Event Report: Gadsden—A paddle to the heart of a city


Just a few years ago, the Coosa ran through Gadsden in places only the locals knew about, and most of them didn’t even know exactly where to find it. Today, the river is the centerpiece of the city. You can camp downtown in anything from a sleeping bag to a million dollar RV, and you can step off of a dock to a number of very good eateries and shops. The three bridges that have become the icon of Gadsden hum with traffic while you paddle serenely under them watching birds and enjoying the day. You won’t confuse a paddle in Gadsden with anything else. 

Our June 2 and 3 event began at Nickie’s Landing a few miles above the historic Hokes Bluff Ferry, which operated until few years ago. You won’t find Nickie’s on any map but ours. It’s a landing and campsite on the Coosa that belongs to a private landowner—Nickie and husband Herbert live there. This beautiful spot on the Coosa has been a welcome sight to many Trail travelers.  Nickie’s and Herb’s hospitality make it all the better, as our group discovered as we gathered and camped there on Friday night before the event, so close to the Coosa that we could have fallen into it, but given the chill on that June evening it is a good thing we didn’t. 


We chose the data for the event to coincide with Gadsden’s First Friday event, which turns the entire downtown into a cross between a party and a bargain mart. Coosa River Outfitters, located downtown, offered a whopping 25% off their goods for participating paddlers. Fred Couch shuttled a carload to the event to shop and eat. Even though we awoke at dawn on Saturday, Herb and Nickie’s picnic tables were spread with a wonderful breakfast and freshly made coffee that never smelled so good. 

We had been expecting seventy participants, but due to a round of stomach virus and some other changes of plan, about fifty of us departed from Hokes Bluff Ferry on Saturday morning. We had paddlers from Fayette, Alabama where Van Gravelee came from the Sipsey River to paddle with us. We had a group of twelve members of the newly-formed Friends of Autauga Creek from Prattville. We had folks from Anniston, Birmingham and Madison, and we had a lot of Gadsden folks who wanted to discover their own city from the point of view of the river. The number of inexperienced and first-time paddlers with us (our youngest traveler was two years old, and there were a number of young teens and younger) meant that going the whole distance into town from Nickie’s Landing would be a strain on many, and leaving from Hokes Bluff Ferry turned out to be a wise decision when the wind turned against us. 

The trip into Gadsden from the ferry wasn’t a “forced march,” though, because we had alternative landing sites for folks who wanted to cut the trip short, and we had rides aboard the shadowing Coast Guard Auxiliary boats and the pontoon boat owned by Herb from Nickie’s Landing. 

The morning and early afternoon passed under pleasant, if windy, skies. The wind against us offered but one benefit: it carried the scent of lunch far, far down the river to where we paddled. It carried the scent of lunch up our nostrils, and gave us a reason to go onwards in the face of the wind! 

Let me tell you about lunch. The whole trip was pretty much the brainchild of local paddlers Butch and Kellie Smith, two avid paddlers who show up at most of our events. They had never planned a trip before, but did a great job cooking up something big with our president Fred Couch who had been wanting a Gadsden event for years. Somewhere during the planning, word of the event made the rounds in town and Hugh Stump, representing Etowah County Tourism, brought all the bells and whistles that made the event over-the-top great. But I digress. Back to lunch. Kellie and Butch know two brothers, Donny and Jeremy Speer, who have made a name for themselves serving up on-the-spot cooked meals of the kind you can only get in two places: in your own back yard, and in your dreams. When fifty hungry people pulled into Tillison’s Bend at about 1:00, the lunch line formed immediately before the cabanas under which sizzled hamburgers, hot dogs and veggie burgers, with an array of chips, salad, fixings, brownies, and other delectables that would have made your mama proud. There wasn’t much left when we got through, either. We sadly wiped the ketchup off of our faces and got back in our boats to make it to our next stop, Ray Park, in the heart of Gadsden,. We camped right where we hauled out of the water. We arrived about four in the afternoon, just in time to set up camp and then enjoy an evening at the Fish Market, Gadsden’s upscale seafood restaurant. We had a visit from name Senator Phil Williams (Alabama State Senate, District 10, Etowah & Cherokee Counties) and Eddie May, Executive Director of the Coosa RC&D Council, and Sharon Gross —the Etowah County RC&D Board member—who came to see for themselves what river tourism looks like up close and friendly. We were presented with a grant from Coosa RC&D Council to cover the costs associated with the event. We appreciate it! 

