March 26-30, 2011
After the Sipsey Wilderness, the weather turned on me. Weeks of sunny warmth and gentle terrain were replaced by cold rains and long hills. I recalled that wildways scouting can be difficult, and even frightening.
The loud sirens and blaring tornado warnings as I pedaled past small towns were almost as unnerving as the thunder and lightning. Worst of all, though, once again, were the trucks and cars racing past me on the few stretches of busy road I had to ride. Festooned in reflectors and lights as I pedaled, I nonetheless could not help but fear some reckless logging truck would mow me down.
Soon as I could, I got on bike trails; and indeed I wish thank the Rails to Trails Conservancy and local bike groups like PATH for providing riders safe routes. I was able to ride from Weaver, northeast Alabama, to Dallas, just west of Atlanta, Georgia, a distance of about 85 miles, almost entirely on the safety of a bike path.
Some of the countryside I rode through looked wild enough for the panthers and wolves and bears and elk and bison whose recovery I wish to promote. Some of it looked wild enough for less space-demanding carnivores like coyotes and foxes, and probably has unnaturally high numbers of deer – lacking top predators. Most of it looked scenic and perhaps, at least along widely wooded streams, permeable to wide-ranging species.
My original plan had been to ride to Cheaha Mountain State Park and hike to Alabama’s highest point and explore a bit of the surrounding Cheaha Wilderness. When Wildlands Network’s extraordinary publicity contractor and volunteer Kelly Diedring Harris managed to convince CNN that they should listen to me talk about my journey, I changed route and headed toward Dugger Mountain Wilderness, closer to Atlanta in the northeast block of Talladega National Forest.
In the end, due to stormy weather and poor maps, I cycled alongside Dugger Mountain and hiked part of the Pinhoti Trail but did not explore much of the Wilderness itself. I’ll spare readers the soggy details, but suffice it to say, the day after Sipsey, I finally found a good campsite southwest of Dugger Mountain after once again searching many miles for actual public land within the National Forest. Six tornado warnings and 120+ miles after starting that cloudy morning, I felt blessed to be encamped by a swamp thrumming with frog song and with a modest bird blind keeping most the rain off me.
Day two after Sipsey, I decided not to corrode the bike with more rain and grit but to hike straight out of camp. My 15 easy miles of walking that day gave me a good sense of Alabama’s Choccolocco Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and the adjacent Talladega National Forest northeast block. The WMA appears to be a mix of beautiful Nature preserve and hammered logging sites. I walked past a huge muddy clearcut with massive logging machinery visible in the distance. If this is public land (or is it a private inholding?), the public is getting a raw deal. Whether it’s public or private land, Nature is getting a raw deal. Once back into the National Forest, conditions improved, and eventually I found myself by beautiful creeks flowing through big hardwoods. The Pinhoti Trail, a long south-north path through much of the National Forest and beyond, provided delightful hiking and gorgeous Appalachian foothill scenery. The gray skies made the blooming redbuds and dogwoods and emerging oak and poplar leaves seem all the brighter.
My complaint about Talladega National Forest management would be primarily the excess of roads and secondarily the unnecessary manipulations of the forest. Both the Cheaha and Dugger Mountain Wildernesses could be significantly expanded were some unnecessary back-country roads closed. The hunters I’ve met in Alabama and Florida all seemed quite willing to park their trucks and walk in to stalk the turkeys or deer. Recreation should not be used as an excuse to penetrate deep into National Forest lands with roads. Hunters and hikers will have a truer, wilder experience when more of the forest is truly primitive and roadless.
An example of the unnecessary manipulations the Forest Service ought to reconsider is clearing the trees and planting fields of “wildlife forage” along creek bottoms. Openings in the forest do attract some wildlife species and provide good browse, it’s true
; but Nature will provide such openings, if we let things be. Just upstream of some planted fields by an otherwise wild creek, I found fresh sign of beaver – chewed sticks – showing who should be creating the clearings in the woods. Beavers and wind and fire will provide a forest plenty of glades and meadows, if we let natural forces prevail over large enough spaces.
Day three after Sipsey was mentally the hardest riding. I had to begin in a cold dark rain to reach my appointed pick-up point in time (Susannah Smith having bravely offered to drive me into big scary Atlanta for the interview with CNN). I faced 17 miles of drivers racing to work before reaching the safety of the Chief Ladiga bike path.
From Piedmont on, though, the riding was wet but fine. Chief Ladiga trail met the Silver Comet trail in Georgia. The ride was kept interesting by woods, hills, and streams swelling with the new rains – streams that are mostly buffered by trees and thus may serve as wildlife corridors. Susannah got me safely to Atlanta, where wildlands supporter Marci Nunnery and family kindly gave us a feast and prepared us for the CNN opportunity. Fortuitously, the CNN interviewer, Steve Alamsy, turned out to be strongly committed to green ideals and a regular rider of Georgia bike trails.
In a better world of the future, may we see a Roads to Trails Conservancy complement the good work of Rails to Trails. With something on the order of one million miles of roads in the US, surely we can afford to simply close some, for the sake of wildlife, and convert some others to foot or bike paths. Then will we have a cleaner safer country for all creatures, from bicyclists to bears, hikers to hawks.
For the Wild,
Show Us Your Wild Winners
The winner: John (Will) Leonard
The Konza Prairie is located in the Flint Hills region of Kansas and is home to native tallgrass and switchgrasses on its 50,000 square kilometer area. It is home to more than 600 species of fish, reptiles, mammals, and birds. It is a lively, beautiful, and calming environment located just outside of Manhattan, KS.
The runner-up: Kristin Williams
Located at the headwaters of the Peace River in Polk County, Florida, this ecosystem is home to many native fauna and flora. Circle B Reserve is an excellent green space for a family picnic, bike ride, or leisurely stroll. Birds are plentiful, you might also encounter river otters, alligators, snakes, butterflies and so much more.
John Davis on KVNF, NPR CO
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