...or how many ways to goof up on a winter hike
Every winter my wife lets me sneak out for a 3 day/2 nighter between Christmas and New Year's, and whichever weekend I get has annually turned out to be about the coldest weekend in north Alabama. This hike was no exception.
We had received 2 inches of Christmas snow, and the forecast for Sunday was light flurries. Well, as I headed west towards Huntsville it was snowing pretty hard, and I-565 ended up being partly closed. A lengthy detour eventually got me onto an icy bypass, and I-65 south was even worse. However, the highways leading from Hartselle to the Sipsey were really bad, and I almost bailed. Eventually, I arrived at the parking lot over 2 hours behind schedule. It was still windy and snowing, so I hurriedly hit the trail. Mistake #1.
In my haste, I took the trail DOWNriver by mistake. I cursed the lack of trail maintenance for an hour, until a brief lull in the wind revealed that the river was rippling the wrong way. So I turned around and hightailed back to the parking lot, postholing once in mud up to my knee along the way.
Back at the parking lot, I finally identified the true trailhead and set off UPriver. There was a creek ford 1/2 mile in, for which I had planned to take off my shoes and barefoot it across. Unfortunately, just before this point I slipped on an icy rock while crossing a brook and soaked my shoes....so I just kept 'em on. Thankfully wool insulates when wet.
Once across Borden Creek there were nice bluffs to the east and west:
Continuing upriver I passed one the many beautiful waterfalls in the Sipsey Wilderness, Falls Creek Falls:
The Sipsey River carves through sandstone bluffs, and has a very sandy bottom as well as a few small beaches. Scattered along and within the river are large boulders:
Eventually I passed 2 stoner dudes hiking out. They had been holed up for 3 days enjoying a bag or two apparently, but regarded the current weather as unfit for people with any sense. They wished me luck and snickered.
Finally, after 8 or so miles (including my initial bushwhack) I found a nice campsite and settled in:
I managed to start a puny fire with some soggy wood, and cooked a tasty dinner of Hawk Vittles North African Stew and Italian Sausage and Green Pepper Pasta. I also changed into some dry socks, and was feeling happier. As darkness fell I put on my ThermaWrap pants and parka, and burrowed into my FF Swift. Toastiness! Life was good.
With my itinerary shot from the late start on Day 1, I elected to day hike from base camp further up the Sipsey River Trail to the East Bee Branch Trail, which was supposed to lead to the legendary "Big Tree," a 500 year-old poplar. Well, this being an unofficial trail (and thus un-maintained), it proved to be difficult. Snowfall hid just enough of the trail to make it tough. And did I mention the deadfall?
After about a mile and a half the trail petered out to nothing. Obviously nobody had been where I was in a while, and quite possibly I was off course. I saw some large trees, but not the one. Still, it was beautiful scenery, not a total loss by any stretch. I turned around to head back to camp.
Another tasty meal of Hawk Vittles (peanut soup and shrimp jambalaya) awaited me at camp. My socks had dried during the intermittent sun, another positive. But a cold night was forecast, so I tidied up around camp, treated some water, and holed up again.
I was awoken at 1 AM by the scourge of the Sipsey- wild hogs! Yes, they were passing through camp, oinking a bit and rooting a lot, but they eventually left.
Morning brought frigid temps, probably down around 15. I debated staying in my bag for several more hours, but knew my wife expected me home, so I manned up and got packed. The worst 3 minutes of life is breaking down a tent in that kind of cold, but once I got back on the trail I warmed up quickly. Eventually the sun came out and the snow started melting, and there were some nice views of the river:
Along the way I passed the junction with TR202, which starts with a fording of the river. Didn't look to be a fun winter activity!
Around 11 AM I finally made it back to the trailhead, passing a couple of dayhikers during the last mile who were astonished that A) some fool actually spent the past 2 nights out there, and B) that everything I needed could possibly be in that small backpack!
Outstanding gear used during this trip included the Tarptent Scarp 1, FF Swift bag, ThermaRest Z-Lite and women's ProLite 3 pads, Gossamer Gear LT 4 poles, Treksta Evolution trail shoes, Montbell Thermawrap Pants and Parka, Bear Survival Trousers, Marmot Driclime Windshirt, Icebreaker 200 baselayers, Darn Tough Socks, a pig-proof Ursack, SnowPeak Gigapower Stove and 700 ml mug, BPL PossumDown Gloves, MH Dome Perignon, BPL Absaroka pack and some other sundries, about 22 lbs. at the start. As always, it was wonderful to be out in the backcountry, and putting to use some of the knowledge gained here.