Sunday, September 20, 2009

NORTH ALABAMA NOTES – Walking Dorothy’s Trail in the Dismals Canyon


My mother must have been slim and nimble-footed when she climbed up and down among the rocks and on the undulating trail through the dense forest of the Dismals Canyon back in the 20’s. When the sun came out on Friday, we drove to the Dismals to scout the trail she probably followed to her camp site during her famous camp-out in 1924 or 1925. The trail was only 1½ miles round trip, but it wasn’t an easy one to hike. We entered the Canyon and traversed a swinging bridge that caused my heart to accelerate wildly but I managed to wobble across, passing Rainbow Falls which has a pool at the top that was once used to baptize members of local churches in the early 1800’s.

When we reached a grotto, I received strong vibes that my mother had been there. Later, I read that the small pool to the right of the grotto had been built by Girl Scouts in 1925, and they used it for drinking water. There’s no doubt in my mind that my mother had been among the girls who built this pool. A little further down the path, we came to the kitchen where a small fireplace had been built. “I bet Dorothy cooked here,” I told Vickie, my hiking companion. Again, I later learned that the Girl Scouts had built the fireplace in 1925, so my intuitions about Dorothy having been there were on the mark.

From Dorothy’s description of spending the night in a sleeping bag under a ledge, I surmised that Temple Cave, a bluff shelter, was the site of the Girl Scouts’ bedroom. It had housed a tribe of Paleo Indians approximately 10,000 years ago, and pottery and arrow points have been found in the cave and in other areas of the Canyon. It looked habitable but Dorothy’s love of primitive camping is not part of my inheritance from her, and I kept visualizing snakes wriggling around under the ledge.

We had no fish food with us but were told that if we had thrown fish food in the fishing hole we passed, it would have boiled up with bass, bream, perch, trout, and bottom feeders called “hog suckers.” However, the fifty degree temperature of the water limits their size, and, if caught, they wouldn’t make a good mess. (No fishing allowed, but I wonder if Dorothy and her gang wet their lines anyway).

Although we often see giant hemlocks at Sewanee – one grows in our backyard – none of the Sewanee hemlocks can compare with the hemlock we saw in the Canyon. The tree is 138 ft. tall, 8ft. 9 in. around and has a crown spread of 50 ft. Alabamians brag that it’s the largest of its species in the world…they also claim that the forest in the Dismals has never been cut.


At one point while hiking the trail, we looked up at a narrow opening between two large boulders that was the original entrance to the Canyon. No one is permitted to climb through the opening now, but I can visualize a small Girl Scout party attempting to do so, my mother in the lead. The Witches Canyon was a labyrinth of moss and fern-covered rocks where some strange creatures reside. They’re called the Dismalites, tiny gnats which, in their larval stage, look like glow worms. They put on a show that inspires night hikes for those who want to see the critters, but I didn’t linger after the first hike. Under the waterfall is a cavern where Aaron Burr hid for several months after killing Alexander Hamilton in the famous duel of 1804. Other outlaws who robbed and murdered travelers on the Devil’s Backbone (Natchez Trace) also hid in the cavern.

Dorothy, who loved the color red, must have loved the brilliant cardinal flowers growing along a rushing stream, and many cardinal feathers were scattered along the Canyon path. I was perspiring freely and short of breath when we reached the end of the trail, but I have an even deeper respect for Dorothy’s stamina and for her love of the outdoors. She was a real Scout, and her appreciation of the pristine beauty of this unusual, unspoiled wilderness in northern Alabama was justified. I’m just sorry she never got back to the site. She’d have been near 100 years of age if she had lived to make the trek with me, but I know she would’ve probably been way ahead of me on the trail. I never could intuit the spot where she rolled down the canyon with her garter snake but it may have been at Temple Cave. I kept a sharp look-out for snakes but would’ve scuttled fast had I encountered one of the descendants of Dorothy’s garter snake!

Note: The Discovery Channel filmed part of “When Dinosaurs Roamed America” in the Dismals Canyon.
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