February 1, 2013 11:16:40 AM
A recent Boy Scout camping trip took me to the Sipsey Wilderness Area in north Alabama. It is beautiful. A hidden gem.
The area is about a four-hour drive from Jackson, but well worth the drive. The Sipsey River is emerald green and wends through magnificent outcroppings of shale. You really do feel like you are in another country. The area is covered in hiking trails through beautiful groves of hemlock -- a coniferous tree you won't see in Mississippi. There are also huge groves of the magnificent beech tree as well as yellow poplar, loblolly pine, white oak, holly and big leaf magnolia, with its prehistoric looking three-foot leaves. Many of the trees were 150 feet tall. You'd have to go to California's redwood forests to see taller.
There were waterfalls everywhere, spilling down from towering rocks into crystal clear pools. The soothing sound of burbling water was everywhere.
On one seven-mile hike, we picnicked in a sandy area next to gorgeous rapids. We sat on huge boulders as we ate, with rocky cliffs on all sides. I was reminded of the Ardeche Gorge in southern France, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
Many people probably think it's crazy to go camping in January, but with the right gear it's a blast. Several years ago, I splurged on a Big Bertha doublewide down sleeping bag. It has been money well spent. Inside of the sleeping bag I wrap myself around a huge100-percent wool Czechoslovakian army surplus blanket. Add to that my merino wool thermals and I am snug at 20 degrees.
Half the fun of camping is the incredible gear you can buy, much of it very light-weight. We ate delicious meals, had great fun around the campfire and slept like babies. It's great fun to see young boys enjoy the outdoors.
Late at night we had the proverbial ghost story. Apparently, I made mine a little too realistic. The next day, the Scouts kept making references to eyes of ghosts just below the surface of the water. I was forbidden to tell another one.
The thing to really fear on a January camping trip is rain. Fortunately, it was crystal clear and sunny the entire time.
There are subtle tricks to learn about winter camping - like staying in your sleeping bag until someone else has started the fire and made the coffee. Unfortunately, everyone had learned this trick, which made for rather late starts.
Is there anything better than a thick cup of French-pressed coffee and fried eggs over toast while sitting next to a roaring fire waiting for the sun to rise and warm the earth?
The hikes were a series of endless breathtaking vistas as we forded bubbling brooks underneath towering forests filled with shimmering sunlight and cascading waterfalls. Are you getting the picture? It was awesome.
As beautiful as the scenery was, I also appreciated God's grace as I watched these young boys and young men, each with their own unique personalities, interact, work, play and enjoy the challenge of long hikes.
This Scout trip had a twist. Just as we settled in to relax at sunset after a grueling day of hiking, a panicked woman ran up to our campground. Her husband had fallen into the river and busted his knee. Sun was setting, the temperature was dropping like a rock and the man, his daughter and daughter's boyfriend were without coats and flashlights, deep in the wilderness area.
There's a reason they call it a wilderness area. No cell towers, no picnic tables, no anything. No development of any type is allowed.
The Scouts sprang into action. The boys took a cot and cut holes in the fabric so they could grab it by their hands. It took two hours winding around steep slippery trails in the dark, but the Scouts got the man safely to his vehicle. It was hard work and everybody cramped at some point from muscle fatigue.
The man, who had a heart condition, had been throwing up and nearly passed out. We wrapped him in my wool blanket to keep him warm. He could have died without us there.
At one point, the Scouts were navigating a very steep, slippery part of the trail. I looked down and saw the raging river 50 feet below. Then we all started to slide off the bank. A small sapling growing out of the bank broke our slide and we regained our footing. If we had fallen in, we could have all frozen to death.
It's not a great exaggeration to say these boys risked their lives to save a life. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. Way to go, Troop 302! We're proud of you.