Sipsey Wilderness - January 17-19, 1997
(My friends and I visit here often, this was one of my favorite trips)

 

Well, here I sit, thinking about the night. In a half an hour I get off work and will be headed home to finish preparations for tonight's camping trip. I guess I'm thinking more about this trip because it is supposed to be so cold. The forecasted low for the Birmingham area is 10 degrees tonight. Owen has checked the forecast for Cullman and it is 5. There has been some discussion about what to wear and all. In a way, I guess I'm looking forward to the challenge. I am however, a bit concerned about Max. I'm taking bedding for him and I just hope it will be enough to keep him comfortable. Oh well, I'll be back here Monday (I hope) and fill in all the blanks.

* * * * *

Ok, we made it. Let's get all the boring logistical stuff out of the way first. Owen, Max and I got to the Wal-Mart in Gardendale at 6:45 and Kyle and Skip arrived at about 7:00. We then headed, as usual, for Cracker Barrel in Cullman and enjoyed supper there.

Upon arriving at the trailhead, we all began to get our cold-weather gear on and took a few photos before starting the hike. It was now around 11:30 pm and the temperature was about 20 degrees. I was wearing my Thermax jersey, Polartec 100 top and bottom, Polartec 300 jacket and pants, OR Windbloc Balaclava, and Woolusion gloves. Except for my fingers getting cold while putting Max's packs on him (gloves off), I was comfortable. Shortly after we started hiking, we all began to comment on being too warm. I know I was, I could feel sweat in the bends of my arms and on my hands. Owen suggested taking off my gloves (as he had done) so I tried that and it worked well. All that body heat has to come out somewhere and my hands stayed warm all the way in.

As soon as we got to the campsite I took Max's packs off. The hair on his chest and stomach was covered with ice, as was the bottom of the packs from being splashed on the hike in. He did not seem bothered by the packs and ran around as usual while we were coming in. Being concerned about the cold, I had packed a lot of warm bedding for him. I got Suzie's Ridge-Rest pad and rolled it up and put it on top of the packs along his back. I folded it in half and used a large binder clip to hold it together for him to sleep on. Then I put my blue BellSouth sweatshirt on him, and after he laid down, covered him with an old blanket which was quadrupled.

We sat about the business of setting up the tents and discovered that the severe cold affected the shock-cord in the tent poles so that it lost some of it's recoil and wouldn't pull itself back inside the poles.

After getting all set up and getting Max bedded down, we finally zipped up our bags at about 2:00 am. Everyone had heat-packs fired up and was bracing for record-breaking camping cold. I had a somewhat restless night. I wasn't really cold, just didn't sleep very well. But, that's common for me on the first night of a trip.

Saturday morning broke bright, clear and very cold. Skip announced a new record low of 10.9 degrees. I think, according to Owen's thermometer, that it had been about 17 or 18 inside our tent. The walls were covered with frost from the moisture in our breath.

As I had suspected, this would be the most uncomfortable time of the trip. Owen and Kyle carried their water in this time while Skip and I opted to pump ours. While sitting there pumping water is when I remember being coldest. My fingers were hurting and my toes were pretty much numb. After finishing I got up and literally ran around some and that helped get the blood back in my feet. Then I felt better.

Another effect of the extreme cold was that the performance of my stove was diminished. It took a long time to boil my water for my eggs. Skip said he kept his fuel canister in his sleeping bag all night with him and still had poor performance (until he held his fuel can over the flame, PUD?)

Well, after breakfast we began readying ourselves for a planned hike to the big tree. We headed out about 11:30 and got there about 12:40. The route went cross-country and was 1.7 miles. I had done most of it on a dayhike I took after Thanksgiving. Owen had his new GPS and it worked pretty well. We had assigned several waypoints along the route and it was re-assuring to have it in agreement with where we thought we should be when we were crossing the ridge. No trail, you see. It's really neat to figure out a route like this only by looking at the map and then go do it and have your work and measurements proved out.

As we started on this hike, we noticed huge icicles that had formed on the bluffs during the past few days. They were everywhere, thousands of them. Wherever water was seeping through the bluff there would be a group of them. Some had spanned 8 or 10 feet to the ground to make columns. Some that were hanging from higher bluffs had grown even longer to make huge icicles. They were most impressive. When we got to the tree, the bluffs surrounding it were covered with these icicles. Also, the area around the base of the waterfall was covered with ice - inches, maybe even a foot thick in places. This was really pretty, it made me wish I had taken my camera on this trip.

We spent about an hour and a half in the area, eating lunch and taking photos. As we were about to leave, Skip said "Let's see if we can all reach around the tree". We tried and the four of us make a perfect fit, barely able to touch fingertips to encircle the tree. Then we moved from around it and re-formed the circle, that was neat and provides a good illustration of just how big the tree really is.

On our way out, at the point where we cross Bee Branch, there is a nice campsite there and someone had constructed a "couch" of sorts out of sticks and logs. We took a little break there and I sat on it and had some Gu. I was surprised to find it pretty comfortable. Also on our return hike, we went to the bluff area where we had noticed the largest icicles on our hike in. There was a large overhanging area there and hundreds of very large icicles had formed. In particular were two large columns of ice and the ground around them was coated with ice. They were very pretty and gave an unusually wintry appearance for an Alabama area. Skip found some bones under the overhang and we were at first puzzled by what they were the remains of, then Kyle guessed armadillo, and we all agreed.

That night we just sat around the fire and tried to stay warm. It was a typical Sipsey fire and didn't seem to throw off a lot of heat. We bedded down around 9:00. The low was somewhere in the mid-twenties and I think we all slept better.

As usual, Sunday morning we just got up, ate and began packing for the hike out. Somehow, that always seems to take until noon and it was after then before we got started on our way.

All through this trip and especially Sunday morning, we could hear icicles crashing to the ground. Sometimes it was really loud. We would find chunks of ice the size of cinder blocks lying on the ground in places where they had been falling.

We went back up to the bluff with the biggest icicles and took some pictures on our way out and finally got back to the cars around 1:45.

Speaking of cars, I took the Rodeo for the first time on this trip and it was much more comfortable. It was nice to have the extra space and I'm sure Max appreciated it.

A late lunch at Smith's Barbecue and we were done for the weekend.

As a foot note, when I originally cooked up this trip, one of the main reasons was to check on the time capsule since it had been a year since we buried it. That sorta fell by the wayside when the cold weather came in and so much energy was devoted to trying to stay warm. I think there just wasn't enough interest and energy left after the tree hike to go over there and cross the river and climb that ridge again. Oh well, I'll get there one day.

Oh, another thing. I had de-hydrated some apples and bananas in my dehydrator that Skip gave me for Christmas, and brought along some of the chips. Besides enjoying snacking on them, I put some banana chips in my oatmeal Sunday morning and you know what?, it was good. I might just be on to something.

So, a new record camping low of 10 degrees, I don't think I'll be able stir up enough enthusiasm to try to break this one, maybe Skip but I don' know. Besides, it rarely gets that cold here. This was quite a co-incidence that it happened on a weekend we had already planned to go camping.

Skip did say something funny I'll end on, Saturday morning when he got up, he went back to his tent and said, "Hey Kyle, Max is gone and there's a note here that says, "YA'LL ARE CRAZY!"

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