In Quest of Hidden Lakes

Lynn Rabren and Ben Raines’ stunning documentary, “America’s Amazon: The Mobile-Tensaw Delta” was released late last year to rave reviews. If you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading right now, and go watch it (, click on Programs A – Z). I felt the film summon me to places I’d never seen. These places were beautiful, spellbinding and teeming with unimaginable life forms. Following the documentarians’ footsteps, it was as though we were exploring together.

A few minutes into “America’s Amazon, ” the camera follows local sportsman Pat Ogburn through a cypress maze into the innermost reaches of the Delta. As the canopy recedes, his flat-bottomed boat emerges into a place he calls a hidden lake.

As a writer, I wanted to go there, write about the lakes, and take you, reader, with me to this intriguing and untamed place as we speculate about its secrets and concealed treasures.


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Venture deep into the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, into waters too shallow for motorboats, and you’ll find a gamut of unbridled wildlife, such as stout alligators and elegant snow egrets, in their natural habitats.

Photos by Kathy Hicks

Obscured, Inaccessible, Overlooked: Hiding in Plain Sight

If you zoom in on the Mobile-Tensaw Delta with Google Earth, you’ll find scores of unnamed lakes and ponds spread throughout its environs. However, a variety of barriers, such as lush vegetation, cloak them from view. There may be a lake 50 feet to your right, but the reeds and swamp grass are so dense you never see them.

Bob Andrews, owner of Mobile’s Sunshine Canoes, believes what seems “hidden” is really just dependent on a boater’s equipment. “These lakes are only inaccessible to motorboats, ” the veteran outfitter says. “There are no ‘hidden’ lakes for kayaks, canoes or jon boats. They can go almost anywhere because of their shallow draft. Nothing is hidden for them.”

Andrews also mentions the barrier of speed. In a bass boat, you can blow right past a lake. “It’s hard to enjoy places you can’t get into at 50 mph, ” the paddlesport enthusiast adds. “Motorboats force you to stare straight ahead. The only noises you hear are the ones you’re making. You can’t even talk and share what you’re seeing. You can’t hear birds or see the animals that your engine scares away.”

Some of Andrews’ favorite spots that may be out of reach of those in a motorboat are Jug Lake and Jessamine Bayou, both on the Bartram Canoe Trail. He also cites oxbow lakes, which some people view as “hidden.” These bodies of water were once main river channels. Over many years, shifting sands have blocked off one end, as water found a more direct path on its run to Mobile Bay. What remains of the former river bend is a long, single-opening lake.

I’ve paddled one of these in a previous adventure. Boatyard Lake runs from a landing of the same name to the Tombigbee River. What is now a lake was once a busy bend in the river, open to steamboat traffic. But the sands of time gradually filled in the north end of the loop, leaving a lake with no current (and a harder paddle for kayaking).

In the Delta, timing is everything. Debris from seasonal tree falls and hurricanes can make a lake unreachable. Even if a boater knows where to find a lake, he or she may not be able to get there. Low tides and water levels can keep visitors out. Traveling the tidal streams and tributaries into lakes can be tricky. Boaters risk getting marooned as tides turn and the lake starts draining. They end up waiting until the next high tide to get back out.

While some outdoorsmen believe there are hidden lakes in the Delta, others claim these waters are merely out of reach of motorboats.

Photo by Jason Gillikin

A Rare Glimpse at the “Big Cypress”

Some sportsmen intentionally withhold the locations of secluded spots. Local artist Melissa Smith spent months traveling the Delta and talking to people as she produced a map featuring highlights of the watershed ( At art festivals, she reports, wives are often drawn to her prints. Their mates show little interest but grow nostalgic and almost dewy-eyed when talk turns to their fishing camps and favorite lakes. “Mifflin Lake. You could get lost up there. Not somewhere you want to go alone.” But protectively, they wouldn’t give up the exact whereabouts of specific wonders like the “big cypress.”

