Marbut Bend, TVA Lands, AL:
April 17, 2017
Marbut Bend Trail, unnamed trail
Distance: 1.5 miles
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There's not many trails in this area that I've yet to set foot on, and even rarer are those I've never heard of. The Marbut Bend Trail, part of TVA's sprawling series of public properties fits both those categories. On a weekend that both myself and the dog wonder were itching to get out on, I decided to make the 45 minute jaunt to the other side of Athens for a little exploration. Having seen plenty of photos online already and studied aerial maps, it seemed to cut through a nice section of swamp and also provide access for fishing along the Elk River. I wasn't quite expecting the stunning beauty of the swamp itself, or to find a great spot for a future trip to spend a few days on the water for free.
The turn into the parking area starts with a long service road that provides a great view of the swamp on the western side of the property. The initial part of the trail began as a gravel path, paralleling the road we'd just come in on, but offering a look out over fallow fields with a few birds too distant to distinguish. Passing the tree line that once formed an old wind break the swamp scene from earlier returned, with clumps of yellow water buttercup along the path and out into the fields. Among the brush, a large grove of cattails swung gently in the breeze on a very warm day. Reaching the boardwalk the buttercups became quite numerous and were almost a welcome mat of sorts into the swamp that seemed to go as far as one could see to the west, though the unnamed stream feeding the embayment on that side is eventually cutoff by Gray Ridge to the west. Passing more cattails, I stopped to photograph a red winged blackbird. Nearby, a series of interpretive signs talked about the environment, and also notated the site was part of the Alabama Birding Trail. As the trail swung right, it became bordered again by more fallow fields, though these fields are being quickly lost to flooding from the beaver dams. Long lines from where the animals and probably snakes have been traversing seemed to break up the thick algae and/or duckweed that dominated the waters here. I stopped to photograph horsetail or snake grass, waiting patiently for one of the dragonflies to land for a photo, though they never did. The trail made another sharp left, keeping the open field to the left, and we passed old bird roosting houses on former power poles. I also stopped to photograph a fallen nest from one of the poles, but with the water up, there wasn't any way to approach it or the pole for a proper photograph.
Briefly turning away from the water, the trail passed through a second windbreak of pine trees, many of which are dying now from the extreme wet conditions they're dealing with from the growing swamp. More duckweed and a variety of other aquatic plants thrived here in what was the most scenic section of the swamp at this point. Here, the trail bisected the swamp, and the distant greens of newly leafed deciduous trees provided a bit of stark contrast to the darkness of the swamp. Lulu seemed to be enjoying it, though she wanted off the boardwalk and out in the swamp exploring. I spotted a beaver den/house beyond the initial treeline, but with no sign of said beaver after some searching, we carried on. The sheer size of the dammed area began to become much more noticeable, as the water past another treeline well out in the swamp seemed to drop off a bit. That's when I realized the beavers had constructed a dam the entire length of that treeline, completely separating it from the unnamed stream that filled the embayment there. As we exited the swamp, more cattails awaited, and we were back briefly in a pine forest that had seen some kind of recent burn, before emerging back out into the fields. As we made our way down the gravel path, I stopped to photograph a cardinal, one of Robin's favorites, and also what looked like ground ivy with purple flowers and also some very early blackberry blooms as well.
When the trail split, we veered right on a less defined path, an old road bed that I'd read led out to the river. Old pipes and trash dumped from long ago was around, as well numerous springs that made for muddy crossings at times. Large frogs or toads, I'm unsure which, became spooked, jumping in the water and in turn spooked me, as the area is dead quiet. To our right, the springs seemed to weave in and out of a reasonably young canopy with a grassy meadow underneath, while the backwaters of the Elk River, and waist high yellow water buttercup filled the view on the left. The trail dead-ended at a large bend in the Elk River. To the right lay Gray Ridge, and a large enough open area ready made for a great camping spot awaited. Signs were in place to tell of rules and length of stay, but I've love to toss some wood on a fire here and take in the stars one weekend. Speaking of fire, the fire rings here were remarkably clean, much to my surprise. Against the treeline, an odd cluster of orange iris grew quite well, their blooms glowing like stars, and reminded me of those I had when I was a kid at my parent's house. Lulu insisted on finding a way down to the water, which looked deep right up to the edge for a good drink. Across the embayment I could see old steps leading down to the river, but I'm unsure if that's private land, or remnants on TVA property from decades ago.
As we made our way back to the main trail, I stopped for more photographs of the springs, and of the brilliant yellow of those buttercups. It wasn't far past this first junction of the other split in the trail to the last section of boardwalk. Recently completed, the trail here led across the waters of Baptizing Branch, and of some of the small islands in the river here. Despite looking deep, the area through here is known as the Chickasaw Shoals, and at least in the bay areas, stayed shallow enough for the taller aquatic plants to flourish. The boardwalk terminated in a “T” shape, staying in the line with the other little islands right along the main channel of the river. Catching movement, I spotted two great blue herons across the river, always a delight to see. After a bit of a rest, and some time to watch the herons, we made our way back to the main trail, which quickly joined and turned back towards the fields, our cars visible as specks in the distance. All along the path here, blackberries bloomed in great numbers, if even a month ahead of schedule. Tall dogwoods lit up the far back edge of the field, and the path cut straight across the field before turning and offering a bench for a break about midway back to the parking area. We stopped only to see if there were a way down to Baptizing Branch to take some photos of it before it reached the river, but the underbrush was too thick. The spot unfortunately offered nothing in the way of shade from the sun. As we came into the final stretch back to the car, we found some kind of spurge in bloom, and skullcaps, though I'm not sure which variety blooms this early in the season. Back at the car, I let lulu drink up before loading the car and heading back home.