Day 40 – Spanish Fort

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Yesterday was a treat! I woke up after sleeping like a rock in my little tent, stayed dry when it rained and no furry or scaly creatures got into my tent or my food, which I had hung up high in a tree. I felt so well rested that the lack of coffee didn’t even bother me. It was just break down camp, wishing all the while I had a way to stow the garbage that others had left there, gear up the canoe, and go. Pretty simple.

It was a beautiful paddle down the river systems to the Blue Gill Restaurant on the causeway. There I planned to meet Justine and KC of the Mobile Baykeeper. I had met them at the amazing River Rally and just fell in love with them, Mobile, and the rivers and the river folk of this area. I actually had good service all the way through this section-from Mount Vernon to the Blue Gill-and if you love cypress trees, palmettos, Spanish Moss dripping from trees and the lushness of the wild southern rivers, this area is definitely the place for you. The bird life, the plants, it is paradise. I saw lots of alligator gars, am pretty sure I heard alligators in the night, and for sure there were plenty of fish jumping.

As I paddled south the rise of land that is the area of Spanish Fort came into view-it’s also where a Civil War era fort is. This area is another “must visit” spot. The history and natural beauty plus the people that make Alabama a hidden gem, and this area has a unique beauty all its own. I do believe it’s as much an underrated state as NJ is, maybe even more so.

As I was unloading my canoe full of gear, my phone rang and who was on the other line but Brent! He had made it down with a small pack of his furry friends to meet me and the folks from Mobile Baykeeper. He had gone to one of their events a bunch of years ago and wanted to get reconnected, plus he is always up for an adventure it seems, so he decided to make the trip.

It was great to see him and his pack again-I am very enamored, too, of his little rat terriers. They are little bundles of personality. Heisenberg did manage to escape but Brent located him-it was a little tense as we both knew that alligators were in the area and that they do love dog. He got Heisenberg back but then as I was talking to the ladies working at the front desk of the restaurant, out of the corner of my eye I saw Heisenberg and JoJo shooting across the parking lot. Fortunately Brent nabbed JoJo and we were able to herd Heisenberg back to the truck as well. Crazy little dogs! They love to hunt squirrels and things.

We had a great time at lunch, making me so happy I had opted to sleep in my tent the night before rather than push on and getting to the Blue Gill later and in the dark. Now I’ve been rested and have the energy for the final week of paddling.

At this moment I’m at Justine’s place here in Mobile. It is simply lovely. I think her home is what Linda Vice was describing as a typical design for homes down here. Justine’s home, like mine, was built around 1928/1929. Her home, though, was built to last- mine is a log cabin originally meant for vacationers. In Justine’s home you walk into a large hall with bedrooms off to one side and the common rooms to another. High ceilings, beautiful porch, it really is a sweet little place, and I’m super excited to be staying here another night! I’ll paddle into a yacht club on the Mobile side of the bay, keeping it a relatively short day because of the storms. Tomorrow I’ll either make Coden or Pascagoula. I’m leaning to Coden because of weather and the load on my canoe, but we shall see! Still lining up places to stay so that might be the determining factor as well.

Now we’re gonna get ready to have breakfast at Justine’s sister & brother-in-law’s house. I’m so looking forward to it and this day. And I’ll be back in salt water! I really am looking forward to retracing my steps, the path I took in ’09 when I paddled this way, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita but before the BP oil spill. I would love to meet up with the folks I met before. I often think of them, especially how they are doing post-BP. Living down here is definitely not for sissies. You gotta be tough to deal with not only what Mother Nature dishes up for you, but what people do as well. BP was a disaster many have not ever, particularly all those that committed suicide after being ruined, will ever recover from.

Oh-just a note-about flood victims and things-I am working on locating a reputable charity to promote that is helping the recent flood victims in the Baton Rouge area of Louisiana. Will definitely be promoting that as well for the rest of the journey and for as long as it takes in my blog and on social media.

