Lightning flashed as we tied our canoes on top of Steves Blazer. The weather forecast called for rain all night with clearing skies by morning. The next day, the water level was full and slightly stained. The sky was clear and blue, a perfect day to begin our first three-day canoe/camping trip.
George drove Steve and me to the upper bridge at Brownsville where we were attempting, for the first time, to go to Kellys Crossroad below Rockford, Al. It should take us about three days to get there. We packed clothes and food into zip-lock bags and stuffed them into backpacks that were lashed into the front of our canoes. I was paddling my red Coleman canoe I had purchased used from John Burkhaulter . (I had help peal this same canoe off a rock a few years ago after this fellow and his girlfriend pinned it broadside in the Hiawassee River.) Steve was paddling his brand new green Coleman canoe he had purchased at EDCO in Alexander City, Al. We had been wanting to make this trip since we were boys growing up in Goodwater. Before, we had tried going down Hatchet Creek in anything that would float, but this time we were both in our own plastic canoes. Steve used an aluminum Grumman canoe on a one-day trip we made last year. Afterward he swore he would never get in Hatchet Creek again in another aluminum boat.
We launched our canoes under the old concrete bridge near East Mill on a road that turns off the Brownsville Hwy. and goes to Parkdale, Al. We brought fishing gear with the hopes of catching enough fish to eat for supper. The creek was narrow and several times we had to stop to haul our boats over trees that had fallen across. Shorts bridge soon appeared and it was just high enough above the water for our boats to float under it, but we had to lie down inside the canoes to get under. We crossed more trees for the next 300 yards but soon the creek opened up and let us paddle. We made our way over the first small set of shoals and dodged a couple of boulders. The creek was narrow, dark and cool. Not much light penetrated the canopy of trees and mountain laurel that grew on the bank. Occasionally, shafts of light angled into the water from the early morning sun. A light breeze nudges the nose of my canoe and causes me to snap out of my trance and back to steering my boat. I was glad to be there.
We stopped our canoes and hiked through the woods in a neck of land formed by a horse shoe bend in the creek. Some time ago the creek had been diverted through this neck to power a mill of some sort. Also, we had herd that there was an Indian burial mound somewhere close by and we made every effort to find it. If the burial mound was there, we didnt find it. It was probably just an old story that someone started just to get people like us to stop and look for it.
Lunch was eaten under the train trestle that crosses about 100 feet above Hatchet Creek. I was wearing my good luck hat. Actually, it wasnt even my hat but one of Steves that I always wore on canoe trips. I also wore camouflaged fatigues packed into black rubber boots and a cotton canvas Banana Republic shirt that Meg had given me as a wedding present. Steve said that I looked like Fidel Castro.
The water got deeper and slacker the further down stream from the trestle we went. This was because there was an old concrete dam further downstream that used to generate power for the town of Goodwater, Al. A large section of the concrete cap had been ripped off during a flood in the Spring of 1979. This made the pond above the dam about 4 feet lower than it had been in the years past. As we approached the dam we paddled past the old Rock where years ago, Steve, some others and I had jumped into the creek from atop the 47-foot rock projection. There had also been a cable swing tied to a large pine tree that grew out of the bank by the Rock. I can remember how the air rushed by my ears with increasing volume followed by an explosion of water that terminated the 47-foot drop from the rock. You had to wear shoes to jump off the rock or the bottoms of your feet would get spanked hard against the water.
We dragged our boats around the right side of the dam and fished the waters just below the spill over. Hatchet Creek dam is about 12 feet high, (it used to be 3 or 4 feet higher when the concrete cap was still attached.) There are two gates on either side of the dam that you can walk into if you wanted to. The scenery around the dam is some of the best on the trip. Fishing is also good there, especially in the spring with minnows. Mist from the spill over drifts down stream providing the ingredient for rainbows to appear when the sun is shining.
