Tensaw Delta

While heading down the Tombigbee one morning, I came across a yacht named Gumby II that had swung on it’s anchor and was a bit stuck on a sand bar. I chatted with the owner, Scott, while sipping coffee and hanging on to his dinghy. He had left Jacksonville in March on the Great Loop and was nearing Fortunately, in less than an hour he freed himself and was cruising again on down to the Gulf. Scott snapped this pic and we exchanged information but I just couldn’t bring myself to accept his offer of a boat ride to the Gulf.

The sunsets in fall and winter have begun to display their vibrant and rich colors. The shot below was taken at the final lock and Dam before the river flow freely to the Gulf. It feels great to have those monstrosities behind me.

It wasn’t the first gator I came across but certainly the closest. This deceased male alligator was roughly 6-7ft and judging by the bloating had been here for a bit. Paddling up to this great predator I kept waiting for it to spin over and attack. The well worn claws and prehistoric skin made me feel like I was in the presence of a dinosaur. My how the river has changed since WV.

Down in the Tensaw Delta, the mosquitoes have yet to dissappear for winter and required wearing of clothing head to toe and a bug net. The ever present hum at night ebbs and flows as the pests probe through my hammock for any morsel of blood. What more could I expect from the swamps of this biodiverse state.

Down in the historic port town of Blakely, opposite Mobile on the east side of the Tensaw Delta, I pulled in to the boat ramp and nearly ran over this fisherman’s lines. Dewitt Hooks, yes that’s his real name, is a local in his mid 70s who has been fishing these waters since he was a young boy. His extendable poles and light test were hooked with worms for baiting brim, crappie and any small catfish that may come by. After a setting up my camp near the boardwalk, I struck up a conversation with the old-timer and picked up every other word of his rich and thick accent. Tilting his slimey plastic bucket towards me, he offered me some fish to cook for dinner. Now I love fish but so far have avoided eating locally caught fish due to the pollution in the Ohio and Tennessee. Gladly accepting his offer, he tossed two nice brim into my cockpit and I promptly cleaned them on shore and pan fried them in onions, garlic and curry spices. The white meat was juicy, tender and flaky leaving only the small bones tossed into the live oak forest for a scavenger of the night.

Sunset down on the boardwalk beneath the Spanish moss draped live oaks and cypress.

The last railroad bridge to cross before reaching Mobile Bay just happened to have a freight rolling across when I paddled beneath.

In case you were wondering, there’s a floating shanty at the end of the rainbow.

In the lower delta, canals cut through the tidal swamps and offer an escape from winds that picked up. At low tide, the paddle would frequently scrape across the muddy bottom and the bank is at eye level. A big splash ahead was none other than a gator making a break for the water at my approach. This is a tight channel to share with such a large predator. Sheesh.

I-10 is the last major highway bridge to pass under before arriving at Mobile Bay. The rumble of trucks and cars carries for miles, reminiscent of the surf on a stormy beach far away. I’ll be at the beach soon enough!

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Tombigbee River: Demopolis to Tensaw Delta

I can’t say it was all natural along the Tombigbee as the scent of pulp paper mills, coal power plants and steel mills swirled on the ever changing winds. At night I could often pinpoint the change in direction based on various scents.

Most of the time however, the river was natural with sand bars, mud shoals and plenty of riverbank to hammock in at night. Most of this land is private but folks don’t really get down on the banks late at night or early morning in rural areas. Smoke from my Twig stove drifted on the wind to mix with the fog as a new day dawned.

It wasn’t completely lonely as the frequent yachts passing and fisher folk offered opportunity for conversation or affirmation that I wasn’t the only living person left. Often times I’d ask how people prefer to cook their fish and unanimously in this region they’d say “Yella-meal and spices “. That’s yellow corn meal and a local blend of their spices mixed in to batter and then deep fry the fish.

The bank in some places had been sharply cut away by the strong flow of the river. I was most disgusted by this forgotten method of bank stabilization, reminiscent of when they used entire crushed vehicles to shore up banks in NC.

I had heard of this restaurant on the river in Lavaca called Eazelles and boy did it hit the spot. After pulling in my boat at the crumbling ramp, I entered the dimly lit 100+ year old establishment and was given a menu by a waitress who looked right out of a turn of the century novel. Sweat glinted off her forehead not contained by the head wrap above. Outside the field of white cotton shimmered in the mid day heat against the hard blue sky.

111lb Blue Catfish

The fried catfish whole came with a serious bowl of coleslaw, my first green veggie in a few days. Nice and cool, it set the stage for the perfectly cooked catfish. A crispy crunchy batter encrusted the tender white morsels of fish splashed with vinegar. I saved some hush puppies for later in my pocket which soon became hopelessly greasy. They were a treat while floating downstream.

Oh earlier I mentioned vehicles in the river…well name this model year schoolbus!?