Also dining with us was a group of very important folks for this event— Bill Hays and the rest of the Coast Guard Auxiliary 081-08-02 out of Gadsden. These folks volunteered their time and brought their boats out to shadow us all day long hauling water, boats and tired paddlers. Their presence accounted for the carefree time we had even with hundreds of bass boats on the river that day for a tournament. All but one or two of the skiers and boaters slower down at the sight of the Coast Guard flag, saving some scary moments from occurring for some of the newer and junior paddlers. And all they got was a t-shirt (and a great meal, and the satisfaction of doing something good for Gadsden). 

After a wonderful meal at the Fish Market, some headed straight for the sleeping bags while a few of us stayed up and socialized for another hour or two. Several took advantage of the big Gadsden moon to take a moonlight paddle in the Coosa. We didn’t have to wake up Sunday at the crack of dawn as we had on Saturday, but the day was coming soon enough, so we said goodnight to each other and dreamed of paddling against the wind.


On Sunday, Kellie led us on an excursion down Big Wills Creek. The creek is wild and wonderful and then widens out into the lake at Gadsden’s commercial district where we were camped, so once again our little flotilla was headed for camp, this time under friendly conditions and from a different direction from the day before. I can’t say enough about the uniqueness of rounding a river bend watching herons and great egrets (there is a major rookery in the city limits) and then suddenly encountering Gadsden’s bustling center. But it was home to us, at least for the past two days, and we were happy to see it again. In an hour or so we wrangled our boats once more, said our goodbye’s and struck out for the places we all call home.

The Tennessee River from beyond Bridgeport to Ditto Landing

Facing the "Island Challenge."

Randy Griffin, Tennessee River Coordinator, Huntsville Canoe Club member, ASRT Chairperson, avid paddler and all-around helpful guy (not necessarily in that order) just completed the first leg of a three-legged run of the Tennessee River from just beyond the upstream state line to Huntsville’s Ditto Landing (if historic river trade had remained what it had been, we might be saying “Ditto Landing’s Huntsville,” but that’s another story), camping on islands along the way. In fact, the project is known among invitees as the “Island Challenge.” 

The trip was wonderfully documented by Huntsville Canoe Club’s Carla Knight and can be downloaded here.

Descent of Tallapoosa River by J. Harold Banks

This report is from 2009, but what's time to a river?

Long-distance paddler J. Harold Banks of Dadeville made the entire length of the Tallapoosa River from Paulding County, Georgia to Ft Toulouse near Wetumpka. The trip, featured in the June 2009 edition of northeast Alabama’s Lake Magazine as well as in a number of online sources. We have included the full text of this detail, adventure-filled and well-written journal as a download here.
Harold has had a number of people write him to let him know that the article inspired them to repeat the trip. “The Tallapoosa River is absolutely beautiful and the lakes on it are jewels,” he says. Indeed. The Tallapoosa is where you go to not be reminded that we live in a crowded world.

Fossils, Food and Fun on the Tombigbee.

Trip report from November 2011

Above: Dining under the pavilion at Old Lock One Park.

The Alabama Scenic River Trail had never had a paddle on the Tombigbee, and didn’t plan on one this year until the US Army Corps of Engineers’ budget cuts forced us away from our customary event on the Alabama River near Isaac Creek. We wanted to stay in the area, and that meant the lower Tombigbee and the beautiful, remote Corps campgrounds that stayed open this year.

