On a chilly Friday afternoon in November, my friends and I met at Rice Creek Landing. As I drove down the secluded winding road in Stockton to reach our put-in, I couldn’t help but glance at the weather app on my phone for what seemed like the 10th time that day.
Cloudy, 51 degrees, strong afternoon winds and an evening low of 40 degrees — not exactly the prime conditions we had expected for our first overnight paddling adventure in the Delta. “Is it really that important to leave today so we can get back in time to go Downtown tomorrow night?” I asked myself as I opened the car door to greet Yael, David, Robert and Eamon. Given the stark difference between this and the next day’s weather forecast, I wondered if they were thinking the same thing but weren’t saying it out loud. I’ve learned, however, that you’ll end up staying home a lot if you let our unpredictable Gulf Coast weather dictate your plans.
After filling our dry bags to the brim, putting our cartography skills to the test, piling on extra layers and double-checking our supplies, the five of us hopped in our canoes and kayaks and set off along the dark, narrow waters of Rice Creek. Our destination — a 14-mile loop along the lower Bartram Canoe Trail in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.
Sweet Home Alabama
Though it’s located in our own backyard, I’m often surprised at how little many of us know about the Delta or how seldom we take the time to explore this special place, beyond driving over the Dolly Parton Bridge on I-65 or looking into the distance from the Causeway.
Often referred to as “America’s Amazon,” the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in North America, spanning 250,000 acres with more than 50 rare and endangered species and numerous rivers, lakes and tributaries that feed into Mobile Bay.
Rich in history, the Delta’s first human settlements date back nearly 5,000 years. It has since been home to numerous Native American tribes, Spanish and French explorers, and the last major Civil War battle at Fort Blakeley in 1865. In the last decade, the Delta has also been the subject of much debate between residents, environmentalists, businesses and civic leaders on the best approach to manage and preserve this resource for the future.
In 2018, efforts by the Alabama State Lands Division made the Delta more accessible than ever with the extension of the lower Bartram Trail system. Collectively, the full Bartram Trail offers more than 170 miles of overnight- and day-use trails with a variety of floating platforms and traditional campsites. Why not take advantage?
2 p.m. – Against the Wind
The trip started off smoothly in the sheltered waters of Briar Lake, Tensaw Lake and Bayou Tallapoosa until we passed the east side of Richardson Island and entered the more open and wind-exposed Tensaw River. It was here that the uphill — or rather upstream — battle began.
It also didn’t help that David and I weren’t exactly in sync with our canoe strokes at first. Whether it was our initial zig-zags or the box wine weighing down the canoe, we found ourselves quickly falling behind the group. We pushed on against the wind and meandered past abandoned houseboats, rustic Delta fishing camps and towering bald cypress trees. David, wise beyond his years among most birding aficionados in their 30s, also managed to spot more than 10 different types of bird species along this stretch — great egrets, belted kingfishers and northern flickers, to name a few. This may have been the real reason we were holding up the group.
With daylight dwindling, we paddled a total of four miles before stopping to camp at Dead Lake Island, where two floating platforms stood tucked away from any signs of civilization in a quiet cove off Tensaw Lake.
4 p.m. – Should I Stay or Should I Go
After unpacking our boats and settling into our respective platforms — Robert and Eamon on the first and David, Yael and I on the second — we all sat around the dock together with a similar feeling of “now what?” Anyone who has spent time in the woods knows that the hardest part of camping can be filling the hours between setting up camp and bedtime.
Food is always a trusted time killer, so naturally we dove into Yael’s bag of caramel M&M’s and cracked our first brews of the afternoon. With no fires allowed on the platform, we then faced our next decision — do we stay on the platform and bundle up for the night or paddle over to the island and start a fire? Given that it was only 4:15, going to bed this early seemed unrealistic, even for 30-year-old aspiring birdwatchers.
