Experience nature up close from canoes and kayaks

Alabama Living Magazine

By John Felsher

With gasoline prices soaring dramatically, people might look for more economical ways to enjoy the outdoors. With paddle-powered boats, sportsmen can fish, observe wildlife, shoot photos and explore nature all day without spending a penny on fuel.

“A good canoe or kayak costs about $800 to $1,000,” says Wes Brown, president of the Huntsville Canoe Club. “We absolutely advocate for safety on the water. Always wear a properly fitted Coast Guard approved Type 3 personal flotation device, which costs about $30 to $50.”

Some “dugouts,” boats made from hollowed out logs, date back more than 10,000 years. Native Americans made canoes from tree bark. In the Arctic, indigenous peoples made boats from seal skins covering bone or ivory frames. The word “kayak” comes from the native word “qajaq,” meaning “surface top.” Today, most people use canoes or kayaks made from aluminum or synthetic materials.

“People can buy a two-man kayak, but most are for one person,” Brown says. “For paddling with more than one person, get a large canoe. With a large canoe, a mom, dad and small child could enjoy a day on the water in just one boat.”

Before taking to the water, invest in a dry box to hold gear and supplies, although some kayaks come with dry storage. Also buy a floating waterproof bag to hold wallets, cameras, phones, keys and other important items.

Paddlers can venture into the smallest places where large motorboats can never travel. Not confined to launch ramps, paddlers can simply carry a light craft and drop it into any waters they wish. Then, they can move along a stream slowly and quietly without scaring fish or wildlife. On waters with little access or those unsuitable for larger boat traffic, paddlers can fish or just observe nature in places that few people ever see. 

Often, paddlers discover outstanding fishing in virtually untouched waters. Sometimes, tiny ditches too narrow or shallow for larger boats lead to seldom fished “lost” lakes. Paddlers can also fish ponds and other places where people could never launch a large boat. In such places, they might find giant fish that rarely see lures.

Many paddlers like to drift rivers. This involves floating with the current to a take-out point. Paddlers would need to preposition a second vehicle downstream or arrange for a pick-up so they can return to their original launching point and retrieve their vehicle.

With thousands of river and lake miles in Alabama, paddlers can find unlimited places to go. Beginning paddlers should probably team up with more experienced people and start on more placid streams and lakes for short trips. 

“For someone who just wants to get out on the water occasionally, I suggest looking for an outfitter near home or in a place they would like to paddle,” Brown says. “People can usually rent canoes and all the equipment for $50 to $60 a day.”

In northern Alabama, Brown recommends the Flint River, which runs about 66 miles from Lincoln County, Tennessee to Madison County, Alabama. He also suggests the Cahaba River.

“The Flint River has several sections that people can paddle, depending upon how far they want to go,” Brown says. “It flows through a lot of scenic undeveloped territory. The Cahaba River is another good place for beginners to go and not face anything they can’t handle. In May, people can see the Cahaba lilies blooming. Unless people wanted to hike along the river, they would never see a Cahaba lily without a canoe or kayak.”

The longest free-flowing river entirely within Alabama and one of the most scenic, the Cahaba River runs about 194 miles from near Birmingham to its confluence with the Alabama River in Dallas County. The Cahaba is also one of the most biologically diverse streams in the nation. Found only along the Cahaba River or in parts of Georgia and South Carolina, Cahaba lilies normally bloom from early May to mid-June.

In southern Alabama, the Bartram Canoe Trail, really a web of paddling routes, wanders through the sprawling Mobile-Tensaw Delta wetlands. Watered by the Mobile, Tensaw and several other rivers, the 250,000-acre wetland wilderness includes marshes, cypress-tupelo swamps and bottomland hardwood forests pockmarked by numerous backwater lakes and streams in Mobile and Baldwin counties.

John N. Felsher is a professional freelance writer who lives in Semmes, Ala. He also hosts an outdoors tips show for WAVH FM Talk 106.5 radio station in Mobile, Ala. Contact him at j.felsher@hotmail.com or through Facebook.

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