by Trevor Clark
Wildlife on the Alabama River
As soon as the Coosa River ended I was on the lookout for alligators. On the upper Alabama River I saw tens of thousands of hatched eggs spilling out of sand burrows with little clawed slide marks going towards the water. “My God!” I thought. There must be alligators everywhere! I later witnessed that these were just turtle nests. It’s funny how you can build up a danger in your mind and become hyper-alert to it. I did see some large alligator slides along the upper Alabama River though.
On the middle section of the Alabama River, the Spoonbill Catfish (Polyodon spathula) are jumping at an amazing rate! Every 30 seconds or so one would jump out of the water. I kept waiting for one to jump into my boat, but it never happened. I was never fishing specifically for them, but was surprised that I didn’t accidentally hook one. Apparently people do fish for them, but not for their meat. Somebody told me that you have to get licensed tags for each one you catch, because they are fished for their eggs and their caviar can fetch around $100 per pound. A large Spoonbill can yield up to 9 lbs of eggs!
The Lower Alabama River is full of opportunities for alligator sightings, but they are surprisingly skittish creatures. The slightest noise from a radio to a motorboat will send them diving into the water to hide. The closest daytime encounter I have had was from paddling into the shallows and floating over one’s back. He bucked around a little and swam off. I’ve seen feral hogs as well. You know you’ve been eating canned chicken too long when a live hog makes your mouth water!
Last of the River Angels
I recently stayed with the last two river angels with property on the river system. They are located roughly halfway down the trail. I paddled six miles downriver from the city of Selma to The Bender Plantation, home of Lee and Babs Bender. As I paddled up Babs had a bottle of cold water waiting for me! Cold is gold when you are on a hot trip like this! Or as someone else on the trail later said to me, “Ice is nice.” They drove me into town to get supplies I needed, to eat at Hancock’s BBQ, and on a tour of Old Cawhaba.
Old Cawhaba is a historical preserve. It was a Native American village in the 1500s. The site of Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto visiting in the 1550s and subsequent death of the natives. A frontier town, back when Alabama was the wild western frontier. It was the short lived capital of the state. And it was home to a Confederate prison for Union Soldiers. Many claim it to be haunted, and for this reason I decided to camp there the following night. We will get into that later!
After leaving the Bender’s and camping at Old Cawhaba I stayed with Bobby and Dot Wright on White Oak Creek. Bobby drove me around on his pontoon boat and we drank cold beer. After watching pontoon boats ‘speed’ by me for over a month It felt great to be on one! I paddle between two and four miles per hour, and that thing was going at least twice that speed. Dot cooked us up a delicious dinner of homegrown veggies and chicken.
Camping at Old Cawhaba
Curious to see a ghost, as I’ve never seen one before, I paddled to Old Cawhaba to camp. I had several choices for ghost sightings. There are two separate graveyards where people claim to have seen and heard ghosts. The old Confederate prison camp which was conveniently located on the site of the old Native American village. Or the former site of a cypress tree maze, where people have reported seeing a floating, glowing sphere for generations. While deciding which spot to camp at I gave myself a sunset tour of the property, reading over the history of each site by flashlight and explored roads now filled in with woods.
In the end it made no difference where I decided to camp that night. There would be no ghost sightings. No Native American spirits or glowing orbs. Instead, a severe thunderstorm came through with 60 mph winds, heavy rain and lots of lightning. I had to seek shelter in a cinderblock bathhouse for the night, so I guess more exploration is needed! But if you want to camp at Old Cawhaba yourself you will have to paddle the Alabama Scenic River Trail. Camping is not allowed on the property unless you are paddling the trail.
Excitement at Gee’s Bend
Gee’s Bend, known as Boykin by the Postal Service, is a small, largely African-American town on the Alabama River with an interesting history. Due to its location it is somewhat cut off from the surrounding towns except by ferry. They have become quite famous for their abstract pattern quilts. They even have some of their quilts displayed in the Smithsonian. I decided to paddle to this town to check out their quilting center. I paddled to the Army Corps of Engineers boat launch property to camp.
