3 months ago

Awesome Trail opens at Joe Wheeler State Park

Those who love to explore nature have another opportunity with the opening of the new trail at Joe Wheeler State Park in northwest Alabama. The name of the new 8-mile pathway is the Awesome Trail, literally.

Ken Thomas, Alabama State Parks Trails Coordinator, said naming the trail resulted from a conversation he had with Chad Davis, State Parks’ Northwest District Supervisor.

“I told Chad this trail is going to be awesome,” Thomas said, “and it stuck.”

Thomas said the Awesome Trail was constructed through a Recreational Trails Program (RTP) grant with accessibility for a variety of users in mind.

“We tried to create a trail that could be used by walkers, hikers, mountain bikers and trail runners,” Thomas said. “The biggest consideration for making it compatible for everybody is that it had to be wide enough to support all of those folks. These type trails are wider than most trails people are used to. This allows people to walk side by side, and it has enough room that a biker or jogger could still pass.”

Before he became the trails coordinator, Thomas spent most of his time as superintendent at DeSoto State Park, which has some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the state as well as numerous elevation changes. He didn’t expect what he found when he went to Joe Wheeler to establish the new trail.

“The terrain was very surprising,” he said. “It’s a whole lot steeper than people realize. Joe Wheeler had minimal trails. When I started tracking it and figuring out where we were going to put the trail, we ran across several challenges. The terrain going into the Tennessee River and First Creek is a lot steeper than we realized. We had to do a lot of bench cutting, kind of carve the trail out of the terrain to create a level trail bed. We dealt with some wet areas where we had to pick the best route to maintain the environment. We also found a tremendous number of ravines.”

Thomas said sometimes the water flow in those ravines is seasonal and can be easily forded. Some of the other ravines had hard bottoms or could be manipulated to have hard bottoms, while other ravines were as deep as 8 feet and couldn’t be forded.

“We wound up installing 16 bridges,” he said. “Seven of the bridges were 20 feet long and two were 30-foot bridges. That was a challenge. We were only able to keep three fords and still keep the environmental integrity of the stream.”

The trail at Joe Wheeler was finished in the middle of April after months of having to deal with the heavy rainfall that kept most of central and north Alabama waterlogged. The new Awesome Trail has received rave reviews since it opened.

“Rain was my biggest problem,” Thomas said. “When the ground is so wet, you’re doing more damage than good.”

Despite the obstacles, Thomas is pleased with the outcome.

“I think what makes this trail so special is that we went to great lengths to bring people to some of the most beautiful parts of the park that we could find,” he said. “Because of the terrain, I had to put in quite a few switchbacks. A lot of consideration went into this trail that I don’t think people realize. You can turn a hiker 90 degrees, but you can’t turn a mountain biker 90 degrees. There are elevation changes you have to consider for all these diverse user groups. You don’t just get your hatchet and start hacking out a trail. It’s purpose-built. The combination of all of the users we wanted to serve with this trail made it challenging to build a trail system that a beginner would use but an advanced person would be attracted to also. A happy medium is what we were looking for, and I think we achieved a trail that will make the beginner and more advanced people happy. Nothing about this project was impossible, but a tremendous amount of thought went into it.”

Thomas said the actual construction of trails has advanced dramatically in the past decade. In fact, he was able to become the first trail builder in the state to receive his HETAP (Highly Efficient Trail Assessment Process) certification.

He said the previous trail-construction guidelines fell under a program called UTAP (Universal Trail Assessment Process), which was developed more than 40 years ago.

“You had to have a minimum of two people and four people was a lot better,” Thomas said of the UTAP program. “We had analogue tapes, rolling wheels and analog grade devices. Somebody had a pencil and paper, writing this data down. After all that was done, somebody had to crunch those numbers and assess that trail to provide all the information on how long the trail is, what’s the elevation, what’s the elevation gain, what’s the average grade, what’s the crossflow. The data goes on and on and on. I chalk up HETAP as an example of American ingenuity. Somebody computerized it and received a patent. One person can take this HETAP machine and assess a trail. They push a button and all that information is presented in the form of a summary.”

Thomas said the HETAP summary allows the user to decide which trail is best for them.

“If I took Olympic track and field athletes and put them on a trail and asked them if the trail is hard or easy, then took people not in very good physical condition and put them on the same trail and asked if this is easy or hard, I’m going to get two different answers,” Thomas said. “Why should I tell somebody a trail is easy or hard when opinions vary. What sold me on HETAP was that I could provide the collected scientific data on this trail and let them decide if it’s easy or hard. The benefit is that I can present this information to somebody who has disability, and they can base their decision on what they can do or what they probably shouldn’t do. Information is king. This makes everybody a king. This makes us able to give them the information they need to make their own decisions on a particular trail.”

Thomas took advantage of attaining his HETAP instructor certification to train all the State Parks naturalists in how to use the $18,000 machines.

“The idea was the naturalists use the trails more than anybody,” he said. “They’re out doing their interpretation programs every day. Now they can assist me in trail assessments.”

After the assessments are done, a TAI (Trail Assessment Information) sign is erected to give the users the pertinent information about the trail.

