An autumn view of the Lake Chinnabee campground with no one around (click on the image for a larger view)
by Glynn Wilson
LAKE CHINNABEE, Ala. — It drizzled rain in the dark all the way from the Oxford, Alabama exit off Interstate 20 through Munford on Highway 21, making it hard to find all the turns that lead to Lake Chinnabee in the Talladega National Forest. But somehow between a detailed atlas and the Google iPhone map, we found the turnoff at McElderry Road that led to Cheaha Road, which took us past Camp Mac and wound up into the mountains toward the highest point in Alabama at Cheaha State Park.
All the way there, photographer Kenny Walters and I had gone back and forth over whether we would find the place empty, or whether other knowledgeable campers would have found the place and staked out a position in the middle of the second week of November. I figured it was 60-40 the place would be deserted.
It was still drizzling when we pulled into the Lake Chinnabee campground on Wednesday evening at about 6:30 p.m. — and there was not another vehicle or camper in site. The place was deserted, just the way we like it.
The little-known or used U.S. Forest Service Recreation Area is in the middle of a national forest, but for unknown reasons, it is also in a dry county. It is unclear why Clay County still prohibits the consumption of alcohol 100 years after the repeal of national Prohibition. Maybe the feds found too many bootleggers in this backwoods region and local officials have never found the gumption to repeal the law.
But since on my last visit here a few weeks back a forest ranger had said they do not have “beer police,” we cracked open a Good People IPA and proceeded to prepare the site for a four-day camping excursion. Since Walters was not in any hurry to set up the tent and Kelty on the wet ground, I broke out a tarp and attached it to a pole in the campsite designed to hang food from a hook where the wildlife can’t get at it.
I backed up the Chevy van into the campsite sideways, and attached the tarp to the canoe rack with bungee cords. We broke out a couple of camp chairs and sat there out of the rain, marveling at being the only ones in such a lovely place in nature this time of year.
After a while the rain stopped and the night sky began to clear, so we got a campfire going and listened to the crickets and watched the full moon rise over the mountain peaks.
The full moon rising over the Lake Chinnabee campground
Sometime between 9 and 10 p.m., Kenny set up his tent in campsite number 3 and unloaded some of his gear, while I maneuvered the van set up into night mode. I don’t use a tent when I go camping. I have a futon mattress in the back of the van, covered in leopard skin sheets. Don’t ask me why. That’s just what I do.
After a few beers and a little snack food, we crashed for the night as the temperature dropped into the 30s.
When we woke up Thursday morning, it was clear and cold. We had plenty of firewood to get warm, but we had forgotten to bring water. This is one of the few national forest campgrounds in the country with no well and a pump to draw water from, so you have to bring your own. Maybe that’s one of the reasons many people don’t use the park. I took down the tarp and drove the van up the mountain three miles to the Cheaha State Park store and brought us back enough water to get through the morning, until another friend was going to join us and bring more.
As we sipped the good coffee by the fire in the morning, still with no one else around, I remarked: “Now this is what I call a secret vista. This is the epitome of the concept.”
Early in the afternoon, Tab Gilbert showed up from Logan Martin Lake near Pell City with his dog Splotch and his new sleeping hammock, along with more firewood — and about eight gallons of water.
Kenny Walters relaxing by a tree along with Tab Gilbert’s dog Splotch
We fixed lunch and hung by the fire for the most part, just taking the time to relax in such a beautiful place on a fine autumn day. But I did break out the Nikon and the big lens and started to scope out scenes for pictures.
Late in the afternoon just a little before dusk, another friend showed up from a conference in Atlanta and joined the party. A couple of his friends and their sons showed up in the evening in a little antique camper trailer. We soon had two fires going, and somebody broke out the whiskey, which is a good thing, since it dropped to below freezing over night.
Friday morning broke clear and cold at 28 degrees in the mountains, but it warmed up enough that day for hikes and boat rides on the lake.
Tab and I in the LocustFork.Net canoe on Lake Chinnabee
We got more company on Friday and Saturday afternoon, when a friend showed up from Waverly in a VW van, and a then Jim Felder of the Alabama Scenic River Trial pulled up in one much like it. The Volkswagen Westfalias are always popular at campgrounds.
After a couple more days of hiking, boating and taking pictures, campers began to leave one by one, until Walters and I found ourselves alone in the campground again on Sunday afternoon. The only things that interrupted the solitude were the day trippers, riding by for the view on their Harley’s and in their SUVs, gawking at us like we were the wildlife. I guess it was a good thing no black bears showed up, although there were times when I felt like one being stared at in a zoo.
As I said in that original piece explaining the concept of a secret vista, it is ridiculously easy to get away from it all in nature — if you stop and get out of the damn car. Many people only see this kind of thing on the National Geographic Channel, or looking out of their car windows.
Somehow I don’t think they could ever experience the full biophilia effect from seeing nature from a moving automobile. But hey? To each their own. It’s still sort of a free country. Just don’t leave the beer out where the park ranger or the county sheriff can see it.
If you take the time, you too can experience this secret vista in nature — and maybe find yourself all alone on an autumn day in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
You might even want to make a toast to Chief Chinnabee. He once ruled the Choctaw Nation from here. His people may have all disappeared from the planet due to the violent nature of the “white man,” but you can be sure they passed their DNA down into a bunch of us.
While walking all alone down the trail around the lake trying to get into a position to photograph the pileated woodpeckers, I felt a little like a Cherokee myself.
A pileated woodpecker by Lake Chinnabee
I often wonder how the world could have turned out different if Andrew Jackson’s army had not shown up here on a killing spree in the early 1800s.
Since there’s no turning back from that conclusion now, I also wonder how we could make the world a better place still — if we could just learn a little more about how to coexist with the natural world, instead of being so hellbent on coming up with destructive ways to “control” nature.
These are the kind of thoughts that come to mind when you find yourself alone in one of this country’s great “secret vistas.” Try it sometime. You might be glad you did.
Strapping the canoe back on the van for the return trip home
© 2011 – 2016, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.