March 29, 2008
I love winter backpacking! In the mountains here in the southeast, the views can be great, the insects non-existent, and the days can be mild. I've hiked some great trails in the winter including the Alabama section of the Pinhoti Trail and South Carolina's Foothills Trails. In January 2005, I assembled a group of friends, and we headed south from Tennessee for a different kind of hiking experience - Florida Trail style! We walked about 45 miles over three days in Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola, Florida. During that trip, I kept hearing about the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, and what a great place it is for hiking. It took me three years, but I finally got down there to experience it first hand. Simply put, it is one of the best places that I've ever backpacked!
The Florida Trail is designated as a National Scenic Trail. With this being the 40th anniversary of the National Trails System Act of 1968, and the 25th anniversary of the Florida Trail's designation as a National Scenic Trail, I couldn't think of a better way of celebrating than hiking part of this great trail. Joining me on this trip were my good friends Mark Stanfill and Sue "Hammock Hanger" Turner. Mark manages the Tennessee Youth Conservation Corps, and Sue is Chair of the Florida Trail Association's Long Distance Hikers committee.
Mark and I headed down to Florida on Sunday January 20th. We drove down to Ecofina State Park where I had booked a room. After dropping off our gear, we made the 20 minute drive over to the town of St. Marks to eat dinner and watch my NY Giants beat the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game.
The next morning we rendezvoused with Hammock Hanger, and by mid afternoon we found ourselves at the trailhead ready to begin our hike. Our plan was to start our hike in the Apalachicola National Forest at the western boundary of the Bradwell Bay Wilderness. Bradwell Bay is a unique area that is often inundated by water, causing hikers to slog their way through Cypress Swamp. Unfortunately the area was dry, so we didn't get to experience this incredible ecosystem in all it's glory. March is a much more reliable month for water.
We made our way through the Wilderness area, and only managed to get lost briefly. It is clearly an easy place to get turned around. A quick map and compass check got us back on track, and we soon emerged out of the Wilderness area into forest dominated by Longleaf Pine. As night began to fall, Mark & I setup our tents in an established campsite just off the trail - and a few hundred yards from a water source. Sue strung her hammock, and we had a pleasant night under the stars.
Our plan for today was to get across the Apalachicola National Forest and into the refuge. The Forest Service had plans for a controlled burn, and we didn't want to find ourselves caught in the smoke and flames. During the morning, the trail followed the Sopchoppy River for a number of miles. The Sopchoppy is a beautiful blackwater river lined by oaks and cypress. The sandy trail was so pleasant in the morning, at one point I took off my trail runners and walked about 3 miles barefoot. It was great!
Barefoot on the Florida Trail
Photo by Sue Turner
The only downside of the day is that we miscalculated water availability, and after we left the Sopchoppy, we didn't see another water source the rest of the day. By the time we reached camp - about two miles from US 319, we were all out of water - even though some occasionally fell from the sky. It was a dry dinner and night.
Our challenge when we awoke was clear. Find water! We broke camp quickly and walked briskly through the chilly morning air. We soon reached US 319, and decided to walk up the road until we found a store or a spigot. Thankfully, we didn't have to walk far. About a quarter mile up the trail, we found a seafood shack - Nichols & Sons - nestled under some stately Live Oaks. The place had both a spigot and a soda machine. Pay dirt! We dropped our packs and filled our bottles and our bodies with water and soda. It was just what we needed.
As we reentered the forest, we found ourselves in the wildlife refuge for the first time. Sue's knee seemed to be acting up, so we took a number of breaks and enjoyed the area. The sandy trail was great for tracks, and we saw all kinds of evidence of wildlife. I spotted the first of what would later prove to be many sets of Bobcat tracks in the sand. What was especially cool about the Bobcat tracks is that it rained last night into the early morning, and these prints were made after the rain stopped, making them only a few hours old! We also came across the carcass of an armadillo, and passed many Live Oaks covered in Resurrection Fern.
As the day grew on, we entered an area bordered by salt marsh. We were close to the Gulf of Mexico! Unfortunately, Sue's knee seemed to grow crankier with each passing mile, and soon it became clear that she was in some serious pain. This would be her last day on the trail with us. Sadly, she would have to get off the trail and rest her knee.
