It felt good to transition to another river where the width doubled and scenery broadened. There were more bass boats in this section but ultimately not much barge traffic. While taking a break at be confluence, a father is son in a camouflage canoe paddled up. They were scouting their game cameras and checking tracks in anticipation of the upcoming deer season. I learned it began tomorrow morning so I’d be extra careful when setting up camp tonight.
Bankhead Lake is sporadically populated with cabins and river homes which spill boat houses and docks over the banks. In summer months they are usually busy but come fall there is little activity out here on the water. I’d argue that conditions are more enjoyable in the cooler days for recreating while most only “play” in the summer around here.
The shorter days mean a protracted distance covered when compared with summer paddling. The 8-10 hours of sleep at night is a welcome change with cooler evenings requiring use of an air mattress inside the hammock.
Kayaking up to the Bankhead Lock, the approach is an impressive feat of man vs nature where drilling and blasting through a mountain created sheer walls of geologic cross sections. When I hail the lock master on Ch16, he reveals the unfortunate news that the lock is down for emergency repairs until late tomorrow evening. It begins to rain ad I climb up the rip rap to assess a portage. A long and difficult path to the road and down around the dam would be quite dangerous with these slick rocks. Instead, I make camp around the bend on Big Indian Creek and wait out the storm beneath aged poplar trees.
Blue Creek Site is a US Army Corps of Engineers campground and boat ramp on the west side of the Black Warrior which gets very little use. For the past couple years I find myself frequenting it by scooter and now by boat. The caves make for great climbing and shelter in rain, it is free to camp up to 14 days at the primitive site and the views from the water of the surrounding hills are spectacular. As the fall wind blows on crisp leaves, I’m welcomed back with memories of past winds that swirled around me on this high bluff.
The Bankhead and Holt locks both have a drop of 65-70ft, the largest fall of any chamber I’ve been through. This results in a 25 minute process with accompanied symphony of shrieking metal, groaning industrial echoes and pumping splash of water. Afterward the leviathan entryway doors part ever so slightly revealing a knifes width of light finally opening to reveal the river world ahead.
The Alabama Scenic River Trails group has a list of campsites that are private and public along the river bank. I stumbled upon this one around lunch time right beneath the Drummond Coal facility. An upside down paddle suspended on a long line hang over a volleyball net erected in the shallow bay. A grill supported my phone as I took this shot of my lunch break and solar charging time. Just a day in the life!
It had been a while since my last stern-wheeler spotting. This old workhorse has a new life as a pleasure boat on the lake. I can hear the beating of it’s massive wheel now…
Following days of good weather, some cooler and heavier clouds blew in as I left Tuscaloosa. Although a brief afternoon stop, I walked a few miles in search of Publix and much needed fresh groceries. How can an Envy apple from New Zealand cost $.99/lb? incredible. I’ve paid that much for a single banana in not too distant memory. While returning to the boat, my stomach got the better of me and I stooped into a Chipotle…too rich for my taste. Next I hit up the southern corporate symbol of greasy spoon normalcy that is Waffle House. Nestled on University Ave, this was the first Waffle House I’ve been to that was NOT on an Interstate. I struck up a conversation with the wait staff on a slow Friday afternoon. After learning that I was kayaking here from WV, the kind line cook told me “Man that’s fire. I got you. Yo! Where’s his ticket”. With that he pulled a few dollars from his pocket and paid for my tab. I couldn’t believe it, here was an individual working hard to save money at a Waffle House so willing to contribute to my own freedom and travel. Those that have the least truly do have the propensity to give more. Needless to say, I left a hefty tip as a karmic thank you for his outward support. (smiling at you Debra!)
Downstream from Tuscaloosa, the river changes dramatically to a more natural body of water following the meanders and bends of a river no longer chained by the geology above the fall line. Sand bars begin to populate the riverbank with endless opportunities to make coffee and take a break. The thudding diesel engines of the tow barges work up and down the river with maybe 2 -4 passing per day. Captains skillfully navigate the shoals and narrowly miss the battered buoys in tight bends (see below).
Onward to Moundville!