And also-please don’t forget the Care2 petition for clean water!  (It’s right on the tab on the homepage.)

Thank you!

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Day 39 – Alabama Scenic Trail campsite

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Oh the weather! Well, the weather rules and that is all there is to that. Yesterday I held up at a perfect little oasis-it was a fishing shack only accessible by water, it had a nice porch with a bench on it and water with a deep sink for cleaning fish. And NO “no trespassing signs.” It had a low dock with tires for bumpers and I completely appreciated the lack of signs because when lightning threatens near me I just want some shelter. Yes, I’m a lightning wimp on the water.

I’ve paddled plenty of times watching lightning strike yards away from me and on the other side of a river where I’m paddling or seen it dancing across the sky from cloud to cloud like a wild science experiment. Around Pool’s Island, MD, I even smelled ozone. So far my average of NOT getting struck while on the water is great, but the odds kind of freak me out.

While I’m low on the water I am still the highest thing on the water. And I have a carbon fiber boat with a lot of electronics on it. Today I’ll try to make those last 18 miles or so to Blue Gill, am hoping to be there before noon if I don’t have to hole up somewhere to wait for lightning to pass.

Right now I’m camping at a rustic campground set up by the National Scenic Trail and Alabama Scenic River Trail people. Except for the trash left behind by some thoughtless folks, it’s a perfect spot. I don’t believe I was joined on the beach by any gators and I haven’t seen or heard any wild boar, but I still do have my food hanging up high so no furry people can’t get it.

I’m so lucky it was a cool rainy day yesterday-I still have water though I will surely run out before I get to today’s destination. I almost hate to leave this perfect spot-am hearing splashing in the water every now and then and wonder if it’s a gator snatching a passing fish or something. Or maybe it’s just a fish leaping but it doesn’t really sound like that. The water moving sounds to be too big for just a fish. It’s still too dark to see very well so I can’t really do anything but hear the noise and wonder.

Ah sweet victory! I just nailed a pesky mosquito. My tent has blood smears all inside it as I’ve killed plenty of these little pests too late and after they’ve feasted on me. It was a perfectly quite night-just the bugs and owls with their gurgly purring whoots. Even route 65 seems to have quieted down, though I can hear trucks rumbling by now off in the distance.

I’m really thankful for this little spot-I actually got in early enough and feel well rested. Last night I feasted on peanut butter and Nutella and pretzels. I’ll have some water this morning and leave as soon as I can see, which hopefully should be within the hour. Then it’s gonna be push it out for Blue Gill to see Justine and get cleaned up!

Boy do I reek. I was hoping my dirty clothes in my tent wouldn’t make a gator think I’m a dog…gators LOVE dog. Fortunately I don’t think any were interested in the tent or my canoe, which I have between me and the water. This has been a super sweet place, by I’m eager to move on. I miss my family and unlike past trips, they were not able to see me off OR meet me half way NOR will they be at the landing in New Orleans. Carl will come down probably the day after, but without the kids. Who knows tho, with the weather delays he might actually be here for the landing!

Paddles up!

Day 38 – Saved by the Tow!

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I really don’t know how I messed up the distance estimates for yesterday’s run. I had Bobby’s Fish Camp to the Jackson spot at 28 miles, and for some reason I had in my notes that the paddle from there to Mt.Vernon would be only 20 more – a long, but manageable 48 miles.

That this didn’t send alarm bells off in my head when I glanced at the map on my iPhone and wondered that it was funny that it looked like the distance from my Jackson spot to my Mt. Vernon spot looked double what the Bobby’s Fish Camp spot to the Jackson spot did is a mystery to me. I guess it was indeed wishful thinking overpowering reality. I had been eager to do the long distances while I could because of the lousy weather forecast for the upcoming week. It’s been my goal to shorten the distances I paddled in ’09 on the Mobile Bay/Dauphin Island stretch where I’d be on the intracoastal and subject to rougher conditions with a less than desirable forecast.