We ended up at a road crossing, and walked a couple of miles to the small fishing village of Spring Creek. There, Hammock Hanger found someone to take her to her car while Mark and I waited outside the Spring Creek Restaurant. When Sue returned about an hour later, she bought Mark and I a sumptuous seafood dinner. I had mullet, a local favorite, and it was fresh and tasty! Afterwards, we decided to get a hotel room for the night in nearby Panacea, Florida.
After checking into a motel that had definitely seen it's better days, we all decided to sleep on top of the bed spreads in our sleeping bags. I fell sound asleep after a shower, and soon Sue was waking us up. Time to go! It was 5 AM, or so we thought. We dressed, threw together our gear, and headed out into the inky blackness. I drove Sue's car to the nearby breakfast nook, and when we got there, it was closed up and dark. I looked at the clock on Sue's dashboard, and asked her why it said 1 AM. We quickly realized that Sue had set the stopwatch on her wrist watch for 5 hours instead of setting the alarm for 5 AM. We had gotten up 4 hours too early! We howled with laughter and went back to the room to snag another 4 hours of sleep.
In the morning, Sue dropped us off where we left off, and Mark and I headed up the trail while Sue drove back to her home. It was sad to lose her as a partner. Not only is she good company, but she knows the trail well.
A couple of miles into the hike, we had a really cool wildlife sighting. A River Otter was smack dab in the middle of the trail in a pine forest - with no water anywhere within sight! We watched the otter for a few minutes until it walked off into the underbrush. Very cool!
The day was fairly uneventful, but we did pass a really cool spring, and finally cut our day short when we arrived at the Wakulla Field Campsite. Camping in the refuge is only permitted in designated campgrounds (permit required), so that dictated our mileage for the day. As dusk fell, we had a small herd of wild hogs walk into our camp.
Without question, this was our longest (20+ miles) and best day of the hike. In fact, it was one of the best days I have ever spent backpacking! The morning was quite chilly, and required us to walk for several miles along US 98. As we neared the road crossing, I found what I initially thought was trash on the trail, but it turned out to be a note from Hammock Hanger wishing us well. She's such a sweetie! Once on the road, we crossed the Wakulla River and refilled our water bottles at the spigot of the local canoe outfitter.
A few miles later, we were on a paved greenway walking steadily towards the village of St. Marks. We were on a collision course for lunch, so we stopped at the Riverside Cafe for a cold beer and a grouper sandwich. It was great! While we ate, we watched pelicans, gulls, herons, and a wide assortment of shore birds fly up and down the St. Marks River.
After lunch, our challenge was to get across the St. Marks River. That required hailing down a boater and asking for a lift. Thankfully, it took less than 5 minutes, and we were soon on the other side and hiking along a beautiful trail.
The boater who took us across the river
At one point we passed an alligator nest from the previous year. You could see the shell fragments mixed in with the grass of the nest! That's a first for me while hiking!
As the day wore on, the hike got better and better. We saw alligators basking in the sun, Bald Eagle, Osprey, endangered Wood Storks, dozens of Belted Kingfishers, and too many wading birds to count! Virtually every kind of heron you can find in Florida, we saw. The trail in this part of the refuge travels along levees making wildlife viewing really easy.
Otter tracks along the trail
At the end of the day, we camped at perhaps the prettiest campsite I have ever had the pleasure of staying at. Ring Levee Campsite is surrounded by water, palms, and salt marsh. It is indescribably beautiful. I'll let the photos speak for themselves.
Campsite at Ring Levee
View from my tent at Ring Levee Campsite
Getaway day was finally here. We had about 11 miles to go to reach our car, so we walked briskly all morning. It was a fairly uneventful day on the trail. We saw some wild hogs and beautiful forest, but we were focused on finishing up and driving back to Tennessee.
We reached the car around lunchtime, and Mark kindly drove me to Panacea where I spent about $50 on fresh seafood to bring home. We feasted for three days on all that Apalachicola Bay goodness that I brought home.
In conclusion, I couldn't recommend the Florida Trail in St Marks National Wildlife Refuge any more highly. I saw more than 70 species of birds during the trip and all kinds of wildlife sign. In fact, I can't ever recall seeing more tracks, scat, and evidence of wildlife along a trail.
When it was all said and done, we walked a total of about 70 miles, give or take. I'm definitely looking forward to hiking it again. You'll need a permit to camp in the refuge, and I would suggest a winter hike to avoid the bugs. I guarantee that you won't be disappointed! The area lends itself well to some great day hikes. Especially out on the levees near the waterfowl impoundments. That's where we saw gators and incredible bird life. Checkout the Florida Trail Association's website for more information! There you can purchase maps and guidebooks for the trail.
