Where Eagles and Human Spirits Soar

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Multifaceted in recreational opportunities, Lake Guntersville State Park proves to be one of northeast Alabama’s most treasured getaways.

By CHERYL LEWIS

It’s not hard to imagine: Anyone who has ever enjoyed a day of laughter and games with friends and family on a lakeside beach or boat knows the joy of spending time at the water’s edge.

Sun, fun and camaraderie abound. Once back at work and stuck indoors, the yearning to return to the carefree days of relaxing is fierce.

For those who live in northeast Alabama – or are willing to jump in the car and go – Lake Guntersville State Park in Guntersville can make those daydreams come true.

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Just an hour from Huntsville and 30 minutes more from Birmingham or Chattanooga, the lake is like a magnet for those seeking retreat from the stresses of daily life. From acclaimed fishing to camping  to dozens of hiking trails to eagle watching, this park is a beautiful place to experience life.

History

To learn how Guntersville State Park came to be, it’s necessary to reach back quite a bit – into the 18th century. It was in 1785 that John Gunter began “squatting” on the south bank of the Tennessee River.

Having made his way from the Carolinas, Gunter was the first white person to settle at a salt deposit near what is now Veterans’ Memorial Bridge. Soon known as Gunter’s Landing, it was prime property on the Tennessee River.

Because Gunter married the daughter of a Cherokee chief, he and his evergrowing family benefitted from a strong relationship with the American Indians. Not only did he become very wealthy, but his children grew up to be community leaders. Marshall County, still heavily inhabited by Cherokee, was formed in 1836, the year that Gunter died.

A Pennsylvania attorney named Louis Wyeth arrived the next year and was instrumental in urging the state legislature to incorporate Guntersville, which it eventually did in 1848.

Tragically, by then the Trail of Tears had claimed the life of Gunter’s eldest son, who perished during containment with other Cherokees and part-Cherokees while waiting to be sent to Oklahoma. His son and daughter-in-law, plus six other family members, were also forced to walk in that mass exodus. Adding insult to injury, their route to cross the Tennessee River was via the Gunter’s Landing ferry. It took four days for the entire group to complete the crossing; at least 33 died before reaching Oklahoma.

Within a few decades the Civil War physically devastated Guntersville, but its proximity to the river spurred regrowth after the war’s end.

In 1892, the railroad brought an influx of commerce and residents. In 1939, Alabama’s largest lake – 69,000 acres of water – was created when the Tennessee Valley Authority dammed part of the Tennessee River and flooded the reservoirs surrounding Guntersville.

When acquiring land along what would become the lake, visionary members of the TVA reserved large parcels for future parks. Eight years later, the TVA shifted 4,000 acres to the state for public use as a state park. It was timely, as a national movement was underway for states to create recreational spaces ideal for local use.

A newly instituted Alabama cigarette tax in the late 1960s generated funds to create resorts, including enough for construction of an impressive lodge on Taylor Mountain, an 18-hole golf course and a campground with cabins.

On April 15, 1974, Little Mountain State Park opened to the public. By the end of that decade, the name had been changed to Lake Guntersville State Park.

Today

Today the park’s reach continues to expand, with rumors that it will soon grow beyond 7,000 acres after a transfer from preservation group Forever Wild. Since a devastating swath of tornados in 2011 wrecked the park’s main campground, wiping out hundreds of mature trees, there have been relentless recovery efforts.

Amenities have been restored, the lodge repaired, hundreds of new trees planted and five cabins rebuilt. According to Stephen Johns, general manager of the Lodge, business is steadily returning. Nearly as destructive as the natural disasters, the state’s ongoing budget  crunch has had definite repercussions at the park.

“If they think there’s a chance the facility won’t be open once their event arrives, some people won’t plan a wedding or meeting,” Johns explained. “Plans for a zip line had to be put on hold when the vendor heard the park may be forced to close. But the local and state citizenry has supported the park. People want to come out and show legislators that parks are important to the state. We’re open and don’t see closing in the near future.”

Since 80 to 90 percent of the state park system’s funding comes from customer fees and not taxes (as many mistakenly assume), maintaining a strong attendance base is vital.

To promote a thriving stream of traffic, many activities are being planned for 2016. A barbecue cookoff is in the works, plus summer, Christmas and New Year’s Eve promotions. Eagle Awareness programs and lodging packages draw photography and bird-watching enthusiasts each January and February. (See sidebar below.)

“There’s always a good reason to be here and something to enjoy,” says Johns. “Summer vacation when schools are out is popular. Plus people love to come out and see the fall leaves, the bass tournaments have large turnouts and people love frolicking when it snows.”

Some families just like to show up to see the many deer wandering the grounds along the water’s edge. A no-kill safe zone, the park affords a great environment for animals to thrive. Though of course wild animals should not be considered tame (especially when accompanied by their young) and must be regarded with caution, it’s possible to see an array that also includes beavers, raccoons, armadillos, opossums, skunks, foxes, and occasionally even coyotes and bobcats.

A variety of ducks and birds such as eagles, hawks, crows, quail, snipe, vultures and songbirds can also be heard and seen.

Accommodations

Driving to see a beautiful lake and enjoy its amenities is rewarding, but the experience is even better when it’s possible to merely wake up and step outside to enjoy the view.

At Lake Guntersville State Park, visitors have plenty of options when it comes to where they wish to open their eyes in the morning. The campground includes 318 campsites, both primitive and tent/RV -ready, 20 bluff-side chalets, 15 lakeside cabins and the largest lodge and convention center in the state park system.

