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Rivers in bloom

Mike Duffey of Rome, Ga., paddles through a stand of Cahaba lilies.
Mike Duffey of Rome, Ga., paddles through a stand of Cahaba lilies.


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Paddle Hatchet Creek to see more Cahaba lilies in May

For those with a more adventurous spirit, an overnight paddling trip on Hatchet Creek in Coosa County will carry participants through several wide shoals choked down with Cahaba lilies in late May.
Registration for the Third Annual Hatchet Creek Festival on May 30-31 is open through April 30, but space is limited and on a first-come, first-served basis.
The $40 registration fee for this 2-day float on Hatchet Creek in Coosa County includes a Hatchet Creek Festival t-shirt, shuttle service, campgrounds with limited amenities, snacks, Saturday dinner, Sunday breakfast, music, games, fishing and more. Participants are responsible for providing their own canoe or kayak. Hatchet Creek is a beginner level run, but does have numerous shoals and a few rapids.

For information on how to register, call Beverly Bass or Tom Bass, 256-207-3353, or email hatchet.creek.festival@gmail.com.


Festivals celebrate the lovely, fragile Cahaba lily

Story and photos by David Haynes

Even though the camellia is Alabama’s state flower, the rare and wild-growing Cahaba lily is almost certainly the most recognizable bloom found here in the Heart of Dixie.

Photographs and illustrations of this beautiful white spider lily (Hymenocallis coronaria) adorn everything from license plates to coffee mugs, so much so that most Alabamians could identify its distinctive white-on-white blooms before those of the camellia.

Named the Cahaba lily here due to large populations in the shoals of the Cahaba River in central Alabama, the same flower is also found on other streams in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and parts of North Carolina, where it’s known as the Shoal lily or Shoals spider-lily. In fact, this lily was first observed by renowned naturalist William Bartram in 1783 in the Savannah River near Augusta, Ga.

Whatever the name, these unique aquatic plants require clean, swift water and rocky shoals to thrive. When they bloom in May and June (usually between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day) each year, thousands of people make pilgrimages to canoe or wade into Alabama’s shoals to take in a spectacular panorama.

In good years I’ve seen a waterway turn almost solid white for as far as the eye can see, as hundreds of thousands of these three-foot-high blooms merge together, like a new snowfall covering the stream.

Many locations for the Cahaba lily are somewhat remote and getting to them can be a logistical challenge involving canoes, kayaks or other watercraft, plus shuttling vehicles back and forth at put-in and take-out points.

But we Alabamians are fortunate to have some of the easiest access to view these lilies up close at the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge near West Blocton in Bibb County. Here these unique lilies are literally within view of a gravel road that parallels the Cahaba River for a mile or more.

This is also home to the Cahaba Lily Festival, which will be May 16 in West Blocton and at the Cahaba Wildlife Refuge a few miles away. Farther south in late May, the Hatchet Creek Festival offers a two-day paddling trip to see the lilies in Coosa County (see story, page 14).

Myrtle Jones, an original volunteer organizer of the Cahaba Lily Festival, says this will be the 26th annual event.

Events will begin with an 8 a.m. registration at the Cahaba Lily Center in downtown West Blocton, followed by programs featuring speakers from the Cahaba River Society, Alabama Fish and Game, Wildlife Rescue and other festivities, including the crowning of the 2015 Miss Cahaba Lily.

Samford University professor Lawrence Davenport, considered the world’s leading authority on the Cahaba lily, will again be the featured speaker, as he has been for each of the previous 25 festivals.

“That first year it was pretty much just me and my slide projector at the First Baptist Church,” Davenport says. The Cahaba Lily Festival is the first such festival to be established to honor a flower. However, in the years since the festival in West Blocton began, similar events have been established in both Georgia and South Carolina celebrating the same lily, he says.

He notes that the Cahaba lily is found in the shoals of the Cahaba River from its headwaters near Trussville all the way downstream to Centerville. Other places in Alabama where the lily is found include tributaries of the Black Warrior, Tallapoosa and Coosa rivers, he said.

Davenport wrote an article for the Encyclopedia of Alabama about these striking blooms, which open in the early evening when they are most fragrant. Unfortunately, human activities threaten the survival of the Cahaba lily, including the damming of rivers for navigation and power generation. More recently, the lily has been threatened by increasing levels of sediment from development, logging and mining.

The best hope for the lilies’ survival may be increased awareness of its fragile habitat, thanks to public events like the Cahaba Lily Festival and the Hatchet Creek Festival.

Jones explains that the event has grown each year since the first festival in 1990, when it consisted of Davenport, a few enthusiastic West Blocton volunteers, several home-baked cakes and a program at the First Baptist Church. Today the Festival involves more than 30 volunteers and is attended by more than 400 people each year from around the United States as well as from other countries.

Following lunch, a bus shuttle will be available to ferry attendees from town the five miles or so to the Cahaba River National Nature Preserve, where large stands of the blooming flowers are near the gravel road that parallels the river.

Randall Haddock, field director for the Cahaba River Society, tells me that group will have rental canoes available that day for festival-goers who want to do more than get their feet wet. He adds that while the shoals that are beside the road usually have lilies blooming during the festival, the more adventurous can also take a 20-minute hike farther downstream to Hargrove Shoals to see one of the largest blooms on the entire river.