So it’s kind of a mystery how I didn’t catch my goof. Not that it would have mattered-there were no options for a host in Jackson and no good camping options either. So it really was pretty much Mt. Vernon or bust anyway. Although, if I actually realized the distance – some 60+ miles! – I probably would have tried harder to find an alternate landing.

Fortunately for me, the network of those who love the Alabama rivers and see their value to tourism and recreation is strong enough to have landed me in the lap of a retired trucker and lover of rat terriers and the river- Brent Taylor. The guy is golden with a bigger heart and sense of adventure than the 18 wheelers he used to drive. First off, he offered, through this “river rat” network, to host me. Then he didn’t mind that I was bumping up the date I’d be arriving at his doorstep. Oh-another clue that I ignored that this was going to be a long paddle was his offer to “tow me” to Mt. Vernon, this historic place where, “Hamilton” lovers please take note,  Aaron Burr was arrested.

After having done a bunch of these distance paddles since ’07, I’m kind of used to folks being skeptical of my abilities as a slow gal with a fast boat to cover these distances. Such doubts have kind of become like water off a duck’s back. They don’t stick in my conscious.

Unfortunately, all these clues should have stuck in my head. The paddle from Jackson to Mt. Vernon is indeed about double what it is from Silas to a Jackson. The paddle in its entirety was over 60 miles. Without starting at slightly before the crack of dawn, and without a hold up at the last lock, I’d be paddling through the night in a once again very twisty section of Tombigbee River. I definitely had NOT started at the crack of dawn and especially was in no rush as I had watched a south bound tow make its way to the lock & dam. It was also unfortunate that there was a long wait as another tow was heading north so of course would occupy the lock before me.

All I can say is thank God for Brent and his sense of adventure and big heart. He took his boat up the 40 miles or so from the boat launch in Mt.Vernon to meet me in the water. He caught up to me after I’d gone I don’t know how far past the Jackson spot, I do know I had been paddling for about two to three hours past that point.

Brent took my heavy gear and I paddled in his bow wake for a stretch. When the grim reality finally dawned on me that my distance estimates had been horrifically off, I accepted a beer and a tow. It was actually kind of fun for the first 15 miles, for the remainder, sleepiness set in and it was a constant battle to stay awake and steer the canoe in the  bright full moon.

I really would have been hating life if it weren’t for Brent and his big heart and kindness and pontoon boat, which he had, in addition to beverages and cold water, stocked with absolutely fantastic fried catfish.

We actually even ran aground once on a sand bar, but Brent took this all in stride and we were both happy to finally be at the boat ramp before 2am. He didn’t seem to be bothered even with pulling the pontoon boat off the sand bar in the moonlight, despite the both of us seeing a huge alligator. It floated eerily high in the water like a giant inflatable toy before sinking out of sight to the depths of the river.

I can’t believe he burned through all that gas, either. Hopefully he will come to NJ so I can host him and show him the sites, feed him, and return the kindness. As it stands now he wants me to wake him up and he’s thinking of following me to Blue Gill, where I’ll be meeting Justine of Mobile Baykeeper. That’s a for real 35 mile paddle-Carl even did the distance for me. Let’s hope the storms hold off! The forecast looks kind of grim, but perhaps I’ll bail at Hurricane Landing if need be. Unfortunately it’s already not going to be a super early start but after such a late night it’s as early as can be hoped for.

So now I’ve got coffee on and soon I’ll make the push to Blue Gill Restaurant. Or at least Hurricane Landing! I am in as much awe of the kindness of these strangers now turned friends I’ve met here in Alabama and elsewhere along this journey, as I am in the beautiful rivers I’ve been so lucky to paddle.