When the subject of the Tombigbee came up, I immediately thought of the geological education I got some years ago when I was the guest of Jim and Faye Lacefield when they were in the area. Jim is well-known as the author of Lost Worlds in Alabama Rocks, the premiere source of information for the state’s rich geological resources. Just being around the Lacefields for a few hours will make you noticeably smarter, and I figured that I had absorbed enough from them on our trip years ago to retain the seeds of a fun-filled weekend even now.

I was right. Our group was able to blend beautiful fall weather, easy currents, intriguing fossils hunts, beautiful camping and great food into an unforgettable adventure.

Above: Tent camping area

We used the US Army Corps of Engineers Old Lock One Park as a base of operations. Of the Corps’ primitive (and free) campgrounds, this one is on the high end with its concrete bath house (no showers, we brought our own) and lighted pavilion. Old Lock One Park is located in an ancient and hauntingly beautiful pecan grove. It is the site of the first lock on the Tombigbee River. The stretch of the river it is located on has long been cut off on the short side of its loop by a “new” channel, rendering the old lock useless for barge and boat traffic on the now-dead arm of the river. But it certainly is an enjoyable campground. I was a little disappointed in the birding this year as I have seen swallowtail kites, Mississippi kites, bald eagles and many others there before, but that was the only part of the trip that was lacking.

Above: Friday night dining at Linda Vice's followed by a walking tour of Thomasville

This trip, we broke from the usual ASRT ways and made the event free of charge for those who wanted to cook for themselves, as many of us do; or enjoyed a fully catered experience, as many of us do as well. The hospitality was handled by ASRT Vice President and de facto southwest Alabama tourism specialist Linda Vice. Linda invited everyone on the meal plan to her house for a kickoff dinner on Friday night, culminating in a walking tour of Thomasville and culminating in a late night drive back to camp. Thomasville is a charming town and Linda’s recounting of its history brings it to life before your eyes. Her home embodies everything we have come to expect about a creative, eclectic southern taste, and the food was remarkable. One guest told me “I would have paid the whole meal plan amount just to get to do Friday night.”

For those on the meal plan, the catered dining experience continued throughout the trip. Others, who enjoy preparing good food in the great outdoors, cooked for themselves in the varied and always-interesting manner of paddlers, a folk no strangers to nor limited by the miserly accommodations of the hiking trail (almost everyone here had cut their trail cooking teeth, so to speak, in their backpacking days and nowadays revel in the relative freedom and expanse of the riverside menu).

Above: Paddling the clear waters of Choctaw National Wildife Reserve

Our first day’s paddle wasn’t from Old Lock One Park, though. We started out about forty-five minutes away at Lenoir Landing, another obscure Corps park that is the gateway to the backwaters of the Tombigbee in the Choctaw National Wildlife Reserve. Here is a labyrinth of sloughs and inlets that truly form an American jungle of bright green palmetto, water oak, pumpkin-colored cypress and scarlet maples and sumac. It isn’t big water, and daylight savings had shortened our paddling day anyway. We savored the clear water and quiet corners while terns dived into the water and anhinga dried their wings after the underwater fishing expeditions that the birds are known for. The nearby woods were so alive with the different languages of the bird world, all talking and exclaiming at once, that it seemed that we might have been in an alley in ancient Egypt. To the older among us, the subject of telephone party lines came to mind.

Above: The beautiful bluffs below St Stephens, Alabama's capital in its territorial days before statehood

Back at Old Lock One that evening we had the customary good times around our campfire and rolled into bed early following the short sleep of the previous night. We were up early on that Sunday morning and got on the water pretty early. Our destination was the bluffs of St Stephens, a couple of miles south on the river and the place where millions of fossils wait in rich seams right by the water. The trouble was, this trip, the seams were high above our heads as the water was about six feet or more lower than we expected. The place did not disappoint, however, as fossils were found by the dozens or hundreds anyway. Digging in the chalky beach below St Stephens, Alabama’s old territorial capital, kept everyone of all ages captivated and digging, digging, digging.

