The Rivers are Roads

Take to the sky for a bird's-eye view of the camps in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

Most of the land in the lower Delta (south of I-65) is either owned by the federal government (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) or state government (Forever Wild Land Trust, State Lands Division, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries). Photos by Sam St. John

Humans have always been drawn to the remote, and Mobilians are no different. For generations, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta has attracted countless adventure-seekers to its other-worldly landscape just beyond the city’s reach. It’s a touch of wilderness in our collective backyard; in many places, you can even see the city’s skyline.

But without the assistance of a watercraft, the Delta and its maze of creeks, muddy banks and stilted camps remain inaccessible to most. This photo essay pulls back the curtain on this rarely seen world north of the Causeway and the isolated camps that dot its swampy landscape.

Most camps are run on a generator, detached from the main structure as a safeguard against fires and carbon monoxide. Cistern water tanks, supplied by gutters on the roof, provide fresh water, and a pump running off a DC battery provides running water. Although cell service is very spotty, the Delta is not too remote for satellite TVs during football season.

“A delta camp requires constant maintenance simply due to its exposure to the elements. There’s also the issue of settling — the Delta wants to swallow everything back into the mud.”

Jim Brown, member/head of construction and maintenance of Camp Gordon
Camps in the Delta are built on what private land still exists. According to Jeremy Doss, acting chief law enforcement officer and biologist for Forever Wild, “We can’t even allow you to tie floating camps up to either federal or state-owned properties. If it’s private property, there’s almost certainly a camp built on it. You can almost delineate it like that without even looking at a map.”
The vast majority of delta camps are highly isolated and only accessible by boat. Camp members usually launch their boats from the Causeway or from Cloverleaf Landing in Bay Minette.
While some delta camps are built on land that has belonged to a particular family for decades, many are built on leased land and shared by several “members” who pay annual dues to use the camp year-round.

“It’s definitely an escape, and the sheer beauty of the Delta — it’s like nowhere else. It’s so quiet in the mornings, and then you get the most gorgeous sunsets. And of course, there’s the camaraderie part of it, being out there with all of your buddies. I wouldn’t say it’s ‘lawless’ up there, but you can definitely hang loose.”

Will Cooksey, member of a camp called the Stagger Inn
Much of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is owned by the Forever Wild Land Trust (FWLT). According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, the land trust, established in 1992, “enabled the state to acquire and protect selected wildlands with special recreational, scientific, educational, and natural value.” Funding for Forever Wild is generated by interest earned from offshore natural gas royalties deposited into the Alabama Trust Fund. FWLT receives 10 percent of the distributed interest, capped at $15 million for any given year.

Camp Names We Love

The Stagger Inn
Cypress Knee
Raft River Hilton
Hard-Knock Café
Delta Shelta
Isle Mirada
Camp Hog
Delta Dream
Bull Frog
Roll Tide
Stud Duck
Whiskey Breath
Soggy Bottom Goggle Eye

Aerial photos and video are provided by Sam St. John, flying in support of the preservation of Alabama’s Coastal Resources, Alabama Coastal Foundation, Mobile Baykeeper, Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, Dauphin Island Sea Lab, Alabama Mississippi Sea Grant, Alabama Department of Environmental Management, US Corps of Engineers and many others as a non-profit mission to protect the environment in which we live and work.

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The aircraft utilized is a Savannah light sport aluminum plane with amphibious carbon fiber floats. The aircraft is capable of maintaining level flight speeds between 25 and 95 mph and takeoff and landing on land or water within 150 feet.

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