STORY AND PHOTOS BY NATALIE WARREN
Flying into Mobile, Alabama, I excitedly peered out the plane window to see ribbons of rivers dancing beneath me, tangling and turning until they entered Mobile Bay. "You'll never see it all. There is always a new place to explore," said Hank Burch, manager at the 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center. The Mobile-Tensaw Delta is the second largest delta in the country and is home to estuarine marshes, cypress swamps (home of Alabama's largest cypress tree), bottom-land hardwood ecosystems, and, most importantly for us paddling junkies, the Bartram Canoe Trail.
Normally on water trails paddlers can flow with the current of a river or meander around a lake. Paddling around Mobile, Alabama is far from normal. The rivers, creeks, and sloughs in the delta look like they were tied in knots and dropped to earth, creating endless opportunities for paddling, fishing, birding, and getting away from it all — right in the city.
"Flap flap, glide, flap flap, glide. That's how you know it's an Anhinga," said Bob Andrews, owner of Sunshine Canoe Company. I looked up to match his words to the long-necked, pointy-beaked bird flying overhead. My gaze shifted west to the Mobile skyline glistening in the distance and then quickly returned to the marsh as Bob pointed out the alligator swimming in the nearby grasses.
Paddling in and around Mobile is a recreational version of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. The Bartram Canoe Trail offers backwater sloughs, blackwater rivers, lazy lakes, and brackish bays. Paddle out for a day-trip from one of the many access points in the delta or enjoy an overnight adventure on one of the floating platforms, reserved exclusively for canoeists and kayakers. A favorite local route begins at Rice Creek Landing and journeys through the picturesque Bayou Tallapoosa into the Tensaw River, where paddlers can camp at the land-based Two Rivers Point campsite. Bayou Jessamine takes you right back to Rice Creek Landing and passes the Bottle Creek Indian Mounds (American pyramids built by the Mississippian Tribes of the 13th century, one basket full of mud and oyster shells at a time) on the journey home.
A hard day on the water requires adequate fuel, and lucky for paddlers there are several accessible restaurants in and around Mobile Bay to experience some good ole' Southern cookin'! Rent a canoe or kayak at 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center and paddle four miles to the Blue Gill Restaurant where the red carpet awaits paddlers and boaters alike. A 10 percent discount for everyone who comes by boat is well worth the journey and well spent on an order of flaming oysters, a Blue Gill specialty.
Burch opined that paddlers can "eat their way down Mobile Bay," which I think would make a great bumper sticker. After paddling in the delta all afternoon, I stopped into Boudreaux’s Cajun Grill for mouth-watering shrimp and grits right on the water. Then I ventured south down the bay with my sights set on Fairhope Brewery. After all, paddlers and craft beer go hand in hand, and I was not about to break that stereotype. Fairhope Brewery successfully blends the hip craft beer vibe with Southern comfort. Upon arrival I was sipping a local brew and learning how to crack open and eat crawfish from an enthusiastic local with a classic Southern drawl.
While on-water opportunities are the true gem of Mobile there are several on-land activities when paddlers want to stretch their legs. When asked if there were any festivals in the area, Burch laughed and said, "Yeah, the whole month of April!" The Delta Woods and Waters Festival in Spanish Fort offers hands-on events for all recreation activities, and the Coast Bird Fest offers guided on-water birding tours. These events successfully bring locals and visitors to the water to have fun and experience a time gone by.
So what's next for paddlers in Mobile, Alabama? New camping and lodging opportunities are in the works, including screened houses on the water with a 360-degee, bug-free view. There is also talk of extending the Bartram Canoe Trail to the 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center — the gateway to Mobile's mystical paddling realm. Nearby blackwater rivers with white sand beaches are developing water trails with access points and campsites as well. If you are easily overwhelmed by too many options, make sure you plan your trip out in advance because, like a restaurant with a large menu, you may be unable to make a decision on where to paddle. Luckily you can't go wrong. It's beautiful, adventurous, and it's all here in the deep, deep South!
MOBILE, ALA. RESOURCES
Sunshine Canoe Company
5 Rivers Delta Resource Center
Blue Gill Restaurant
Meahers State Park
Bartram Canoe Trail
Boudreaux’s Cajun Grill
— Each month, Natalie Warren will highlight a different North American town making positive strides toward community and infrastructure developments catering to recreational paddling. In 2011, Warren was one of the first two women to paddle 2,000 miles from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay, recreating Eric Sevareid's route from Canoeing With the Cree. The journey earned a nomination for the Canoe & Kayak Awards' 2012 Expedition of the Year.
Warren's nonprofit Wild River Academy works with communities across the country to increase paddlesports tourism and experiential learning opportunities on their local rivers, presenting 'urban' rivers as a natural, dynamic classroom for youth. Currently a River Steward for Wisconsin's St.Croix River Association, Warren has also worked with the River Management Society, finding ways to increase awareness about the economic benefits of water trails, and with it, paddlesports tourism.
Check out Warren’s previous installments of the (Next) Best Paddling Towns:
— Lively access to the Kansas River National Water Trail in Lawrence, Kan.
— Paddle downstream, both ways, on the Waccamaw River in Conway, S.C.
— A bayou tour through Cajun country in Breaux Bridge, La.
— Mid-Atlantic rivers and bays in Snow Hill, Maryland
— A range of paddling options along the Huron River in Ann Arbor, Michigan
— Check out C&K‘s full list of North America’s Top Paddling Towns