The camping trip
It was the Spring of 1974, and my friend John and I had just got of high-school. We had been planning on this camping trip for months, and the time had finally came. We got my brother to drop us off by Okatuppa Creek, twenty miles from home, and then we hiked through the forest until we found the perfect campsite. After setting up a make shift tent we made from an old tarp, we did a little exploring, and then cast our fishing lines into the water, but the fish were not biting, so we tapped into our meager food supply. We knew that we had to be careful with the little bit of food that we had brought with us. We had asked my brother to come back in a week to pick us up, so the food had to last. So that first evening we had a can of beef stew and crackers. Surely the fish would be biting tomorrow we assured each other.
I can still remember sitting around that campfire, rehashing old stories, and desperately searching for something new to share with John, but we had been friends since the second grade. There just wasn't anything that we didn't share when it came to news. We were the same height, both nearsighted, with the same prescription lenses, and we had even dated some of the same girls. There were other similarities as well. My mother had died in a car wreck when I was fourteen, and John's younger sister Labeth had died in his arms from a gunshot wound. Labeth had just turned fourteen years old. It was something that neither of us ever talked about back then, but we understood one another's feelings just the same.
That night as the flames of the campfire began to dwindle, we took our blankets and laid them out onto the sandy creek bank. We positioned ourselves with the campfire between us. That way we both had an equal amount of light, and safety the fire would provide. With the aid of the campfire and the moon light, we could spot the threat of any water moccasins against the white sand. The makeshift tent that we had setup was only there in case of rain.
In no time at all, John was sound asleep, but I had difficulty falling asleep that night, and it wasn't just a matter of comfort. I had spent a number of nights around a campfire growing up, at first with my older brother and his friends on weekend fishing trips, and then later on with John. We had toughed it out in some remote locations through the years. I looked across the campfire in John's direction, and called his name, but he didn't answer, so I looked up into that star filled sky, and took a deep breath. It was a beautiful sight, and I remember wondering how many times I had went to sleep at night without ever taking a moment to admire the beauty of the night sky. Today I live in the Tampa Bay area, and from here you can't see many stars because of light pollution. I miss those stars.
A cry for help
The next morning John was up before me, and went down to the edge of the creek to wash up. I was just rubbing the sleep from my eyes, when I heard him yell out, "help!" I scrambled down the bank to where he was, to find the body of a snake protruding from underneath John's foot. The snake's head was buried underneath his bare heel. "It's a cottonmouth," John exclaimed nervously. I knew that there was a chance that it was a harmless banded water snake, but there wasn't enough light yet for me to be sure. I quickly removed my scabbard knife and cut the snake's head off. I don't like killing anything, but I couldn't take a chance with John's life. As it turned out, it was a small cotton mouth, about eighteen inches long. Luckily, he had not been envenomated by the snake. John was also lucky that it had been a cool morning, and the snake's reflexes had been slow. On a warmer day, the cotton mouth would have tagged him for sure. That close call helped to keep us focused for the remainder of our stay.
A slice of paradise
Still having no luck with the fishing, we decided to try a different spot, and began walking upstream. After walking for about a mile or so, we came upon a six foot alligator, and startled him. He quickly scampered off into the water, and then with a violent thrashing o If his tail, disappeared into the creek. It was rare to see an alligator in that part of Alabama, so it gave us something to talk about, then and for the many years that have followed. It was just after our encounter with the reptile, that we came upon a shallow area of the creek. It was wide there, only a few inches deep, with a thick canopy of trees overhanging the banks from each side, meeting each other over the creek bed. It was like a tunnel of greenery, with patches of sunlight breaking through in spots, reflected off of the clear shimmering water. The bed of the creek was covered with pea sized stones of a variety of colors. It was so beautiful, that I found myself wanting to linger there, but we had to keep moving.
Just ahead, the creek narrowed, and the water became deeper. There was a sharp bend in the creek there as well, with a high vertical bank on one side, and a pristine white sandbar jutting out into the creek from the opposite shore. Growing from the sandbar was a group of weeping willow trees, that leaned out over the water. It was simply a slice of paradise. We cast out our fishing lines into the creek, then got comfortable. We were both avid readers, and had brought along a collection of paper back books with us. Back in those days we both enjoyed reading westerns, with Louis L'amour being our favorite living author. We only got one bite there, and that little fellow swam away with a big fat worm. As hungry as I was, I didn't care. That day upon would continue to live on in my mind, and I would venture back to that tranquil spot more than once.
