Early January Winter Grey Exploration at Marbut Bend Trail along Alabama’s Elk River!

On January 4, 2024, Judy and I explored the trails at TVA’s Marbut Bend along the Elk River just upstream from its juncture with the Tennessee River (Lake Wheeler). This Post highlights the grey winter delights across the marshes, along the boardwalks, through the mudflats, and to the shoreline of the Elk River.

Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe can penetrate even a dense low overcast, cold northeasterly wind, and the dull grey of a winter marshland morning. I recalled the mid-summer contrast of the bright sun, persistent heat, whining insects, and crushing humidity. I embrace winter’s North Alabama touch, even when it hurries us into the wind and back to the car. Although I love the tirelessly explosive vegetative growth during our humid sub-tropical summers, I relish our brief deep winter season of dormancy and blessed plant rest. I find exquisite beauty in a dark early January day. At this latitude, we will gain 30 minutes of additional daylight during January, a clear signal that the Earth is spinning us toward spring. I appreciate the bleak underbelly of a winter day in this region…a northern Alabama region that will soon offer a spectacular spring regrowth!


The Marshes


I’m a sucker for boardwalk trails that invite me to explore ecosystems otherwise inaccessible. These marshlands have deep saturated and seasonally flooded mucky soils. They are capable of sucking boots from a human intruder’s feet. More importantly, such a booted biped invader could perpetrate lasting damage to these fragile ecosystems.


As a veteran of 13 interstate moves, I retired to north Alabama to be near our daughter and her two sons. We’ve lived previously in several northern zones (Pennsylvania; Upstate New York twice; Ohio; New Hampshire; Alaska), where real winter weather visits and often is reluctant to leave. I’ve mentioned to many northern friends that winter drops into our north Alabama region occasionally, but that generally our winter amounts to an autumn that slowly transitions to spring. I mention that now to admit that our morning at Marbut Bend chilled me to the core. Temperature in the low 30s; persistent breeze from the northeast; harsh dampness; low stratus blocking even a hope for the sun’s warming glow; a deep bleakness. Okay, I won’t continue beating this dead horse. I will return again this winter when warmer weather and bright sun will permit (even encourage) lingering to truly enjoy the sight, sound, and other treats of this magnificent ecosystem.

Here’s my 45-second video from the boardwalk near trailhead.


As long as I can remember, I’ve loved cattails, a plant common in wetland and marshes across North America. Growing up in western Maryland, I knew the plant as cat-o-nine tail, a moniker I have not heard here in north Alabama. We referred to the still closed seedheads as torches. Even during those adolescent years, I knew the torches were seedheads, and I understood that their winter disintegration released untold legions of seed.


As we penetrated more deeply into the preserve via the boardwalk, I recorded this 40-second video.


The ice along the marsh corroborates my claim of deep chill. I admit, however, that I failed to don adequate winter gear, of which I have ample and appropriate from days living far to the north. I knew better…and deserved to suffer the consequences of being under-dressed!


I like Marbut Bend Preserve’s diverse habitats, including this pine stand on an upland strip separating wetlands from an meadow visible beyond the pine stand. I applaud TVA managers for employing prescribed fire to maintain the pine cover and prevent hardwood from encroaching.










The Elk River


We moved beyond the upland meadow to cross another boardwalk segment that reached across a mudflat where an oak had fallen during the summer while still in leaf. The mudflat expresses the TVA’s practice of holding the winter pool at Lake Wheeler at five feet below full, allowing storage space to abate downstream flooding from heavy seasonal rain. Although Marbut Bend fronts the Elk River, we are proximate to where the Elk enters the Tennessee River (Lake Wheeler), thus the Elk level here is consonant with Wheeler Lake. At summer levels this boardwalk will cross a side arm of the Elk.


These views look both ways from the boardwalk, which in summer will be open water.


Here’s a view ahead to the Elk River. The boardwalk’s terminal deck is visible to the left.


These two photographs view the Elk in both directions from the deck (upstream left).


I recorded this 52-second video from the deck along the river.


John Muir captured the elegance of water in its river form:

A river is water in its loveliest form; rivers have life and sound and movement and infinity of variation, rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart.

I couldn’t resist this closer look into the shallow water in the mud flat. I expected greater evidence of more robust life. Instead, excepting scattered patches of green growth, the flat appears barren. As a terrestrial biologist (a forester), I have little insight to offer.


The Field


As we reentered the field habitat, Judy snapped this assemblage of vines, a fungi-infected suspended branch, a brown discarded leaf, and the bark of a standing tree trunk. The photograph and Judy’s interest reminds me that every element of Nature tells a story.


Yet another habitat type, the field completes the rich ecological tapestry of Marbut Bend, stretching from Route 99, the state highway fronting the property’s east side, back to the forest edge along the Elk River. I am curious how TVA intends to maintain the meadow. Rather than speculate, I leave you with these images and the video below. My hope is that TVA will manage the field as grassland, encouraging native meadow and grassland plant species and the wildlife drawn to such habitat.
















I recorded this 41-second video from mid field:


We walked onto an octagonal wooden deck behind a wooded edge to the south. As with several other points along the Marbut Bend Trail, I would like to have sat on one of the benches to observe the comings and goings of life, hear the rustling breeze, and identify the calls of birds. Again, I dressed inadequately for the morning jaunt. I vow to return when life and warmth return.


The deck reaches into a sizeable mudflat.

I recorded this 41-second 360-degree video from the deck:


Warm weather and a return to summer pool level of Lake Wheeler will treat observers to a surrounding lake from this vantage point.


Marsh, meadow, mudflat, the river, upland forest, and riparian hardwood quilt the habitats that compose the Marbut Bend Tapestry. Rare is the local Nature enthusiast who is familiar with Marbut Bend. Perhaps my photo essay will draw a few more visitors to this rich ecosystem quilt.


Thoughts and Reflections


I offer these observations:

  • Nature’s local menu lists a veritable banquet of habitat selections.
  • I love the Marbut Bend dormant season with magical views across the marshes, wetlands, mudflats, fields, and the river itself.
  • Each visit whets my appetite for a return, especially when spring triggers new life…and promises warmer days.

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: “©2024 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





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.