Boatin’ on the Bartram Canoe Trail


by Paige Ponder


Photos by Dennis Holt

In memory of Mr. Peter Grey Cane Jr., who loved the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.


All the fish are having a tea party, nibbling crumpets and celebrating. Mr. Crane is not slithering through the Mobile-Tensaw Delta swamps with his fishing rod anymore. But he enjoyed a lifetime doing it. Deep in these mysterious watery byways, he explored some of the most diverse wilderness that nature has to offer.


You can reach some of the same eerie places along Alabama’s Bartram Canoe Trail. Better still, maps and trail markers can help you navigate your way home through these 300,000-odd acres of marshy delta bayous, lakes, and rivers.


“The Mobile Bay estuary is the fourth-largest estuarine system by volume in the United States, and sixth-largest in size,” said Bob Kidd, who works with the Alabama District of the U.S. Geological Survey. “It is one of 28 federally designated estuaries of national significance.”


Furthermore, it has the second-largest river delta in the country, second only to the Mississippi’s. The Delta is formed by the confluence of the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers, which combine to form the Mobile River. The delta is about 10 miles wide and nearly 50 miles long, and is located some 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. While most river deltas are broad areas of alluvial deposit where the mouth of a river fans out upon meeting the sea, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is different. It is believed to be a rare geological phenomenon. Rather than fanning out, the Mobile-Tensaw is an elongated delta. Some experts believe it was formed by a depression, or sinking, of the land between two geological faults. Thus, it has relatively high banks, and water levels range from zero to six feet above sea level.


All of the rivers—the Mobile, Tensaw, Alabama, and Tombigbee—are heading to happy hour at the Gulf of Mexico. They slow down at the delta, so bits of sand and food particles drop out of suspension, creating a five-star food-chain restaurant. Where the rivers have carved out curlicues and sculpted crescent-shaped islands, wildlife abounds. Here you will hear chips and chatters and croaks. Brush rattles on the riverbanks, where critters thrive in unseen nooks and crannies.


Where these might rivers intermingle, it can smell fishy. It can also smell like wet dirt, polecat, and decay—the sweet rot of flora and fauna.

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