Halloween was a day like any other until I got the dumb idea to cover 30 miles, nearly double a normal day’s distance. As it grew late, I realized I’d have to cover 4 miles in the dark and really wised my Headlamp was working. It grew dark and I soon paddled up to a house on stilts below which a few folks were mingling and offered me a steak. Having not eaten yet., I accepted and was soon before a cold beer, filet mignon and toast. Ronnie Norton and his kind wife also offered me a shower which I happily accepted and sent me off with a Halloween bag of candy, apple and water! How sweet trick or treating is in a kayak.

Tombigbee R.: Moundville to Demopolis

The beauty of the old Lock sites along the way is they offer a ramp in an otherwise natural river.  At night it is comforting to know I’ve got somewhere to pull into that isn’t a mud bank.  Many of the locks are technically closed overnight but since it is such a rural area, there isn’t much enforcement.  The hammock is tied up at sunset and untied before sunrise.  This morning found me floating past the noisy railroad bridge, trains passing in the night causing an uproar not far from camp.    Soon the fog burned off allowing for some river miles to be covered.  Later that night it would rain hard and heavy winds began to blow. I sat out one of the rainy weather days as temperatures plummeted into the 40’s – not the best daily conditions for paddling.

The following days were much more enjoyable and I made my way down to Lock 5 park by sunset.  There were two boat launches here and a brief walk up the road to the local Turtle Creek Cafe revealed a shuttered establishment.  I guess I’ll have to enjoy another meal of eggs, cheese and tortilla down by the river.  The bathroom’s utility door was open and I found some power for my radio and a spigot to fill my water jugs, the only two real necessities on a day-to-day basis while paddling.

In the morning, the sound of trailers clanking and two stroke engines racing was a sure sign of a local fishing tournament.  At 7AM, the leader gave a few rules and then  everyone took off in a roar of smoke and waves in a race to make it to their fishin’ hole first.

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A brief look at the satellite view revealed some back channels that would head off from the main river but eventually  cut back in saving a couple miles.  The flow here was still noticeable as I swept through the forest and reeds on my way back downstream to Demopolis.

Pulling the boat up in the Municipal Park, I chained it to a metal anchor and set out on foot for a 3 mi walk around town, to the grocery store, library and a bite to eat.  There is a quaint charm to Demopolis with the many historic homes decorated for Halloween.  The leaves crunch under my feet as I walk past brick lined sidewalks and eventually into a rougher part of town where crumbling concrete just ends at a grassy block and train tracks.  I continue on and eventually return to the boat at sunset to finish some miles before the day is through.  The offer from a family to join them at 9PM for the Rocky Horror Picture Show shown outside on a sheet is tempting but I know it is way past my bedtime.

Now I’ve seen all manner of devices to shore up a bank but never tombstones and coffins!  This area near the south side of town was a real shock as the broken and crumbling caskets tumble down to the water’s edge.

The shorelines are littered with the crafty remains of the beavers which are responsible for damming and cutting many willows and cane along the shoreline.   I’ve always enjoyed the pattern of their gnaw marks.

White Bluff in Demopolis at Sunset.

At a certain point I ran out of maps and started making my own.  The library was closed in Demopolis and instead of hanging around for another day waiting for it to open, I just began hand drawing my own maps on the blank backs of the existing.  They were a little rough but I found them more usable than the hard to read satellite view maps provided by the corps.

 

 

Tuscaloosa to Moundville

Saturday was mostly rainy but I made myself comfortable with the umbrella and high end Kokatat paddling gear.  Most showers were quick fleeting affairs with more wind than rain.  By sunset the river was rising but the rain had mostly ended.  Patches of blue sky emerged vividly from the gray trailing clouds.

Many large sandbars and disposal areas lie on the inside of bends in the river.  This one has a dramatic 25 ft rise from the water’s edge and a grassy meadow above.  The skeletal remains of E-Z Up awnings from the past season emerge from the sand like a pirate’s grave, no doubt their pontoon boat had a pirate flag.  Blackened logs from campfires set too close to the river’s edge and the detritus of beer cans on the shore reflect the merriment soon to be washed downstream by the next flood.

I made it to Moundville in the afternoon and charged electronics and rewatered as the afternoon turned to night.  It was a cool night of camping in the low 30’s and I was quite ready for dawn to break on the misty Black Warrior.

Moundville by morning light is that much more impressive as the sun burns the frost from the grass.  This was the first morning of frost for me on this trip and my open toes sure felt it.

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The Moundville Archaelogical Site is home to the second largest Mississippian Culture settlement in the US.  The site was occupied from 1000AD – 1450AD and features many mounds that were habitated by family clans and small dwellings atop.  The expansive plaza really brings home just how many people once lived and thrived here.  Their cultural artifacts and artistic capabilities are quite remarkable and the museum exhibits many of their past findings.

Walking to the Family Dollar store for snacks, I enjoyed the artistic grid nature of this ant nest on the brick sidewalk.

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It was a quiet morning in town after school finally started and I snagged a cup of coffee at a gas station and warmed my numb toes (not with the coffee).  The kind librarian helped me print some more charts for the Demopolis Pool and I’m looking forward to the upcoming stretch to where the Black Warrior meets the Tombigbee.  There is only one place to resupply on the next 60 miles of river or more, Roebucks Landing, where I’m sure I’ll buy up the beans, eggs and cheese on their shelves.  The many twists of this meandering river means there are few towns along the banks as much of the area is low-lying floodplain.  With days in the 70s and nights in the upper 40’s I’m hoping it is more comfortable paddling conditions ahead. The south in autumn is a real treat.