Oh! And good news! Apparently President Obama has set aside another area to be granted “marine reserve protection” or was it monument status? I kind of missed the details when Helvarg told me on the phone, and didn’t get a chance to ask after having a rare and wonderful chance to chat with Roz Savage, the famous ocean rower who was speaking at the event.

Inching my way to NOLA!

Day 37 – Back to the Water

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I’m really excited for the National Geographic’s plans for the sweet little town of Natchez. They have this plan to bump up tourism there, actually make it a place to attract even international visitors, that looks quite interesting. It’s part of the Mississippi River National Geographical Geotourism Project. To find more info about this project- check it out here- http://mississippiriver.natgeotourism.com
I wish that Nat Geo would do something like that for Alabama’s rivers! Currently I’m sitting here in Bobby’s Fish Camp, an absolutely adorable little rustic home style camp where you can rent rooms and RV’s right here in the Tombiggbee. There’s a dock and gas and the big boats doing “America’s Greatest Loop” stop here. The restaurant is open Thurs-Sun. Maybe I’ll see if tonight’s host might want to come back here for dinner. Would be lovely because I’d really like to see Lora Jane MclLwain again, the owner and operator of this place.  I’ve heard so much about the catfish she makes. She has some wonderful stories about her late father that she shared with me and I’d love to hear more. Besides, I didn’t get to give her a blue marble and I’ve only got two left-the rest are in Demopolis with the rest of my gear.

My mother would like this place, I think. It makes me think of Beloin’s on the Bay up in Camden, Maine. Except the quaint little cottages and room units are separate and sprinkled about the property, which is lovely. Tall trees and Spanish Moss, a grove of banana plants, and little yard decorations and bottle trees make up the decor around here-it’s lovely.

Every day I wish that more people could do what I’m doing, and even more I wish more people would want to explore their country and get to parts they’ve never been to before. We have such variety in this country, and our wealth of different cultural regions, the history, the stories, are a special kind of resource in themselves-and we are all connected by water. Speaking of stories, I can’t wait til Linda Vice publishes her book. I really can’t, I might have to make a point of coming down-hopefully I’m invited!!!-to her book release party.

As I gear up to leave I’m going to make myself a cup of coffee. I happened upon the BEST coffee shop ever-they make their own pastries-delicious mini cheese muffins, big muffins, quiches, and stuff like that plus they have wonderful Turkish coffee along with regular and the espressos and all that. They have a very homey Southern-punk vibe and even their customers are warm and friendly. It’s called the “Steampunk Cafe” and despite my dresser and trunks full of t-shirts I just had to buy one.

The gals in the cabin next to me are leaving their room’s door open as they are moving on as well. They are leaving me grapes! Yay! I’m determined to find a way to take them-hopefully they won’t get all smashed down and turn to wine in my dry bag. Chelsea and Kaci, my fellow travelers, are two young college grads working for an outfit called NEON. More about it here- http://www.neonscience.org super cool stuff. This project is a very long term project. These gals are cataloging wildlife in specific locations over time.

Anyway, I’ve got to hustle as I’m meeting up with a man, Brent Taylor, and his rat terriers in a pontoon boat. He offered to give me a lift, but I told him I’d just be happy to ride in his wake. I have no clue, really, how my canoe will handle the rougher stuff since it is so laden down with gear. It’s never had so much stuff on it before! Think this is even more than the stuff I had on it when I did the Watertribe’s smallest race. And I’m even adding a bag of food now, that Carl sent me, just in case.

Time to get moving-this will REALLY be my last long day, hopefully there will be no hold ups at the lock. The lock at the bottom of the Mississippi is closed for a bunch of months, I discovered, for work. So the rerouting could impact the traffic-and the wait at the lock. Fingers crossed!

