Hidden springs of Barren Fork Creek, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, AL 4/10/20

Trails: no trails

Length: 2 miles


I first visited Barren Fork Creek last year on my birthday, exploring by kayak upstream about a quarter of a mile to an island (and nearly losing my hat in the process). My original intentions were to go another half mile roughly upstream to see a hidden spring and a beaver pond, but the stiff wind and current made it an impossible task for the short period of time I had. I never thought my last off trail adventures of the season this year would be in Wheeler Refuge, but I’m glad they were.

To access this area I parked north of where people usually park to go down to the Barren Fork Creek to fish, or in my case, to kayak. North of the creek there’s a large swampy area on the west side of Zierdt Road with a beaver lodge visible in the distance. Just north of there is where I started into the woods, climbing a 6ft embankment into thick pines which quickly became mixed with deciduous trees. I wish the pines had lasted longer. Being almost mid April, everything has leafed out, which means the threat of ticks and snakes are higher, and finding a path through thick brush is that much harder.

I stopped to photograph some crossvine blooming in one of the tall trees, the vines extending to the ground. I’ve confused this one here recently for trumpetvine, which blooms later in the year. Soon the woods led downhill out of the thick forest but into chest deep river cane. I saw my first evidence of active beavers here, a fresh cut tree about 4 inches thick. I passed a number of dug holes, though the ground was too dry to look for tracks here. I made my way slowly to the swamp, finding a game trail and fresh deer tracks in the mud. Numerous trees here have beaver damage, and one tree is actively being chewed into several 6ft pieces to carry back to the lodge. As I stepped through the muddy landscape, I stopped to photograph bittercress, blooming in abundance. I followed atop a series of interconnecting fallen trees, looking for the best view I could find of the swamp. In the distance I could see the road, but no matter where I looked I couldn’t spot the beaver lodge at all.

As I was searching for the lodge among the yellow water lilies, a flash of red caught my eye, as a beautiful cardinal landed in a tree in perfect view in full sun maybe 30 yards from where I stood. It’s not often I see one with it’s crest flattened, but have read they do this when they feel at ease in their environment. I watched it for a while before venturing even further into the swamp along a dead tree, covered with fungi I couldn’t identify. This one appeared felled by storm damage, but it’s being used as a bit of a step stool to fell another large adjacent tree. Much of the bark has been removed from the lower 3 or 4ft of it exposing the cambium, and individual teeth scrapes can be seen, which I enjoyed.

I moved back slightly inland following the the game trail to where the ground wasn’t standing in water. Just a few weeks ago, this whole area was under several feet of water from flooding, and all of the short river cane here gave evidence of that, covered in dried mud still. Soon I ventured uphill a little bit along with the trail, coming into a thicker taller area of cane, chest high at times. I found a large area matted down, no doubt where deer had made a bed. Ahead past a large fallen tree there was faint evidence of an old road, but anything here would have been remarkably hard to follow, unlike the well used roads hidden deep in Bankhead National Forest. Verifying what I thought, I came across a property corner, with a neat old concrete/metal TVA marker next to several refuge signs and a tall worn plank, painted yellow. Uphill near the edge of the forest were trees ringed with red, which is how I usually find private property marked when in the woods.

Tired of being away from the water, I wandered back down to it’s edge, wishing I’d brought my wading boots just to see how far out I could get, as it all looked shallow. Along that same old game trail, I finally caught sight of the beaver lodge well out in the marsh, much further back than it had appeared from the road. From this distance it seemed almost 6ft tall, but that was a hard judge. Using the zoom of the camera I searched for a beaver nearby, but wasn’t so lucky. It was neat to see the structure of the lodge, though.

The game trail was becoming a muddy mess again, and while I wanted to continue photographing the lodge from different angles, the real goal this trip was further on, finding the hidden springs I knew existed. I ventured uphill to the edge of the woods, not very thick at this point, and gazed out over former farmland that’ll soon be subdivisions. I wonder how it all will affect the ecosystem here.

I decided to stay high for a bit to avoid some of the brush, briefly entering an odd area devoid of any vegetation. Past here I followed chest high river cane along a faint game trail past animal burrows and through a younger forest, with only the occasional old growth tree. I’d been slowly moving back toward the swamp, and broke into a wash area along the far back area of the swamp. From satellite imagery there was a hint of a narrow land bridge back over to an area I explored last year, but with the water up this was an impossible task today. A number of young trees had been chewed down, and I searched the mud for tracks, but found nothing. I did, however, find more of the bittercress in bloom.

As I followed the water around to the right it seemed to get deeper, and I could see hundreds of swamp spider lilies out in the water. Also known as woodland spider lilies, I tend to find them more on dry land during the summer, but here they’re mostly submerged, and unfortunately, not in bloom. I also found a slide area leading into the water, and a wide path that made me stop for a minute. North Alabama doesn’t have a large alligator population, but those we do have tend to be large, and tend to like these out of the way places away from people. One good thing about the water here was how clear it was. I realized this area might possibly be one of the springs I was searching for.

Continuing along a high bank past wild muscadines and brier I caught movement in the water, and realized it was bubbling the ground. I’d found the spring! Touching it, this water was ice cold, and crystal clear. At the far back corner the water was a bit deeper, and completely devoid of vegetation. Off in the distance to the south I could see something different about the landscape but couldn’t quite tell what. It seemed to be rippling, and it was possibly the main branch of Barren Fork Creek. To my right was a large animal hole, possibly the beaver itself. More amusing here was what I found and didn’t expect to see: an old moonshine still! And what a perfect place for one too. You’d never run out of good clean water here. The still itself wasn’t in great condition, a crumpled mess off to the side. A few feet down from the steep bank and the likely beaver hole was remnants of another part of it still in the ground. I stood and admired the landscape here, and I would love to get a kayak back here and float around, but it would be a long drag unless I came in from Barren Fork Creek.