The Army Corps of Engineers is very good to paddlers on the trail and allows us to camp on their property as well as lock through the dams. I was sitting in my hammock at around 10:00pm getting trying to go to sleep when I saw some car lights pull up towards the path to my camp. There isn’t much on that end of the parking lot so I figured it was probably some folks coming to night fish. I prepared for trouble anyhow. I got out of my hammock tent, put my holster on and changed out my .38 caliber rounds from snake shot to hollow points — rounds I reserve for alligators and two-legged mammal issues.
I turned my headlamp on as I saw two flashlights in the distance, and I loudly announced that I was camping down there. Their response was to come down the trail faster yelling for me to put my hands up and asking who else was down there! I saw they had guns drawn and I started yelling back. I thought I was being robbed. Eventually they identified themselves as sheriffs, but since there were no red and blue lights on I didn’t believe them and I informed them of that. Luckily before I tried to draw on them to defend myself one of their lights lowered and I was able to make out a Wilcox County sheriffs patch. I quickly submitted and yelled that “my hands are interlocked” above my head and that “my gun is holstered.”
They proceeded to handcuff me and continued to talk in loud, excited voices as I explained in the same tone that I had permission from the Corps to camp there and that I was paddling the ASRT. I asked why they were bothering me and the deputy in his thirties claimed that there was an escaped convict in the area. An unlikely excuse.
While the younger deputy ran my identification and concealed carry permit, I asked the deputy, who appeared to be in his seventies, why they were really hassling me. He said, “A suspicious white person was reported in the area and there aren’t too many white people around these parts. Welcome to Gee’s Bend!” and then he chuckled. I guess sitting in that hammock made me look real suspicious! Needless to say my visit to the quilting center the next day was not as exciting.
The Fourth of July
I thought I was going to spend the Fourth alone, drinking hot whiskey and singing to myself (you gotta keep morale up). But luckily I ran into a crew of folks on a sandbar on the Alabama River. I was paddling by and one of them called me over by yelling the words, “cold beer!” Cold is gold, so I turned the canoe around and joined them.
They treated me like one of their own. They fed me smoked BBQ and even invited me to a party on the sandbar that night with a live band! It was a real treat as I thought I wouldn’t see many more people until Mobile Bay. Those folks at Sandy Bottom river camp know how to party. All I had to do was promise them I wasn’t a serial killer!
Plants on the River
Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata)
This vine grows along the entire river trail. I had hoped to catch this plant in flower at some point on the trail, but failed to do so. This almost forgotten herb first grabbed my attention after North Alabama herbalist Darryl Patton introduced me to it.
After feeling its effects I was compelled to analyze its chemical constituents in the analytical lab. Since it is hard to get funding based on a gut feeling, especially when you are a student, I used my food money from my student loans to pay for the lab tests.
I spent months teasing out chromatography peaks and trying to identify any of the unknown alkaloids in the plant. I ate rice and veggies that summer, but I was able to discover the medicinal alkaloid reserpine in this plant. This makes Crossvine the only known native plant in North America and the only known plant outside the Dogbane family (Apocynaceae) to contain this indole alkaloid. This plant was traditionally used for fatigue, hidebound animals and as a kidney aid for dropsy amongst other uses.
Silk Tree (Albizia julibrissin)
A naturalized, non-native tree, originally from tropical Asia. Most land owners in the South think of this plant as a beautiful but invasive tree. In Traditional Chinese Medicine the bark and flowers are used. Herbalist Michael Tierra explains that “the bark is thought to ‘anchor’ the spirit, while the flowers lighten it.” Used to treat depression, restlessness, anxiety and insomnia. This medicine is sometimes referred to as the “happiness herb.” I personally use it on occasion to help calm the mind and body so I can sleep.
Want to read more about Trevor? Check out his introduction here!