioned handcrafting methods of the mid-nineteenth century. I don’t think there is a computer to be found in the building.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that George Dickel spells whisky without the “e”. That is another story you’ll want to ask your tour guide about.

The next stop on the Trail shifts the offerings from distilled spirits to wine. Tri-Star Winery is well hidden on a narrow country road near Shelbyville. This tiny vintner is run by Perry and Elaine Casteel, a husband and wife team that cultivates the five acre vineyard next to their small winery. The couple prune, harvest and crush the grapes by themselves—and then ferment and bottle the wine on the premises. “A thirteen month a year job,” Perry says.

Tri-Star uses their own locally grown grapes to make over a dozen varieties of wines, ranging from a very dry Catawba to Cayuga and Muscadine to sweet fruit and berry wines. We sampled their offerings and we liked the wines here, they were surprisingly restrained and avoided the unfinished taste that plagues many small wineries.

Our final stop on the Trail takes us to Manchester and Beans Creek Winery. This winery represents the other end of the wine making business. In contrast to the small two-person Tri-Star operation, Beans Creek is the vision of a cooperative of eight wine growers in middle Tennessee. Using grapes grown in eight counties throughout Tennessee, Tom and Becky Brown and their crew at Beans Creek produce a variety of white and red wines, ranging from very dry to sweet. The tasting room is awash with medals that the winery has garnered from various competitions throughout the country.

Once again we enjoyed a tasting of the winery’s products. My tastes tend to the dry end of the spectrum where the Beans Creek wines had a subtle and engaging taste. My companion likes semi-sweet and sweet wines and she found those varieties to be full bodied and bold.

The Tennessee Wine & Spirits Trail is a good day’s run through the beauty of rural Tennessee spiced with two of the state’s historic distilleries, a rising newcomer, and two examples of the state’s nascent wine industry.

(This Article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Shenandoah River

We floated the Shenandoah River last month and it had everything we expected of a mountain stream: gin clear water, sparkling riffles, broad valleys backing up to looming Appalachian peaks. What we didn’t expect was all of this to be within an easy half-day drive of the bustling metropolitan crush of our nation’s capital. The Shenandoah Valley is less than 200 miles from downtown Washington but those miles transport you into a whole other world.

Leave the chaos and stress of the capital and head west on Interstate 66 through the sprawling suburbs of Alexandria and Arlington, past Annandale and Manassas with thousands of scurrying bureaucrats and office workers commuting around like ants. West of Manassas, the endless mess of roads and subdivisions, McMansions and Stepford lawns, gas stations and strip malls perceptibly diminishes and is replaced by a few tiny towns scattered among farms and fields, dreadfully awaiting the inevitable invasion of Progress From The East.

We drove into Front Royal, a no nonsense working class town that only grudgingly accepts tourists and the encroachment coming over the horizon. Folks here do as they damn well please, cursing the DC refugees starting to buy houses in town or the tourists passing through on their way to see the White House and the Smithsonian. Front Royal’s don’t care attitude is the perfect complement to its role as the gateway to the Shenandoah River.

The Shenandoah flows south to north, a contrarian river that matches the attitude of the area. The river supports a number of outfitters that provide canoes and kayaks and services for river runners. We picked up a shuttle at Front Royal Canoe Company and an hour later were pushing off from a narrow gravel bar into the briskly flowing waters of the Shenandoah.

We planned three leisurely days of paddling from our put-in point back to Front Royal, 41 miles. From the get go the river was a delight; shallow, quick current, transparent water. The river flows through a wide valley, carving through its heart with expansive open fields on either side. This is working farm country and cattle eyed us balefully as we floated past. Corn, wheat and soybeans carpet acres of rich earth with vivid greens and golds and bluish mist-wreathed mountains frame the scene. Wow.

We’ve floated the wild and raw waters of the West—the Little Missouri River in North Dakota, the Green River in Utah, the Colorado, the Snake—churning, challenging, punishing. This was different--mellow, welcoming, calming. I felt my body shifting into low gear as the river pushed us along.

