A Week In The Woods

From Monday to Thursday evening of last week, I was in the woods. No wi-fi, perilously spotty cell service, and all the fallishness I could ask for.

(And Ali didn’t mind it, either.)

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We rented a cabin at Oak Mountain State Park, which is close enough for Chris to commute to work, and the children and I never left the park.

It was glorious.

We didn’t abandon our school – that’s the beauty of homeschooling – it can be done on top of a picnic table by a lake.

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We didn’t do a full load of subjects, but our 20+ miles of hiking and half-dozen canoe trips made up for that.

(Science! Physical Education! Field Trips!)

(Some people enjoyed the canoeing more than others.)

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I attempted to make the week have an ‘80s vibe – I told the children that they could roam on their own around the cabin area. I gave them boundaries, flashlights, and instructions to GO. EXPLORE. Be children.

With the exception of sound: remember, children, it’s called Tranquility Lake for a reason.

Oak Mountain Fall Trip 2017 IMG_4657blogYou can see those flashlight beams on the other side of the lake. As children are supposed to be.

They didn’t really do a good job of all that – they tended to still stay close to me like the flock of geese that twenty-teen children are. But I tried. And I shook them from me a couple times, at least.

My parents came and joined us for a day and night, and with them, as always, came adventure. As they are much more experienced at having eighties kids than me, I totally trusted my dad to row Ali right up to a fairly steep dam and spillway to peer over the edge.

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But the more exciting part of that canoe ride was when Dad and Ali spotted a speedily moving object in the water – and began chasing it.

They chased it, it disappeared. They discussed “Could it be an alligator??”

It appeared across the lake, and they chased it again.

Finally, they got close enough for grabbing. It was a very fast-moving fishing pole.

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After a few swipes and misses, Ali was able to grab it before it swam off again – but it fought back.

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Ali almost dropped the pole once – it was pulling seriously hard.

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But whatever The Monster of Oak Mountain was, it broke the line and left Ali as the proud owner of its former fishing pole.

Oak Mountain Fall Trip 2017 IMG_4755blog(We suspected a large turtle…but monster is also totally believable.)

After the Loch Ness excitement, Gramamma helped the kids forage in order to make The World’s Best Fairy House Mansion.

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There were beds and tables and lampposts and salads and chicken and water and…

I mean seriously. Some Fairy stumbled across this estate and I’m sure assumed she’d died and gone to heaven. This project definitely counted as “Charity Work” on the school log.

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One of the things I most love about staying at Oak Mountain as opposed to visiting (it is, after all, only 30 minutes from my house) is the ability to night hike.

Oak Mountain closes at sunset. When we visit, I’m usually sweating about making it out of there – because I’m pushing it to the last minute to get pictures of the sunset that signifies that I’m about to get locked in.

But if you are staying at Oak Mountain, gates are not an issue. So every night after dinner (I took along a huge pot of soup and grilled cheese makings and that’s what we ate all three nights because soup and grilled cheese are always good in a state park no matter how many nights in a row you’ve eaten it), we’d go on a hike together. I got amazing pictures of these hikes, like this one:

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Okay, Chris fared a little better in his nocturnal photographical pursuits:

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It was, admittedly, slightly creepy the first night as we walked around the lake, hearing impossibly loud plops in the water. Too far of a drop for turtles…too loud for snakes…too loud for frogs…we never did figure out what we were scaring into the water, but whatever it is, I’m sure it was a fishing-pole-stealing type of monster.

But those hikes became the highlight of our days – we’d all get flashlights or headlamps or both and head out into the completely silent forest, crunching on the leaves and blissfully soaking in the crisp November air. Plus, it gave Chris another way to enjoy his time there, since he was still going to work. (He also got up early and ran, so he felt a decent amount of state-park-relaxation in spite of going to work.)

The kids spent our days split between a little school, a little canoeing, and a lot of hiking.

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Oak Mountain has so many trails (over 60 miles, plus a bunch of unmarked trails), so no matter how much we hike out there, there’s always more to see and explore.

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Somehow in her foraging, Ali seemed to have stumbled across The Elixir of Perfect Hair – it certainly wasn’t clean or even tangle-freehair, but somehow it looked like this – in the MIDDLE of a hike.

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GAH. The magic of youth.

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The kids recovered from our walks with a little coffee drinking and a lot of card playing. They might’ve transitioned to adulthood last week.

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And Chris and I spent our evenings and mornings staring at the lake and enjoying the silence of sleeping, thoroughly-worn-out children.

