With Gulf Shores, Mobile Bay and the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in our own backyard, there’s no end to the adventures one can get into on the Gulf Coast. It seems I’ve dabbled in just about all of them, but when I sit back and reflect on what I’d like to be doing most on any given free Saturday, I yearn for narrow tea-colored creeks running through the remote Alabama backwoods. I think of their cool swimming holes over bottoms of polished gravel and white sand. I imagine drifting through shaded tunnels, casting along the cut banks for bream and bass that you’d suspect have never seen a fishing lure.
When I was a teenager, my friends and I floated these creeks in the spring and summer with light aluminum johnboats and trolling motors, places like Little River and the headwaters of Fish River. Then along came college and day jobs and marriage and kids. Float trips no longer fit into my schedule, but I never stopped daydreaming about them. And I was certain that when the time came, my young son was going to find them just as memorable.
Albert was 6 when I decided it was time to take him on his first float trip. It wasn’t long before I’d recruited two of my old running mates, Archie and Daniel. Archie also had a young son that he was eager to bring. We decided on our favorite route, Major’s Creek, just north of Stockton.
It seemed a lot harder to get organized than I remembered, but I was packing for two now. Fortunately, I didn’t hold anyone up. Archie and Daniel ran into similar delays, and by the time we all met at the Highway 59 bridge, it was nearly two o’clock in the afternoon. We left Archie’s pickup truck there and took mine, loaded with our boats and gear, upstream to the bridge on Silas Ganey Road.
Before shoving off, I studied the creek using the satellite map on my phone. I saw a dark, lush green valley snaking what looked like five or six miles through the piney woods. I knew we’d be pushing it to get out before dark, but I didn’t remember it ever taking more than four or five hours. And with daylight savings time in effect, we should have been fine.
We started off dragging the boats down a gravel creek bed that was covered by only a few inches of water. I suddenly remembered this as being pretty common on these adventures, especially at first. As we got further downstream, the water usually got deeper and quicker.
We were still in sight of the bridge when we encountered our first fallen tree spanning the creek. This too, I remembered, was to be an occasional nuisance. We drug and pulled over the tree and continued on. The bridge fell away behind us, the trees closed overhead, and we descended into the cool, dark shade of wilderness.
An hour later, we were still dragging over gravel, and we’d lifted our boats over at least 15 fallen trees. Occasionally, we encountered water more than six inches deep and excitedly jumped in our boats and began paddling, only to find ourselves out again 50 yards downstream. It was like a tornado had come through there. I didn’t remember it being nearly so much work.
“When are we gonna fish and swim, Daddy?” Albert asked.
“I don’t know, Albert, ” I said. “Maybe later.”
By the time I found my first fishing hole, it was nearly four o’clock in the afternoon. I made a few quick casts just to complete that piece of the fantasy. Meanwhile, Archie pulled out his cellphone and studied it to see how far we had to go.
“No reception, ” he said.
“We better keep going, ” Daniel said with a look of concern.
We didn’t stop any more to fish. We didn’t stop to swim. Eventually it became deep enough for us to use the trolling motors, but it was never long before we had to get out again and pull over another deadfall.
By about six o’clock, we were thoroughly exhausted. Then we heard the first rumblings of thunder. I looked up and saw the sky had darkened and felt a cool breeze whiff over the water. No way, I thought. This isn’t happening.
Well, 15 minutes later, it was happening. And this wasn’t just a little afternoon shower. This was one of the most violent storms I have ever experienced settling into our creek valley. Rain poured over us in heavy, pounding torrents. Thunder slammed and lightning whip-cracked the air with an intensity that I felt in my teeth. I was certain a tree beside me was going to explode in orange and yellow sparks at any moment. Albert got a bucket off the floor and put it over his head. I started to take it back from him to bail, then realized it was useless. The boat was filling up too fast. I got out and pulled it to shore where I met the others.
We considered the facts: We had no food, no shelter, no flashlight, no cell reception, two terrified young boys and no idea where we were. Do we get out of the creek and stay the night or brave the storm and keep going?
We decided to keep going.
The boats were too heavy with water to motor, so we had to pull them, wading chest-high in the now swollen creek. The rain was coming down so hard that we couldn’t talk amongst ourselves, each of us waging our own little battle to persevere. Occasionally I asked Albert how he was doing, and he told me from inside the bucket that he was fine.
Eventually, about sundown, the storm trailed off. The cicadas and frogs began to thrum in the still dusk. And just as it was getting too dark to see, we spotted the silhouette of the bridge through the trees ahead.
I suppose a man should be wary when trying to relive the days of his youth. Things aren’t always as you remember them. Albert is 13 now. Sometimes he finds a way to remind me that Major’s Creek was the scariest time in his life. Maybe one day I’ll come out and admit that, yes, it was pretty scary for me, too. For now, he’s just got to believe that Dad’s always in control.
text by Watt Key • photo by Kathy Hicks