Day 36 – Off to Natchez

Many thanks go to Linda Vice who so graciously offered to scoop me up and help me out once again. Truly this is not a solo journey down the Alabama Scenic River Trail. Ever since the River Rally in Mobile this past May, I’ve been looking forward to this leg of the journey. The nature and beauty of these river systems and the warmth of the people and history here have put Alabama into a special place in my heart. I certainly could not be doing this without the solid network of river folks down in this neck of the woods. Alabama rivers are a win-win place to visit-tons of scenery and wild nature and fantastic people who have an intimate knowledge of the area-both of the rivers and of the history.

I now have in my possession a wonderful map of the Mobile Bay river system, which is perfect because my GPS is sparse and does not have charts, and iPhone can’t be counted on for navigation if service is lacking. This map that the Alabama Scenic River Trail puts out is indispensable. I am thrilled to have it!

Linda drove me to a car dealership where I was able to rent a used car, which was still way newer than my car. For the four hour drive I listened to “Hamilton” on shuffle, which kind of annoyed me because of all albums, that one needs to be in sequence for the story as well as the music. I’ll figure out my iPhone yet! Maybe going home I’ll have it playing the songs in sequence. The story of Hamilton and the creation of this country makes me think of our present time, where folks just can’t seem to get along. Maybe we should just go jump in our nearest lake, river, ocean, bay, cool off and take a break from all the hate and vitriol! I know this paddle is helping me keep my head and heart in the right place-calming water and wonderful people are the best medicine for any stressed soul.

I’m currently in Natchez, at the Mississippi River Mayors of Towns and Cities Initiative. Mayors from all along the Mississippi are here, including the Mayor’s of Grafton, IL, and Cape Girardeau, MO. Both have a true river culture and a ton of history. It seems that that is an especially vibrant mix- the waterfront, the history, and art-for any town’s economic health. So there are lots of officials here that deal with water, industry, and the management of transportation. It’s a real honor to be here, and I can’t thank Colin Wellencamp of the hosting org- the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative http://www.mrcti.org – for inviting me here. Needless to say, I’m the most casually dressed here. But hey, at least I’m cleaned and showered, so that’s a plus!

I can’t wait for today’s events-I so wish I could stay for the whole event which goes on until tomorrow, but I really need to be moving on. Today’s panels will focus on agriculture’s impact on our rivers and the potential for recreation, both of which are among my top interests.

Then I’ll hafta beat it back to Silas, AL. Tomorrow I’ll paddle to Jackson, then Mt. Vernon, which will hopefully be a quick paddle, because then it’s a race against storms from Friday until the Saturday, the 24th.

Paddles up! A battle to the end with this weather! But for now I’ll enjoy this awesome event and the sweet little town of Natchez, yet another place to bring the family.

Day 35 -Bobby’s Fish Camp & Thomasville

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This blog is dedicated and directed to my mother, Judy Howard, who I know is very worried about me and the alligators and the weather ahead, which, if you take the predictions as they are now, does not look good. I’ve learned though, that you cannot live by these predictions. The weather shifts, it could be worse, it could be better. You really do have to take one day at a time. And generally speaking, as Emily Rothman’s late father once told me, “It’s not going to be as bad as you expect.”

You remember Emily Rothman, right, Mom? She was the chase-car driver for Miami to Maine, that National Environmental Trust hired to drive for me. She came on to duty toward the end of the Georgia section, after I’d been riding solely on the backs of strangers from Miami up until Skidaway Island, I think it was, just shy of Savannah proper. Her token statement, for those bumps in the road was “embrace it.”

Well, here I am now in the very quaint town of Thomasville, at the absolutely positively lovely home of Linda Vice. You would really like her, Mom. She reminds me of Karen H, with whom we stayed multiple days on the Lake Michigan leg last year.

Linda Vice, to me, embodies what she told me Southern Living means – gracious living. I know, Mom, that you have me on the prayer list at our church, Medford United Methodist Church, and I’m hoping Nicole Rowe has me on her’s as well – I might just reach out to her right after posting this! Linda Vice is also a Methodist, and an English Major, just like you! She’s also working on a book. She writes a column in her local paper, a “Southern Lady’s Journal,” and I will see if I can get you a link or a pdf.