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On our last day at the park, our cousins came out in the morning for a hike, and our friends came out in the afternoon for a hike. The energy levels provided by having friends to hike with was unbelievable – despite hiking so much in the prior days, Noah was sprinting excitedly up the mountainside when he had his cousins to hang with.

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They brought along their massive puppy Macro (still not full-grown), which made it all the more exciting. That dog walks like a lion.

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My only complaint about the week was the lack of sun. The temperature was lovely, but the fog made our hike up to the beautiful lookout a bit…anticlimactic.

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With a lot of angling and waiting for clouds to thin, the best shot I got of the fall foliage below was…

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But the kids didn’t seem to mind. Snacktime still happens on the top of the mountain whether you are enshrouded in fog or not.

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In between hikes, we frantically packed up our cabin and checked out, then met our next friends at the demonstration farm,

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…which is the residence of the nicest, most fantastically depressed donkey you will ever meet.

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He will really help one understand the casting decision for Eeyore.

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The demonstration farm also has ponies, a pig, two peacocks (that sadly weren’t in bad moods and so didn’t show us their magnificent feathers), and a herd of extremely frisky and escape-minded goats.

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Lest you miss him in the corner of the picture, this guy was their lookout while they purloined their sweet ride. He was chosen for his stellar ability to look nonchalant.

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We’ve done the whole feeding-the-goats thing before, and it was frankly frightening. You buy a bag of food, and your reward is getting immediately stampeded.

Frankly, you walk up to the window where they sell the food and you’re likely to draw attention.

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However, the farm made a massive improvement since our last visit – they now have a fenced off area from which you can feed the animals in safety.

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That’s right. At this farm, the humans go in the zoo and the animals come visit them. It’s the way things should be, really.

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After our animal needs were filled, we set off on two last hikes.

The first one included Oak Mountain’s fabulous bird trail (where they have rehabilitating owls and birds of prey in large cages tearing apart bloody mice but you don’t feel so bad for the mice after you read the bird’s back-stories on how they ended up there),

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Through the woods, during which the kids went through the bottom of this tree stump and ended up in Narnia, as one does,

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And, on our last leg of hiking, down to Peavine Falls.

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It was the perfect ending to our week of fall, which was just long enough, as I was quite ready to be back in my own bed, with my own shower, and my own refrigerator. And maybe a bit of wi-fi.

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But not before I booked us the same trip for next November – only next time, we’ll be staying the full seven days. Because I might be a little addicted to this season.

Stepping Into The Light.

Trigger Warning: Dear Mom, don’t read this post.

(I made the mistake of telling my Mom the some of the details of this adventure on Sunday. She asked me to please never ever tell her if I did this or anything like it again.)

Stephens Gap Callahan Cave Preserve (no relation to any Callahans or Stephens I know) has been on my mental bucket list for a few years, from the moment I first saw a photo of it. It is one of those surreal natural wonders that I a) couldn’t believe existed and b) certainly couldn’t believe existed only two hours from my front door. But it requires a permit, you must travel with at least one other person, and there was no way I could take my kids, so a full day where I could take on such an adventure requires a bit of planning to pull off. I tried last year while the kids were in camp, but Noah got strep. But this would be my year.

Oh and also – the whole thing is super dangerous. This is the “real” kind of cave – unlike the thoroughly safe DeSoto Caverns I visited earlier this year, this one is not lit or guard-railed to make it safe, does not have staff to show you what to do, and you have to sign all the waivers acknowledging that you may or may not survive. I very specifically did not Google how many people had died there until after the trip (the answer is three – that I found articles on, anyway.)

I recruited three people to join me – a photographer who interned with me last school year, Jake Marvin, his mom Kim, and his sister Anna. Kim came prepared. A backpack full of water and a bottle of liquid Benadryl – basically what every cave expedition needs (I mean, helmets and a flashlight would’ve been real nice, but Benadryl was just as well.) It was a mile hike to the cave, along which I got a text from my dear husband.

“I’ll always remember you.”

The cave is set up as such: there’s the “pit”, which is a 143 foot drop straight down with a waterfall running through it. The pit faces upward in such a direction that it catches light beams in a most magical way. To the left of the pit there’s a climb-down entrance. We arrived at the climb-down entrance first, and it was so steep looking that I said, “Okay – here’s the pit.”

…until we found the actual pit. At which point I realized that other hole had indeed been where we would have to climb down. This is the pit:

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After Jake and Anna completely freaked their mother out by getting way to close to the pit, we headed back to the climb-down entrance.

