Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stick
North Georgian and Former Law Enforcement Officer Sam Bowen Raises his Love of Hiking Sticks to an Art Form.
Carving hiking sticks is better than therapy to retired police officer Sam Bowen from Sautee. After spending decades keeping a watchful eye over Dawson and Hall Counties’ most violent offenders, Bowen, 70, craved a more relaxing mission after his retirement from law and order.
That mission revealed itself to him while trout fishing, “When I was doing law enforcement in the area, I was doing a lot of trout fishing in North Georgia and I started seeing some nice walking sticks just growing. I just thought to myself that I needed to cut one down and start working on it and see what it looks like,” recalls Bowen.
Over time, he began to learn the craft and perfect his art. “I started to learn from some of these old-timers: you don’t want to cut them down in the summertime, you cut them in the winter when it’s just freezing cold because the sap is frozen too.” Plus, if you cut them in the wintertime, they dry out faster and do not split as easily, he adds.
When Bowen is not fishing during his well-earned retirement, he’s whittling wood or hiking the trails of North Georgia looking for the perfect foundation for his custom walking sticks, sometimes spending nearly an hour before he spies one. And then it might even be a year or two before it’s “ripe” enough for the pickin’.
“I usually look for something with character out in the woods, I just don’t cut en masse,” Bowen adds.
As for what kind of wood he prefers, well, something with a bit of personality, such as a twisted limb molded by Mother Nature herself, thanks to the growth of vines that wind around the wood like a snake. Bowen especially prefers to use poorly rooted Dogwoods that can get a second life as a hiking companion. “I like to find Dogwoods that are small and are not going to grow … large in size or flower because of power lines or because they are fixin’ to be removed because they sit on the right of ways,” adds Bowen.
Once that perfect timber is found, now the true art begins. Using mainly his trusty pocketknife, he lovingly skins it, which reveals the sap, creating quite a sticky situation as it hardens on the stick and has to be removed too. “I sometimes put four to five hours in one stick, just cleaning it,” says Bowen. Once completely clean, it takes about six weeks for the stick to completely dry out so it’s ready for him to carve it one last time to give each stick its own signature style.
“The sticks I make are special; they are one-of-a-kind,” Bowen says. “This is not something you’ll find everywhere.” Especially, not like the broken and crumpled aluminum hiking sticks you’ll find abandoned all over the Appalachian Trail, he adds with a chuckle. Nothing is stronger than a wood hiking stick, he boasts.
Carl Dann owner of Smoky Mountain Trader in Cleveland agrees wholeheartedly. He has exclusively sold Bowen’s hiking sticks to his devoted customers for years. Prices hover around $40 with some rare beauties climbing up to $200.
“Sam’s sticks, like Sam, are a one-of-a-kind hiking stick with a distinct look, feel, personality and, some would say, magical capabilities not unlike a wand in Harry Potter’s world,” praises Dann. “The personality of each of Sam’s hiking sticks is what makes them unique, collectible and unmatched. Sam only selects certain wood for his sticks and has probably scoured more of the North Georgia Mountains than most folks will in a lifetime, in search of that next perfect piece.”
When hiking in North Georgia, no matter your skill level, a hiking stick is a good friend to bring along. They can help you keep your stride, clear away spider webs and branches along your path, give you a boost when tackling big hills and steady your pace coming down them. Not to mention, a walking stick can be used as defense if you stumble across a nosy black bear or dreaded Diamondback.
So next time you head out for a hike, you might want to be sure to pack a hiking stick, as there is no better companion for the wild, winding trails of North Georgia.
“Especially in rugged and often rocky uneven terrain like we have in North Georgia, a walking stick can be the difference between an enjoyable stroll and disaster,” advises Dann. “It acts as a ‘third-leg,’ stabilizing every level of hiker from novice to expert and throughout time, has been a staple of those who wander.”
Picture-Perfect Winter Hikes in North Georgia
When Jack Frost hikes through the North Georgia Mountains, he leaves a trail of stunning wintertime views that are a refreshing journey you won’t soon forget. Grab your jacket and your hiking stick and explore the winter forest wonderland of North Georgia at our four favorite hikes.
The Blood Mountain Loop
On the famed Appalachian Trail, the 6-mile Blood Mountain Loop near Helen is quite a sight to behold, according to hiking stick carver Sam Bowen. After breathing in those crisp summit views wander through the boulder-filled forest in peaceful tranquility with your trusty walking stick in hand, as you navigate advanced trails not for the faint of heart. Neels Gap, Highway 60 or at Lake Winfield Scott Recreation Area, 439 Lake Winfield Scott Road, Suches; Union County.
Anna Ruby Falls
This family-friendly hike to the majestic twin waterfalls is just shy of a mile, so even the little ones can enjoy the winter hike from the cozy and warm seat of their stroller or snuggled in your backpack carrier. Mornings have less crowds, but can be a bit chilly, so consider packing a warm blanket and some hot cocoa to cuddle up on a rock while drinking in this winter beauty. 3455 Anna Ruby Falls Road, Helen; White County
As you stand on the towering peak of Brasstown Bald,
Georgia’s highest mountain summit, the gorgeous fall leaves the mountain is known for may have all fallen underfoot, but don’t despair, as those now bare trees provide an expansive and clear 360-degree view of the surrounding beauty. The Arkaquah Trail descends the peak and follows the ridgeline, providing some truly awe-inspiring views peppered with ancient Native American petroglyphs. Brasstown Bald Visitors Center and Recreation Area, 2941 Hwy. 180 Spur, Hiawassee; Union County; 706-896-2556
Icicles dripping from the canyon walls and frothy waterfalls create a winter scene in North Georgia that may chill your cheeks but will definitely warm your heart. Three trails at Cloudland Canyon State Park in Northwest Georgia, perched on the western edge of Lookout Mountain, boasts thousand-foot deep canyons, wild caves, waterfalls and abundant wildlife. 122 Cloudland Canyon Park Road, Rising Fawn; Walker County; 706-657-4050