Black Warrior River to Tuscaloosa

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.

In the morning it occurs to me my food was running low and the nearby grocery store, a 5 mi mountainous hike seems like a good way to kill time.  Climbing 1/4 Mi up 300 ft to the roadway, I soon meet a maintenance Worker who offers me a lift to Lock 17 grocery.  We chat about his repairs and I thank him for saving me the quite hilly trip.  At the small and barren store, I chat with Lisa the worker while picking up white bread, eggs, stored can of beef stew store snd graham crackers.  To my surprise, she offers to temporarily shutter the store and drive me back to the boat! A sharpie scrawled sign now taped to the atore window drifted from view as the beater Chevy truck hummed down the pavement.  Her door swung open around a right hand turn, “This damn thing” she muttered as her left arm instinctively grabbed and lifted the heavy door to defeat the long faulty hinge.  She deposited me on the side of the road by a logging road and guard rail, a quizzical expression on her face.  I gave her my website so that later she may actually believe the  stranger she let off back into the forests.

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!

Locust Fork River to Black Warrior

Morning fog swirled on the river as a faint current pushed me south. My campsite was a grassy field of a vacation trailer with nobody around. It was growing dark and I had to get off the water before a bass boat took me out.


Persimmons hang from trees on the Riverside but this variety was yet too astringent to eat off the tree.

There were many small campers and trailers situated along the banks of the Locust Fork. A crisply unfolded new confederate flag hung proudly in the rising sun. From beyond the screened in porch came a slow drawl “Beautiful morning for a paddle, ain’t it?” Yes sir it sure is.

A make-shift teepee on the right bank

Sunset again in colorful autumnal celebration as I round a 90 degree bend in the Locust Fork

I meet this guy on his home made boat dock. He was the first person I had spoken with in three days and I probably chatted his ear off. This creation cost him about $12k in materials. The pontoons are two recycled Boeing fuel cells!

His neighbor however had a bit of a coal problem 😉 The Miller Steam Plant marked the beginning of coal tows on the narrow Locust Fork

After four days and a few more neat railroad bridges, I finally reached the mouth of the Locust Fork at the confluence with the Mulberry Fork. Here the two bending rivers meet in a meander with shorelines of pine forest and hills. The dammed Bankhead Lake now backs up and limits the river flow.

Locust Fork River

The water level was only 1 ft when Martha dropped me off at the Warrior, AL put in for the Locust Fork River.  I waved goodbye at the Old Timer’s Fishin Hole and shot the V down my first small riffle of the voyage.  Ahh the Locust Fork River…it was a true joy to be back on a natural and smaller waterway after the large lakes and powerful Ohio and Tennessee.

As Martha drifted out of view around the bend, I found myself floating in a friendship hangover thinking of all the great friends and situations that found me in the past two weeks in Royal, AL.  I missed all those great folks and really valued all their input and contributions to my journey.

 

A small overhanging sandstone cliff offered shelter from the sun. I pulled in underneath and savored the drip drop of groundwater from the moss above.  Ferns grew and small white flowers dusted the crevices where they could keep root.

The one downside of the low water level were the many small class I rapids and features that made comfortable paddling a stop to get out of the boat and scout.  By the end of day two, I’d run almost any of these and scrape my way over the rocks.  Sometimes less gloriously than others.

Here the whole river was spit to the right into a small riffle about  15 feet wide.

Another nice section beyond Warrior.

For all the rapids and technical river features, I took solace in the miles of flatwater paddling on this narrow waterway.  Very few cabins or houses are on the shoreline so I went days without talking to a person.

The first night’s campsite on the river was at a shoal where I had finally decided 10 miles was far enough.  I pulled out the twig stove and prepared some lentils, rice and carrots, a staple dish.  Large mussel shells littered the shallow bar here and I counted at least 4 different kinds.

This mature 6 point buck crossed the shoal in front of me. What better way to gauge stream depth eh?

This old railroad trestle in the fading light of afternoon was a pleasant engineering gem to admire from underneath. The sandstone bluffs to the right towered over the river and gave such presence to the curve.  High in the trees were the remains of the last flood…perhaps 15 feet up there!

This is how it’s done if you want  to save the bottom of the boat!

At the Buck Short Bridge, I came around the bend to find the entire old span demolished into the water.  At first it appeared the entire river was blocked to travel until I spotted a section 2 ft above the water with enough room beneath for a kayak to pass…just barely. I snuck to river left, just out of this picture on the right, and made my way under the main span. The current was strong here where the span was blocking it so I held on to the rusty metal of the bridge as I passed underneath.  The workers above at first tried to call me away but clearly I had no other options but to get around this bridge.  Paddling out on the other side drew their attention away from the arc torch for a brief moment for a wave.  What a relief…I hope there aren’t many more like this in my trip.

Locust Fork Sailing Club…membership : 1.