Posted by Jeffrey Hunter at 06:25 PM | Comments (2)
March 26, 2008
An editorial appears today's Chattanooga Times entitled "The Rock-Harvesting Travesty." As many of you are probably aware, the Cumberland Trail has been threatened by rock harvesting. American Hiking Society applauds this editorial, and encourages Tennesseans to contact your elected officials regarding this serious conservation issue.
The Rock-Harvesting Travesty
A Chattanooga Times Editorial
Anyone who has traveled around the Sequatchie Valley or the Cumberland Plateau the past few years has seen ample evidence of the soaring regional and national demand for Tennessee's mountain stone. Hundreds of sites offer stack after stack of mountain stone, often along with small boulders weighing a ton or more that are used for landscaping. What motorists and buyers don't see is the despoliation of huge chunks of East Tennessee land cleared of trees and churned by bulldozers to get the stones. But that's just half the problem.
The other half is this: So-called rock miners take much of their mountain stone from property considered in all other ways to be the private property of East Tennessee's homeowners, farmers, foresters and commercial enterprises. If property owners do not own the mineral rights to their land ‹ and many don't, owing to this region's earlier history of poor rural landowners selling their mineral rights to dealers for coal companies ‹ their very land may be vulnerable, under a quirk in Tennessee law, to rock harvesting and rock mining operations.
In that event, rock harvesters with mineral rights claims often just drive onto the otherwise private property, set up an operating shed, and start systematically destroying the stunned property owner's yards, fields and forests to get at the fieldstone, mountain stone, limestone and slate.
Even the state of was unable to protect a portion of the Cumberland Trail, painstakingly built to serve the public, from a destructive rock-harvesting operation that laid waste to the trail.
This is a travesty that should not be allowed. The law should be fixed to disallow dimension stone, the trade name for mountain stone, field stone, slate and sandstone from inclusion under mineral rights.
The dispute over rock harvesting, and whether field rocks and mountain stone legally qualify under mineral rights claims, is a growing problem.
In Sequatchie County, a third of property owners do not own their mineral rights. On Fredonia Mountain, on the Cumberland Plateau above Dunlap, 90 percent of land owners do not own the mineral rights to their land. In Hamilton County, about 10 percent don¹t own those rights. Most of the these landowners, however, are understandably surprised that a glitch in the law allows rock-robbers to legitimate their work under mineral rights.
The results are disastrous.
The state¹s mining law excludes "dimension stone" from the definition of mineral rights. Tennessee's Department of Revenue, however, directs the state to collect a $15-a ton severance tax on extractions of stone. That revenue-grabbing clause is arguably used to qualify dimension stone as a mineral or ore subject to traditional mineral rights and extraction fees.
That rightly makes landowners wonder precisely what they do own when rock harvesters show up. It's also led to a slew of lawsuits and appeals to the Legislature to clarify the conflicting laws defining mineral rights and the absence of regulatory processes on stone harvesting. That conflict should be resolved in favor of stricter regulation that clearly removes dimension stone from mineral rights.
A bill scheduled for a hearing today in the House Committee on Conservation and the Environment, the Tennessee Non-Coal Surface Mining Law
(HB4198 and SB4198), does not go far enough. Lobbyists for the stone industry apparently helped shape it. It should be rewritten to protect ordinary citizens from faulty interpretation of mineral rights.
All this bill does is make harvesting stone subject to registration and permitting fees, and to water quality, reclamation, surety bond and penalty fee requirements. That's not good enough. If lawmakers doubt that, they should visit the wrecked property of private landowners after a rock-robbing operation.
The bill's supposed protections precluding harvesting operations that would pose a hazard to homes, public buildings, schools, churches, cemeteries, designated scenic areas, public roads, streams, lakes, reservoirs, water wells, or other private or public property are more cosmetic than remedial. Tennesseans deserve better.
Posted by Jeffrey Hunter at 04:03 PM | Comments (0)
March 25, 2008
Today, NPR Morning Edition covered the Pinhoti Trail dedication, and addressed the issue of connecting the Pinhoti to the Appalachian Trail. You can listen to the 3 minute, 57 second piece at the following link.
The transcript from the story is below. Enjoy!
Morning Edition, March 25, 2008 · If tourism officials in Alabama had their way, the southern end of the Appalachian Trail would be in their state. Their hopes are bound up in a natural path that connects the famous trail where it now officially ends in Georgia to the Appalachian Mountains in Alabama.
