Sipsey Wilderness
Trails 223, 204, Big Tree

Date: Saturday, March 15, 2008
Location: Sipsey Wilderness, Bankhead National Forest, Alabama
Trails: 223 - Gum Pond, 204 - Bee Branch, and East Bee Branch Canyon
Members: Larry, Milton, Kelley

Okay, I, Larry, Trip Leader, on the Friday before the hike, believing three days of weather forecasts calling for maybe a 50% chance of storms on Saturday, send out an email announcing that we are still going. No reason to cancel, especially with the precip projected to vanish by 1 PM; just remind everybody to bring rain gear.

At 5:30 AM Saturday, I disengage myself from the snuggling cat, pull myself out of bed, shower, and get dressed for the hike. Only then do I check the weather. A tornado has hit downtown Atlanta. All of northern Alabama is under a Severe Thunderstorm Watch, the risks being straight line winds, large hail, and possible tornadoes.

But having already gone to the trouble of lacing up my boots, I notice that the Watch for Lawrence County only extends to 8 AM with the rest of the day looking pretty decent. So I proceed to Jack's in Double Springs to meet whoever might show up. The gray skies are not hurting Jack's business any but no one there looks like they are waiting for a pilot car to lead them to the Wilderness.

At 7:10 I head north. At 7:30 the sky misleadingly seems to brighten. By 7:40 I can only see the road thanks to my headlights. The lightning and thunder start four minutes later followed by torrential rain as I turn onto FS road 223.

I was truly disappointed to find no one else at the trailhead as I sort of hydroplaned in at 7:55. Since I could not see the road anyway, I decided to wait until the rain let up. By 8:15 the cloudburst had spent itself, the thunder was down to a few muffled growls, and I felt safe touching the metal in my car again.

So at this point, I was here anyhow, I had a rain poncho and waterproof boots, and Milton and Kelley were supposed to be camping two miles down the trail. With these incentives and the possibility of a certain amount of solitude in this lovely area, I set out through the fast-flowing stream eroding the middle out of trail 223.

The light rain and sprinkles persisted for about an hour. My poncho sucks as hiking rain gear but managed to keep the top half of me dry.

I had to step over or around a few fallen trees on 223 but nothing serious, even considering the puddles. Same story for the brief stint on 208. One annoying pine was blocking the northern end of 224 but nothing insurmountable.

Much to everyone's surprise, I met up with Milton and Kelley where they had camped near the old 205 trailhead. All of us figured that everyone else would take a weather report at face value instead of either ignoring it or looking for opportunities. We opted to proceed as planned.

Quite a good decision. The lingering clouds kept the temperature down. Since the trees had yet to leaf out, the views from the southern ridges of 204 were about as good as they get. All along the way, thanks to the storm, the colors of the tree trunks ranged from dry brown-gray to rain-soaked black providing much more visually interesting scenery than is usually the case.

The Sipsey and all possible feeder streams did not lack for water. We did not encounter anyone else until we reached Bee Branch where a couple of guys had survived the overnight weather severity.

Trail 204 presented a few obstacles to climb over as did the East Bee Branch Canyon trail but no more than last year.

Solitude-wise, we experienced the Big Tree with the loud gush of two strong waterfalls all by ourselves all the way through lunch - with a couple of sun breaks to help the photography. The campers from down the pike and another small group wandered in after a while but for East Bee Branch Canyon on a Saturday in March, this was about as magical as it gets.

We expected the hill up the canyon to be all kind of treacherous but it wasn't. Maybe the heavy rain washed away the muddy slickness, I don't know, but we had no trouble.

The sky began to cloud up again but behaved itself until we arrived back at Milton and Kelley's campsite. I the day-hiker continued on and made it to within sight of my car before the rain started again. I drove out enveloped by a strange combination of pouring rain and bright sunshine. I was much relieved to finally escape the forest before anything heavy fell down in front of me.
Submitted 10 April 2008  
Text: Larry Barkey Photos: Milton and Kelley Barker

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