Lodge guests are treated to dramatic sunsets from the expansive deck, situated 1,190 feet above sea level, and outdoor swimming pool. Seven boat ramps are located throughout the park. A second campground at Town Creek caters to avid fishing enthusiasts.

Fishing and Golf

Considered by amateurs and professionals alike to be perhaps the best lake in the state for bass fishing, Lake Guntersville is on the renowned Alabama Bass Trail.

Large- and small-mouth bass, crappie, bream, sauger and catfish are favorite targets. With 38 miles of shoreline and relatively mild winters, fishing is enjoyed year round.

In season, it’s also nice to while away a few hours on the park’s 18-hole golf course. Par 72 and 6,785 yards from the longest tees, with a 71.2 course rating and 128 slope rating, the Bermuda-grass course was designed by Earl Stone and opened in 1974.

Multi-use Trails and Caving

A network of more than two dozen hiking, biking and horseback trails totaling 31 miles in Lake Guntersville State Park provides a worthy mix of pleasure, exercise, challenge and adventure for those who choose to venture out.

Created largely through the determined efforts of local enthusiasts Rex and Ruth Seale, many of the trails wind along paths first walked by Cherokees and early settlers. Varying in distances between just under a mile and 3.5, the trails range from easy strolling to difficult climbs.

Each route is picturesque, either winding along the shore of Lake Guntersville or through the woods to seasonal waterfalls that cascade down the mountainside. A hint of times gone by is in some of the names – Old Still Path, Moonshine Trail, Lickskillet Trail and Cave Trail, to name a few.

New trails continue to be added. Just after the 1.5-mile Cave Trail crosses the park road, a small cave is off to the right when heading toward the campground. It’s not very deep and may require a bit of crawling to explore, so be sure to bring a flashlight if you decide to go in.

Local Treasure

“It is difficult not to find gratification at this park,” says Michael Jeffreys, district park superintendent.

“Fishing, hiking, swimming, golfing, and geocaching are only a few of the stay-and-play features it currently has to offer.

And with the proposed zip lines arriving this spring and other concessions joining our team, this is the year to visit.”

Of course, it’s clear that he feels that way every year.

“I have been blessed to spend the majority of my life in this area,” says Jeffreys. “There is no doubt in my mind that Lake Guntersville State Park is the hidden jewel of the South.”

Behind the Lens: The Eagle Awareness program thrills, inspires, educates and leaves you with a sense of renewal.

By CHERYL LEWIS

I’ve discovered that nature fuels me – being outside literally refreshes my energy, and encountering wildlife during hikes makes a day memorable and exciting.

When I hear Lake Guntersville has an annual Eagle Awareness program, I am intrigued. I didn’t know bald eagles are in this region and certainly want to see them!

First I gather my supplies: comfortable folding chair, binoculars, camera with zoom lens, extra battery and memory cards, boots, warm clothes, snacks, insulated mug with hot tea, extra water bottle and my super-soft blanket (which, yes, goes with me everywhere!).

I feel ready to spot some eagles – all I need is a bit of good luck and some helpful direction. I get that from Amanda Glover, assistant naturalist at Lake Guntersville State Park. A birding enthusiast herself, she says she grew up near the park and always knew she’d work there someday. Sharing the park with others and preserving the nature and wildlife within it is her passion.

Because her job keeps her behind a desk at times, she’s always eager to embrace opportunities that get her outside. A fun and interesting guide, she first drives me to Town Creek, a tiny fishing community that has been entrenched in the area for as long as anyone can remember and is now part of the park.

Glover says bald eagles typically leave their nests by daybreak to look for food, so enthusiasts who wish to see them should arrive at the pier before sunup or just before dusk.

Because we are visiting midday, we have low expectations of seeing any eagles cruising around. None are to be seen.

Next Amanda takes me, along with a birding couple who are interested in following us in hopes of spying an eagle, to the Guntersville Dam. She knows just the spot to check. Sure enough, high in the branches of a tall tree, there sits a massive nest with an alert and wary bald eagle perched inside. Soon it is relieved in the nest by its mate.

I scramble to snatch my camera from its pack, excitement and awe filling me. Clichés flooded my mind: Majestic! Beautiful! Wow! Photographers perched along the shoreline watch me with amusement, the massive lenses of their cameras dwarfing my own.

“I have no interest in shooting images of an eagle just sitting in its nest,” says one. “Been there done that. It’s when they leave or arrive with branches or food that I kick into action.”

Be that as it may, I am overcome with a feeling of joy. The Eagle Awareness program was created through the dedicated efforts of the park’s first naturalist, Linda Reynolds, to inspire that same thrill and also to educate and promote the well-being of the protected birds.

Now held across the course of six weekends each January and February, the program features a variety of wildlife speakers, live animals and birds of prey – not to mention guided visits to view eagles in what has become their protected natural habitat.

Once common in the area, entire generations of eagles were wiped out by widespread use of the pesticide DDT. A

ccording to Glover, because eagles ate fish contaminated with the pesticide, their eggs were fragile and broke when sat upon. Beginning in the mid-1980s, 91 juvenile eagles were reintroduced in an effort to renew their vigor in the area. Because mature eagles generally return to their original home when it’s time to mate, the local population has surged.

The photographers with whom I speak say they will sometimes see 30-plus different bald eagles soaring in a single day. There are now an estimated 60 eagles that call Lake Guntersville home, and several hundred throughout the state.

Despite having to extricate my boots twice from mud that threatens to engulf my ankles, I enjoy a beautiful, cold day capturing images of the magnificent winged creatures in area fields.

Yes, I feel awestruck and even a bit patriotic. Finally leaving as the sun collapses behind the horizon, my camera’s memory card is full… and I am happy and renewed.[/s2If]