We began our descent, which wasn’t as steep once we got started. It was, however, quite slippery. There were streams and waterfalls in several places along the entryway, making rocks slippery and unstable. Just as I said “look at all these jagged rocks just waiting to break a tailbone!!”, I managed to slip and fall onto my tailbone. Thankfully I have enough cushioning back there to break the fall with no damage.

As we got lower into the cave, the dancing sunbeams took our collective breath away. As we rounded the corner where we could truly see the scene, we were all in awe.

This is what we saw.

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The sunbeams were alive, getting brighter and dimmer and sometimes completely disappearing, leaving the cave instantaneously dark. Sometimes they would fade just enough to allow the waterfall behind them to be seen.

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As water and waterfalls were coming from multiple directions (you can see another waterfall in the right of the above picture), it was impossible to keep our camera lenses dry, hence the droplets on many of the shots.

Since Kim was The Mom of our trip, I sent her to investigate the pedestal – the large round rock upon which the light beams were shining. It was perched on the edge of the pit, about 50 feet up from the bottom. Everything was wet and slippery, and we’d pre-agreed that no one would be going onto the pedestal unless we felt it was safe, even though that was the shot we had come for.

Kim and Anna inched their way around the top edge first, looking for a step down. There wasn’t a viable choice.

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Jake and I were busy setting up our cameras and getting our angles just right when they finally reported (or yelled, as all of the waterfalls made it extremely loud): the only way to the pedestal was from below. Which meant walking through a stream/waterfall, then climbing up the rocks leading to the pedestal.

Anna tried it first. I give Kim full credit for her allowing of this endeavor. But she made it look easy – somehow. And Anna was the first we got in The Shot.

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Starting in the bottom left-hand corner of this picture, you can see the rushing water that she had to navigate down. That rushing water goes straight into the pit, so slipping is not advised.  She stayed up there for a few shots, then climbed down and back up to us.

Kim went next – she wore her Wonder Woman shirt for the occasion.

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She couldn’t hear our photographical instructions over the roar of the waterfall, which led to this gem of a picture.

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As Kim made her way back up, I got a bad video of her navigating the water:

It was my turn. I would hate myself forever if I didn’t try this, no matter how frightening it looked from my angle. I set my camera up on the tripod and left it in Jake’s trusty hands. I brought a dress tied to my backpack – I untied it and draped it like a scarf around my neck. And I slowly began my descent through the waterfall. I shimmied from side to side, trying to find the driest rocks and the safest hand-holds possible, but still fully immersing my feet in the rushing water several times. There were thankfully some really polite rocks that offered perfectly contoured handles on the way down. But still, I admit it: I was a bit terrified.

I made it to the bottom of the pedestal and began climbing up. The rocks were of a size that made it fairly easy at first, aside from the fact that they were all covered in mud that was most likely comprised of 24 different types of bat guano. When I got to the final rock of the pedestal, I realized that there was no way up without a full marriage between my legs, hands, and butt and the fairly thick pile of guano mud. So I went for it. I received a full-body mud treatment, but I made it to the top.

I unfurled my dress and threw it over my workout clothes that were now covered in a wet layer of slop. My long dress dusted through the mud. I took out my ponytail and shook my hair loose. I heard cheering from the other side of the ravine – I’m sure it was for my super-glamorous model preparation.

And then I posed. And Jake got The Shot for which I had waited so long.

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As I looked up to the sky, it was every bit as surreal as one would imagine. The sun twinkling above me, waterfalls dripping and rushing from multiple directions, and rainbows dancing in the beams and mist – all only viewable from my current location. I wanted so badly to have my camera there with me – but the wet and muddy journey combined with the extreme moisture of the air around me prevented that option entirely. However, experiencing the moment – staring into that rainbowey, waterfalley, sunburstey canvas – it was about as close to heaven as one can experience on this earth.

This absolutely should be one of the most notable wonders of our country.

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Getting down was actually more terrifying that getting up – the foothold I’d used to get onto the rock was not accessible from a front-facing position, and I was not willing to slide down on my stomach. After sitting there for a few minutes not knowing if I’d ever leave the pedestal, I gave myself a pep talk.

C’mon Rachel. You’ve been doing planks and push-ups all year. You’ve even been lifting weights, albeit the lightest ones. You need to put some belief in your arms and lower yourself down. It’s the only way.

