Hands-On History: Tannehill

We go to Tannehill Ironworks Historic State Park fairly often. It’s not close to our end of Birmingham, but it’s a beautiful place to hike, get outdoors, explore pretty places, and to photograph. Plus, my family camped there often when I was a kid, so I have very fond memories.

I do not, however, remember studying the history of the place as a kid. Which means that we probably totally did and I just tuned it out. It’s tragic how little I remember of my education – and that includes college. Thankfully, Ali seems more interested than I ever was.

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I hadn’t planned on going on a field trip this particular Monday, but a friend who knows my adoration for Fall texted me that morning and said “This is it! Leaves are blowing everywhere and it’s gorgeous outside. It’s the quintessential fall day. You need to go somewhere amazing.”

So I texted Carla Jean and my Last Minute Network O’ Adventure and we headed to Tannehill. Both Carla Jean and a set of friends dropped everything to join us – the call of fall is strong around here.

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It was just lovely. The perfect temperature for exploring without getting hot, and also never getting cold. Our little crew soaked in the majesty.

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We did our usual hike, which is a 4 mile loop that goes along the river, to the furnace, through the woods, and to the water wheel, but this time, we paid careful attention to read the signs, understand its part in history, and pretend that we were a part of it (including crawling into the furnace where they made molten iron. Maybe not the best part to pretend.)

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We delayed our hike to play in and around the creek because the weather was just delightful.

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The wind picked up and created an intense leaf storm,

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Leaving the water littered with fall.

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We finally continued our hike,

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Taking breaks every now and then to attempt to catch falling leaves.

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My favorite hike at Tannehill is the trail from the Furnace to the Water Wheel. It’s a beautiful trail, and there’s a treat on each end. The kids took turns opening the dam to allow more water to travel in the chute to the water wheel, finding all of it great fun.

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We had to use some hiking games to encourage everyone to make it this far, so I pulled out my trusty “Super Bonus Power-Up” game, where you touch trees to get power-ups, and the bigger the tree, the more energy you derive from it. It’s amazing how efficiently video game theatrics can improve real life.

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Noah decided to improve on my game and add firearms to the mix – he decided that you could shoot the trees to more efficiently collect your power-ups. Then declared himself the winner of the game by 20,000 points.

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His method was so convincing that he managed to recruit Carla Jean.

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He made it clear to her that she wasn’t quite as good as he was, but she wasn’t bad – for a newbie and a pacifist.

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The hike from the Water Wheel back to the entrance is always the most exhausting part. The last legs of journeys often are, especially on tiny legs.

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So I made up one last game for everyone to survive with gusto: each person had to find a yellow, orange, red, green, and purple leaf. If you got all five, you could start swapping them out for higher quality leaves of the same color. If you found another color, you got bonus points. The game enabled everyone to get back to the parking lot – some just barely.

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We dumped all our leaves in a pile and ooohed and aahed at the colors.

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It really was amazing how vibrant everyone’s finds were when put all together. Sometimes late fall looks all brown, until you really start searching for it.

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After the 4 mile hike, we went to the museum – for the first time ever for my kids, and for the first time in at least 25 years for me.

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Tannehill was built in the early 1800s to capitalize on the brown ore found nearby. It was an ironmaking operation until 1865, when union troops burned it, right before marching to The University of Alabama and also burning it down.

The museum offers beautiful timelines of the iron industry and how it led to the founding of Birmingham (post-war),

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has giant pieces of ore and other minerals to study,

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And demonstrations of the giant industrial equipment used to turn the ore into iron.

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The kids enjoyed all the pulleys and wheels, and maybe learned a little in the midst of all their playing.

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Carla Jean’s article about Tannehill can be found here.

40 Spectacular Spots for Birmingham Photo Shoots

Best Photo Backdrops in Birmingham

It’s getting to be the season for family photos, and I often have photographers message me for new ideas on Birmingham backdrops for family or commercial photo shoots. We all know that the Botanical Gardens and Morris Avenue and Railroad Park are great, but people want new ideas.

And I like to give the people what they want.