The conservationist Benton MacKaye in 1921 envisioned the Appalachian Trail as a refuge from the urban environs of the East Coast. Now, the Alabama Pinhoti trail meanders 115 miles to the Georgia border — ultimately to Springer Mountain, the original southern endpoint of the AT in Georgia.
Tom Cosby of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce says the original northern endpoint was in New Hampshire, but it was officially extended. The same, he says, could happen in Alabama.
Cosby says state officials haven't officially asked for the trail to be extended into Alabama, but they hope it will become sort of a de facto end and eventually be recognized.
Georgia officials at a state park near Springer Mountain say they have no position on the Alabama plan — which could siphon hikers and tourist dollars away. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has not taken an official stand, either, but Executive Director David Startzell says such a move would require an act of Congress.
"It would have to be an amendment to the National Trails System Act, which provides a fairly general description of the route of the trail, but it's detailed enough that clearly an extension into Alabama wouldn't fit the current definition," Startzell says.
The National Trails System Act of 1968 places the endpoints at Mount Katahdin, Maine, and Springer Mountain, so the wording would have to be changed. Regardless, the Alabama Pinhoti is there for the hiking. No matter what it's called, it is an uninterrupted path all the way to Maine.
Steve Chiotakis reports from member station WBHM in Birmingham.
Posted by Jeffrey Hunter at 08:39 AM | Comments (0)
March 23, 2008
Recently several Staff members at American Hiking Society were contacted by a reporter from Forbes who asked us about some of our favorite day hikes. I spoke with the reporter for quite a while, and I rattled off some of my favorites around the U.S. including climbing Mt. Katahdin in Maine, and Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, Florida. The result of this chat, and the reporter's discussion with a host of other hikers appears is an online article.
Here is an excerpt from the piece;
In one memorable exchange on "Sex and the City," an ex-boyfriend tries to coax the entrenched urbanite and inveterate indoorswoman Carrie Bradshaw into accompanying him on a hike. "I don't really hike," she says. His reply? "Neither do I. But I will fill you in on something I discovered. Hiking is walking."
Well, yes and no. For many city-dwellers, a stroll through a nearby park will do just fine. But for those who have discovered the well-earned pleasures of climbing mountains, crossing rivers, traversing canyons, hopping boulders and dodging bears, en route to a particularly spectacular view or awe-inspiring natural wonder, hiking counts as a sacred pastime. And the journey is every bit as important as the destination.
Posted by Jeffrey Hunter at 09:07 AM | Comments (2)
Plaque Installed at Last Weeks Trail Dedication
Photo provided by Alabama Hiking Trail Society
The year 1925 was a historic time for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts in this country. An article written by a U.S. Forest Service employee, "An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning," was put into action. Benton MacKaye's vision was for a footpath that would travel the ridgelines of the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine, with an eventual extension into Alabama where the mighty mountains end.
Last Sunday, that dream was completed. More than 200 volunteers and elected officials gathered on a mountaintop in the Talladega National Forest to dedicate a bronze marker that commemorates the connection of Alabama and its Pinhoti Trail to the world-famous Appalachian Trail.
I was honored to be asked to present awards of recognition to those gathered who made the event possible; it was a humbling experience. As a kid growing up in New Jersey, the Appalachian Trail was just a stone's throw from my house. I was in awe of the many people who had made that world-famous trail possible. And here I was, standing with others who had just accomplished another part of this dream.
As the celebration continued, the media approached me with questions that made me pause: Will veteran hikers scoff at the extension and see it as a route not viable? Will the Pinhoti Trail lose its identity and eventually be sucked into the Appalachian Trail? How can you say the link to the Appalachian Trail is complete when there are road walks in the Georgia section? What can a footpath in the woods do for Alabama? And the one that took me aback — What's the big deal?
Just like any hobby or sport, there are purists. The Appalachian Trail runs from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mount Katahdin, Maine, and that's that. And honestly, that's what it will always be. No matter how many trails connect to the Appalachian Trail, that 2,000-mile long footpath will always be the Appalachian Trail.
Benton MacKaye's vision was for an "extension" into Alabama. This connection of the Pinhoti Trail to the Appalachian Trail facilitates MacKaye's plan. If through-hikers want to hike the complete length of the Appalachian range, they need to come to Alabama to do it. If they want the traditional Appalachian Trail experience, then they can start at Springer Mountain. The only thing that has changed is the option of where the hiker can start the trip.