I planted both my palms solidly through the mud and onto the platform, then slowly lowered my body down to the next rock I could find footing. For a tenth of a second I thought I would surely slip and slide off into the pit, but I didn’t. My level of adrenaline was off the charts.

I had done something. Something that felt entirely unsafe, at least in my narrow construct of life.

Jake went last. I felt bad because by the time his turn came, my camera was hopelessly moist (something that was giving me no small amount of anxiety, considering I’ve already lost one camera to moisture), and all of my pictures of him had a slight smudged quality.

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Once even my camera decided to turn him into a ghost…which, honestly, is a pretty awesome mistake.

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The sunbeams “went out” once when he was up there – you can see what it looks like here with just the waterfall:

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But the beams returned, we got a few more photos, and then he began his descent back down.

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When we finally all climbed our way back out of the cave, I immediately texted Chris and proclaimed our survival. He was overjoyed that he would have more than just a memory of his wife.

As we walked back on the trail, the full extent of my personal moisture began to take hold. I very much realized what it must feel like to be a toddler walking around with a dirty diaper. Had I thought to bring a change of clothes? Of course not. And so, I drove two hours back, waited around an hour, picked up my kids from camp, and headed home – and a full five hours after emerging from the cave, still a good bit damp, I finally was able to begin the process of de-guano-ing myself.

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I’m positive that the long-lasting effects on my skin will be amazing. And I can’t wait to do it all over again (but don’t tell my mom.)

Hands-On Alabama History: DeSoto Caverns

DeSoto Caverns was not on my all-encompassing spreadsheet of Alabama History. In fact, after studying Alabama History and reading one very detailed story about how Hernando De Soto came to Alabama with the sole purpose of stealing from and brutally slaughtering as many Native Americans as possible, I felt a bit queasy from the happy signs for “DeSoto Caverns Family Fun Park!!”

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But then, I happened upon a Facebook ad for a half price “Homeschool Day”, and I was feeling especially adventurous. Three days later, I found myself enjoying a laser light show underground with two other families that I dragged down with me. So congrats, DeSoto, your Facebook Ad was successful.

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But I quickly learned that DeSoto Caverns, despite its poor choice in names, should have been on my spreadsheet from the beginning. Our hour-long tour of the cave provided some extremely fantastic pieces of history.

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We learned about Mr. Wright, who happened upon the cave in 1723, carved his name and date in this rock, then lay down to take a nap.

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Poor guy. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He didn’t know that the cave was a sacred Indian burial ground and that they had someone to bury that very day. The Indians happened upon his happy little nap on their way down, and went ahead and killed him and left his bones beside his name. Mr. Wright had carved his own tombstone.

But on the plus side, it’s the oldest graffiti to be found in any US cave, so way to carve your way into history. Moist would be proud.

We also got to learn about how Civil War gunpowder was made in the cave, using its secrecy and noise-cancelling abilities to hide the production.

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But my favorite piece of history was about The Cavern Tavern.

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A 1920’s prohibition bootlegger had been using the cave to make moonshine. But he got tired of having to drag his large clay vessels up a mudslide to get out of the cave, so instead, he decided to open a secret speakeasy in the cave itself. And, well…I’ll let Ali tell the rest of the story.

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That jewel is by far my favorite report from our entire study of Alabama history. If we’ve learned nothing else, it’s the all-important lesson of “Don’t go to an illegal bar in a cave with no way out except to climb up a mudslide. Especially if it’s named ‘The Bloody Bucket’.”

The caves, despite the stalagtites damaged for the long six-week tenure of The Bloody Bucket, were just magnificent.

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As we toured the cave, they pointed out all of the pieces of cave that looked like something else. This was the unanimous favorite – Yoda.

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After the cave, we enjoyed the “Family Fun” part of the park. They had at least a dozen attractions to pick from – Mini Golf, a gold panning, gem searching, a maze, and a few fair-like rides.

I was kind of obsessed with finding gems in the giant sandbox,

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And we all enjoyed the maze. Mainly because Holland, one of the kids with us, taught us the trick to all mazes: never take your left hand off the wall and it’ll lead you out.

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Totally works, guys.

Some of the rides were more kid-powered than usual, which made it highly entertaining for the grown-ups to watch as the kids worked their hardest to peddle the “go-karts” up and down small hills.

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(Red faces are always a good sign of time well spent.)

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Overall I was extremely pleased with the park – the cave was bigger and more educational than I expected, and the kids had a fantastic time – both in the cave and out.

But I still think they could do for a name change.

Here was Ali’s report:

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