I flipped a lure into a swirling eddy behind a small boulder and it was immediately tugged underwater. A smallmouth bass, maybe ten inches, put up a surprisingly lively fight to stay out of the canoe. Fun fishing, smallmouth, mighty fighters for their size. This first fish was one of dozens we hooked during our trip. As we floated north, the smallmouth increased in size and by day three we were pulling hefty three- to four-pounders from the river. The fish ebbed and flowed in an inexplicable pattern, some sections of river alive with fish, others desolate. When we got into an active area, we pulled the canoe behind an eddy or near the riverbank and fish till our arms grow tired. Catch and release. Take a picture, let it go.

As dusk gathered on the evening of our first day we crunched our bow against a gravel bar on the downstream edge of the confluence of a small creek flowing into the Shenandoah and made camp. Raccoon poop festooned the gravel and we listened to a beaver slap his tail on the water in the darkness, waiting for the campfire to fade to embers.

The morning cloaked the riffles in fog. It created an odd effect, the water clearer than the air. The rocky river bottom flashed under our canoe in a muted runway of russet and tan with green streamers of algae waving to us in passing.

This is not an isolated river and there is almost always a house or river cabin perched within view on the bank. The only respites from civilization are the stretches of national forest land that border the river. In these stretches hardwoods crowd to the very edge of the water, their welcoming branches shading the water from the hot summer sun. The trees teem with birds. We saw osprey, bald eagles, great horned owls, belted kingfishers, barn swallows, red-tailed hawks, and dozens of species of smaller birds flitting through the vegetation. We watched an adult bald eagle catch fish in her talons and fly up to feed her two immature offspring squawking impatiently on the bare limb of a dead tree. White tailed deer, mink and groundhogs watched us from the banks and blue winged teal and mallards lurked in the shadows under overhanging branches.

Easy paddling with a steady current makes for lazy days and we had plenty of time to fish and just lay back and enjoy the passing scenery. Long stretches of swift water with lively riffles were interspersed with deep sluggish pools. This is Class I floating, the easiest of rivers. Only a handful of rapids could conceivably be considered Class II, the next level of difficulty. Combined with the generally shallow water it is hard to get in trouble here.

Day two drew to a close as we made camp on a small open area on an island in the middle of the river. We were awakened the next morning by the sound of an indignant deer snorting next to our tent and peered out to see a doe and her fawn staring at us thirty feet away. We had barely broken camp when the day darkened and a slow rain fell. Around noon the sky opened up. The fish were still biting and we hooked ever larger fish, culminating in a five-pound largemouth bass, the only largemouth of the trip. The rain was unrelenting, a gray curtain that pocked the river surface. Nevertheless, we took it easy, not eager to leave the Shenandoah until we arrived at the take out and ended our time on the river.

Three days of easy paddling on a river that can legitimately be described as idyllic. Enjoy it before Progress steals it away.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Bucket List

There is an epidemic among baby boomers. As we age and come face to face with our mortality we are starting to reflect on what we have—or haven’t--done with our lives. The result is often a commitment to do those things we always wanted to do “someday”. Now we realize we may not have too many “somedays” left.

So we come up with a list of things we want to still accomplish. This has recently become a big deal as witnessed by the popularity of the recent movie The Bucket List. There are Facebook sites where people compare their lists and websites where you can maintain an online list. The bestselling book 1000 Places to Visit Before You Die has spawned dozens of similar books and lists. Google “bucket list” and you’ll get 221,000 returns. Everybody is suddenly putting a bucket list together. I suspect most people will tuck them away in a drawer and never look at them again, but some will actually start checking off items on their lists.

Well, I beat the crowd on this one. I started my list years ago during my college days. Of course, I didn’t call it a bucket list. My mortality was only a vague thought on the far distant horizon in those days. It became my “gonna do” list (I wasn’t the most articulate student) and I remember the night I sat down in my dorm room and listed the things that I wanted to do in my life.

The original list has grown considerably since then. I never considered it a static list and I have added things over the years but I’ve never taken anything off--that is my only rule and it has turned the list into an intriguing glimpse into how my hopes and dreams have changed over the years. The original list has items on it that were probably not going to happen from the get go, like breaking the sound barrier or standing on the North and South Poles and it reveals the limitless world of a college student.

Others I’ll never do simply because I no longer share the same interests I did thirty years ago. I don’t care to learn to juggle anymore and I have no desire to rollerblade a 10K. And I saw Mt. Fuji but didn’t feel the need to climb it. And there are items on there that I now wonder why I ever wanted to do (Milk a cow? Why?). But all four are still on the list (see rule above).