Above: Beached for a break below St Stephens

Above: These two weren't the only ones having the time of their lives, but they were easy candidates for the top fun spot.

We returned to camp just after lunch. Some of our party drifted away to the further parts of the state, but others stayed behind for a road trip to Moscow Landing. Moscow Landing is a place on the Tombigbee that any geologist speaking any language would recognize and know about. It’s the only place in the world, to my knowledge, that the boundary between the cretacious (dinosaur) and tertiary (mammal) epochs can be seen between one’s feet. It’s a trove of fossils, as well, and even by flashlight we found stunning specimens including vertebrae, oysters and other creatures for our collections.

Above: We hunted for fossils until way after dark on the hauntingly beautiful and starlit Tombigbee at Moscow Landing, the best place on earth to view the cretacious-teriary boundary (Google it!)

If you didn’t make it to this year’s event and it sounds like fun to you, watch our event calendar! We shall return.

—Jim Felder, ASRT Executive Director, November 2011


Terrapin Tri-County Triathlon

Click the event logo above to review the complete setup we used for this, our first-ever athletic event. It was a great success. Following is an article from the area's Piedmont Journal which covered the event.

by Eddie Burkhalter
Underneath a brutal mid-morning sun, with miles of hard climbing, paddling and biking ahead, 68 participants waited for the pop of event organizer Fred Couch’s starting pistol that would mark the start of the first Terrapin Tri-County Adventure Race. In all, 7 three-member teams signed up for the event, each person taking on a single portion of the rugged course that wound through Cleburne, Calhoun and Cherokee counties, began at the Chief Ladiga Trail Campgrounds and ended at the Eubanks Welcome Center.

Around 50 people made the choice to go the distance alone. Among them, two-time cancer survivor and Piedmont native Tracy Stewart waited for the start like a person accustomed to more than his fair share of pain.

Stewart, who is 47, said that most people have a hard time understanding the desire to compete in events like the Terrapin Tri-County Race.

“Most people aren’t going to tackle this stuff. They’re like, you’re crazy. Why would you do this,” said Stewart.

His first cancer diagnosis came in 2001. A friend gave him Lance Armstrong’s book to read while he recuperated in the hospital. Stewart said reading about how Armstrong took on and beat the disease, and then went on to beat up competitors winning the grueling Tour de France bicycle race a record seven times, gave him something to think about other than his own cancer.

It also gave him an idea.

For two years he trained his still-recovering body so he could join a group ride with Lance Armstrong himself in Austin, Texas.

“A week before I was to go to Austin I got a recurrence,” said Stewart.

The prognosis looked bleak. Doctors removed his appendix, the right lobe of his liver, and a portion of his colon, and gave him a 30 percent chance of survival.

“I just kind of folded. I said, ‘I’m not doing it. What’s the point? I trained for two years and I’ll never make Austin,”’ he said.

But make it he did. Stewart beat cancer a second time, and along with 6,500 other cyclists, including actors Will Ferrell and Robin Williams, Stewart peddled alongside his inspiration in the 2004 Ride for the Roses Charity event that raised $5.5 million for cancer research. He rode with Armstrong again in 2005. Stewart has been participating in races of all sorts since then, but with all his experience with pain and perseverance he still had a few words about the race in front of him.

“This is not going to be an easy adventure race,” Stewart warned. “It’s pretty tough. There are a lot of hills to run, and even the bike part … Now there’s about a mile and a half of dirt. Those road bikes just don’t do well on dirt roads.”

The computer chip strapped to his ankle may have been important to the record-keeper waiting in his chair underneath the finish line, but Stewart said his goal was just to complete the race.

“I’m just doing it to finish. If I could just finish it…” said Stewart. “I don’t know how I’m going to do in this. I’ll give it everything I’ve got and if I don’t have it when I need it, you know what, I’m out here trying, and that’s more than most people.”