As I tend to get around a bit as a Birmingham photographer, I have a few suggestions for you who are looking for unique backdrops to take photos in Birmingham. I’m sure you’ve heard of some of them, but maybe I’ll surprise you with a few. Some are seasonal and some take longer walks than others, so be sure and read the details for any disclaimers that you might want to know about. And feel free to ask follow-up questions in the comments or by email – I’m always willing (albeit sometimes a little slow) to help!

Also, if you just like shooting cool places in Birmingham, this is the list for you. As you can see, I don’t usually clog up my pictures with people, either.

But first, a disclaimer: Please use common sense. Just because I list a place here does not mean you can have a full two hour photo shoot there without permission. If in doubt, get prior approval.

Now. Let’s begin.

1. Urban/Artsy: The Blank Space Mural Projects near the Alabama Theatre. These are beautiful, bold, colorful works of art that can be found on the north side of 3rd Avenue South and 18th Street.

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Details: They’re both in the backs of parking lots used by Alabama Theatre visitors and workday cars, so attempt to time your visits when the parking lots aren’t full for best access.

2. Urban/Graffiti: The “Graffiti building” on 1st Ave S by the Jones Valley Trail between 28th St S and 32nd St S – It’s a giant warehouse building at least two blocks long covered from one end to the other with Graffiti tags.

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If this is your thing, this is the place to find it. It’s currently uncovered because of construction going on next to it. There are some really fun, colorful, and unique tags on the building.

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Details: There isn’t public parking right next to it, but you should be able to park fairly close by and walk down the walking trail to the graffiti wall.

3. City View: Crest Road, off of Aberdeen Road. The ultimate city view, this street has a spectacular rock wall overlooking the city. The sunset is best here during the summer, but it’s a great place for family photos year-round.

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Details: Park on Aberdeen and walk up Crest – there’s no parking on Crest. It is gated after 7pm, but it’s still a public road – you are not trespassing to walk around the gate.

4. Floral Gate: During Crepe Myrtle Season (July), the gate at the east end of the above mentioned Crest Road is like a fairytale.

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…Even when boys photobomb you.

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5. City View: An alternate to Crest Road is Stratford Road – but the nice big yard that is city-facing is private property, so stay on the sidewalk or obtain proper permission before scheduling a photo shoot.

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6. Pastoral View: Tip Top Grill’s parking lot in Bluff Park. With their great gate and the unobstructed view of Oxmoor Valley, this is a spectacular place for a photo – of sunsets or people or both.

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7. Night Funk: You’re not going to get fantastic detail of your subjects if you wait until dusk and go to the Light Rails, but hey – you’ll get some cool shots. And if you’re shooting somewhere close by, this might be a fun way to end the photo shoot.

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…But even during they daytime, they’re cool tunnels.

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Details: There are three sets of light tunnels that run between north and south Birmingham – at 14th, 18th, 19th, and 20th Streets. I currently recommend 18th Street because the others have construction around them right now.

8. Rotary Trail: The Rotary Trail is a fun place to photograph, with or without people. There are so many fun angles, interesting benches and signs, underpasses and fences.

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9. Morning Light: If you actually convince a client to meet you at sunrise, the Argyle Road area (near Stratford Road) has stunning sunbeams that provide an ethereal glow to the already lovely street. You could visit this road in conjunction with Stratford or Crest.

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10. Manicured Lawns and Gardens: Samford University is a charming college with many superb buildings, yards, flowers, and stairs.

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The Lilies, the Snakes, and the Misplaced Boob.

It was time for a new adventure. And I wanted to see firsthand, for the first time in my life, The Cahaba Lily.

It’s a famed flower in our area, being very rare, quite endangered, and living in sparse, hard-to-access clumps along the Cahaba River, which is a relatively tiny waterway that winds itself through nearly every suburb of south Birmingham.

So I needed to experience the Lilies for myself. And with my camera. And why not – with my children. So I asked my group of adventurous friends if anyone would like to join us, warning them that this adventure would be in completely uncharted territory and so it was not for the faint of heart or diaper.

The only takers, out of the 20 or so in the group, were my sister-in-law Lindsay with her three kids and Not-Crazy-Renee – but only with her oldest kid this time.

I had a friend, Leigh, who regularly visited these elusive Lilies, who gave me directions on how to get there, including such fantastic advice like “Wear good shoes and watch for snakes…you’ll have to jump over a creek bed…go UNDER the train trestle.”

