Last week, I climbed up the last few steps to the very headwaters of Bee Branch in the Sipsey Wilderness Area. It had been drizzling cold, refreshing rain all morning. I was soaked to the skin, but happy. Surrounding me was a stretch of old-growth forest at the bottom of a canyon that is nothing less than magical. Ancient beech trees, gnarled, huge oaks, and tall, straight tulip poplars dominated the area, but were mixed in with truly strange Canadian hemlocks (relict from the last Ice Age.) Now, you Canadians and Northerners may not think this is at all strange, but consider that the place I’m speaking of is in Alabama, and the only reason Canadian hemlocks are here is that they are relics of when this part of the country was a boreal forest. Ahead of me was a large, mist-filled grotto perhaps 100 yards wide. It terminated in a perfect half-bowl of rock maybe 200 feet high. Gushing over the cliff were two separate waterfalls that splashed into a single pool at the bottom. This pool had a single outlet, and there began Bee Branch, way up in the wilderness, which flows into the Sipsey River, which flows into the Black Warrior River, which flows into the Tombigbee River, which joins up with the Alabama River just north of Mobile. Anyway, standing beside the pool way up in the headwaters is the great grand-daddy, the tree simply known as Big Tree. It’s a giant example of a tulip poplar, soaring out of the canyon, and standing like a massive guardian in the center of the grotto. It’s not nearly as big (~200 feet,) as big around (it would take 8-10 people to “hug” it,) or as old (somewhat greater than 500 years) as the redwoods or the bristlecone pines, but it was still gorgeous, with the top lost in the mist and the rain, and the bottom of the canyon covered with dripping ferns and brand-new, ready-to-burst trilliums.
Last summer, during a 100-plus degree day, a friend of mine and I went on a day hike to Conecuh National Forest in southern Alabama. We were hoofing along a path through the typical longleaf pine, sandy forest that predominates down there, intent on making our 16 miles for the day. We’d climb up and crest a hill covered with yucca and stunted oaks, then plunge down into the bottoms with the massive, buttressed water tupelo and pitcher plants. We suddenly happened upon a treasure. We saw the reflection of water through the trees, and soon we stood in the middle of a clearing, with a large, water-filled sinkhole in the middle. The sandy banks sloped gradually down, and there were giant cypresses standing around its edges. The knees reached up 2-3 feet, and Spanish moss was festooned from every branch. We could hear the coughing of alligators, and sneaking up to the edge of the pond, we could see a large population of them had taken up residence there. We delightedly sat down for lunch, and ate while a sudden downpour cooled us off.
Also last summer, the same friend and I went to the Great Smoky Mountains to do some hiking. We were in for some climbing, we knew. We ended up hiking along a high, hemlock-covered ridge, then plunging 2000 feet to the bottom of the mountain, then climbing another 1500 feet to the top of Chimney Tops, a mountain with a spectacular 360 degree view of the rest of the park, and a 50 foot near-vertical climb at the top to get to the vantage point. We sat there, drinking in the sight, when she looked down and pointed out that we were sitting above a kettle of hawks, maybe 20-30 of them, joyfully wheeling in an updraft.
A few years ago, I was SCUBA diving with my brother at St. Andrew’s, near Panama City, Florida. We had just gotten out past the surf, and we dove to 20 or 30 feet to see what was on the bottom. The water cleared up nicely, and I was able to see for quite some distance. I was poking around, avoiding sea urchins, when I felt a tug on my fin. I looked around. It was my brother, motioning me to follow him. He led me to a large, flat rock on the bottom. Giving me the signal to watch him, he took out his dive knife, and gently inserted the tip into the opening under the rock. Suddenly, a gray tentacle lashed out and wrapped around the blade and his wrist. It scared the bejeezus out of me, but I could tell that my brother was smiling. He tugged ever so gently (no need to hurt the critter, after all,) and pulled out an octopus with tentacles about a foot long. The octopus scooted up his arm and rode there for the next few minutes, looking for all the world like a hitch-hiker. It finally let go after it got bored. It still fills me with awe (and makes me chuckle) to think about that.