At the sound of Couch’s pistol the runners took off on the 6.2 mile run, beginning at the Campgrounds and down County Road 70 to the Pinhoti Trail, up the steep mountain slope where they would have to carefully plant each step on top of a pine needle-covered forest floor, and back into the campground to the kayaks waiting creek-side.

Lack of rain had starved Terrapin to a trickle. Word of the 1.5 miles down a slippery, ankle-deep in some spots, Terrapin Creek had competitors tying foot-long bits of rope to the fronts of their kayaks so they could pull them when they could not paddle. One official later said he was asked to take a photo during the race of a participant standing next to a toilet seat standing vertical in the muck.

“Because that’s what I feel like right now,” said the man holding his kayak by its’ rope.

The racers emptied off of Terrapin Creek at Mamma’s Beach and made their way to the biking portion, which included a tricky ride over an unfinished paving job on County Road 8. Race organizers said the county sprung that one on them just days before the event. The mile-and-a-half on the chert road may have slowed the pace a little, but most cyclists said it was not much of a problem and that they were able to complete the 33-mile ride down Chief Ladiga to the Welcome Center without much hassle. Most, but not all.

Cherokee County native Greg Locklear hit the biking leg feeling pretty good.

“I was proud of where I was at, and the people I was seeing around me,” said Locklear. “I was changing shoes to get on the bike and I looked up and the back tire was flat.”

Locklear was able to get an extra tube and just as he began to inflate the new tube it blew to pieces inside the tire. A spectator standing nearby fetched his own mountain bike and the two quickly pulled the tube out and got it into Locklear’s rear tire.

“Then I’m good for 15 or 20 miles and we come into the dirt road section. It was brutal. You’re expecting a rock to throw you so you’re nervous during that part,” said Locklear. Back on the flat surface of the trail and Locklear said things were looking better again, until, for an unbelievable third time, he blew his back tire.

A tired but unbeaten Locklear refused to pack it in. He offered to buy a passing official’s bike on the spot, but instead quickly found himself a loaner with a seat too low and pedals made for clipped riding shoes, which he was not wearing.

“I said I don’t care. We’re going to finish. It was all about finishing,” said Locklear, and finish he did.

Locklear added that if his interview was used in an article that it be noted he is the pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church in Centre.

“My church members will think I’m not claiming them,” kidded Locklear.

After four hours, 49 minutes and 43 seconds, Stewart rode his bike across the finish line as well. The Terrapin Kayak-drag was the toughest, said Stewart. “The rocks were slippery and you’re already beat down from running up the side of that mountain, so when you slip your thighs have to try to catch you, and you didn’t have anything in them,” he said.

In the end only four participants failed to finish, but the extreme heat and what race organizers would later admit was a serious underestimate of much-needed water, nobody could blame them for stopping before it became dangerous. One man suffering from heat exhaustion was taken to the hospital for precautionary measures, sai d Caleb Delaney with Event Medical Services. Delaney said a few others were treated on site for minor injuries.

Hanna Jones came from Pell City with three friends to compete in the race. Jones said the mountain run was brutal. “I think that was the hardest part for me,” said Jones. “Adventure race. That is the definition of an adventure race.”

Kelsey Crow, a 22-year-old senior at Jacksonville State University, said the Tri-County, her first, was a tough one. “Especially dragging the kayak. I paddled maybe twice the whole time,” said Crow.

The general consensus seemed to be that when you sign up for an adventure race, you can expect an adventure. But almost everyone said they would return if the event was held next year.

Anniston veterinarian and active member of the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Club, Dr. Barry Nichols, regularly attends events like the Tri-County. Nicholls said the Terrapin Creek event looked to be a success.

Couch, president of Alabama Scenic River Trails, along with an army of volunteers organized the race.

“It’s fantastic. I told Fred if he got 50 people the first year it would be a success. That was my opinion. And they past that,” said Nicholls. “He gets a lot of advice and he listens to people, and it’s going to grow.”

