Mid-August 2023 Aerial Exploration of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge!

On August 20, 2023, a friend took me aloft in his Cessna 182. We departed Pryor Regional Airfield, Decatur, Alabama at 7:00 AM under cloud-free but hazy skies, with the threat/promise (depending upon perspective) of expanding heat index…arriving long after our scheduled return to the airfield. Our flight plan encompassed exploring the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. I focus this Post on our aerial exploration of the Refuge.

Redstone Arsenal

The Redstone Arsenal, a major Huntsville, Alabama landmark, covers 35,000 acres stretching south from Huntsville to the Tennessee River. The Refuge extends eastward along the River from Decatur, overlapping the Arsenal by 4,085 acres. Snapped flying westward south of the River, the two photos below capture the Arsenal and the Refuge’s overlapping acreage, indistinguishable from the greater Arsenal. Just as property lines do not appear from the air, wildlife visiting and resident to the Refuge pays no heed to boundaries.














Blackwell Swamp

My Refuge wanderings often take me to Blackwell Swamp (summer at left; winter to the right).


I’ve spent many hours airborne (fixed wing and helicopter) during my 12 years practicing forestry with Union Camp Corporation (1973-85), as well as over my higher education career at nine universities across 35 years. During my 21 years in senior administrative roles at seven of those institutions, I somehow always managed to sweet-talk my way to a local aerial excursion. Lift me a couple of thousand feet above terra firma and I see features with a clarity not available to my earthbound eye. I know it sounds like a 1960s weed-effect, but soaring into the sky expands my mind. So much lies hidden when I am road-bound. Sure, detail leaps at me when I saunter within our forests, but strange as it may seem, when I am on the ground, I simply cannot see the forest for the trees, much less the broader landscape and terrain.

Here’s Blackwell Swamp from the south (left) and the view from north to south (right). The Tennessee River runs across the image (right) a quarter of a mile below the swamp. The swamp from tip to tip extends about three miles.



Here’s my 22-second aerial video of Blackwell Swamp.


Rockhouse Bottoms Road


Jolly B Road runs north/south along the west side of Blackwell Swamp, extending south to the river, where it turns to border the river to the west several miles, the river to the south and Cooperative Farmland to the north.


The paired May 2023 photos above came from lower left corner of the image below at left. The image at right shows Jolly B Road emerging from the north (lower right in the photo) and meeting Rockhouse Bottoms Road along the river.




Buckeye Impoundment lies north of the Tennessee River and nearly two miles west of Blackwell Swamp. From the air, one might wonder why these open fields carry the Impoundment moniker.


However I photographed Buckeye Impoundment several winters prior, the views to the south and north northwest, respectively. The Fish and Wildlife Service manages water levels by way of control gates, flooding dormant season habitats for waterfowl overwintering on the Refuge.

Buckeye Impoundment


Diverse habitats encourage both seasonal and year-round wildlife. My aerial reconnaissance raised a curtain on the complex integrated ecosystem that the Refuge manages for wildlife.


Limestone Creek Bay (left) lies just east of I-65. Its year-round water derives from Lake Wheeler backing into the Limestone Creek Basin. Likewise, the Lake backs into the northeast side of the Bay, where Beaverdam Creek enters the Bay (right). The Beaverdam Creek National Natural Landmark lies upstream in the upper left corner of the photo at right. When on the Boardwalk Trail I’ve wondered what lay downstream from the end-of-trail deck. Now I know.


Other Refuge Features


The image below (left) looks west at the I-65 Bridge and the city of Decatur lying beyond. The second photo peers north. The Refuge borders the river on both the north and south shores.


I recorded this 0:37 video of the bridge and the mixed forest, fields, and impoundments on both shores.


I’ve stopped by the Visitors Center scores of times. When there, I feel as though I am in a wild area, surrounded by tens of thousands of sandhill cranes (November through mid-February); as many as a dozen whooping cranes; untold hundreds (thousands) of ducks and geese; and diverse mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, trees, flowers, fungi, and other lifeforms…on and on! And yet, there is a negative element of such aerial perspective, revealing that within a broader context, my sense of wildness diminishes with the reality that roads, houses, and commercial properties are nearby.