As I look at the list, it has grown considerably over the years. My college scratchings have grown from an initial 78 items to the current 377 on three typed pages. Many of the items I have added are things I wasn’t even remotely interested in in college but of course your interests change as you age.

Everybody’s list is different, mine is no exception. I have two intense interests: river running and wildlife. I have 29 rivers I want to either raft, canoe or kayak. I’ve done 19 so far. And I have 68 wild animals that I want to see in their natural habitat. So far I’ve spotted 49, including a bull elephant that charged us in the Serengeti, grizzly bears that kept us on edge on a Denali backpacking trip, and a leopard that was crouched less than ten feet over our head in a tree in Tanzania. I still think I will see all 68 before I go, although mountain gorillas could be problematic.

I have basically given up on some things either because of lack of money (climbing Mt. Everest) or age (running that marathon ain’t gonna happen). But I have climbed Mt. Shasta and I still have hopes of climbing Kilimanjaro--not Everest, but on the list. And I have run 10Ks. Then there is the ability thing. I have no musical ability so I’ll never be able to play the guitar or harmonica or saxophone.

What is interesting is that some things that are easy to attain, like learning to play bridge or parasailing or taking karate classes or going to Mardi Gras or the opera remain unchecked but I’ve checked off writing a novel, flying a glider plane, trekking through New Zealand, playing golf at St. Andrews and buying a round in an English pub, things I once thought were just dreams.

So far I have checked off 223 of the 377 items. I’m close on a few more—I have visited 47 of 50 states and five of seven continents, not even close on others—I’ve climbed the high points in only 10 states, and I have only about 400 birds towards my 600 bird life list.

I don’t know how many more I will check off, I don’t really care. I just like having something to look forward to. Will I ever check off all 377? No, but so what? The list doesn’t dominate my life and I rarely talk about. No one has ever seen it. I keep it in my dresser drawer and pull it out periodically to reminisce or make plans. That’s it. But it is nice to have; it gets me off the couch and out doing things. For that reason, I love my “gonna do” list.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mighty Mouse

If you travel along the precious few miles of Alabama’s Gulf Coast you will encounter an almost unending string of development. Condos, beach houses, restaurants, T-shirt shacks, golf courses, and motels dominate practically every foot of beachfront property.

This is not news of course; every state that has coastline is watching relentless development eat up its beaches and stretches of undeveloped shoreline are increasingly uncommon. One of these remnant jewels of wild coast still remains in Alabama. Drive west along Alabama Highway 180 out of the gaudy chaos of haphazard growth that stains the town of Gulf Shores and the character of the land changes immediately. Barely two miles down this small two-lane road the condos disappear, restaurants are hard to find, and spreading Southern Oak trees dripping with Spanish Moss form a shady arch over the hot asphalt.

Welcome to Fort Morgan Peninsula, a thin finger of land that thrusts westward for some eighteen miles, separating Mobile Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. With relatively untouched coastal land becoming a rarity, the peninsula is an anachronism; a beautiful, sleepy vestige of natural dunes and beaches. Unassuming private beach homes, fishing shacks, scrub land, and wild dunes are about all that there is. Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge sits halfway down the peninsula, protecting 6000 acres of land.

The attraction of Fort Morgan Peninsula is this isolation and raw splendor. For those whose idea of a great beach vacation is barhopping, dancing, golfing, and parasailing, Fort Morgan is not on the radar screen. Vacationers come here for the silence, the dark moonlit beaches. But with so little of Alabama’s beachfront left, there are many who have other ideas for Fort Morgan. Something on the order of Gulf Shores West. Developers have plans to build a number of high-density condos, practically nonexistent on the peninsula now.

This is where a tiny peninsula resident comes into the picture—perhaps the only one who can save Fort Morgan Peninsula. The Alabama Beach Mouse, an appealing little creature with large ears and huge protruding eyes, has become the center of a struggle between bulldozers and nature lovers. Thirty years ago this little mouse was living large among the beaches and dunes of Alabama. Then a combination of habitat destruction by development and tropical storms and the appearance of feral cats decimated the mouse population. Consequently, the mouse was declared an endangered species in 1985 and habitat critical to mouse survival was designated along parts of Alabama’s Gulf Coast, including parts of Fort Morgan Peninsula.