Like other visitors, Smith is captivated by these unspoiled spaces. When a sportsman shared one remote lake with her, “I felt honored to be taken there.” The watery pathways through the cypress reminded her of sensual liquid delights of the movie “Avatar.” “I would never have recognized them as a way into anything. They were not marked. He had memorized the trees, and he can only go there when the water is up.” She remembers snakes occasionally dropping from the trees “but not moccasins. Several good old boys have told me that wild hogs suck them in like spaghetti.”

All of a sudden, the canopy opened up. Smith quickly scanned the pristine lake and realized there was not another soul around. The artist’s impressions were broad and rich, almost overwhelming. Across the way, hundreds, maybe thousands, of white egrets clustered in tall cypresses. Creamy American lotuses were surrounded by their pads. Floating mats of purple flowers infused the air with a honey-sweet fragrance.

As often happens in the Delta, afternoon heat lofted tons of water into the air as heat lightning crackled the horizon. The storm closed in, and the boaters found shelter beneath a canopy so thick that they barely got wet. As quickly as the storm had come up, it thundered off towards the east.

Other vivid impressions return as Smith recalls the day. A lone alligator submerged long before they reached him. A great blue heron played leapfrog with the pair. As their boat approached, he’d fly 50 yards ahead and wait until they caught up. Then he’d squawk his raspy call and ride his giant wings to the next perch. There was a visible current flowing through the waterways leading out. She would see logs ahead and wonder how they’d get through, but the specially tricked-out boat just rumbled over them.

For Smith, the Delta’s riches are tiny things you can only see when you slow down, like the green fly orchid and the whole network of things, common and rare, growing in the trees. She’s awed by the majesty of the remaining cypress and the mysteries of how each escaped the woodman’s harvest. She’s drawn to unusual wildlife like the protected Alabama map turtle. The black stripe down its back with knobs extruding from it distinguish the amphibian from other species. She wonders if it will survive.

Some folks go to secluded lakes for quiet in isolation. They’re not there to do. They’re there to be and watch. Birds fly through and pay them no heed. There’s no trash or human detritus. The only sounds are of buzzing bees, bird calls and the occasional splash of a fish succumbing to gravity’s pull. There is enough solitude and beauty to go around – at least for now.

While exotic to city dewellers, purple gallinules and water lotus are common sights around this delicate ecosystem.

Photo by Jason Gillikin

A Call to Action

In seeking secrets, wonder, unspoiled space, I discovered how often we undervalue the true treasures hiding in plain sight. Alabama and its Delta have been a bio-cradle, a nursery, a collecting place for plants and animals since the Ice Age. Our area is as biologically unique as the Brazilian rainforest. We need to recognize and nurture what we have.

Writer, entrepreneur and master angler Jimbo Meador has spent his lifetime in and around the Mobile-Tensaw watershed. He talks of ecosystems so fragile that if we don’t begin protecting them they’ll soon be gone. As the Delta silts in, we all settle into the depths along with it. Meador and others warn that we’re snuffing out the life force in the same way silt from upstream has smothered massive beds of the sea grass once plentiful in the Mobile Bay and its estuaries.

How many times have you driven across the Bayway and given more thought to your cell phone than to the formation of pelicans flying in parallel?

Sit down and watch “America’s Amazon.” You’ll see the cottonmouth swallowing a frog, the pelican chicks helping each other shed their shells, the white spider lily, the rusty gravedigger crayfish. Without timely aprotection, the creatures may vanish.

Nature can only repair itself so much. At some point we must take care of our biological heritage. To you, reader, I beseech you: Pay attention. This is important! We’re all responsible for whatever happens next.

Photo by Jason Gillikin


ABOVE Innocuous spider lilies and lethal cottonmouth (water moccasins) coexist in their diverse homeland called the Delta.

Photos by Kathy Hicks

Photo by Jason Gillikin

text by Giles Vaden • photos by JASON GILLIKIN and KATHY HICKS

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