Linda also works with the ASRT- that’s Alabama’s Scenic River Trail- http://www.alabamascenicrivertrail.com/pages/?pageID=13 . She fully understands the recreational aspect of these rivers is a completely untapped economic resource. These rivers are more than just a conduit for goods moving up and down, they are beautiful wild spaces and places for exploring and fishing and nature watching. The bird life alone is amazing, as are the variety of plant life. I know personally I could stare for hours at the knobby knees and tangled masses of the cypress tree roots. They are my all time favorite trees. They grow standing in water.

Linda has a beautiful home built in 1879, 48 years before Carl’s and mine! Her’s will probably still be here after ours has tumbled into a pile of sticks, too. She is a collector of art, quilts, rocking chairs, and sofas. One of her sofas is 200 years old!

She also arranged to have my boat spend a couple of days at Bobby’s Fish Camp, where I will rent a cabin for the night when I get back from Natchez, Mississippi for a meeting of the Mississippi Mayors of River Towns and Cities Initiative. Linda has been going out of her way to help me, so I do hope Mom, she can either come visit us or come back here and treat her to multiple dinners at the very least.

We should stay, when we come back to visit – yet another place that my family REALLY DOES have to come back to and stay at the adorably quaint little cottages of Bobby’s Fish Camp. Maybe we can bring some inflatable SUP boards and paddle around this gorgeous little stretch. I’ve seen lots of wild boars paddling down from Ezell’s Fish Camp (yes-we gotta go back there, too!!). I also saw two alligators-one little baby one about two foot and one about 4-5 foot.

Well, I better wrap it up as I’m sure Linda is up already with the coffee and breakfast and then she’ll take me to the place where I’ll rent a car and be off as she heads out on her adventures for the day-she and a friend are touring other small town’s libraries so they can come up with more ideas and plans for their own library here in Thomasville. You’d so like her, Mom! Last night we hung out on her second floor porch and had the best salmon I’ve ever had-she uses a special grill that now we’ve got to find and get-and had some wine and talked about many things. Truly gracious living!

Anyway, I love you, Mom, and I’m looking forward to the rest of this journey. We are still working on a host for the Jackson stop but it sounds like I’ll have another wonderful host at the Mt. Vernon stop.  Brent Taylor (hoping I’m spelling his name correctly) will meet me on the water in his pontoon boat with his rat terriers.

Day 34 – Ezell’s Fish House, Butler, AL

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A serious quick blog before I head out to Bobby’s Fish Camp. More storms ahead and it looks grim for the next two weeks as the tropical storms rumble their way through the Mobile Bay/Pascagoula/NOLA region. It kind of reminds me of the Lake Erie stretch of last year’s paddle, except these storms don’t pass in minutes. They hang out and take their time.

David Helvarg, the founder and president of Blue Frontier Campaign, called me while I paddled my way through thunderstorms. He wondered if it was a good idea to be out there while I could see lightning. Little did he know that a bit before he called, from somewhere in the woods near the river banks, I could hear a wild boar squealing as if it was getting attacked by something, maybe another boar?  I think my chances were better with the lightning around than with whatever was attacking the wild boar!

David just got back from Hawaii, where he was at a gathering of writers for the sea. He’s been having a great run right now and two of his books are now in paperback- “Saved by the Sea” and “The Golden Shore: California’s Love Affair with the Sea.” Both are definitely worth the read!

So yesterday’s paddle was made possible by a day off for logistics planning and Jim’s amazing bean soup. He and Lisa even got up early to make coffee in the morning before I headed out. Such great people there; it does make it hard to leave.

Speaking of leaving, I better get moving as more storms are predicted and this is another long paddle day. I had enough leftovers from the great home-style meal here at Ezell’s Fish Camp. Definitely a place to visit for real local character, good people, and great food. I so hope to get my family back here!!