Nicholls said it takes a special kind of person to make something as big as the Tri-County race work.

“The success of any event like this is to have that one passionate, dedicated person. He’s going to get everybody involved. He’s going to keep pushing. He’s going to keep asking. He’s going to keep doing. If he gives up the whole thing falls apart,” said Nicholls. “There’s always that single individual that makes it happen, and they don’t give up.”

As a tired crowd at the Welcome Center awaited the final results word got out that there remained one rider, still pumping away at the pedals some six hours after the start of the race. Someone thought it would be a good idea for the entire ensemble to cheer whomever was still out there across the finish line.

In true adventure race fashion, 28-year-old Bentley Monk from Atlanta rode across the finish line and through a crowd of people, all cheering for the man who refused to give up. After a very tired Monk caught his breath he said he had been peddling with serious leg cramps for hours, and then he said four words everyone could have already guessed.

“I’m not a quitter,” said Monk.

Thanks for reading!
Piedmont Journal


Weiss Lake Paddle 2010

June 25th, 26th and 27th, 2010.

This year’s Weiss Lake Paddle was a follow-on to the event started by a grant from State representative Richard Lindsey that launched regional interest in the area. The 2009 event was the Alabama Scenic River Trail’s first large event, and the first large paddling event for Cherokee County. The event seemed to perpetuate itself easily, with a lot of thanks to Thereasa Hulgan and April Woodfin of the Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce and Don Coley, a local booster of many outdoor activities in the area.

Above: The local contingent from the Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce ran things for us while we had all the fun.

The big thing we learned in 2009 was that events are much easier if you don’t move around the lake. While the event was a real tour in the true sense of the word, the suggestion was made to use Driftwood Campground as a base of operations. So that’s what the 2010 tour was all about.

Thursday night was like a family reunion as paddlers filed in for registration and set up the sprawling camp. We saw a lot of familiar faces from last year and several who have been regulars at our events since last year.  We cooked and camped on the lip of the lake and watched an awesome full moon rise over the water.

Above: Ready to depart from Driftwood Campground. The water is just a few steps away.

Our community kitchen went little used as the campground offered sausage, biscuits and coffee starting about 6:00 a.m. each morning.

Friday’s paddle was an out-and-back from Driftwood to the mouth of Little River. Everyone in the state knows about or has visited the famous deep canyon, but few know about the canyon below the falls. It turned out to be a great—if challenging—trip up a clear creek with cold, cold water from the top of the mountain. The challenge was not in fighting the current up the mountain, for there was very little current, but rather in getting to and from the creek across the big water of Weiss Lake. Within a mile of the mouth our group—held together nicely by Trip Leader Troy Fuqua of Madison—encountered a heavy rain with lightning. We headed for an inviting grassy expanse with few trees to attract the lightning. Then the landowner approached and instead of being sent away we were invited to wait out the storm in his capacious boathouse a hundred yards from the water. We snacked, talked, checked the weather and talked VW vans with him until the storm blew over than then it was back in the boats.


Above: Taking a break on the Coosa.


Above: In the cold, clear water of the mouth of Little River.

The return trip was good paddling but for the last several miles when the rear guard of our group came face-to-face with high water and wind. We struggled with each stroke as the front went through, our only reward being the slightly cooler temperatures behind it when the winds calmed.


Above: Stopping to smell the Lotus on Lake Weiss.

Friday night’s meal was another celebration among friends, and during the evening plans were circulated that would change the next day’s paddle to avoid the day’s scenario on open water. Instead of a fifteen-mile one-way paddle past historic Cornwall Furnace iron works, the group opted for a stint on Terrapin Creek, a decision that depended upon a report on the water level. One of the paddlers produced and iPad with a link to Terrapin levels. You want to do this creek—at least the part we wanted to paddle—above 150 cubic feet per second (200 is perfect) and the gauge was reading 136 that night, which was marginally close. The water on the Terrapin comes out of Georgia, so it matters how much rain is falling across the state line and not in Alabama. Georgia came through for us because the next morning we were treated to a flow rate of 180 cfps or so. On to Terrapin!