Which brings us to today. The planned condos will be built in areas that are designated as mouse habitat, but federal laws restrict many activities that may negatively affect habitat of an endangered species. In September the Sierra Club sued to suspend construction pending a determination of whether planned development would impact mouse habitat. A ruling in favor of the mouse could limit growth on much of the peninsula.

But, as with many environmental battles, this one will not end with one ruling and it will take time before a final decision is reached. In the meantime the developers, who view the peninsula as wasted land needing the golden touch of restaurants, malls, and bars that has already blighted the rest of Alabama’s coast, are waiting in the wings while peninsula residents and property owners who are opposed to further development are anxiously hoping for a favorable result.

What is certain is that the outcome of this battle will determine the future of Fort Morgan. Will it be much as it is now, its charm and beauty intact, or just another example of beachfront sprawl gone awry? For human residents, it could mean the end of an idyllic paradise. For the Alabama Beach Mouse it could mean, simply, the end.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

Alabama Sea Turtle Nesting

In the dim twilight on a deserted stretch of coastline on Alabama’s Fort Morgan Peninsula, a lonely figure kneels and gently touches a stethoscope to the warm sand. With the boom of the crashing surf in the background, Debi Gholson, a volunteer with the Alabama Share the Beach program, strains to hear the telltale scratching of tiny sea turtles. She is listening to a loggerhead sea turtle nest, hoping to hear live hatchlings two feet underground breaking out of their shells and digging toward the surface.

“I hear movement!” she says. Tonight could be the night to witness the remarkable sight of dozens of energetic baby turtles frantically erupting from the sand and madly sprinting to the protective waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

This particular nest was laid 56 days ago by a female loggerhead turtle, a huge and increasingly rare marine turtle that plies the waters of the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. Loggerheads weigh 150-400 pounds and measure 30-45 inches along the carapace, or back shell. They spend practically their entire lives in the ocean. Every summer the females emerge from the sea to nest. They plod across the beach, quickly dig a two-foot deep cavity with their hind flippers, and deposit 100 to 150 golf-ball-sized eggs, which they gently cover with sand. They then return to the ocean, never to see the results of their efforts, leaving distinctive crawl marks as the only sign of their presence.

If the sun warms the eggs to the right temperature, storms don't wash the nest away, coyotes or other predators don't dig up the eggs, and a dozen other conditions are just right, about two months later the eggs hatch and dozens of baby turtles miraculously bubble out of the sand and dash across the beach, dodging hungry sea gulls and ghost crabs, before reaching the relative safety of the ocean. This frantic and fragile scene is repeated dozens of times every summer on Alabama’s beaches. Fort Morgan is a particularly valuable turtle nesting area; as of the end of July, forty nests have been discovered on the peninsula, a very productive year.

The discoveries are made by a dedicated corps of volunteers and Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge employees who patrol the beaches daily during the May through August nesting season. They search for evidence of nesting and then monitor and protect the nests until they successfully hatch.

One of these nests is the one we are standing over tonight. Fifteen minutes after Debi hears the subterranean scratching, we see the sand move and a black pinky-finger sized head pops out of the sand. The first baby turtle is struggling to the surface. A tiny flipper appears, then another and a cookie-sized turtle emerges and sprints toward the surf. Suddenly the sand comes alive with dozens of baby turtles emerging from the nest. This frenzy of hatching is called the “boil” and within minutes, more than sixty baby loggerheads scramble out of the sand.

What follows is both wondrous and comedic as a handful of volunteers scramble around in the dark trying to shepherd dozens of confused and speedy critters toward the Gulf of Mexico. Evolution has conditioned the hatchlings to head toward light—which for eons was moonlight reflecting off the surf. But today streetlights and lighting from condos and beach houses lures them inland, away from the surf. The volunteers have to continuously turn the babies toward the water and herd them away from the dunes. A safe distance away, hordes of ghost crabs watch our progress, waiting for an opportunity to dart in and snatch one of these tasty morsels. If we weren’t here, there would be a deadly feast on this beach. After more than three hours of babysitting and coaxing, the last hatchling finally wades into the surf and swims into the darkness. Sixty nine eggs hatched, all of them made it safely to the water.

All of this effort is an attempt to halt the decline of sea turtles. Six species of sea turtles are found in U.S. waters and all of them are threatened or endangered. Entanglement in fishing nets, pollution and litter (turtles ingest and choke on plastic bags, balloons, and other floating debris that resembles jellyfish, their favorite food) cause numerous turtle deaths each year. Development of beachfront habitat decreases nesting success and beachfront lighting disorients hatchlings.

