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Vanderford's Travel Column


Costa Rican beauty revisited

As a travel writer and photographer, this coronavirus has made my world shrink dramatically into the realm of my computer. Therefore, I find myself looking back through photos and remembering unforgettable places and times from the recent past. Probably the most vivid of these was nearly two years ago when I spent a glorious week in the rainforests of Costa Rica at the Rio Parismina Lodge: www.riop.com.

On my return, I shared my experience in words and pictures on a smaller scale in Lakeside, but after reviewing the photos again … I would like to share less writing and more visual.
 
The Costa Rican rainforest is difficult to describe, the ever-present beauty is even harder. However, an old friend of mine, Lynn Hannon, once wrote, “The immensity and energy of the jungle might overwhelm the spirit if it were not so surely a part of it. Monkeys and sloths move against a tall forest that presses so hard against the river’s edge that it seems ready to stride across. There cannot be a more fertile place on earth!”
 

Bill Vanderford has won numerous awards for his writing, photography, videography, and has been inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame as a Legendary Guide. 
He can be reached at jfish51@aol.com or at his web site: www.georgiafishing.com.




September 2020 column

Cloudland Canyon is Georgia's hidden jewel

Though I have lived in the Peach State most of my life and have visited both the Tennessee and the Alabama sides of Lookout Mountain, the breathtaking beauty of Georgia’s own Cloudland Canyon had eluded me. This magnificent and picturesque state park located on the western limits of Lookout Mountain is one of the most scenic geological marvels in the USA.
 
Over millions of years, this wonder of nature was slowly cut more than 1,000 feet into the rocky crust of the Earth by Sitton Gulch Creek. Numerous trails are available to see the canyon, but my suggestion would be the popular – but very strenuous – Waterfall Trail that takes you right down to the bottom of the canyon. This is the signature trail in Cloudland Canyon that allows you to see and experience two beautiful waterfalls. The hard part of this venture into the canyon is going down and returning the 600 stairs to enjoy the falls. Such an undertaking is quite difficult for smaller children and extremely tough on dogs because of the small metal grates on the stairs that seem to hurt their feet.

Many people end up having to carry their dogs up the many stairs. Nevertheless, I took my service dog, Yogi, who weighs 125 pounds, and he made the trip without incident. But slowly.
 
If you follow the signs down along the Waterfall Trail, after a short distance, the trail splits with one going toward the nearby Cherokee Falls and the longer one down to Hemlock Falls. I would suggest going down about a mile to the bottom of the canyon to see the Hemlock Falls that plunge more than 90 feet into huge boulders. This is a tall, skinny waterfall that has different amounts of water falling according to the season. It is very picturesque and well worth the effort to see!
 
After the long climb back to the trail juncture, take the other fork down a much shorter distance to Cherokee Falls that is bigger but only falls about 60 feet into a big pool that many people use for swimming and wading. Also, scattered big rocks make excellent tables for picnickers.
 
Here are the other trails and hiking opportunities in Cloudland Canyon State Park:
• Overlook Trail - 1-mile round trip, easy
• West Rim Loop Trail - 5 miles round trip, mod/strenuous
• Sitton’s Gulch Trail - 6 miles round trip, Strenuous
• Two Mile Backcountry Loop -  2 miles round trip, moderate
• Meadowlands Trail - 1-mile round trip, moderate
 
In addition to hiking, the 3,538-acre Cloudland Canyon has 16 cottages, 10 yurts, 72 tent, trailer, and RV campsites, 30 walk-in campsites, 13 backcountry campsites, four pioneer campsites, six picnic shelters, one group shelter that seats 175, one group lodge that sleeps 40, a gift shop/camper store and a playground. For more information, call 706-657-4050.
 
Before it was bought by the state in 1939, this gorgeous canyon was simply known as Sitton Gulch. Today this geological paradise known as Cloudland Canyon State Park has become a place where visitors can hike to view deep canyons, scenic waterfalls, sandstone cliffs, caves, winding creeks, dense woods, and diverse wildlife. It is truly a rare Georgia jewel that is unforgettable!
 