We took our time getting on the water that Saturday because the Terrapin between the Stewarts Bridge put-in and our landing at Terrapin Outdoor Center because the creek is swift and because we were so tired from the previous big-water paddle. Fortunately we had brought enough shorter boats to accommodate those of us with long boats and we had some nice shuttle capacity plus help from Don Coley. From the minute we put in, the ride was challenging and exhilarating. We had two great guides in Mark Lee and Theresa Ward who are regular visitors to the Terrapin. Experience comes in very handy on this creek because things happen quickly in the mild rapids and your hands and eyes will be busy much of the time you are on it.


Above: Yours truly negotiating the infamous "Rock Garden" on Terrapin Creek.

We got back to the campground to find many of our canopies and awnings drenched by a rainstorm that fortunately missed us on the Terrapin. After handing up a few soaked tents and replacing them with our spares, we headed up to the campground’s kitchen for a home cooked meal that was part of the event fee.  After the meal, the campfire talk turned back to the Terrapin and rightly so: we had all done so well, event the whitewater first-timers! Those who had longed for some whitewater paddling adventure got their wish. Those who wished for a fun-filled day on this well-loved piece of water got theirs, too.


Above: Everyone played and escaped the heat in the cold water at Seven Springs on the Terrapin.

The next morning’s trip was to be another out-and-back to Yellow Creek Falls (this creek comes in to Weiss Lake and the Coosa River from the north, just to the west of Little River, and tumbles dramatically into the lake at a wonderful swimming hole that was a favorite of last year’s paddle) but the already-tired group opted for a shuttle to a ramp near the falls for more play time there with less work. The group broke up with a cheerful see-you-next-year-right-here and it was back to the real world and home under a bright blue Cherokee County sky.

Thirty miles on the beautiful Cahaba: Centreville is the center of this paddling universe

June 12th and 13th, 2010

Over the last year or so, the Alabama Scenic River Trail has worked with the town of Centreville to develop the town's Cahaba River Historical Park into an asset for the paddler. The Cahaba River, undammed and wild, offers a reality check for those who have never been on a river with living things in it as they should be: the water is clear and the river is teeming with life. Gliding over its surface and looking down into the looming rocks below is eerily similar to flying an airplane over a bank of clouds under a full moon. Mussels dot every stone like glistening black confetti.

The two-day adventure used Centreville's new riverside campground as a base camp. We shuttled the boats and paddlers up to the Cahaba National Wildlife Refuge and paddled back to the camp on the first day, then left from there to take out below the bridge at Harrisburg Road on the second.

The park is the site of the town's new campground for river travelers, a broad and level field within the park on the shoulders of the river, in sight of the Walnut Street Bridge. It's one of the few places in the state where campers are a short dash from ice, a farmer's market and other amenities. The local food is good and priced right... when our group camped, they headed often as not to the nearby mexican grill and the several meat-and-threes.

The park came into being primarily through the efforts of the local group Friends of the Refuge and Mayor Tommy Bamberg. Our outing was the first good-sized group camp there, and we were well-accomodated. The people of Centreville were so outwardly helpful to all who attended that that we couldn't believe it! These people really want your tourism business and have worked hard to get it. If you're in the area, please visit the park at
421 Montevallo Road (Highway 25), Centreville, AL 35042. Centreville, for those who don't know, is down beautiful Highway 5 a piece below Interstate 59/20 between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa.

Above: Having some fun on one of the many drops on the Refuge.

The Cahaba has two personalities in the Centreville region. Above the park lies the Cahaba Refuge, whose access to the river provides swimming, paddling, a lot of nature studes through the Cahaba River Society and close-up views of the famous Cahaba Lilies when they bloom in May and June. But no camping is allowed here (that's where Centreville's park comes in handy). The river on the Refuge runs excitedly down the fall line over drop after drop and shoal after shoal for miles. The fall line is essentially a ramp that runs off the stone substrata under the state's northern geology and sends our rivers meandering aimlessly throught the coastal plain above the Gulf. The ramp at Centreville's park is at the very toe of the fall line, and the river wanders through farmland bottoms with ample sandbars left and right all the way to its terminus at its confluence with the Alabama River below Selma.

