The 200-mile Bartram Canoe Trail in Alabama lets you glide down mellow, sinuous waterways into the 260,000-acre Mobile-Tensaw Delta, the nation's second largest. The trail has many access points along Hwy 59 between Tensaw and Stockton, Alabama, making it easy to tailor a trip to your schedule whether you’re looking for an afternoon jaunt or a multi-day journey. Daytime temperatures in the area rarely top ninety degrees or fall below sixty, no matter the season. As such, the delta offers year-round paddling opportunities. It’s also an incubator for birds; 110 species nest there and the area is home to 300 species overall.
Common trees in the delta are swamp tupelos and bald cypress. Raccoons and squirrels nest in the hollowed limbs and trunks of the tupelos, and bees feed on their flowers. The tupelo's leaves are lustrous, looking a little like holly, and turn brilliant red and purple in the fall. The cypress trees have 'knees' growing out of their roots. Some believe that the knees, which look like rows of knobby isosceles triangles, help the roots breathe. Whatever their function, the bald cypresses are a species that makes poets wax, well, poetic. Longfellow saw bald cypresses as "towering and tenebrous boughs" that "waved like banners that hang on the walls of ancient cathedrals," whereas John Muir wrote of "the dark, mysterious cypress woods which cover everything."
When it comes to covering everything, Spanish moss also does its part, making a celadon haze in the swamp. The birds are blurs and splashes of color against that green. The painted bunting competes, color-wise, with any macaw, with its purple head, orange chest, red belly, and chartreuse wings. The tricolored heron goes the subtle route, with a mauve chest, heather silver neck, and golden beak. The red-headed woodpeckers deliver both color and rhythm, but the best of the birds might be the swallow-tailed kite, which some consider the coolest bird on the planet. It's the Lamborghini of birds, both in appearance and performance. They're so efficient they rarely flap and so fast they chase and eat dragonflies, speedsters themselves that can dart up to 60 mph. The swallow-tailed kite is easy to spot, with its white body and wings trimmed in black and its deeply forked tail, which provides such supreme control that this predator can pluck snakes off tree limbs in flight.
It'll be tempting to keep looking up at the canopy, but look down too. Alligators sun themselves on the banks and slip into the water to dine on fish. Human anglers will fare well too. There are numerous tail-walking bass, while even tastier bream and crappie abound. For pure sport, bowfish are abundant. Hook one and their dogged fight will have you wondering if that's where they earned their alternate name: dogfish.
The Bartram Canoe Trail was named after the naturalist, William Bartram, who in 1773 at the age of 34, took a four-year hike and paddle across the American South. He wrote a book about this trip with a title longer than two tweets: Travels through North & South Carolina, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws, Containing an Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions, Together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians. Surprisingly, the book with the longwinded title was a bestseller in Europe, as the Old World was thirsty for tales of America's backwaters.
Ahaya the Cowkeeper, a Seminole chief, gave Bertram the nickname, Puc Puggy, or the flower hunter. His paddling wasn't entirely peaceful. A wolf stole his lunch, and one point and he met a warrior intent on killing the next white man he encountered until he was overcome by Bertram's good humor.
Later, he saw two alligators duke it out beside his boat. Bartram wrote, "They suddenly dart upon each other. The boiling surface of the lake marks their rapid course, and a terrific conflict commences. They now sink to the bottom folded together in horrid wreaths."
Your paddle on the Bartram Canoe Trail won't be as challenging as it was in Bartram’s day. There are two land-based campsites, which require no reservation, and four covered, floating platforms, which do require reservations. They rent for $20 a night and hold up to eight paddlers. You can reserve a platform at outdooralabama.com. One big benefits of the floating platforms is the promise of deep sleep, as they'll put you above and away from the 46 mammals, 69 reptiles, and 30 amphibians that inhabit the swamp.
A fine map can be downloaded at americantrails.org, which suggests day and overnight trips and marks campsites, landings, and must-see sights, such as Indian mounds. One of the niftiest qualities of the Bartram Trail is the range of water you'll enjoy, from rivers to streams to lakes to sloughs to bayous, depending upon your path. For northern paddlers who'd rather skip the long, busy drive to the Everglades, the Bartram Trail offers temperate paddling through most of the winter, with the average highs in November, December, and February in the low-to-high sixties. Even January reaches nearly sixty degrees, with average highs of 59, which makes for fine, bug-free paddling. Fall is another fine time to go, as the bald cypresses match the fire of the swamp tupelos.
Go paddle the trail and you'll understand why Bartram wrote: "What a sylvan scene is here."
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