Foraging for food
We had brought along a small ration of food with us, but that wouldn't last us long. It was only intended to hold us over until we caught fish, so the food situation was beginning to get serious. Still, there wasn't much that we didn't know about the forest there, and what could be eaten. On our first day hiking to our campsite, I had noticed a large patch of blackberries, and out by the highway there were wild plums trees. So we set out to collect some wild fruit.
After reaching the highway, we wasted no time in getting to those plum trees. Though the plums were small, there were a lot of them, and we ate our fill, then removed our tee shirts and tied the tops into a knot to make a bag so we could carry some of the plums back with us. Just off of the highway, we found a small pile of trash. It had been there for a while and I remember commenting on how sick it made me to see it in the forest, but then noticed a bunch of vines growing from the pile of debris. At the same time, we both exclaimed, "potato vines!" We both began digging up the tubers then, our mouths watering over the thought of having fresh French fries that night. Even though it was a trash pile, when we were finished, we left those potato vines intack. After that we made our way to the blackberry bushes, and filled our the remainder of what our makeshift bags would hold.
That night we had French fries, a couple of fish that we finally managed to catch, and some pan fried hush puppies. For the first time in days, my stomach felt satisfied.
The bob cat
Late that night after lying down to sleep, I heard something rustling Through the leaves. I brought it to John's attention, because there were black bears in the area. "It's probably just some turkeys scratching around," John mumbled from his slumber. I wasn't afraid so much as I was curious. Finally I too slipped off into a deep sleep.
The next morning I awoke to the sound of splashing water. John was just waking up as well. We both heard the noise, and crept forward looking over the edge of the bank to see the largest bobcat that I had ever seen. It's rare to see one of these animals as they are incredibly shy, and elusive, but there this one was, splashing in the edge of the water. He looked at us as though he wasn't afraid, and then sauntered off down the shoreline of the creek. When the cat came to an encroachment of brush, he slipped into it, and vanished from our sight.
After the excitement of the bobcat had worn off, we set about washing up that morning. The thing about sleeping on a sandy creek bank is that sand has a way of getting into everything. A gentle breeze at night, and you wake up with your hair full of sand. It gets into your ears and up your nose, into your clothes, it gets everywhere, so a bath could be quite refreshing. Today was different though. John was beginning to have doubts about remaining for the entire week. Perhaps he would stay for five days instead of the seven we had intended upon. "There's that little general store eight or ten miles south of where we were dropped off," he reminded. "We could borrow their phone and call home."
I felt a little disappointed, but it was only a matter of a few hours later that I was thinking the same thing. The thought of sleeping in a nice soft bed was sure tempting, and I was getting just as bored as John. We had camped out many times before, but due to the distance that we had to hike to our campsite, we were forced to travel light. Back in 1974, there were few comforts of home compared with today, but humans are needy creatures. I missed my FM radio, and the color TV, but most of all I missed my guitar. I had recently broken up with my girlfriend, but John had a steady sweetheart, and I knew that he was wanting to see her. I remember looking over at him and saying, "fine, we'll call it five days."
That afternoon we hiked eight miles down stream to a boat landing to fill our canteens from an overflow well there, and then turned around and hiked back. We hadn't managed to catch anymore fish, and we only had one can of beef stew left. We had stopped to eat a few plums on the way back, we both needed some real sustenance.
That evening we got out the can opener, and opened that can of beef stew. It wasn't that much to divide between the two of us and we contemplated as to how we might be able to stretch it. We could make some bread with the flour and cornmeal we brought to bread the fish with I suggested, but John was quick to remind me that we didn't have any milk, and we needed what water we had in our canteens to drink. That's when I got this idea, "we'll just mix in the beef stew" I said. John thought about it for a moment and said, "Why not." It turned out to taste not so bad. Of course I'll readily admit that our hunger played a big part in the taste factor, but John and I still eat our campfire bread to this very day.
Our last day
The following day was our filth day on Okatuppa Creek. That afternoon we hiked down to the little general store, and made a call to my brother. He was working the evening shift at the time, so he would be able to pick us up. I had a little money on me, and I bought a couple of candy bars that we ate on the way back to the creek. At the boat landing we took a seat beneath a shady tree, and waited. It was a sad moment for me. This camping trip had been a way for John and I to spend some time together before I left town. I had a construction job waiting on me in Florida, and John had his own plans there in Alabama. We had been friends for ten years, and now we would soon be going our separate ways. It made me wonder now, why we had been in such a rush to get out of school.
Moss Rock Waterfall
One of many waterfalls in Desoto Falls National Park in Alabama
Sipsey Wilderness Park
Alabama Parks and waterfalls
I have included the link below to photos of just a few of the many waterfalls in Alabama. Many of these parks have cabins for rent.