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River Solitude: Kayaking the Elk River

The author’s first day section kayaking the Elk River passing through Kelso, Tenn., in October 2012.

Channel your inner Huck Finn and explore Alabama from the water. You do not have to make a log raft though; a canoe or kayak will suffice.

The enchanting Elk River is no mighty Mississippi either, allowing for beginners to easily navigate the river. The Elk River begins near Pelham in Tennessee, flows west toward Fayetteville, and meanders south into Alabama, passing just west of Ardmore and Elkmont. Totaling 195 miles, this tributary meets the Tennessee River near Wheeler Lake, west of Athens.

Keep an eye out for short sections of white water rapids that add some excitement as well as much appreciated current to the river. You will find many small sand bar islands throughout, which are ideal for picnics or campsites. Whether going on day or overnight kayaking trips, there are many road crossings for easy access to different sections along the river.

I have gathered this information from my time spent on the river, but remember the river is always moving and offers different experiences to those who seek it.

The Elk River is the closest major waterway to my hometown in North Alabama, and I grew up canoeing on the river with friends and family. As I got older, I spent more and more time away from Alabama leaving the state for school, seasonal work and traveling.

But a few years ago, I decided to revisit the Elk River near Fayetteville. I spent the late October day paddling and enjoying being back on the calming waters.

Long-distance challenge

After that daytrip I was inspired to kayak the river all the way to where it joins the Tennessee River near Rogersville. I saw it as another long-distance challenge for myself as well as an exploratory adventure to see my home state from the view of the river.

My logistics for each day entailed simply looking on Google maps for a road crossing the river about ten miles further down from where I left off the previous time, and aim for that bridge. I approached the section-kayak trip casually, where I have spent one or two days a year over the past five years working my way South toward the Tennessee River, a hundred-mile journey.

Before the river widens out ten miles shy of the Tennessee River, the Elk River is nice and narrow, giving the feel of a secret oasis. The river seems far removed from roads and neighborhoods, hidden by rocky banks and wide pastures. The majority of the time when I kayaked during the fall, I was the only one on the river besides the occasional fisherman. Solitude on the river was a welcome respite, allowing me to clear my head all while flowing with the current downstream. I found myself dreaming of future plans but would then remind myself to be present because like time, the river never stands still.

In these moments of heightened sensory awareness I focused on the small rapids echoing in the distance, animals foraging in the leaves at the river’s edge, or the musty smell of rain approaching.

One of the highlights of my time on the water was wildlife viewing. Besides the usual cows resting on the riverbank when passing farmland, I have seen deer, raccoon, turtles, herons, river otters, and even a beaver. I was not aware there were river otters in the area, so the first time I heard and saw them I immediately stopped paddling and floated, my mouth open in awe. Later I continued paddling with a big grin on my face, feeling extremely lucky that I was able to witness them playing in their natural habitat. I left them swimming in the water knowing that we shared in a special secret, a moment in time, that remains only between the river, otters and me.

Whenever I finish kayaking for the day I cannot wait to get back out on the water because I never know what I will encounter on the ever-flowing, engaging Elk River.

Sara Leibold is from Hazel Green, Alabama. She was a student-athlete at The University of Alabama, an Appalachian Trail thru hiker, and is currently looking for new adventures. You can follow her by checking out her adventure travel blog at