Where not to pitch a tent...

The lovely Sipsey River

Randall rests on a rock

Cardinal Flower

Rock Garden

Thompson Creek / Sipsey River Trails:
September 23-24, 2006

Sipsey Wilderness Area, AL
Distance: 5 miles
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Lots of things can go wrong on your first try. While this trip was neither the first camping outing for either myself or my friend Randall, our lack of knowledge of the area and failure to heed to mother nature could have taught us a rougher lesson than it did. We ambitiously set out to find the famed Big Tree, though it would be several years later before either of us had the pleasure of laying eyes on it. We came relatively close, though, and what we did find formed a bond between us and the land that has only grown with time.

It was a three hour drive from Starkville, MS to the Sipsey Wilderness, and we set out early on a Saturday morning. Despite being a little late for hot weather, the thermometer crept up into the middle 80s, which made for a very humid midday start on the trail. Starting at the Thompson Creek trailhead, wed planned on hiking to the Eye of the Needle, and then hopping down and up Bee Branch to see the Big Tree before the day was out. Coreopsis and other wildflowers were growing beside the bridge that crossed a nearly bone dry Thompson Creek. I had extra water bottles in the car, and I wish I had taken them. Neither of us had a water filter, and only brought what we think we would need. We set out down the trail, heavy on either side with underbrush, and quickly came to small creek wed later learn was White Oak Hollow. Continuing on, we remarked at how hot it was, and both of us thought wed gone much further than we had. Thompson creek suddenly had water, undoubtedly fed from springs we couldnt see on the other side, as wed seen no running water at all on our side.

I took note of what looked like a large bluff shelter, and a really cool Oak tree, so we ventured off trail and explored it and a large rock that had fallen away from the face itself. There were a lot of interesting ferns growing here, and weird rounded out sections that appeared to go deep back into the rock itself. We knew caves were in the area, but these were way too small to be openings. Back on the trail, we headed uphill that put us close to the bluff again, this time in front of a dry waterfall. The trail found its way back down by Thompson Creek after a little while, the bluffs on either side towered, or what we could see of them. A slight breeze at times did make the trip seem more bearable at times, though it worried me a little. I was well aware of the potential for thunderstorms later in the day, and chose to hedge my bets and go on with the trip anyway.

Rounding the bend, and we could see Hubbard Creek joining in, thus beginning the Sipsey River. Soon we were in the rock garden the sits below Eye of the Needle, though we couldnt spot it at first. We spent some time exploring the small rock rooms formed by rocks falling against other rocks, and then wandered down to a low lying area close to the creek, which was at least running at this stage, though really low. We set up the tent and lounged for a little while, snapping photos and eating a late lunch. I took a few photos of some rock cairns further down the creek. The creek was low here, with a long shallow spot that was good for crossing, which is what we figured it alerting people too. Taking a water bottle each, we set out downstream, looking to get to the Big Tree and back before dark. After less than a mile downstream, we heard what would set the tone for the rest of the evening: thunder. I fought for us to push ahead, though I had no clear idea of how far wed gone at neither this stage nor how far we lacked getting to the big tree. Neither of us had flashlights as well. We eventually turned back, hearing more and more thunder. I found what I thought was a hilarious large boulder shaped like a nose in the middle of the creek, and snapped a photo of it, and also of some high cirrus clouds present in the canopy breaks over the river.

What occurred next still could have seriously altered the rest of the trip. About five steps ahead I heard Randall should Whoa! [and some other things], and quickly step to the side. I approached, still not seeing what he was looking at, but after finally seeing it move, was both in shock and in awe at how well camouflaged this Copperhead was against the leaves and how dangerous and seriously this would have been if either of us had been struck. Neither of us knew where the closest medical center was. The photo I have of the snake hidden in the leaves continues to baffle and astonish people. After we were sure both the snake and us were out of each others way, we continued back to camp, the thunder getting louder. I wandered up to the bluff and saw one of the coolest things Id ever seen, the Eye of the Needle, a hole in the long thing outcropped of rock. It was like opening the door to a new world, though wed passed by this area on the other side unknowingly. This would be a shortcut wed utilize on the way out, saving us some travel time. I spent the next little while rock hopping in the creek, taking photos of Cardinal flower, and then getting disgusted at finding a fire ring within feet of the river with old batteries tossed in. A fog seemed to roll in on the river, evidence as to just how humid this technically fall day was. After photographing the rock with a strange square in it in the middle of the creek, [which we knew had to have been some kind of support structure, I started helping gather firewood, though the wind was picking up a bit now. I tried to use my weather radio, but got no reception at all in the canyon. I wandered back to camp and munched on a MRE Id picked up in Starkville before we headed out. Bulky to pack, but the meal much needed calories.

About the time we started to get a fire going, the rain began. As the evening wore on, it became jet black outside. Without our headlamps on, you could see nothing unless until the lightning flashes. We had been smart enough to bring a ground tarp with us, which we used, although the tent itself had a tarp built into the bottom of it. What we didnt realize is that where situated the tent was an in an area that acted a funnel for runoff that quickly began backing up against the tent several inches deep, seeping through the seams I hadnt yet sealed on the tent. After much plugging with tissue hoping it would stem the flow, I made the decision to get out of the tent and try something with the trap. Shoeless and with a cheap plastic poncho on, I got out of the tent to near ankle deep water, managed to get the tarp out from under the tent and spread it out along the backside so it canvassed the entire backside of the tent and most of the top, and got back in. It worked! We watched the lightning work its wonders, no idea of how intense the storms were and eventually fell asleep. Later we found out the line of storms had dropped a tornado in the southern part of the county we were in.

The next morning we were up and about early. The water was a good bit higher than the night before, and after examining the area we camped in some more, was thankful we didnt have a flash flood during the night. Had the water been two feet deeper, our tent would have been sitting in fast moving water. Speaking of water, wed both run out of water, and no way to get good fresh water without a filter. I opted for putting my spare shirt over the water bottle and straining at least the mud and big particles from the rain fueled river versus going thirsty on what would be a hot, long hike out I was sure of. After some prodding, Randall did the same. This was a rare time Ive ever drank water unfiltered in the wilderness before. The risk of getting some virus from the water was worth it versus becoming dehydrated in an unfamiliar landscape. After eating some biscuits leftover from yesterday, we broke camp before much light had fallen, and Randall spotted a deer high on the hillside, which I managed one grainy photo of. Passing the old dry side creek that now had water, we found a small garter snake. We made good time back to the trailhead, and after marveling at what a different scene the creek was from not a day ago, we backed up and headed back home.