Adult turtles return to their birth beach to nest so one day one of these creatures will lumber back onto this beach to lay the seed for yet another generation. The dedicated work of the volunteers and professionals patrolling Alabama’s beaches bring hope that we can continue to witness the return of sea turtles to Alabama beaches for decades to come.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve

Just south of Tuscumbia, a large swath of wild streams, box canyons, waterfalls, rock shelters and sandstone bluffs remains nearly as pristine and wild as it did centuries ago. The fact that this remarkable piece of natural beauty is still unspoiled is largely due to an equally remarkable couple.

Jim and Faye Lacefield, retired educators, bought a 40-acre tract of land in 1979 and have gradually added to that original purchase, keeping the land in its natural state, and today their Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve encompasses 700 acres. Their foresight has ensured the preservation of a good portion of Cane Creek Canyon, a rare environmental wonder amidst a sea of farms and houses that Jim says shows up on Google Earth “like a deep green ribbon surrounded by brown fields and roads”.

Even more remarkable, the Lacefields have chosen to share this natural wonder. Their land is open to the public, seven days a week, no charge. I asked the couple why they share this haven with others. “Land should not be hoarded by fortunate people who happen to own it,” Faye says. “This is our contribution to the community.” Their goals are for the land to be used for education and recreation, far different goals than many forest landowners, whose primary use is often for timber. Jim says that they are “modeling an alternative to the materialistic view” of land usage. The Lacefields have ensured the land’s permanent protection by signing a conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy of Alabama.

This generous philosophy unlocks an area of incredible Alabama wilderness. The diversity of the Preserve is astounding: 60-foot waterfalls, wetlands, sparkling streams rushing through boulder-strewn notches, sunny glades, sheer canyon walls and towering cliffs overlooking seas of hardwood forests. The canyon itself is steep and deep, in some places as much as 350 feet from the rim to the clear blue-green waters of Cane Creek.

Jim says that the Preserve hosts a large variety of wildflowers, plants and ferns, including the rare French’s Shooting Star, a wildflower that grows only beneath sandstone overhangs and whose only known Alabama population is in the canyon. Even on our visit on a cold December day the lushness of the canyon is evident and we find ourselves hiking through thick patches of mosses, woodland ferns, Allegheny spurge and foamflowers. Beginning in March and through early summer, mountain laurel, trout lily, lady’s slippers, yellow-fringed orchids and other wildflowers bloom and carpet the canyon.

Jim takes us back into a narrow box canyon called Devil’s Hollow that features a huge amphitheater-sized half-circle rock shelter named Yellowwood Falls. It is beautiful. Cold water showers off the sandstone rim above, splashing into a tiny crystalline pool that is ringed with verdant moss and ferns. Research indicates that these rock shelters were occupied more than 10,000 years ago by Paleo-Indian hunters and it’s easy to see why they would have chosen to stay in this magical spot.

A quarter mile or so further the canyon dead ends at Karen’s Falls, yet another picturesque cascade. The water plunges thirty feet, splashing against a thin shelf and falls another ten feet into a narrow rocky stream.

Jim takes us down another trail and we stop in front of a large sandstone outcropping where he relates a very convincing story about sighting a mountain lion atop the boulder two years ago. Given the rugged isolation of the canyon we have no reason to doubt him. Deer abound here and bald eagles have been sighted.

Eleven miles of trails provide access to even the most remote areas of the Preserve. Many of the trails are former logging roads; some are narrow paths that Jim and Faye blazed, so your choices range from easy to moderate to strenuous. Although the terrain is steep and some trails are challenging in places, many of the logging trails have bridges and are relatively flat providing easy access for the elderly and disabled. The trail network allows you take a short jaunt or stitch together day-long multi-mile treks into the deep recesses of the canyon. Thankfully, the trails are clearly marked so it’s easy to find your way. There are several primitive camping sites and a picnic area with a covered day shelter.

Either way, a short jaunt into the woods or an overnight backpack, Cane Creek Canyon is a wonderful taste of one of Alabama’s most unique and unknown natural areas.