August 2020 column

Muscle Shoals means music and magic

Hidden in the natural beauty of the rolling North Alabama hill country is the once sleepy little town of Muscle Shoals that blossomed after the building of Wilson Dam in 1924. To many tourists, this area is still popular for its great fishing, hunting and history, but to music lovers and recording artists, this is a special place that has become historical in the development of many types of unique American sounds.
 
The father of the blues, WC Handy and Sun Records owner, Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, came from this area. Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf, became a national celebrity for her accomplishments that helped the disabled, was from Muscle Shoals.
 
However, in 1959, another native son, Rick Hall, returned to Muscle Shoals with an idea and enough financing to begin FAME Music Studios (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises). Though FAME got off to a rocky start, Hall finally attracted a house back up band known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who later became world famous as the Swampers. They consisted of Jimmy Johnson on guitar, David Hood playing bass, Roger Hawkins on the drums and Spooner Oldham playing keyboards. The Swampers were later immortalized in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s legendary single “Sweet Home Alabama.” You know, that line about Muscle Shoals having The Swampers ... .
 
The real kicker came by accident when Rick Hall found an unknown hospital orderly who sang his patients to sleep. They recorded a song that had been around for awhile, and Rick believed it could be a hit, so he called Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records in New York and struck a deal ­– taking a share of the royalties as a finder’s fee in payment – the song was “When a Man Loves a Woman” and the mystery singer was Percy Sledge!
 
Hall was right, and the song went to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1966 which took Southern Soul to the mainstream and put the Muscle Shoals Sound on the map. This also started a partnership between Hall, Wexler and Atlantic Records as the recording spot of choice to cut records in the South.
 
This new Muscle Shoals style fused hillbilly, blues, rock’n’roll, soul, country and gospel, to create a sound that picked the best features of each to forge something unique. FAME recordings featured heavy bass and drums, but was still light and loose with melodic songs full of passionate stories.
 
Various musicians that hung around at FAME began to jam together with the likes of Duane Allman of The Allman Brothers Band, but Hall didn’t see a future in the sound they had developed, which would be the birth of all Southern Rock. It was a huge mistake by Rick Hall. He told writer Peter Guralnick, “I didn’t know what to do with him and finally Phil Walden said, “Look, you’re not doing anything with him. Why don’t you sell him to Wexler, maybe get your bucks back.” Wexler said, “I’ll only give you $10,000.” Hall said, “Write me the check.” That decision cost Hall five to ten million dollars!”
 
That was how the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was founded in 1969, by Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson and David Hood. The musicians had taken a gamble, but Wexler saw to it that their new venture had a steady flow of talent coming through the door.
 
The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio became the go-to studio for the biggest names in music. Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Boz Scaggs, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, The Staple Singers, Leon Russell, Millie Jackson, Dire Straits, Dr Hook, Cat Stevens, Bob Seeger, Elton John, Willie Nelson and the Rolling Stones all recorded there over the next decade. Today, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and the FAME Studio both continue to operate as working studios, as well as being popular tourist attractions, offering daily tours of the restored facilities.
 
Early artists such as Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Otis Redding, the Osmonds, Jerry Reed, Alabama, Mac Davis, the Gatlin Brothers, Bobbie Gentry recorded in Muscle Shoals. More recently FAME has recorded projects for The Gregg Allman Band, Third Day, Michael McDonald, Vince Gill and Alison Krauss to name a few.
 
Any trip to the Muscle Shoals area should include a visit to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. This place honors inductees in three ways: Exhibits illustrating their accomplishments, placement of permanent bronze stars in the walk of fame and induction into the Hall of Fame. Some recipients include: Hank Locklin, Emmylou Harris, Jim Nabors, Wilson Pickett, Bobby Goldsboro, Lionel Richie, Commodores, Martha Reeves, Alabama, Tammy Wynette, Jimmie Rodgers, Percy Sledge, Louvin Brothers, Dinah Washington, Sonny James, W.C. Handy, Nat “King” Cole and Hank Williams.
 
It would take a book to tell about all of the other attractions available in the Muscle Shoals area, but I will list a few options. 
 
