In 1733, a venerable Creek Indian chieftain joined tribal leaders for an afternoon meeting in Savannah with James Oglethorpe, founder of the British colony of Georgia. Tired from 25 days’ travel, the chieftain bestowed the Englishman with his vision to restore the Lower Creeks’ weakened network of regional villages.
No Creek Indian village leader (or “mico,” in Creek language) sits on the board of the McClellan Development Authority. But a commonality nonetheless exists between a Native American’s vision to rebuild his tribal communities and the MDA’s desire to rebuild a recreational lake surrounded by pine trees and hills the Army abandoned.
Once stocked with bass and bream, the 13.5-acre, man-made body christened in 1968 as Lake Yahou became one of several recreational areas at Fort McClellan. Its name originated from Lt. Col. Francis M. Sargent of the U.S. Army Chemical Center and School, who received a $25 prize for suggesting it be named after Yahou-Lakee, whose Creek tribal territory included portions of modern-day northeast Alabama.
The lake, like much of the shuttered post, deteriorated when the Army departed in 1999. But the MDA, and especially board member Freeman Fite, views a renovated Lake Yahou as being central to a long-range vision of interconnected pathways for walkers, hikers, mountain bikers and outdoorsmen that marries McClellan redevelopment to Southeastern ecotourism. The lake’s renovation began in earnest this week.
“In my view, the reason to do this is to drive traffic, to bring people from other parts of the country, other parts of the region, here to spend money and to stay,” Fite said. “It just seems to me this could be a really big deal for the area.”
The MDA last month approved spending $65,000 to build a web of walking, hiking and bike trails around Lake Yahou. On Tuesday, trail builder Preston York and his team began a process that may allow the MDA to open some of those trails to visitors this fall.
When finished, Lake Yahou will be surrounded by 7 ½ miles of interconnected trails: a four-mile loop around the water’s edge for walkers, hikers and fishermen — think Oxford Lake or Choccolocco Park, but enveloped by woodlands — and another three-mile path that will snake its way up Baltzell Mountain.
Those trails will connect to the 9 ½ miles of mountain-bike trails already built on the hills above the Anniston Parks and Recreation Department soccer fields at McClellan — giving the city roughly 17 miles of intertwined outdoor pathways that will also connect to the Camp McClellan Horse Trails.
Fite admits he likes to “dream out” into the future on projects like these. At McClellan, he essentially sees an outdoor supercenter in which visitors can walk, hike, ride bikes and horses, fish and eventually camp along the bank of Lake Yahou.
The extension of the Chief Ladiga Trail into Anniston and the popularity of Coldwater Mountain’s bike trails fuel dreamers’ goal of Calhoun County becoming a nationally known ecotourism destination.
“The goal has always been to bring people further north, I think,” Fite said. “You want to bring people farther up so everybody in the county can benefit from this.”
Fite is convinced Lake Yahou’s opening day is near. “Absolutely, there will be people on those trails this fall,” he said. The question is how visitors will get there.
Guarding the gate
Army engineers built Lake Yahou just north of Iron Mountain Road and east of U.S. 431 in the mid-1960s by damming Remount Creek. Only one paved entrance exists, via a spur near the U.S. 431-Iron Mountain Road intersection. A locked gate blocks the curious.
The MDA hasn’t decided how it will initially allow public access, Fite said. If the gate remains locked, only those willing to travel over the mountain from the existing trailhead at the soccer fields would have access. If the gates are open during daylight hours, Fite said, the MDA will have to decide who handles that duty.
More uncertain is when the MDA will allow fishing at Lake Yahou.
In 2016, the MDA approved spending $27,420 to repair an aging drainage pipe that engineers feared would damage the structural integrity of the Lake Yahou dam if it further deteriorated. That bill rose to more than $90,000, MDA Director Julie Moss said, because engineers found extensive damage to the dam itself. Workers drained the lake, repaired the dam and drainage pipe and refilled the lake, Moss said.
In 2019, at the suggestion of MDA board member Bill Robison, the MDA hired Davis Fish Farms in Piedmont to stock the rebuilt lake. Into Lake Yahou went 8,000 coppernose bluegill and 16,000 fathead minnows, Moss said. Later, 800 largemouth bass were added, with two to three years needed before the fish were mature enough to harvest.
That timeframe may not correlate with a fall opening for all of Lake Yahou’s planned amenities. A piecemeal approach may be a likely option, with the trails open but fishing forbidden until the winter or spring, Fite said.
When Moss had two MDA employees throw lines into the lake recently to test the fish’s maturation, out came bass that were “decent sized,” she said.
Nature, not the MDA, oversees that schedule.
“It would really depend on the development of the fish,” said MDA board member Tim Garner.
Lake Yahou and McClellan’s past
As you walk around Lake Yahou’s tree line, two sites catch your eye. First, the pink ribbons tied to tree trunks as guides for York and his team as they build the trails. Second, the ubiquitous groundwater testing wells, painted yellow and each surrounded by four protective posts.
The latter are remnants of McClellan’s complicated past as an Army post that trained soldiers for combat, including nuclear, biological and radiological exercises that began during the Cold War era.
No unexploded ordnance exists at Lake Yahou, multiple MDA officials said. During dam repairs in 2019, the MDA spent $185,750 for drilling and surveys in preparation for cleaning the lake. The Army tested the surface water before the lake was drained and tested the bottom of the lake when it was dry, said MDA counsel Jason Odom.
“And it was clean,” Odom said.
The nearby testing wells monitor groundwater deep beneath the adjacent property and have no connection to the lake, Odom said. The groundwater flows away from the lake, which is fed by rainwater flowing off the nearby mountains.
“From the Army’s standpoint and Matrix (Environmental Services’) standpoint, the lake and the immediate area around it is clean,” Odom said. “All testing shows everything is below testing levels.”
Put bluntly, “we put fish back into a clean lake,” Odom said.
Fite, the dreamer, can envision primitive campgrounds around the lake and a bevy of events — cross-country races, concerts, fishing rodeos — that would lure visitors and further McClellan’s ecotourism brand.
Garner admits that “ecotourism didn’t sell in the 1990s,” but trends have changed. “Everything is timing when you get a big project like this,” Garner said. “And the timing is 1,000 percent right for this right now.”
Fite, standing at a wooded convergence of the horse trails and the planned Lake Yahou bike trails, points to his left. “The bypass (U.S. 431) is right there,” he said; access won’t be an issue. Data show that the McClellan mountain bike trails are already drawing as well, if not better, than the Coldwater trails.
He sees possibilities all around the lake named for Creek Indian chieftain Yahou-Lakee.
“If you had the money,” Fite said, “we would build every (trail) mile that’s been flagged instead of half, we’d go across the street and do all kinds of stuff behind (Anniston’s museums) to drive traffic there. There’s all kinds of stuff we can do. The idea is just traffic, getting as many people as we can out here.”