The Lazy Girl’s Guide to Enjoying Alabama’s Outdoors

By on 18 October, 2013 in Jesseca Cornelson, Outdoors with 2 Comments

Cherokee Ridge

If you’re already an avid outdoorsperson, this article isn’t for you. However, if you find yourself watching nature documentaries and thinking “that looks like fun” but aren’t sure how to get off the couch, then let me be your guide to getting outside.

I’ve always enjoyed the casual day hike, especially because it’s something I can do with my dogs, and something happens in my heart when I see them being real dogs in a wild setting. I think the thing that happens is my heart laughs. It is a love and a joy that bubbles and tickles.

We have some really incredible year-round outdoor opportunities in easy driving distance. The people I know who do a lot of backpacking tend to be more active fall through spring. Winter backpacking in the snowy mountains (such as the Smokeys) is to die for, I’ve been told. But even in our blistering summer, it can be a lot more refreshing to go outside than you might think.

First, there are these things called trees that I like to refer to as Nature’s Air Conditioning. The temperature is often several degrees cooler in the shade of the deep woods than it is in the city (fact: cities are hotter because of all the heat absorbing asphalt and the lack of shade), and in hilly areas like The Cherokee Ridge Alpine Trail, there’s often a very pleasant breeze.

Second, have you ever looked at a map of Alabama and seen how our state is woven with rivers? In the fourth grade, I did a really pathetic project for a history fair where I drew a ragged map of Alabama, its rivers, and then used a whole bunch of my mom’s blue crochet yarn to show the rivers. It’s hard work to sew yarn through the salvaged cardboard of a refrigerator box, and my project looked like total crap. I got a crappy grade, but my wobbly little nine-year-old arms were impressed with the number of rivers. You probably know we live in the River Region, so that means we really have a lot of choices when it comes to river activities. This summer I’ve become smitten with kayaking on the Coosa.

Coosa Kayaking

So, without further ado, let get started:

Montgomery Backpackers Meetup

Okay, Montgomery Backpackers isn’t actually a place. Rather it’s a Meetup group for random local people who share an interest in being outside. While I’ve long taken day hikes on my own and occasionally with others, there have been a whole slew of things that I’ve wanted to do, but can’t really do on my own. They’re the kinds of things that I often felt like I needed a partner, okay, a boyfriend, to do these things with. But before I could manage to actually do any of these things with a boyfriend, I’d inevitably learn that he was a compulsive liar and/or psychopath. What are these things? Regular camping, backpacking, canoeing, kayaking, and whitewater rafting seem like a pretty good starter list. As soon as I got a notification that Montgomery Backpackers had formed back in April, I signed up, and the group has grown to 125 members pretty quickly. The group’s size means that there are a variety of options, from recreational kayaking, beginner car camping trips, advanced backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail, and  (this weekend! yay!) canoe camping on the Tallapoosa. Basically, there’s something for everyone, and there are comments pages for each activity so you can introduce yourself in advance or ask questions to better gauge if the trip is right for you.

Recent outings that I’ve attended include a dayhike in the Tuskegee National Forest, numerous kayaking trips on the Coosa (a group favorite), an orienteering session at the Cherokee Ridge Alpine Trail, and a hike through Chewacla State Park (glorious!). There’s a discussion page for the group where anyone can post suggested outings. I suggested that we consider doing part of the Alabama Scenic River Trail, something I’ve been smitten with since the first few months I returned to Alabama. That morphed into this weekend’s canoe camping excursion as something not only fun in itself, but as an easy version before tackling something more difficult. Others have done more hardcore backpacking trips in the Smokeys and on the AT.

Feel free to join the group or to check out any of the suggestions below on your own.

Kayaking the Coosa

Coosa River Adventures in Wetumpka offers sit-on-top kayak (singles $29 and tandems $49) and canoe rentals ($59). I don’t care who you are, you want the single sit-on-top kayak. The owner, Chris, calls the tandems “divorce kayaks” because they can be so tricky to navigate that you’ll quickly find yourself wanting to smack your partner with a paddle. Canoes seem like a great idea until you realize the Coosa has some pretty awesome white water sections, and you have to portage a canoe to avoid them. But you don’t want to avoid them! You want to secure your beer and paddle through that monster because it is fun as hell. And if you fall out of your kayak? Well, that’s even more fun.

Tips: No glass bottles or Styrofoam coolers. Wear water shoes or some kind of sandals with a back strap. Flip flops are a bad idea because you’ll lose them in the water. Just don’t do it. If you’ve got to wear an old pair of sneakers instead, do that. The biggest safety rule, besides never removing your personal flotation device, is “nose up, toes up.” You want to be able to breathe, and you don’t want your foot getting caught in an entrapment and sucking you under.

Right now is a great time to go because the weather’s still nice, but the crowds are thinning out. Chris runs trips year round and also sells all manner of kayaks and canoes. He is one straight-up cool dude. His wife, Therese, is also awesome. 415 Company St, Wetumpka, AL, (334) 514-0279.

Cherokee Ridge Alpine Trail

The Cherokee Ridge Alpine Trail is one of my favorites. Swayback has nothing on it for hikers, but if you’re a mountain biker, Swayback is the way to go. The trail head features a picnic area at Overlook Park with great views of Lake Martin and a very pleasant breeze off the lake. There are many beautiful spots, some with names like The Mossy Drip. The trail skirts the fingers of lakeshore, and there are at least a few places where you can pop in for a dip, so wear clothes you don’t mind getting wet. The trails can be steep with lots of ups and downs, so make sure you bring hiking poles and that your toes don’t ram the front of your shoes when you go downhill (ouch!). The group that maintains the CRAT used to have handmade bamboo walking sticks, but I’m guessing some jerkholes stole them because the walking sticks aren’t at the trailhead anymore. Wear DEET. On one visit my companion and I never stopped knocking Lonestar Ticks off our legs. Those bad boys and girls carry STARI, Southern Tick Associated Rash Illness, a cousin of Lyme Disease. Another friend reports chiggers.

