Donny Kidd said he last went to the hunting shack he built with his cousins in 1974. Back then, there was no such thing as the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, the 125,000-acre national park that is today the crown jewel of the northern Cumberland Plateau. But the rugged terrain that makes up the national park was much the same then as it is now. And deep within it, three young teenagers found the perfect spot to build a getaway.
Kidd was 14 years old when he and his two cousins — brothers Ronald and Larry Thomas — hacked down small trees and built the small shack underneath a cliff in 1972. Like other teenagers of their time, they were carefree. They spent their days during the fall of the year hunting for deer in the wilderness that would eventually make up the Big South Fork NRRA.
The boys roamed all over the BSF in those days. Kidd says they used to sit on a cliff’s edge on the opposite side of the gorge and use binoculars to zoom in on their hunting shack. But for whatever reason, they stopped shacking up in the small hut. Kidd went back one last time in 1974 — the same year Congress passed legislation establishing the national park — and never went back.
Forty-two years later, the shack still sits beneath the bluff line. Very few people have stumbled across it during the four decades that have lapsed. Because it’s protected from the wind, the sun and the elements by the rock wall that towers above it, it’s remarkably well-preserved. Kidd and his cousins covered the walls on the inside with cardboard shipping boxes from his father’s chainsaw shop. The cardboard is still mostly intact. The roof covering was felt, which is also still intact. The floor was made of rough lumber. There was an old cot on one side.
Because the terrain the shack sits in is so remote and rugged, it has managed to escape detection all these years by the National Park Service archaeologists, trail maintenance crews and biologists who have roamed the backcountry. And, yet, it is literally a stone’s throw from a hiking trail that is traveled by hundreds — perhaps thousands — of people every year.
Over the years, there have been whispers of hunters who were wandering through the backcountry wilderness and stumbled across a strange shack. But they were few and far between. In 2006, a pair of locals — Gary Reagan and Drew Smith — happened upon it. Smith carved his name on a board above the door, along with the date. Later, a hog hunter named Robbie Whaley talked of stumbling across it.
Generally, though, hunters couldn’t pinpoint exactly where they had found the shack once they were out of the rough terrain and thickets. In 2015, Big South Fork archaeologist Timothy Smith embarked on a search after a hunter stopped by the park’s visitor center to report stumbling across a strange shack. The two men traveled into the gorge in the general vicinity of where the hunter remembered coming upon the shack, but were unable to locate it. Smith has since transferred from the BSF to the Pacific Northwest.
The shack is still there, though, even if there are few clues to reveal who built it. The only items inside it are a couple of Royal Crown cola bottles, a Mountain Dew bottle, an old hammer and a few nails, and a penny dated 1974 — likely dropped there the year Donny Kidd made his last trip to the shack as a 16-year-old.
On the trunk of a large beech tree nearby, there are initials carved into the trunk — distorted by the tree’s growth and hardly legible today: D.K. and L.T., the initials of Kidd and of his cousin Larry Thomas, who has since died.
So are there still things out there that have been completely forgotten? This shack is proof that there are. Throughout the BSF there are moonshine still sites, old makeshift dwellings and other signs of the people who once inhabited this land.