Other projects Thomas has been involved with include trail work at Lake Guntersville State Park, Rickwood Caverns State Park and Lake Lurleen State Park.

Thomas said a mountain bike trail at Guntersville was improved and built around the golf course with 3/10ths of a mile of that trail constructed to be completely ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant.

“We did improvements to Mabry’s Overlook across from the pro shop at Guntersville,” Thomas said. “Someone in a wheelchair did not have the same opportunity as someone who did not need a wheelchair. We fixed that with improvements to the overlook for a beautiful view from the mountain onto Lake Guntersville.”

The Rickwood Caverns project took some creative thinking from Tim Haney, State Parks’ North Region Operations and Maintenance Supervisor.

“It’s the most unique project you will ever find on a trail,” Thomas said. “Rickwood needed work done on lighting. Incandescent lighting promotes growth that normally would not happen in caves. Tim said, ‘Isn’t Rickwood Caverns just an underground trail?’ We were able to get another RTP grant to fix the electrical, install LED lighting and do some education work.”

The education aspect concerned people with mobility issues who couldn’t get in and out of the caverns, which has a final staircase of 102 steps to exit the cave.

“We put heads together and came up with an idea with the new 360 (degrees) virtual reality technology. We bought a 360 camera and VR goggles to wear. If you have problems with the goggles, we got a curved-screen 4K television and the best computer we could find to play 4K video. So, if you twist your ankle and your school group goes to Rickwood, we can send you on a virtual tour. If Grandma or Grandpa are not up to the staircase, they can do a virtual tour. That project was so unique that we were featured at the Corps Network 2019 National Conference. We’re going to try to shoot 360 videos at all our parks and let people visit all of our state parks from one location. That’s coming.”

At Lake Lurleen State Park, the new McFarland Trail was made possible through a donation from the McFarland family to the Alabama State Parks Foundation.

“We organized trail volunteers,” Thomas said. “The Western Alabama Mountain Biking Association supports Lake Lurleen. That group went in and built a trail, and then 10 State Parks people came in and dressed up the trail, got the signage ready and had a big ribbon-cutting.”

Thomas said the RTP grants were administered by ADECA (Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs), which made the grants available through an 80-20 match, which meant State Parks had to provide 20 percent of the funding.

Thomas said, “That’s a deal nobody can refuse.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

5 hours ago

Chuck Martin endorses Republican Russell Bedsole in Alabama House District 49

Russell Bedsole’s Republican candidacy has received a boost in the Alabama House District 49 special election.

This seat, covering parts of Bibb, Chilton and Shelby Counties, was vacated by the resignation of State Rep. April Weaver (R-Brierfield), who left the legislature to join the administration of President Donald J. Trump.

Bedsole led the pack in the GOP primary held last week, finishing ahead of second-place Mimi Penhale and third-place Chuck Martin. Since no candidate got a majority, a runoff will be held on September 1.

On Wednesday night, Martin endorsed Bedsole in that runoff via a Facebook post.

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Martin led Bibb County in primary votes and finished with a competitive 24.25% overall.

In a release, he expounded on why he is publicly backing Bedsole.

“After thoughtful consideration, I am endorsing Russell Bedsole to represent District 49 in the Alabama House of Representatives,” Martin stated. “Like me, Bedsole has deep roots in District 49. I believe he will be a strong voice for Bibb, Shelby, and Chilton counties, and he will fight for our communities’ conservative Christian values in Montgomery.”

Bedsole, a longtime deputy sheriff in Shelby County and an Alabaster city councilor, has already been endorsed by the likes of Shelby County Sheriff John Samaniego and the Alabama State Fraternal Order of the Police in the race.

“It is an honor to be endorsed by Chuck Martin,” Bedsole commented. “As a representative of District 49, I will fight for pro-life and pro-Second Amendment legislation, along with funding for developing crucial infrastructure, in the Alabama House of Representatives.”

Penhale, the legislative director for Shelby County’s legislative delegation, has taken an unpaid leave of absence from her state government job to run for office. She has been endorsed by the Alabama Farmers Federation.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

7 hours ago

License plate to support Alabama business proposed — Must meet 1,000 application benchmark

A license plate that will support Alabama small businesses will be created if 1,000 apply for one by July 31.

Funds from purchasing the plate will be given to Main Street Alabama, which will in turn provide workshops and grants to small businesses around the Yellowhammer State.

The tag can be applied for here. A $50 fee accompanies the application.

“With this program, individuals can show their dedication to their favorite small businesses, who in many cases are their friends and neighbors, with a tag that gives back to them with workshops and grants focused on strengthening their business,” said Main Street Alabama state coordinator Mary Helmer in a statement.

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Helmer added, “Small businesses keep it local by consistently sponsoring the local baseball team, providing gift baskets for the local charity drives and creating jobs in their community.”

Main Street Alabama is a non-profit entity and an offshoot of Main Street America organization.

The artwork on the tag was created by Chris Seagle, a graphic designer based in Birmingham.

The idea for a car tag supporting small business originated among a group of elected officials in Jefferson County.