The creek curves to the left below the dam and forms a horseshoe before breaking back to the right and spilling into Hog Eddy. Several years ago my George took me set-hooking with Speck and Robert Sprayberry on this stretch of the creek. I have set-out hooks several times since and had pretty good luck catching catfish and bass. Past Hog Eddy the creek breaks sharp to the right and then makes an S turns around an island. Just past the island there is a cabin on the left that sits on the farmland adjacent to Joe GillilandÕs property. About a quarter of a mile further and on the left side of the creek is where we planned to stop.
We ended our first days trip on a large sandbar at a place called Cat Den. There used to be a little shack there that some Goodwater teenagers build back in the 50Õs. It burned down some time in the 60Õs but the place has become a well-known reference to the natives and for some reason we always referred to it as the Cat Den. The property we were on belonged to SteveÕs family. Steve and I were very familiar with the surroundings. We pitched our tents and made a fire. The fish we caught were cleaned and wrapped in aluminum foil along with some lemon pepper and salt and cooked in the coals. Our families came down to Cat Den and joined us for supper and it was a good thing they brought extra food to eat. When everyone had left, we settled down and slept well through the night. We were up at the first light ready for the next days adventure.
We started early the morning since we didnt know how long it would take us to get just this side of US 231 bridge. We passed under the Old Sylacauga highway bridge and proceeded through a big eddy that paralleled the old road that once was the main road from Goodwater to Sylacauga. This eddy was once used to Baptize members of a near by Baptist Church.
A mile or so on down the creek, the cabin Steve and I had built in the 70s appeared briefly on a hillside behind us. We both rubbernecked it as long as possible while pitching through the choppy shoals. This reminds me of the time long ago when Steve and I were working on the cabin and heard an aluminum canoe banging its way down the creek. We decided to see if we could make it to the point, a rock bluff that over looks the creek, before the canoe did. It was early September and still hot. Snakes seem more aggressive during this time of year so we kept a sharp eye out as we maneuvered through the dim trails leading to the water. I was following Steve and noticed a patch of muscadine vines growing over a rock that we would have to step over. I was thinking to myself, That would be a good place for a snake! That thought was confirmed when I saw the blank sheet of white horror on Steves face as he pivoted 180 degrees around on his right heel. He immediately leaped off the rock ledge and landed safely on level about 8 feet below. I saw through the leaves the motion of black and tan scales camouflaged by shadows and mottled background. Steve had had his foot just inches above the timber rattler before he saw it and did the only thing he could have to avoid stepping on it. The snake was not in a hurry and didnt seem too upset until I came after it with a long hickory stick. I poked at its head while it slithered off down the bluff. Since I didnt want to follow it through the bushes, I went down the same way Steve did and met the snake at the bottom. The rattler paused with its head over a hole. Seizing this opportunity, I jabbed the stick onto the snakes head and drove it deep into the hole with a twisting motion. After I was sure he was securely fixed to the ground, I took out my pocketknife and proceeded to amputate his head. The snake however did not hold still while I was doing all this. Its body whipped and coiled madly, thumping the ground and feeling out my legs and arms with its coils. Once the cut was made, the headless body coiled and lashed out blindly with its bloody stump stabbing air close to my leg. When the death dance subsided we took a closer look at the quivering remains. Steve noticed that there was an unusually large bulge in its midsection. We both figured it had probably swallowed one last meal before hibernating for the winter. A quick cut with my knife would reveal what the meal had been. As I cut, a small clear sack slid out containing an exact duplicate of what we had just killed, but smaller. Reflexes caused me to draw back my hands at the sight of another rattlesnake. Once convinced that the baby snake could not bite while in its sack, I proceeded to deliver eight more timber rattlers, each a Xerox copy of the other. The snakes must have been close to being born since they were developed in every detail, with the exception of their rattle, like an adult. They wiggled lively in their sacks when I stretched them out on a hot rock to perish. Ten timber rattlers were killed that day. We completely forgot about the canoe going by.