Our entourage began its gathering on Friday evening and put in after a shuttle to the refuge mid-morning. Low normal for running the river was supposed to be a bit higher than what the gauges were reading that morning. Obviously the gauges were wrong: the water looked low. We had come to run the river and ran it anyway. After we put in, we were immediately surrounded by lilies still in bloom. We ran drop after drop, and dragged our boats across the ledge at every one and almost every shoal between. We were exhausted after the first mile or two, but pressed on in the belief that we had only eight more miles to go before returning to camp in Centreville. Were we ever wrong: a GPS error served us by our advance party was wrong by a long shot. The mileage turned out to be more like seventeen into town! By the time we had figured out our mistake, we were past the only optional takeout at River Bend bridge. Would we have taken out there had we known what a long trip we had ahead of us? No. We were tired, but we were having fun, and we were in awe of the Cahaba. The next takeout was our campground, and that's where we headed.

After wearing us out in the first set of rapids and shoals, and then making is paddle the slackwater beyond that back to Centreville, the river once again reminded us of why we were there in the last mile before the ramp where it gives its last hoorah on the fall line. We were busier than the proverbial one-armed paperhanger, guessing and shooting the tricky drops on the way past the park and all the way to the ramp. At least here is was a fair game of pinball; only a few scraping rocks were felt and nobody got stuck as they did up in the refuge.

Local historan David Daniel came out to inform and entertain our bleary-eyed group just before our early retirement. We may have seemed to fatigued to listen, but his presentation was the talk of a good bit of Sunday's paddle, which is saying something considering the beauty we were immersed in at the time.


Our parade comes through a loop in the winding river below Centreville on our float's second day.

We all agreed on our graceful and mercifully easy Sunday float (that distance was wrong, too, but not by the same factor as Saturday's seventeen miles. We ended up doing nearly thirty miles over both days) was agreed by all to be our reward for the day before.

A paddle down the Cahaba is an excellent choice for a beautiful little adventure. Be careful to pick your time for the upper run. But get down to Centreville and do the stretch from the town's Cahaba River Historical Park down to the Harrisburg Road bridge anytime you like. Or better yet, join us next time.

Popular demand says we will do it again.



Ghost Paddle: beautiful scenery, and a lock-through of Claiborne Dam

November 7 and 8 2009.

A very interesting paddle trip on both sides of the Alabama River where we explored almost every gunkhole between our put-in above Haines Landing and our takeout at the Highway 82 Bridge below Claiborne Lock and Dam.

We used the US Army Corps of Engineer's excellent Isaac Creek Campground as a base camp for our two-day exploration of this scenic stretch of the Alabama River. Friday night registration was topped with a barbecue dinner and a ghost-hunting jaunt to Haines Mountain. 

On Saturday morning we gathered for breakfast before departing for the fall colors along the river. The sixteen miles we travelled and meandered that day were mostly downstream and in slack backwater but we did have some strong headwinds that kept us hugging the lee bank. We were wowed by the exquisite weather and the scenery at Cane Creek, Stump Lake and the backwaters of Isaac Creek. 

Camping Saturday night back at Isaac Creek included catfish, okra, sweet potatoes, fried potatoes and other southern delectables. An area band entertained us with sweet live music and we were treated to a bit of dancing with our own star and hostess Linda Vice. We lived up to our EAT BIG motto that evening, and the cameraderie among the group, which comprised folks from Tallahassee to Lousiana and from Mobile to Atlanta, was all that ASRT followers have come to expect.  

Sunday morning saw the group through Claiborne Lock and Dam, most of them for the first time through a big-time lock.