Casey Middlebrooks, a member of the group and a Hoover City Councilman, said that his fellow officials “felt Main Street Alabama had the statewide presence and resources to facilitate support to small businesses throughout the state.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

8 hours ago

Ivey urges Alabamians to complete Census — Billions in funding, congressional seat at stake

Governor Kay Ivey (R-AL) on Friday released a video public service announcement urging Yellowhammer State residents to complete the 2020 Census.

The deadline to complete the Census recently was moved up to September 30, meaning there is less than seven weeks left for Alabamians to either self-respond or respond to Census Bureau field staff.

Leaders from the public sector, as well as industry, economic development, charitable and civic organizations, have warned for months that Alabama has a lot on the line during the 2020 Census response period.

Projections have shown the state will lose a congressional district and corresponding electoral college vote — likely to a far-left state such as New York, California or Illinois — if Alabama’s response rate continues to lag.

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“Complete your 2020 Census today,” Ivey said to begin the new PSA. “We only have until September 30.”

“Without you, Alabama stands to lose billions in funding, a seat in Congress and economic development opportunities,” she continued. “It only takes minutes to complete. Go to my2020census.gov or participate by phone or mail.”

The governor concluded, “Be counted — if not for you, for those in Alabama who depend on you for a brighter tomorrow.”

Watch:

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

8 hours ago

Report: Birmingham golf tournament Regions Tradition canceled for 2020

A report from WBRC in Birmingham on Friday says that the yearly golf tournament Regions Tradition has canceled the 2020 edition due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The event organizers say it will be back in early May of 2021.

WBRC says they were told by a “source close to the tournament” about the decision to cancel the 2020 version.

The tournament had previously been rescheduled from its normal late spring/early summer slot until September due to COVID-19 concerns.

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Regions Tradition is a tournament on the PGA Tour Champions circuit, a series of competitions held each year for golfers over age 50.

According to Alabama NewsCenter, the annual Regions Tradition tournament has an economic impact on the Birmingham area between $20 million and $25 million every year.

The Tradition was first held in 1989 and is one of the five major golf tournaments on the Senior Circuit.

Regions took over as the event’s sponsor in 2010 and relocated the tournament to the Birmingham area beginning in 2011.

Steve Stricker won the tournament in 2019, a title he will now keep for two years.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

9 hours ago

Jefferson County health officials say coronavirus pandemic precautions will continue into 2021

Two impactful figures in Jefferson County’s healthcare system advised on Friday that the coronavirus pandemic and resulting precautions such as mask-wearing will remain a major factor in public life at least through the end of 2020.

Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson and CEO of the UAB Health System/Ascension St. Vincent’s Alliance Will Ferniany briefed reporters on coronavirus information during a Friday morning videoconference.

“This pandemic is not going away by the end of December,” warned Ferniany.

Wilson said it was “very likely” that he would push to keep a mask order in place across Jefferson County “through the flu season” which would indicate the ordinance would stay in place at least through the spring of 2021.

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“We have pretty good evidence that our face-covering orders, and our help from the public wearing face coverings, has made a difference,” remarked Wilson.

“We still have a ways to go but we’re starting to bend the curve downward,” Wilson told reporters.

The remarks made by Wilson and Ferniany are similar to what Mobile County epidemiologist Dr. Rendi Murphree told Yellowhammer News in recent days.

Ferniany said that UAB is making a significant investment in rapid testing that should be ready for action by the end of the year, the availability of which should make dealing with the virus more manageable.

Wilson highlighted a standard he felt more people should understand.

The county health officer said that any person exposed to someone positive for COVID-19 should quarantine for 14 days, even if they go out and get a test showing they do not have the virus.

“Fourteen days is the maximum amount of time from being exposed to the virus where you could still develop symptoms,” Wilson said to explain the policy.

Ferniany said UAB Hospital is currently treating around 90 patients, down from a peak of 130. He relayed that 40 of the COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized are in the ICU.

RELATED: Alabama coronavirus update: Hospitalizations begin to decrease, new cases falling

The executive also said that the toughest aspect of caring for COVID-19 cases currently is the shortage of nurses. He said the hospitals he oversees are down “several hundred nurses” with the partial explanation that traveling nursing companies are luring workers away with higher wages.

Wilson reported additional good news for Jefferson County. He said that the area is not experiencing a higher rate of black citizens dying from COVID-19 than white citizens.

“So far we’re not seeing a racial disparity in terms of deaths in Jefferson County,” he relayed.

“Forty-one percent of our deaths in Jefferson County with COVID-19 are African American. The African American population is 43%,” Wilson stated.

Yellowhammer News asked Wilson what kind of benchmarks he would need to be passed to trigger a loosening of coronavirus precautions and whether that would be dependent on a vaccine.

“We’re not going to be out of the woods for quite a long time,” Wilson responded.

“The bottom line will be the amount of disease activity we have in the community, and the trajectory of that,” he continued.

With respect to the vaccine, Wilson replied, “It is really hard to predict what is going to happen with the vaccine: How effective is it going to be, how widespread we’re going to be able to vaccinate people and how soon. There are way too many unknowns for us to say much about that.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95