The cabin faded away and we drifted slowly with the water past the Glenn Price place on the left and Steves new cabin on the right. Thirty minutes later the US 280 bridge traffic could be heard as we approached. It faded away quickly when the creek turned to the right and headed towards a place known as the Health Camp. There is a nice rapid there that requires a little figuring, but once in it, the canoe glides through with no problem. The portion of Hatchet Creek between US 280 and US 231 is the most popular stretch since each bridge provides the only reasonable access to the creek. The shoals are more frequent and the scenery is spectacular. In April, there are several verities of mountain laurel blooming along the steep banks. New leaves were beginning to appear on trees and dogwoods were starting to bloom. There was a pleasant smell along the creek that was composed all the things present at that time of year. The only way to truly appreciate it is to experience it. Words cant describe the combination of smells, sounds, and scenery that make Hatchet Creek a special place. There are few cabins along the creek and the ones that are there show signs of rare occupancy.
Lunchtime came at a place called Dunhams bottom. A giant boulder on the right side of the creek made the perfect place for stopping, getting out and fixing lunch. We searched the large field behind the boulder for Indian artifacts. Found a few arrowheads and pieces of broken pottery. Steve usually has more luck at this than I do. A few years back, Steve and Philip Osborn stopped here and looked for arrowheads. Philip finds things better than anyone I know, but Steve found the prize arrowhead that day. He found it close to the creek near a root ball. The arrowhead was made of jet-black flint and perfect in every way. I had never seen such quality workmanship from Indians in Coosa County. Steves arrowhead looks like one you would see in a museum. We figured that a homeboy Indian must have been shot with this arrowhead somewhere else and brought back to Coosa County with it in him.
We paddled through long eddies and shoals on into the afternoon. There was a place in the creek that got wide and shallow. You had to pick your way carefully to avoid getting stuck and having to get out and get wet. The challenge on Hatchet Creek is not so much in shooting the rapids, but being able to pick your way through shallow, rock filled shoals without having to get out of your boat. Being able to read the rapids and maneuvering your boat to make it go where you want it to go is the trick.
As we were picking our way through the shallows, we heard a high pitched tweeting sound coming from the bank. A mother duck with her babies behind her were making their way down stream. They were almost under the bank but could be seen well enough. They didnt seem to pay us any mind and were making better time than we were. Animals seem to have a different attitude about people when they are in the water. A few years back, Steve and I were paddling (if that is possible), our raft down a stretch of the creek when we saw this giant rabbit swimming close to the bank. We wrestled the raft close enough to the rabbit to touch it. The Cain Rabbit didnt seem the least bit frightened until I reached down and grabbed both of its ears that were lying flat against his back. He jumped so quick and hard that it almost dislocated my shoulder. He easily broke my grip and disappeared, bouncing away into the woods.
Afternoon was growing into evening and we had to find a place to camp. We knew roughly where we were in relation to US 231. Stopping anywhere now would put us in good shape to make tomorrows trip an all day event. You would think that since Hatchet Creek winds through so much remote land, that finding a place to camp would be as easy as pulling over and pitching your tent. Not true. Where the banks arenÕt sheer rock bluffs they are a thick under growth of tangled mountain laurel and saw briers. The nastiest camp is one made on dirt. A sand bar would be the most desirable place to stop. We were lucky that day. Steve found the perfect camping spot in a sharp bend of the creek. It was a large sand bar concealed behind bushes growing along the creek. A special eddy-out maneuver was required to position our boats to cross the rapids in order to land on the sand bar. If you messed up then you would be carried on by with little hope of getting your boat back up creek. This place turned out to be the only suitable camp spot within miles. It also turned out to be the perfect spot to break the trip from US 280 to Kellys Crossroads into two days. As luck was with us that day, a large pine-kenneling stump stood right in the middle of the sand bar. We pitched our tents, built a fire from the abundance of driftwood and ate supper. The moon rose full over the high ridge across the creek from our camp. There was almost enough light to paddle if you had to. We decided if we did this again that we would go in April whenever the moon was full. It didnt take much to go to sleep that night since we had paddled almost 12 miles that day.
We were up before the sun and had a fire going. The air was cool and a jacket was needed in addition to the fire. Soon, coffee was brewing and the sun hi-lighted the tops of pine trees on the high ridge across the creek. I dont know what was different about the coffee we made that morning, but that was the best coffee I have ever had. Something about food fixed outdoors just taste better.
