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Taking it easy:

Alabama Living Magazine

Calm water paddling in Alabama

Story and photos by David Haynes

On a midsummer morning at dawn, the eastern sky brightens with first light, and the sounds of night creatures begin to give way to the first chirping of birds and stirring of squirrels.

An angler silently slips a worn canoe into a perfectly still lake. Moments later, a subtle flick of his wrist casts a fly near a wooded bank. As it floats down to rest on the mirror-like surface, all is silent. Then, in an explosion of water and splashing, the fly rod bends almost double as an aggressive 4-pound bass swims hard to escape.

A few miles away, kayakers are preparing for a day-long float down a creek shaded by a canopy of overhanging trees. They will scarcely need to paddle as the gentle current propels them along. Rounding a bend, they watch as a great blue heron drops from its high perch, spreading its broad wings just in time to fly just above the creek’s surface. As the day warms there’ll be opportunities for cooling off in shaded swimming holes.

On another lake, two friends on stand-up paddle boards (aka SUPs) begin a mile-long paddle to a small island where they’ll spend a relaxing morning watching birds and other wildlife.

A paddling paradise

For anyone living in Alabama, adventures like these are never more than a few minutes to an hour away. Alabama is ranked seventh in the nation in miles of navigable waterways, and this doesn’t even include many small lakes and creeks that can be accessed by canoe, kayak or SUP.

Paddling excursions can range from a mile or less to multi-day trips up to 650 miles on the Alabama Scenic River Trail that begins in the mountains of northeast Alabama and terminates  at the Gulf of Mexico, following the Coosa, Alabama and Tensaw rivers.

The 200-mile Bartram Canoe Trail system of canoe and kayak water trails in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta is one of the longest in the United States. It offers paddlers 13 different routes, including three routes with floating campsites.

Those wanting to explore paddling adventures have never had so many options as today. The popularity of canoeing and kayaking has been growing for several decades, but has exploded since the Covid 19 pandemic, as outdoor activities in general became more attractive.

Types of boats

Almost every big box store, home improvement store or outdoor store offers kayaks or canoes at prices often starting below $300. For easy or beginner level paddlers, the available watercraft are in three general categories. Each offers advantages and disadvantages:

Canoes

Most everyone is familiar with canoes. They’ve been around in one form or another for much of recorded history. Canoeists generally use a single blade paddle with a T handle. Modern canoes can be solo (for one person) or tandem (for two people). Canoes designed for lakes and slow-moving water usually have a small keel along the length of the bottom to help the boat track straight. Advantages are comfort level, more total capacity than kayaks or SUPs, and stability. However, canoes are typically larger and heavier and require more effort to haul and put in or take out of the water. Lighter weight canoes are typically made of fiberglass and so can be easily damaged by rocks.

Kayaks

These have been gaining popularity for the past several decades. Kayakers use a double-bladed paddle and so don’t need to change sides when paddling. Almost all kayaks are now made of durable plastic materials and will stand up to much abuse. For non-whitewater lakes and streams, there are two main types: a decked kayak with a “cockpit” opening, and sit-on-top models that are completely sealed. In general, kayaks are more maneuverable than canoes and easier to put in or take out. They are also easier to haul to and from the streams. Compared to canoes, most people find kayaks less comfortable for longer excursions because the seating position is fixed.

SUPs

These are relative newcomers to the paddling world but have gained a large following over the past couple of decades. These are basically an oversized surfboard on which the paddler stands and uses a longer single blade canoe-type paddle. They offer the ability to also sit or kneel when paddling and some enthusiasts even bring along their dog, usually perched on the front of the board. Users say they like the versatility of being able to stand, sit, kneel without getting stiff from being in one position. Some even do yoga on SUPs! All are lightweight compared to canoes or kayaks. Different models are available made of polystyrene or are inflatable, making them very portable and easy to transport in smaller vehicles. However, SUPs don’t offer the stability of canoes or kayaks, particularly in rough water.  

Lisa Webster Mathews and Regina use a stand up paddleboard, known as a SUP, to take a leisurely trip on the Little River above DeSoto Falls in Mentone.

Rental options and safety

And for those unsure if they’d like to buy a personal watercraft before trying it for themselves, dozens of outfitters around the state offer rentals, along with life jackets, waterproof cases/pouches, etc.

As with any outdoor adventure, paddling excursions do require some advanced planning to maximize the enjoyment of the experience and ensure safety. One important thing to remember is that cellular phone service can be unreliable and sometimes non-existent on trips away from population centers. Phone apps address this by using a smartphone’s GPS to pinpoint its exact locations even when there’s no cellular service. Apps like Relive, AllTrails, and others offer these features and are usually free for a trial period. 

If venturing away from civilization, it’s also wise to bring along a basic first aid kit. As with any outdoor activity it’s a good idea to wear a hat, use sunscreen and possibly insect repellant. Also, be sure to let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return.


Help online

Today, adventures often start with web searches in front of a computer, tablet or smartphone screen. The following are a few helpful links:

Listing for canoe/kayak rental outfitters: vacationsalabama.com/kayaking/rentals-outfitters/
(NOTE: This is far from a comprehensive listing. Try searching “Kayak rental near me” as well)

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Canoe Trails: alabamacanoetrails.com

List of rivers and streams in Alabama: alabamawhitewater.com/Run/RunList
(NOTE: While this is a website geared toward whitewater adventures, any of the streams listed under “Class I Runs” will be suitable for beginners. A future article will focus on whitewater opportunities in the state.)

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