On a sunny morning I set out to cross the ICW where it heads to Florida. Shrimp boats with their long booms motored out with the falling tide, careful to stay within the navigable channel. The shallow areas of less than a foot continued for a few miles as my rudder sometimes drug on the sandy bottom and paddle often struck ground. Using the umbrella as a sail, I gobbled up the miles before 10am and later stopped on the white sand beach dotted with jellyfish and oyster shells.
The miles seemed to be flying by, especially now with the Gulf so close at hand. Weather was perfect today for kayaking with less than 1ft waves. It was interesting seeing how the boats have changed and grown significantly more powerful with the great demands of saltwater fishing. This boat had four 350hp engines…seems like a bit overkill if you ask me.
I had my eyes on a bit of a treat for my recent Alabama section of paddling and pulled in to Tacky Jack’s, a waterfront bar with a hole in the seawall large enough to pull my kayak through on onto their beach. Wearing my spray skirt and pfd, I walked the few feet to the front door and soon devoured half of a massive burger, saving the rest for breakfast the following day.
Back on the water as the sun sank toward the horizon, I could see Fort Morgan’s peninsula point ahead and the oil rigs before the shoreline of Dauphin Island in the distance. Steering a course for the fort beneath a sun dog’s prismatic wonder, I knew rain would soon be here. Brown Pelicans examined me as they flapped past, gracefully skimming the choppy surface. The smell of sea air and the saltwater washing across my deck helped drive home the joy and accomplishment of finally making it to the Gulf of Mexico.
Arriving at Fort Morgan’s boat ramp just as the sun set, it was clear I wouldn’t be kayaking over to Dauphin Island today, though the conditions were perfect. Crossing the Mobile Shipping Channel in the dark seemed like less than a stellar idea regardless of the impending weather forecast. After a chat with the ferry operator, I decided to take the opportunity to load my kayak on the ferry for an early morning crossing. After hauling the kayak across a grassy field to the ferry landing, I chatted with some local fisherman then set up my mattress and bag in the large and clean bath of the historic hospital director’s home. That night, the balmy winds brought thunderstorms and wet gusts that rattled the windows and raked the roof. Come morning, the NOAA radio was abuzz with warnings of gale force conditions, waterspouts and tornado watches for the lower Mobile Bay and Dauphin Island. I had some time to kill until the first boat arrived so I took the tour of Fort Morgan, a strategic military position at the mouth of the bay occupied consistently since the early 19th century.
The rainy weekday morning meant I had the place to myself. Wandering through the dark and damp tunnels and chambers, the presence of battle and weight of the losses sustained within these walls struck me. The cacophony of battle has been replaced with the distant crash of the sea swells and rhythmic dropping of water from a calcium deposit growing ever longer with each passing year.
Finding an expended clip on a concrete walkway seemed like an unlikely historical find. Sure enough, the park interpreter recalled a recent weekend reenactment where they stormed the beach head like in Iwo Jima.
Old and the new. Oil rig off in the distance but a cannon is no match for it’s potential destruction.
A few squall lines blew through with 45 mph gusts and driving rain. The ferry would have a shorter schedule today and quit running shortly so I scurried back to the landing and unpacked the gear and carried the kayak on board with the help of a ship’s hand. The heavy ferry was rocking in the swells as white caps and breaking waves folded around us. It would have been a foolish crossing with the outgoing tide and stiff 15mph north westerly blowing. This may be the smartest $5 I’ve spent in a long time. Most of the ferry ride was spent fielding questions from passengers about my odd mode of transit.
The following 4 days showed no sign of improvement with heavy bands of rain and a strong northern wind with wintry cold conditions. My first stop was the Dauphin Island Campground but after asking for one of their expensive $22/night sites, I was informed they do NOT allow hammocks or anything tied to the trees. The prospect of paying to sleep on the ground in the heaviest rain in weeks sounded grim. Unfortunately, there were no other legal options for camping and the increasing wind and rain meant sketchy conditions to go kayaking looking for shelter. Surprising even myself, I gave my sister and brother-in-law a phone call and they were excited to drive the hour along the Gulf Coast from Mississippi to pick me up. In the meantime, I explored Fort Gaines and Dauphin Island by foot.
The two parks are not linked and I couldn’t justify spending the same for another tour of a similar fort. I’m left to ponder the irony that a fort once designed to repel people has now transitioned its efforts to pull people in.
I just happened to be near when I spotted what I first thought was an apparition atop the fort. After rubbing my eyes, I watched incredulously as he rammed the rod down the cannon’s mouth and checked and rechecked his fuse and powder. Shortly there came a high pitched whistle then a concusvie explosion that echoed out over the water. A plume of white smoke nearly a hundred feet wide expanded on the swift-moving wind. It smelled pretty darn authentic even if he was shooting blanks.
Much of Dauphin Island is residential streets amid forests of saw palmetto, live oak and long leaf pine. Although many homes are built on pilings or stilts, this colorful easter-egg house had a main level. Certainly some unique beach-themed homes on my walking tour to the wildlife refuge and back.
Dauphin Island was habitated by westerners as early as 1710, with 20 fortified houses whose inhabitants grew gardens, fished and harvested local shellfish to survive. The same man who founded Detroit, Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, was given governorship of the new Louisiana territory and established his headquarters near this sprawling live oak photographed below. Unfortunately the fabled paradise described turned out to be a few fig trees, some apples and a couple grape vines. Coupled with the summer heat and relentless mosquitoes, I’m sure it was a dreadful existence for some time.
Dave picked me up in the truck and we were soon riding high and dry over the Dauphin Island Bridge where below me, the waves and white frothy water assured me that I made the right choice. My family was excited to reunite and I was in need of the comfort of a hot shower and rich meal of southern cooking. Over the Thanksgiving holidays I spent time playing with my nephew on the beach, grilling out by the pool and working on gear and boat repairs through tumultuous late fall weather.
Had my first deep fried turkey which was delicious, succulent and indulgent. I’ll have to wean myself back on to tunafish and beans after all these delicious meals around the table.
The Christmas tree is up and that’s my cue to skee-daddle. I’ve added some additional gear to make winter paddling safer; neoprene skull cap, Stohlquist Paddling Boots, Poggies (hand mitts hooked to the paddle), and exchanged hammock for tent.
My route has changed for the winter to account for the Red Tide conditions in Florida and the avoidance of coastal conditions. I will paddle about 400 miles of Florida’s Circumnavigational Paddling Trail to the Suwannee River then turn upstream for over 230mi to the Okefenokee Swamp. From here I’ll contact the local outfitter for a 7 mile portage to the St. Mary’s River which flows to the Atlantic by Cumberland Island. I’ve included a new map below: