Reflections 1: Autumn Leaves in Chinnabee Creek

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By Glynn Wilson
Secret Vistas

LAKE CHINNABEE CAMPGROUND, Ala. — The day before Thanksgiving photographer Kenny Walters and I packed up our gear and headed northeast from Birmingham to camp one more time in the Talladega National Forest before we have to deal publicly with the potential for hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the area. The idea was to study maps of the proposed lease areas and photograph some of the most important natural hot spots before the drilling trucks join the logging trucks and the hunters in their pickups in these woods.

One of the best kept secrets in the state, the country and probably the world is a ridiculously short drive from the city. It only takes about an hour and a half to get to the U.S. Forest Service’s Lake Chinnabee Campground from Birmingham.

No one else was camped there when we pulled in. That’s the way we like it. Empty.

Three miles up the mountain at Cheaha State Park, the campgrounds were busy for the Thanksgiving weekend where they have electric and water hookups, bathhouses, playgrounds and street lights. I grabbed a spot for one night in the lower campground just for the showers and the potential for Internet access.

Chinnabee is a primitive campground with no hookups or running water and only an outhouse for a bathroom. But it’s as beautiful a spot as you can find anywhere for getting out in nature in a vehicle. To find a more secluded spot you would need to pack a big backpack and get down the Pinhoti Trail or the Appalachian Trail.

We also used the short trip to continue working on modifying and trying out the new Roadtrek Sprinter van as a mobile journalism home office. We had planned to truck in our water in the 40 gallon water tank, but the first time we hooked it up we found a leak in a hose underneath, so we had to carry in water in gallon jugs again, just like last year.

That will be easy to repair. We got a great deal on the 11-year-old van, so we knew there would be little stuff to fix. The city water system is working now for the next time we pull into a state park with hookups.

Before the trip, I had the oil changed in the built-in generator, which works quite well to power the electrical systems when you find yourself camped in a primitive place like this. Unfortunately, the first time I tried to startup the iMac something caused a power surge and blew out one of the electrical outlets. When I tried to startup on another outlet, the computer would not come on all the way. So much for being able to find an Internet connection and post from the woods.

So we just setup the campsite and got ready to take photographs and shoot video, our main purpose for the trip. We got the fire going and I cooked a marinated turkey breast on the grill. We hunkered down by the fire with the dogs and enjoyed the cool, calm evening.

At least the generator was good for cranking up the propane heater in the van in the morning to knock the chill out of the air and get the coffee pot going. On Thanksgiving Day we headed up the mountain and feasted on the lunch buffet in the Pinhoti Room of the Cheaha Mountain Restaurant. Turkey and dressing, gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and carrot cake for desert. I doubt if your mama could do it any better.

On the way back down the mountain, I pulled into the lower campground and tried the computer again with no luck, but we met a real hippie activist woman from Berkley, California in a Code Pink truck, on her way to take her grandson back to Atlanta after a stint as a campground host at a Bankhead National Forest campground. I interviewed her for the fracking video.

We got in some hiking and taking pictures, and then settled in for another cool night by Lake Chinnabee. One other camper showed up on Thursday, and we had company Friday and Saturday night too. But we had the place to ourselves again Sunday. Where else can you camp and hike in such a beautiful spot in nature with no one else around?

It was another beautiful day on Friday, but without a computer and Internet access, I started to get impatient. So on Saturday I drove up the mountain again, barely found enough of a cell phone connection to make some calls, and ended up heading into Oxford to the Best Buy to get the computer checked out and potentially buy a laptop for a backup device.

While I was there, however, I lobbed a call in to Perry Computer in Homewood, and the friendly folks there helped me figure out how to start the computer on the built-in backup partition drive. I got the computer going, but it was going to take maybe five hours to restore the hard drive from the Time Machine backup, and there I was in the Best Buy parking lot with the generator running.

So I had to make a decision and take a chance. I left the generator and the computer running and drove back up Mount Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama at 2,407 feet. When I got back to the top and parked out by the camp store, it was still going to be a couple of hours before the computer was ready to work. So I got the frisbee out and played with Jefferson to kill time.

Then I decided to head back down to the lower campground and check in on the hippie lady and shower. After walking the dog one more time around the campground, the computer came back on and I was able to turn off the generator, plug in to the state park electrical grid and managed to find some Internet with the Verizon MiFi and post this little item. The state park is supposed to have free WiFi, but it worked about as well as last year, not at all.

Alabama really needs to get its act together on this Internet business. You can get online anywhere in Europe, and finding a connection is much easier in Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. These days if you want tourists to come, they have to be able to get online in their RVs. Maybe that’s one of the reasons fewer people come here.

But of course there has to be enough people in an area for the phone companies to build out their networks more, and let’s face it, parts of Alabama are still inhabited by fewer and less sophisticated people who seem quite content to do things the old fashioned way. As long as they can pickup the Alabama-Auburn game on the radio, apparently they’re happy. Can you imagine growing up and living in a place with no public radio, just Christian and country music stations, no Internet access and barely a cell phone connection? No wonder this place is perceived as so ignorant by the outside world.

On Saturday, a cold front came through, and according to the onboard weather station, it hit 22 degrees Saturday night. When I woke up cuddled next to the warm dog Sunday morning, it was 33 degrees in the van. But I got the heat and the coffee pot going and we had one more day to hike and take pictures.

We studied the proposed gas drilling lease maps and matched the areas up to the grid on the numbered Forest Service map, and we figured out that all the leases are in view from Cheaha State Park. Lake Chinnabee is right in the heart of the area that could become home to fracking in Alabama, so we figured any of the areas we were photographing could be negatively impacted. The forest has already been cut so many times it’s practically a pine plantation anyway. Hunters have killed most of the wildlife. Not a night went by that we didn’t hear dogs hunting at night, presumably coon dogs. We never saw a raccoon, a fox or a bobcat. Just a few birds, and not many of those now that the fall migration is over.

On Friday we hiked up to High Falls, and on Sunday, we followed the Chinnabee Lake Trail around to the Silent Trail and Devil’s Den. That’s where I noticed this scene in Chinnabee Creek.

Jefferson had the time of his life. He would run ahead of Kenny on the trail, turn around and come back to check on me bringing up the rear, and then dash off up the mountain to chase a squirrel, then down the mountain to jump in the lake and swim for awhile. If anyone else had been on the trail, I would have been forced to keep him on a leash. He’s still dog tired from that hike and sleeping every chance he gets like an old man, but with a little smile on his face.

I’m still going through about 400 photographs and an hour or so of video footage. It will take several days to get the story, photos and video ready to publish before the so-called “public meeting” on the proposed lease sales. As soon as we know when they plan to do it, we will let you know.

As always, there are more photos on Facebook.

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© 2012, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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