I have heard the argument for years about the Pinhoti losing its identity. It usually comes from dedicated and well-meaning volunteers who sweat and toil to maintain the trail for all to enjoy. They believe that once the Pinhoti was connected to the Appalachian Trail, the Pinhoti would disappear forever; it would become the Appalachian Trail; it would lose its name. There could be nothing further from the truth.
Many trails connect to the Appalachian Trail — the Benton MacKaye, the Victoria, the Grafton Loop, to name only a few. These trails were all built for one reason or another; each is special in its own right. Perhaps there were spectacular views or maybe towering waterfalls. Whatever the reason for building those trails, they will always be there. Those trails maintain their name and what makes them special. That will never be taken away.
Road walks are another issue of which I've heard about, not only during the celebration this past weekend but also as I traveled the state promoting hiking and backpacking for the Alabama Hiking Trail Society. Some say that if a trail heads out of the woods and takes to the road for a distance, then it isn't complete and isn't a real trail. Again, these comments are from well-meaning people, but they are slightly misinformed.
The most famous long paths in the country include some road walks. The Appalachian Trail has some road walks. The Florida Trail from Key West to Pensacola has road walks. Unfortunately, with massive urban sprawl this is just a fact of life for long paths. We'd all love to see these trails be a complete walk in the woods, but that can never happen.
Yes, the Georgia section of the Pinhoti has road walks, but does that mean it's not a real trail and not really connected to the Appalachian Trail? If that's the case, then the Appalachian Trail doesn't really exist, either. I don't think the millions of people who have hiked the Appalachian Trail would agree.
There also is the question of what impact the trail and this connection will have on the state and the region. Dr. Doug Phillips, the host of Alabama Public Television's "Discovering Alabama", says that Alabama is the most biologically diverse area in the country. By far, the best way to see the wonders the state has to offer is on foot along one of its many footpaths, including the Pinhoti.
Tourism already is the second-largest industry in the state . This connection, combined with other ecotourism attractions such as the Bartram Canoe Trail in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and the statewide birding trail, means that Alabama is poised to take advantage of the booming ecotourism industry. In Florida, for example, ecotourism dollars rose from $1.5 billion in 2001 to $3 billion in 2006. By being ecologically responsible, Alabama can enjoy these tourism dollars and still maintain its ecological richness.
All of those questions were easy, but that last one threw me back. What's the big deal? It's a huge deal.
Yes, there will be an economic impact on the state, but it goes way beyond money. The connection provides not only an extension of the Appalachian Trail for long-distance hikers, but also the continuation of an Eastern seaboard greenway where wildlife is free to roam as it did not so long ago. Most important, the connection provides a myriad of opportunities for families to take to the woods for short day hikes and loop trips, where they can explore and create memories that will last a lifetime.
To the many elected officials who put the pieces together to create the Pinhoti Trail and the hundreds of volunteers who have built and maintained the Pinhoti Trail — starting with the Youth Conservation Corps to today's trail clubs — you have truly made history and have given Alabama a remarkable gift. Thank you.
Joe Cuhaj, vice president of publicity for the Alabama Hiking Trail Society, is the author of Hiking Alabama, Paddling Alabama, and Baseball in Mobile.
Posted by Jeffrey Hunter at 08:29 AM | Comments (0)
March 15, 2008
Andy Grizzell, Susan Baxley, and their dog Corley
This week, Susan Baxley, Andy Grizzell, and their 2 year old dog Corley will set out from Springer Mountain, Georgia and attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.
Some months ago, Susan contacted me and inquired about using her hike to raise awareness about and funds for the Great Eastern Trail. I connected them with the Great Eastern Trail Association's President, Tom Johnson, and it has come together as a fundraiser!
Please take a moment to visit Susan & Andy's blog. There, you can follow along on their journey, or make a donation to help support the development of the Great Eastern Trail.
In the meanwhile, here at American Hiking Society we wish Susan, Andy and Corley a safe journey! Have a great hike guys!
Posted by Jeffrey Hunter at 08:53 AM | Comments (0)
The Outdoor Alliance recently produced a video to raise awareness about our nation's antiquated mining laws, and in particular, the Mining Act of 1872.
Please take a moment to view the video below. Afterwards, please take action to help reform the Mining Act of 1872, and bring this 19th century legislation into the 21st century!
Posted by Jeffrey Hunter at 08:23 AM | Comments (0)