Directions to Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve:  From. U.S. 72 in Tuscumbia: At the Colbert County Farmers' Co-Op, turn south onto the access road and go down the hill to Frankfort Road. Turn left, go 7.25 miles. After passing Piney Grove Church of Christ on the right, go ¼ mile and turn right on Loop Road (Colbert 41). Go one-tenth of a mile and veer left onto a gravel road. Follow the gravel road past the chicken houses to the Lacefields' Spanish-style house.  The preserve is open daily, sunrise to sunset.  For details, call 256-381-6301
(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

Bartram Canoe Trail

I’m well into my second day of exploring the wilderness of Alabama’s delta country and I’ve not heard one automobile, seen one condo, or caught so much as a whiff of exhaust fumes. Although I have run into a handful of fellow canoeists paddling along the meandering watery paths of the Bartram Canoe Trail, the feeling of isolation and wildness is overwhelming. I never imagined that in this age of sprawling subdivisions and pervasive second homes there was such a large chunk of Alabama land that still remains natural and untouched.

The Bartram Canoe Trail is actually a network of multiple sinuous passageways that snake through the 250,000 acre Mobile-Tensaw delta, a huge area of swampy bayous and bottomland full of towering cypress and tupelo trees garlanded with wispy necklaces of Spanish moss. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has developed twelve trails that offer a wide variety of human-powered boating trips. Six of the trails accommodate short 4-8 hour day trips. Six more offer longer overnight trips of up to 3 days.

Hiking through the tangled undergrowth of the delta would be a miserable experience so paddling the open waterways weaving through the delta’s heart is about the only way to explore the area. Canoeing or kayaking through this labyrinth is not as daunting as it may sound. A slight current moves the dark, tea-colored water through mazes of flaring 70-foot high cypress trees, thick fields of skillet-sized lilypads, and head-high palmetto and sawgrass. The paddling is leisurely, much of the time you are cocooned by a cathedral-like ceiling of arching trees, and the trails maps are easy to follow so no worries about getting lost and starving deep in the bowels of the delta.

While the day trips are an excellent way to get a taste of the Mobile-Tensaw, an overnight trip really gives you time to immerse yourself in the beauty of the area and slow your body clock down. For overnight trekkers, campsites are strategically placed along the trails. Given the wet and swampy nature of the land, these designated sites are the only dry options for campers so be sure to time your paddling to make it to your designated stop before dark. Some of the campsites are land-based but the best campsites are covered, raised platforms that accommodate up to six persons and are anchored along the trails.

To literally get your feet wet on the Bartram Canoe Trail, try your hand a Dead Lake Island Trail, the shortest of the overnight trails. It is only 3.5 miles from the launch point to the platform where you will spend the night, allowing plenty of time for exploration. It takes about three hours of easy boating—with frequent stops to gawk at beavers, mink and other critters scampering through the snarl of vegetation along the trail—to reach the platform. Set up your tent before paddling out into the surrounding sloughs and swamps to check out the hordes of herons, bitterns, egrets and other birds that can be seen wading through the shallows for their supper. Enjoy a pleasant evening meal back at the platform and watch the sunset over the trees Camping on one of these raised structures is a unique experience. Take a balmy night, a black sky milky with a gazillion stars, a full moon silhouetting spooky cypress and tupelo trees, boisterous frogs croaking and splashing in the shadows, and maybe an alligator or two lurking just out of sight. In the middle of all this is your tiny, ten-by-twenty-foot piece of dry refuge--a lonely outpost in the vastness of wild Alabama. Your morning alarm clock will likely be the squawking of wading birds near your platform. The second day will find you backtracking to your original launch point. This trail snakes through one of the heavier utilized areas of the delta so you may so you may encounter some motorized boat traffic but it’s still a pleasant trek.

The best times to go are spring or fall (only fools and Yankees dare spend a summer night in the heat and mosquitoes of the southern delta). Spring is my favorite time to go--the lilypads are alive with bright yellow and white flowers, the birds are nesting and the gators haul out to sun themselves on muddy banks, trying to stir from their winter torpor. Come to think of it, the Bartram Canoe Trail is a good way for humans to shake off winter.

Details: The trails are accessible from various put-in points around the town of Stockton, Alabama, which is north of Bay Minette on Highway 59. Information on the trail is available online at http://www.outdooralabama.com/. Aside from the occasional alligator (which inhibits any urges you may have to swim or wade), watch for poisonous snakes and the usual stinging and biting insects.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)