With the temperatures dropping, we decided to brave the “maiden voyage to the motherland,” as we later so eloquently referred to it, and headed to the island to build a fire. Luckily, the distance between the island and our platform was short enough that we could use our canoe as a makeshift bridge to get across. Quite the voyage, right?
Robert and Eamon, being further away, did not have it quite as easy and were forced to paddle over. While they made it to the island in one piece, returning several hours later with a hint of liquid courage would prove much more difficult.
5:30 p.m. – We Didn’t Start the Fire
Before we knew it, we were enjoying a crackling driftwood fire with snacks galore, campfire games, jazz and oldies, and plenty of box wine to go ‘round. The only obstacle at this point was trying not to trip over the cypress knees and end up facedown in the poison ivy vines that surrounded our swampy campsite when we left the fire to use the bathroom.
We listened to the coyotes howling in the distance and wondered how far away they were. We heard the owls hoot and birds chirp and even tried our hand at a few birding calls ourselves. We kept passing the wine and attempted to give our best campfire karaoke performances when the grapes kicked in. It was a pleasant reminder of how freeing it can be to unplug and simply enjoy the moment without text messages to check or social media feeds to scroll through.
Eventually, it was time to call it a night, so we embarked on the voyage back to our platforms. David, Yael and I managed a smooth (and dry) return as we boogied across our makeshift canoe bridge. The other boat didn’t fare quite as well, making a splash that even the biggest Delta gator would envy. Luckily, we all packed extra clothes.
6:30 a.m. – Delta Dawn
At a nippy 38 degrees, I didn’t dare leave my sleeping bag but managed to sit up in time to watch the morning fog roll off Tensaw Lake. With not a soul or sound in sight, it was as peaceful as I’d ever seen the Delta before.
We piled our driest layers back on and enjoyed some gourmet hot chocolate courtesy of Chef Yael while we scarfed down breakfast, packed up our things and waited for the sun to rise over the trees. If yesterday’s weather was reminiscent of a Delta murder mystery, today’s forecast was a light-hearted “rom-com” with clear, sunny skies, a high of 68 degrees and the ever-present outside chance of an impromptu singalong. It was one of those days that reminded us how lucky we are to call this place home.
10 a.m. – Rollin’ on the River
We began the day paddling upstream through the scenic twists and turns of Bayou Tallapoosa until we came across a jumble of massive trees directly in our path. With no room to go around, it was time for a little old-fashioned game of canoe limbo. We lay flat in our canoes and kayaks and shimmied our way under the trees with only inches to spare. With only one hat being lost to the clawing tree bark and a few entertaining videos to tell the tale, it was a successful maneuver.
From here on, it was cruise control. We kicked our legs up and enjoyed the warm sunshine as the current effortlessly moved our boats down the Tensaw River. We continued to float through lunchtime and feasted on smoked tuna, summer sausage and Ritz crackers paired with our last few lukewarm beers to wash it down. After a few miles on the Tensaw, the river veered once again, and we ventured off into the quiet bottomland hardwood swamps of Bayou Jessamine, which made for some of the most scenic paddling of the trip. Many of the trees still held their leaves, and the sunlight crept in softly through the green canopy.
4 p.m. – The Final Countdown
With limited daylight and a few important evening obligations to attend to (mainly nap time and the second half of the Alabama-LSU game), we pushed on to the finish line. We cruised out of Bayou Jessamine and enjoyed a relaxing final stretch on the glasslike waters of Briar Lake. The warm hues of autumn radiated through the red maple and sweet gum trees as we paddled our final strokes back to the starting point.
Twenty-seven hours and 14 miles later, we returned safely to our put-in at Rice Creek Landing. Our boats were covered in mud and our clothes reeked of that unique Delta stench, but we were all in good spirits from the journey we conquered.
If you get the itch to explore the Delta (and it’s socially safe to do so), why not give the Bartram Canoe Trail a try? You don’t have to be Bear Grylls in the making to do it either. With a little planning, preparation and persistence, everyone should take the opportunity to experience the magical bayous of our backyard.