After breakfast, tents were folded and stored with the rest of our gear in the canoes. Steve and I had been this far in a canoe before but neither one of us had been past US 231. We passed under the bridge at about 8:00 AM and paddled through a long eddy that terminates at an old dam. We stopped our canoes upstream of the dam and hiked around the left end through the woods. The dam has a gap about 12 feet wide in its middle forcing all of the water into a chute. There was about a 4-foot drop with a fold in it that would have to be negotiated if you want to paddle through. Just below the spill there were two large boulders that would have to be dodged. We decided to try it after talking over the best approach. To get the best angle on the chute, it was necessary to paddle over to the right side of the creek and stop behind the dam in an eddy. From there we injected our boats into the chute and accelerated through with a fair amount of water breaking over the bow and into the boat. Missing the boulders was achieved with little effort and good rapids carried us for a couple of hundred yards down stream of the dam.
The water was good for the next few hours. We were in new territory and every bend in the creek led to something new. I noticed a canal entering the creek on the left and paddled over to it to see how far up I could go. I was able to navigate through the 4 foot wide canal without getting out and re-entered the main creek about 100 yards down stream. The creek began to flatten out and get unbelievably wide. There were islands scattered about and thick stands of Spider Lilies that formed an infinite number of routes that meandered along for about 1/2 mile. This is an interesting place. Our canoes slid through the grassy routes and over chuckling falls until we emerged into what looked more like the rest of the creek. While paddling through this maze, we noticed an Osprey keeping tabs on us as we slid along. It had a fish in its talons and would align its head into the wind while in flight. It stayed in front of us perched in tall trees along the bank. We could see it stabbing into its meal with its beak until we got too close. Then it would fly a little further down stream and start the ritual over again. This lasted until lunch and we watched the Osprey head back upstream never to be seen again.
We ate lunch on a little sliver of rock beside a peculiar sort of rapid. This rapid was in the middle of an eddy. It looked like a place where the creek floor had a discrete step in it that stretched from one end of the creek to the other. This caused the water to drop abruptly about 2 feet forming a nice standing wave on the leeward side. After lunch, we surfed our canoes in the wave. The hardest thing to do was to try to get your boat parallel in the trough between the falls and the standing wave. We both tried this until we were exhausted. We succeeded a couple of times and managed to not get swamped.
The next significant falls were encountered just above the skeleton of an old iron bridge that, from the looks of it, had long since been condemned. Steve was first to go through after we scouted out the best approach. He made it without any problems. I followed the same route he had taken. The moment the bow of my boat was over the edge of the 3-foot falls, a wind gust turned it ever so slightly causing me to enter at a steeper angle that I wanted to. The left side of my canoe dipped into the falls as I went over. My boat was half filled in a split second but despite almost rolling over I managed to regain control and list over to the bank where Steve was waiting. We emptied out the boat and shoved off once again. There were several good rapids below the falls and more incredible scenery.
We had not seen any people since we put in two days ago, then we saw the Goat Man. This fellow lived in an old school bus and flew a Confederate Battle Flag from a make shift pole in his creek side yard. He was standing by a fire roasting a goat over the flames. Chickens, goats, and dogs ran around in his yard and stood on and under his table by a giant oak tree. The Goat Man raised his beer in salute and hollered a big HELOOOOOOOOOOooooooooo as we drifted by. He looked like Grizzly Adams with a beer gut. He wasnt wearing a shirt either but his beard covered most of his chest. We hollered back and smelled the smoke from the goat cooking on the spit.
We made it to Kellys Crossroads around 5:00 PM. Kellys Crossroads is a public boat launch located on the backwaters of the Coosa River. Hatchet Creek ends there for all practical purposes. Upon arrival, we were reasonably clean until we got out on the dirt bank. We foraged on what food was left for about 40 minutes until George drove up in my pickup. Steves Father drove up in his Blazer and said, That is the worst driving vehicle he had ever been in. We drove back to Goodwater and I was glad to see Meg and Stephen. I had a lot of stories to tell them over supper. This was one of the best parts of the trip. It wouldnt be long before Stephen would be old enough to go with me on these trips.