Chewacla State Park

My group recently ventured into Chewacla State Park on the day of Auburn’s Homecoming. There was also some kind of Scout Jamboree going on. Nonetheless, the woods didn’t feel at all crowded. There are waterfalls, hiking trails, biking trails, a lake, cabins, camper camping, car camping, and secret nooks great for off-the-grid camping. I’m looking forward to returning, spending the night swaying in my hammock, and waking in the morning for a cool dip in a clear stream. If you don’t like roughing it, I recommend the cabins. The small stone cottages are situated along the lake, and each has its own john boat. Starting next month, a 2-4 person cabin goes for a mere $82. Not bad for an adorable cottage with central heat and air, lake access, and a boat. Seriously, why aren’t you in this cabin already?

Chewacla

Canoe Camping on the Tallapoosa

I’ll have to report back to you next week to tell you how this goes. Our group is going through Coosa River Adventures again (can you tell how much we love CRA?). They charge $150 for a canoe and PFDs and paddles for two (or $75/person if you are less mathematically inclined), with discounts for three or more canoes. They also provide a shuttle service if you have your own canoe. There are one- and two-night options. Since our group is not independently wealthy, we’re limited to the one-night option since we have day jobs to report to. The beauty of canoe camping (or camping via touring kayak) is that you can haul as much as the boat will carry, not as much as your back will carry. A few of us are trying out new backpacking equipment and will be roughing it for the most part, but there’s talk of coolers filled with ice-cold beers, a dinner of kebabs and grilled brats (spiced Midwestern sausages, not a meal of annoying children), and a breakfast of bacon-fried biscuits. Some folks are tent campers. Others of us prefer hammocks. I’m expecting basically the most awesome time ever. YeeHa!

Tips

For a day hike, you want a daypack (a small backpack like what you used in high school will do), ample water (a couple of liters in a hydration pack is great), plenty of snacks, sunscreen, insect repellent with DEET (remember to put it on), a bandana (useful as a headband or to wipe sweat or to put around your neck so you look like a well-kept golden retriever), and TP and trowel for emergency bathroom trips. If you really want to know everything there is to know about heeding the call of nature in the great outdoors, read the classic manual How to Shit in the Woods.

Wear shoes that are comfortable for you, whether that’s hiking boots or something else. Hiking boots make me feel like I have cinder blocks for feet, and they rub my feet all kinds of wrong ways, just like cinder block slippers would. My gargantuan monkey toes and other foot issues make it difficult for me to find close-toed shoes that are suitable and comfy. I wear Teva Tirras that adjust around my various foot deformities, leave my monkey toes free from banging against the toe box, have amazing arch support, and are ideal for wearing in the water and crossing streams. I’m going to try trail runners for my winter expeditions. Remember that waterproof shoes don’t prevent water from getting in those great big holes that your feet go into, but they will keep water from leaving the shoes once it’s in there. I prefer something that drains easily.

Hiking poles are a godsend for the knees, and they give your arms a good work out. They’re cheap and sturdy at the Evil Empire Discount Center (aka, Walmart). Young, spry whippersnappers may not feel the need for them. I’ve got the knees of an octogenarian, so I find them crucial. Most are adjustable, and it’s standard to make them long enough that when you grip them, your forearm is parallel to the ground, so if you’re going uphill for an extended period, you might make them shorter and longer for downhill runs. You put your hand up through the loop, then grip with the loop between your hand and the pole so that the pole better carries your weight.

While the materials you need for a day hike are simple and affordable, when you decide to make the switch to camping and backpacking, the gear options go totally bonkers. Unless you want to limit yourself camping within 20 feet of your vehicle, you’re going to have to pay a pretty penny online or at specialty stores. Don’t buy anything at any department store or even, I’d say, at a place like Sports Academy and think that you’ll be able to carry everything you need on your back. I hear REI in Atlanta is the promised land of gear, but I like shopping from my computer. I’ve done a lot of research online. Hammock Forums (https://www.hammockforums.net) is swell and includes everything from gear reviews to DIY gravity water filters (I told you things were going to get weird, right?).

You can learn a lot just watching Youtube videos of what ultralight backpackers take. I found this one to be especially useful: http://youtu.be/YMbFd-bHHa8. Amazon is good, but there are a whole bunch of independent and cottage industry suppliers out there who invent superior alternatives. I’m a fan of GoLite, Warbonnet, Dutchware, Caldera stoves, and Zpacks. I covet Hammock Gear under quits and top quilts, to say nothing of cuben fiber tarps.  Outdoor Trail Gear is a co-op for various cottage manufacturers. Buy from the small guy! If I take to backpacking as much as I think I will, I’m fairly sure I’ll use whatever money I would have spent paying for a child’s education on gear instead.

Have fun out there, kids! And stay safe.

Jesseca Cornelson is an Assistant Professor of English at Alabama State University and is a resident of Cloverdale. She grew up in Mobile and did her graduate studies in the Yankee North, earning degrees at The Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati. She blogged about her visits to Montgomery to do research at her now-defunct blog, Difficult History, and was a Platte Clove Artist-in-Residence, sponsored by the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development.

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There Are 2 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Carole King says:

    Jesseca, how does one connect with the Montgomery Backpackers group? THANKS<

  2. Jesseca says:

    Superduper easy. Go to the meetup page: http://www.meetup.com/Montgomery-Backpackers/. I thought I’d included a link, but I was wrong.

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