“The Boy Scout Trail”, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, AL 4/1/20

Trails: an unofficial trail, sort of

Length: 0.75 miles

I first came across this spot over a decade ago, just a small pull off on a busy road that borders the refuge. Research on it has a Madison boy scout troop listed as those who maintain it, but that hasn’t been done in some time. It was originally a six mile trail, though even ten years ago it was nowhere near that length. All that’s left of it is a few hundred yards on the edge of a high embankment until it meets thicker woods and nature has reclaimed the rest. Finding the old pull off again, I set out down it to see if I could find the old campsite, and anything else of interest.

Pulling into the small parking area, now a broken up series of asphalt slabs, I could see no sign of the trail. Passing a small section of piled brush and trash there was a small opening in the forest, and a fire ring visible on the left. Filled with pine straw, it hadn’t been used in a while. To the right the old steps leading uphill to the forest had seen better days. It appears to be an embankment, but really the tall walls on either side here of the road here are a road cut. I’d thought the old sign notating the trail was situated just above the stairs, but it was nowhere to be found. The trail makes an abrupt right here through the mixed pines and deciduous trees along the edge of the road cut, an easy to follow straight path for a few hundred yards.

As the trail started to just go around a bend, the words “WHEELER TRAIL” stuck out through the foliage ahead, and I smiled. The old sign was still here, just a little further down than I remembered. From what I researched decades ago a scout troop here maintained a 6 mile loop meant for group use, and camping was allowed. Just not for the general public. The trail is supposed to loop back to this point, and while there’s an obvious path behind it, there’s not really a second one that appears to join here. Ahead, the trail did split briefly, leading around a little patch of land. The land and the trail starts to venture away from the road a bit, and then it begins to disappear. Then it dissolves into nothing. To my left there are views of the rooflines of buildings, new subdivisions that have bought up farmland and back up now to the edge of the refuge.

I picked up an old game trail, which might have been part of the old Wheeler Trail, but I’ve no way of knowing. Down in the gully between the ridge and the road here I spotted old barrels rusting. What were they? How long have they been here? I continued on, dropping down to my left into what looked like an old road bed. The land was almost entire deciduous trees now, and this seemed as good a path to follow as any. I didn’t really expect to find the whole trail intact, but I was surprised that none of the markers seemed to remain. I made the decision to just wander along until I reached the creek, and follow it for a while.

Soon the road gave way back to the woods, and I continued south across two narrow springs where I picked back up a path again. It would prove short lived, leading into a swampy area to the east. In the distance I could see what looked like reflections, and wandered into a picturesque scene at the edge of the water. The little springs I’d hopped over fed into a winding little cove full of taller trees, everything lush with green. If I’d had my hammock with me, I might have set it up here and never ventured further. At the edge of the water, I could see the true edge of the creek ahead, only because that’s where the trees stopped. All the rain we’ve had the last few weeks have has caused some reasonably significant lowland flooding here.

Off to the right I wandered up to a fallen tree, but there wasn’t any way to get atop it to get further into the swampy area. Turning back eastward, I crossed a little hump of land where some lilies were growing, venturing back uphill after passing another old road bed that seemed to lead straight into the water. The hillside here was covered in poison ivy, just emerging. I was glad I had on jeans. Dropping into a bit of a dry gully, I followed it down to a much wider open forest area, where almost everything on the ground was covered in dried mud. Marks on the trees showed the water had been much higher here than I’d thought, and the levels had gone down nearly three feet.

There was a spot further down where I’d hoped to walk out onto a piece of land that’s possibly an island but more likely an odd peninsula of sorts, but seeing the water so deep about 150ft from the actual shore made me wonder if it were possible to reach it or not. There were a few spots along the edge where I could see higher land, but there was no way to cross this bowl of water to reach that, nor were there any guarantees that it would last for long. The scenes as I walked along were beautiful none the less. As the water bumped up against some slightly steeper land here I found a group of green dragons just emerging, something exciting as I didn’t have a spot before to photograph them on the refuge. This one may be hard to reach given how thick the forest is through here in the warm season. All uphill behind the green dragons, I found thickets of river cane about waist high, but nothing big enough to harvest.

As the land began to level out, I could see the peninsula I was wanting to get at, but I also saw a small island that exists between here and there submerged under several feet of water. If it was covered, then the peninsula would be too. It wouldn’t make much of a difference, as the the path ahead became too swampy for my interest, and heading uphill meant finding my way through brier and thick river cane, something I wasn’t terribly interested in. A number of fallen trees also littered the path ahead. With plenty of time left in the day, I decided to just stop here and explore around, watching a robin pick through leaf litter for food for a while.

Heading back the opposite way, I decided to walk the water’s edge to the road, another instance the flood waters would make difficult. I did follow it far enough to find long strips of embankments with areas dug out of the middle of them, almost looking like parking spaces in a way. Were they some odd kind of borrow pits? I’ve no way of knowing for sure. I hiked back out mostly the way I came, not paying much attention to where I was walking as there was no path. I searched briefly inland toward the subdivision for the campsite I found many years ago, but to no avail. Reaching the sign again, and the supposed loop junction, I briefly pursued the small game trail leading away, but never found any other evidence of where the trail looped back on itself.

It was a short but fun adventure in a part of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge I hadn’t fully explored before, and it kind of opened my eyes of other opportunities for exploring, though many idea I now had may have to wait until cooler weather returns in the fall.

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