For a totally unique lodging and outdoor experience in a picturesque setting with lots of wild animals, that is suitable for family, business groups or weddings, nowhere could be better than Willow Oak. This is a preserve located not far from the Muscle Shoals scene with open fields, rolling hardwoods, pine thickets and an abundance of creeks and ponds. This property is a place where one might experience the heart-racing moment of having an encounter with a huge buck, hearing the sound of a morning gobbler or enjoying a colorful sunset from the top of Spruce Pine Mountain. Willow Oak is not just about hunting or fishing. It is a popular destination/venue for weddings, corporate events and family reunions. Whether you want to bring your family to rest and relax in the sanctuary of nature, or return home with the story of a fantastic hunt, a visit to Willow Oak will be unforgettable. Info: www.visitwillowoak.com

If you visit Willow Oak, a small restaurant in nearby Russellville has the best coffee and lunch sandwiches in North Alabama. It is a “hole in the wall” known as the Grind.
 
If you love golf and spectacular scenery, you must play The Shoals, which is one of the courses on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. The Shoals is home to two 18-hole championship courses and lies between the Wheeler and Wilson dams on the Tennessee River. Info: www.rtjgolf.com/theshoals.
 
To the casual observer, Muscle Shoals is just a quiet Alabama town, surrounded by beautiful countryside and bordered by the huge Tennessee River. Life in Muscle Shoals can be slow. Yet it offers exciting things to do and see and is home to some of the greatest recordings in the history of American music!
 

July 2020 column

Speed and grace are synonymous with Lanier's raptors

The summer heat has arrived, the great spring fishing has slowed, the virus seems to be fading fast, but if you love raptors, Lanier is a great place to be! In the early mornings of most days, I become almost mesmerized by the graceful flying of large birds in the air currents above my boat. With almost no apparent effort, these beautiful creatures of nature sail and turn on invisible wind currents. Though you will see an occasional bald eagle or a redtail hawk, most of these great birds are ospreys that are not here to entertain anyone. 
 
Within a few seconds, their poetic motions can change dramatically! After a downward burst, their powerful wings become tucked, and the osprey becomes a streamlined projectile hurtling toward the calm surface of the water. No more than a couple of yards from impact, the magnificent wings are partially deployed to slow the crash into the water, and the legs are extended with the deadly talons spread. In less than a blink of the eye, this crafty bird of prey is in and out of the water and climbing back skyward with a fish making its last movements in the clutches of the razor-sharp talons. This life and death struggle is a daily routine because fish comprises 100 percent of the osprey’s diet, which makes them really “fish eagles.”
 
Though they are found throughout most of the world and are a common sight in Florida or along any of our coastal highways, beaches or rivers, these gorgeous birds are fairly new to the area around Lake Lanier. Both ospreys and loons became more prevalent in this part of Georgia when the stocking rates of striped bass were increased.
 
Because ospreys are normally larger than hawks or falcons and have a white head, they are often mistaken for the bald eagle. Upon closer inspection, one can easily see that the osprey has a dark band across its face and a smaller, less colorful beak than his more well-known relative and even more obvious is the osprey’s white breast feathers. Bald eagles are quite dark underneath.
 
Probably the most unique part of an osprey is the rough textured feet that are perfect for grasping slippery prey. Also, the osprey is the only bird of prey that is able to grasp with two toes in front and two in back rather than the usual three and one toe arrangement.
 
Ospreys often grab fish that are too big to carry, and they may not be able to let them go, which usually causes these birds to die prematurely. Some experts believe that the excitement of the catch stimulates a locking mechanism in the feet, while others surmise that the claws simply sink into bone and become stuck. Regardless of the reason, occasionally, fishermen catch large fish with osprey feet still attached.
 
Nevertheless, the ospreys that survive are magnificent birds that are fascinating to watch as they go about their daily task of catching and eating fish. With the exception of pesticides that killed many ospreys during the 1950s and ’60s, they seem to adapt well to all of the commotion caused by the human race. So, if you are lucky enough to see one of these fabulous creatures floating on the wind currents above Lake Lanier any morning, watch for a few minutes. You might be in for a magnificent show of nature!
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