Sound words.

So we parked in the lot behind the Bar-B-Q place, as prescribed, and set off for adventure.

The first challenge was the “jump over the creek bed.” Either Leigh has Amazonian legs or the last time she went out there it had been during a drought. There was no way us adult ladies were jumping over, let alone our six small companions.

So most of us decided to de-shoe to cross, with a couple others opted for the risk of wet shoes. We got over, re-shoed, and continued our journey. Up the hill,

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under the trestle,

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up a little further,

Hiking-to-Lilies2and there they were.

The magnificent Cahaba Lilies.

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They were bigger than I expected and there were more of them than my companions expected. We were all breathless in wonder of their bright, shining beauty.

It took no time for us to find a way down to the creek, and the kids began re-de-shoeing (in order of bravery) and wading into the creek rapids while I took pictures.

And while Renee found another rock to sit on and said,

“Um. Hey Rachel? There’s a BOOB on my rock.”

I looked over. She was messing with something.

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She moved out of the way and I grabbed my zoom lens and focused on the…boob?

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HOLY CRAP IT WAS A BOOB.

The kids noticed the commotion.

Ali asked, “What’s that?”

I asked, “Is it hollow or solid?”

Noah asked, “Hey miss Renee will you go get me that big shell on that rock? IT’S GIGANTIC!!”

Renee said, “Ummmm Rachel? What do you want me to do here?”

I didn’t know what the right thing to be done was but I had to examine the misplaced prosthetic. Lindsay and I scrambled over.

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“How did it get lost?”

“My guess is a capsized kayak incident. The cutlet just slipped out.”

“That poor lady!”

“I wonder why it’s so wrinkly…”

“I think it’s just because it’s laying down. I bet if we pick it up…”

Lindsay and Renee both grabbed that breast at once. I grabbed my camera.

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This was a bonding moment between the two of them that could never be forgotten. But the hypothesis was right. What a perfect (albeit a bit muddy) boob, when held aright.

So we let the boob live its life and sat around it to take pictures of our children.

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And they were fully photogenic, exploring the waters, looking at the flowers but NEVER touching (thank goodness for Wild Kratts drilling into their heads the severity of “endangered”), smelling the flowers, looking for real shells, and in general living The Good Life.

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A  train even went by, loudly making the day even grander.

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I took plenty of pictures of the Lilies from a distance, but I was aching to get out there. I spent half an hour weighing the risk of tip-toeing out with my massively pricy camera, and finally decided that with Eli’s agility on my team, I could do it. So I called in our most in-tune-with-nature cousin and asked him to hold my hand out to the lilies.

Every rock was covered with tiny shell creatures that felt like I was walking on a bed of nails. And I have terrible balance. But I made it out to the stream to get the pictures I’d craved.

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While I was shooting, Lindsay took a picture of me and sent it to my husband. It took his second look to notice the artistically endowed foreground.

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Meanwhile, some of our children had ventured fairly far upstream and out of earshot. Renee was worried about them, so she’d gone back up trail to check. After I managed to wade back to shore, I joined her.

Four kids were out on a rock in the stream, and Renee and our youngest cousin, Andi, were on the shore.

Andi had just quite nonchalantly said to the other kids, “We found a snake, guys.”

Renee assumed she was trying to freak the other kids out because she was standing next to Andi and had certainly not found a snake. “Andi, we didn’t find a snake!”

“Well. We found a snake BODY, anyway!” She pointed right where Renee was standing.

There was a fairly large adult snake wrapped in piles over a patch of brush.

Renee came and got me. “Hey Rachel? Andi just found a snake down here. I think it’s a Copperhead. Can you come see?”

“Sure! I follow a snake guy on Twitter. I should be able to tell!”

I went down and examined. “Oh. I think that’s a banded watersnake. Definitely not a copperhead. Harmless! But I’ll take a picture and ask my snake guy.”

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I was feeling just swell about myself, diffusing danger and fear like that, and I began taking pictures of the two kids remaining on the rock, Tessa and Loulie. (Ali and Eli had wandered in the water in front of it looking for neon crawfish.)

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They were staring at the clear waters, when one of them yelled, “A snake!!!”

Renee, clearly tired of snake calls, said, “Where? Are you SURE?”