Along the edge of the cold waters lots of wood violets were in bloom. Most of them have already bloomed out elsewhere in the woods from what I’ve seen, at least the first round of their blooms. Continuing on a little bit, I quickly found an old gas can, likely from the same era as the moonshine still, and an old post cut down by the beaver, but left here because they couldn’t get it free of the barbed wire still wrapped around it. I stayed close the edge of the waters now, no longer really worried about gators, and photographed some of the natural oils in the water. On the Atkeson Cypress Trail at Wheeler visitor center the cypress swamps erupt in a rainbow of colors because of this.

Ahead, the land leveled out quickly, quite muddy at times, and I could definitely see Barren Fork Creek in the distance, and the wide stream here that feeds into it. I came across a beautiful grove of young ferns just sprouting, and lovely little swampy scene before I took notice of the well built long beaver dam to my left. I backtracked a tad, hopping from dry spot to dry spot in an attempt to get to the dam itself. With the recent rains, though, this was impossible. The dam hadn’t been built completely across the flat lands here, so it was flowing around the dam making it’s way to Barren Fork Creek. Just a few feet high, it was holding up remarkably well. From a spot close to the dam, though, I could see the beaver hole high on the hillside in the distance. What a view! What a place to overlook one’s work and terrain one calls home. I would love this view every day.

Satisfied with the find, but knowing I still hadn’t reached my destination, I pressed on. Lack of time wasn’t quite an issue just yet, but would be. The land was soft and muddy from the recent rains, but thankfully had receded enough that mud was all I had to deal with. I crossed a shallow unnamed stream feeding in, before trudging another 50yards or so to the edge of Barren Fork Creek. I’d been chattering for a video segment, when I was surprised by two fishermen floating by in a boat. It’s likely they were more confused by my presence than mine theirs. They were quiet, and I hadn’t heard them come up on me. The creek here was quite deep, quite a change from the shallow area downstream I’d paddled a year ago in February. Like last week, I again found odd soil mounds just inland from the water, and walked the tops of them and used it as a chance to get out of the mud a bit. Were these part of an old road bed? An earthen levee to protect something against flooding?

What it did help to create was a series of interesting little inlets from the creek, full of beautiful scenes. The lowering sun angle cast long shadows across the still shallow waters. It was through here as well that I first noticed mosquitoes, and I was not dressed for it at all. It seems odd to see so many this early in the year. Moving inland, I passed more of the beautiful wetlands and bittercress in bloom, with the dirt mounds beginning to disappear. In place of them were odd long rectangular things that looked like they’d been scooped out, all in a row.

Past this area, I picked up a bit of an old road and started pushing to pick up some speed, only to find I’d ended up passing the place I was looking to find! I backtracked, and walked to the edge of the lake, hordes of mosquitoes buzzing around me now. There was at least enough of a breeze at times to keep them at bay. From aerial imagery, there appeared to be a blue hole in the middle of this pond. It reminded me of Blackjack Springs Wilderness in Wisconsin somehow; there’s a quiet peacefulness, a serenity to it that’s the same. The different is that these trees are deciduous instead of evergreen, and I wasn’t chest deep in ferns here, just river cane. At the edge of the water I spooked fish, too quick for me to identify. How good of a fishing hole would this be? It wasn’t that far of a walk, maybe two thirds of a mile from the road. How much of a paddle would it be to get here fighting the current?

I wandered downstream, stopping to study the island that sort of divided the main channel leading to the beaver dam. A narrow strip sports many live trees while an entire grove of trees to the northwest submerged are now dead. I stopped to listen for birds and look for turtles, any other sign of life. I did spook a turtle right at the edge of the water, while startled me as much as I started it I believe. I passed a spot beavers still use to enter and exit the pond, and along the way to the dam, there are several younger trees chewed down. But when I reached the beaver dam itself, there doesn’t appear to be any active work on it. The dam is severely degraded, which was unfortunate to see. It doesn’t appear to be retaining any higher water behind it than in front, and along certain stretches of it even grasses have begun to grow. Largely the only difference is the amount of silt collected behind it.

Much like the first spring I found, this one wasn’t far from Barren Fork Creek itself, though it was a much shorter walk to reach the creek. I decided to test the depth of the water at the bank, and was surprised when I couldn’t touch bottom with my almost 6ft staff. Getting out of the kayak here would be near impossible for me without falling in. Oddly, in the middle of the channel that joins the creek was a tiny island, no more than 6ft long and maybe half that wide. I debated hiking along the water here back to the car, but went back for another look at the hidden spring. The sun was getting lower in the sky. I stood and watched the yellow water lilies swayed in the breeze a bit. The sun lit up the water near the edge of the banks, and the clarity here isn’t something you find in the backwaters of wheeler often. I needed this little trip to a hidden paradise.

I took my time walking out, finding blue star in bloom early, and a ton of lion’s mane, which had seen better days. I kept hope out for a view of a beaver swimming somewhere, but he never showed up. Back at the road, I took a walk down to the view out over the swamp. It’s hard to find a spot to safely view it from the road, though, and the land is quite steep. If this ever floods again, I hope to paddle it all the way to the lodge, and then to the springs. This is likely my last off trail hike of the season, and the last two weeks certainly opened my eyes to off trail adventures closer to home than Bankhead National Forest. I still hope to get back there soon.

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