The Visitors Center (parking lot and a few buildings lower left center below left) is just one-half mile from a primary state highway…and two miles from I-65. The two-story observation building is at the left edge of the copse of trees (right photograph). This is clearly not wilderness, yet when I view the flooded flats on a cold and blustery January day, viewing and hearing the cacophonous flocks of cranes, ducks, and geese, I am in a metaphorical wilderness, as distant from civilization as one can wander here in the southeast USA.


I delighted in seeing this near-urban refuge from 2,000 feet. I thank my friend (and pilot), Ted Satcher, for lifting me above the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge and opening a window to enjoy a new perspective on a national treasure right here in our greater Huntsville backyard!

Thoughts and Reflections


I offer these observations from my aerial flight and the breath-taking perspective from 2,000 feet above the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge:

  • Although this is not remote and distant wildness, the Refuge is a metaphorical wilderness, as distant from civilization as one can wander here in the southeast USA..
  • On such flights, the whole notion of my taglines…Nature-Inspired Life and Living; Nature-Buoyed Aging and Healing!…come alive in crystal clarity.
  • I am mesmerized by flying above a natural landscape, where beauty, magic, wonder, awe, and inspiration reach into my soul.

Inhale and absorb Nature’s elixir. May Nature Inspire, Inform, and Reward you!


Note: Unless otherwise noted, all blog post images are created & photographed by Stephen B. Jones. Please circulate images with photo credit: “©2023 Steve Jones, Great Blue Heron LLC. All Rights Reserved.”

Another Note: If you came to this post via a Facebook posting or by another route, please sign up now (no cost… no obligation) to receive my Blog Post email alerts: http://eepurl.com/cKLJdL

And Third: I am available for Nature-Inspired Speaking, Writing, and Consulting — contact me at steve.jones.0524@gmail.com


A reminder of my Personal and Professional Purpose, Passion, and Cause

If only more of us viewed our precious environment through the filters I employ. If only my mission and vision could be multiplied by untold orders of magnitude:

Mission: Employ writing and speaking to educate, inspire, and enable readers and listeners to understand, appreciate, and enjoy Nature… and accept and practice Earth Stewardship.


  • People of all ages will pay greater attention to and engage more regularly with Nature… and will accept and practice informed and responsible Earth Stewardship.
  • They will see their relationship to our natural world with new eyes… and understand their Earth home more clearly.

Tagline/Motto: Steve (Great Blue Heron) encourages and seeks a better tomorrow through Nature-Inspired Living!


Steve’s Three Books

I wrote my books Nature Based Leadership (2016), Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading (2017), and Weaned Seals and Snowy Summits: Stories of Passion for Place and Everyday Nature (2019; co-authored with Dr. Jennifer Wilhoit) to encourage all citizens to recognize and appreciate that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature.

I began writing books and Posts for several reasons:

  • I love hiking and exploring Nature
  • I see images I want to (and do) capture with my trusty iPhone camera
  • I enjoy explaining those images — an educator at heart
  • I don’t play golf!
  • I do love writing — it’s the hobby I never needed when my career consumed me
  • Judy suggested my writing is in large measure my legacy to our two kids, our five grandkids, and all the unborn generations beyond
  • And finally, perhaps my books and Blogs could reach beyond family and touch a few other lives… sow some seeds for the future

Steve's Books


All three of my books (Nature Based LeadershipNature-Inspired Learning and LeadingWeaned Seals and Snowy Summits) present compilations of personal experiences expressing my (and co-author Dr. Wilhoit for Weaned Seals and Snowy Summits) deep passion for Nature. All three books offer observations and reflections on my relationship with the natural world… and the broader implications for society. Order any from your local indie bookstore, or find them on IndieBound or other online sources such as Amazon and LifeRich.

I now have a fourth book, published by Dutton Land and Cattle Company, Dutton Land & Cattle: A Land Legacy Story. Available for purchase directly from me. Watch for details in a future Post.