I lowered my camera and looked out in the water. There was a tiny bright orange snake swiftly swimming toward Ali and Eli – with its back arched and its head out of the water and its mouth wide open, angrily showing the white insides of its mouth.

“Oh now THAT is a cottonmouth. Ali and Eli!! GET OUT OF THE WATER!!”

The girls on the rock began freaking the freak out, and Ali and Eli began trying to run on the shelly bottom. Chaos ensued. As Ali scrambled out first, Eli yelled, “We’re supposed to stay together!!!”, and the girls on the rock were LOSING THEIR MINDS.

At one point in our attempt to calm them, I remember yelling over at Loulie, “YOU HAVE A PET SNAKE! Why are YOU freaking out?!” Because I believe in child-shaming, apparently.

The two in-the-water kids were safe, and now it was time to address the two marooned children. Or we could leave them. I mean, they were relatively safe up on the ROCK THE VENOMOUS SNAKE CAME OUT FROM UNDER, as I discovered later when I was editing photos.

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This is when it’s good to have a Not-Crazy-Renee in your life.

She looked at me with a determined expression and said, “I’m going to get Loulie. You watch my path and let me know if you see the snake again.”

“So you’re just gonna LEAVE Tessa?” (I’m such an encouraging friend.)

“No. But I can only get one girl at a time. I’ll go back for her.”

(Meanwhile, Lindsay was staying very quiet on the trail with the four children we had left. She would be happy to pray for Renee while she rescued their children. Prayer is powerful, y’all.)

Renee got in the water.

Eli yelled from the trail, “A SNAAAAAAKE!”

Renee yelled up at him, “NOBODY say ANYTHING about a SNAKE unless you SEE one at my FEET!!!!

She was in full yoga pants and tennishoes. Surely that would help her rescue the children. Yoga pants are powerful, y’all.

Right as she stepped on a large, flat rock, I remembered that was the very rock I’d see the cottonmouth swim under when it disappeared from view.

I felt this wasn’t the best time to tell her that, and just watched her feet even harder.

She got to Loulie and commanded, “Okay. I am going to GET YOU OFF of this ROCK, and then I am going to PUT YOU IN THE WATER, and we are going to WALK BACK and you are NOT GOING TO FREAK OUT. GOT IT?!!?”

Her voice was impressive – she could lead infantries with it. Loulie obeyed perfectly. They scampered back to shore.

Then she went back for Tessa.

This time I had the forethought to warn her before she stepped on the snake rock.

She looked at me icily. “You let me step on that rock the first time!”

“It was too late. I didn’t want to tell you while you were already there.”

“Good choice.”

She grabbed Tessa and hurried back to shore.

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I said goodbye to my beautiful banded watersnake with one last close-up picture, then I scampered up to the trail.

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Oh – and later when I checked Twitter…I found out that sleepy, docile, large banded watersnake I’d gotten so up close and personal with? Was also a cottonmouth.

Thankfully, my snake expert @AlongsideWild also sent me a blog post he’d written discounting everything else we read on the internet that day about the extreme aggressiveness of Cottonmouths. They act aggressive, but they really don’t want to bite us.

They’re just a sorely misunderstood snake with anger issues. That’s all.

We emerged from our adventure, amazed that we’d only traversed a third of a mile from civilization – we were sure we’d slipped through a wormhole or out the back of a wardrobe or into a tardis.

As we sat at the playground reminiscing about our day while listening to our children speaking in excited tones to every other kid they could find, we marveled at how the books were actually right. Having an actual adventure is FANTASTIC. And exhilarating and every bit as good as reading a well-written piece of literature. Even with the peril that must also be present to make it an adventure.

We, as well as our children, were over the moon about our travels.

But this post isn’t about snakes. Or lilies or children or even grand adventure.

This post is about The Boob.

And there is nothing more that I want right now in the whole entire world than to see that lonely boob reunited with its rightful chest.

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So please, spread the word. Spread it far and wide. Spread it until we find the prosthetic totin’ kayak rowin’ adventurous women that just happened to capsize somewhere near the Cahaba Lilies on Buck Creek so that we can let her know that her boob is there waiting on her. And that it is enjoying the flowers until they return.


Editor’s Bonus: A research collaboration piece from later that afternoon:

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