Harold Banks Explorer’s JournalPublished 2:25pm Friday, August 10, 2012
By Harold Banks, Special to the Outlook
Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a fascinating diary chronicling a 400-mile paddle down the entire length of the Alabama River. Three years ago, The Outlook published the first half of Banks’ story when he canoed the entire 258 miles of the Tallapoosa River. We hope you enjoy this true life adventure focusing on the waters that flow through our county and our state.
April 1 – Day One
High 86, Low 60, sunny
Fort Toulouse, Ala.
I planned to get up at 5:00 a.m., take a quick shower and get to Fort Toulouse in time to put in the water by 7:00 a.m. Those plans are shot when the dawning light wakes me and I see it is already 6:30 a.m. Oh well, I’m not skipping breakfast and at least two cups of coffee.
Amy and I arrive at Fort Toulouse about two hours behind schedule, but it is less than 20 miles to my camping spot at Montgomery Marina so I should still be OK. I give my wife a quick kiss and paddle the last mile of the Tallapoosa to its junction with the Coosa River. On my Tallapoosa River descent, I had more than 1,000 feet of elevation drop over the course of 258 miles. But the Alabama River is only 150 feet above sea level when it begins, and much of that drop is contained by three U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dams. Except in times of flood, most of the Alabama River today doesn’t have much flow at all and could almost be called the Alabama Lakes. There will be little help from the current on this trip, and I’ll have to earn every mile.
This bright spring day is perfect for fishing, and the belted kingfishers and great blue herons are busy doing just that. They will protest my infringement on their favorite fishing spots all day long. Turtles are sunning on every limb sticking out of the water, and they plop clumsily into the safety of the river whenever I draw near. A couple of miles downstream I see a water moccasin, the Florida cottonmouth subspecies I think, swimming across the river. I intercept his path with my canoe and force him to stop and pose for a few nice pictures. Many people on hearing of my outdoor excursions ask if I’m scared of snakes and if I carry a gun for protection against them. The answer is no and no.
Close to shore in shallow water, I paddle through a school of three-foot long gar. They splash violently and give me a good wetting. I pass by an elderly fisherman wearing a big straw hat who jokingly shouts, “If you’re going to Mobile you’re headed the right way.” “I thank you for your directions,” is my reply. Little does he know I’m going further than Mobile.
As I approach Montgomery, I begin to see a lot of recreational boaters out on this pretty Sunday afternoon. I come to a big sandbar that is obviously “the place” for young people to hang out. There are more than a dozen boats there loaded with loaded people. Each boat has its own music-making device playing different tunes at full volume. Civilization is a lot noisier than the comparative wilderness I just paddled through.
I arrive at my night’s camping spot at the Montgomery Marina at 3:30 p.m. Considering I didn’t start until after 9:00 a.m., I covered the distance in good time. I should have taken it a little slower because as I unload my boat I realize just how tired I am. I set up my tent in a weedy spot just in front of the Harriott I, a retired riverboat replica now permanently docked at the Montgomery Marina and only used for parties and special events. Several floating piers are attached to the old boat including a gasoline dock with pump and tank. The Harriott I is named after the first steamboat to reach Montgomery from Mobile in 1828, but regrettably it is only a tacky looking representation of the grand old steamboats that formerly plied these waters, and I am glad it now rests in relative obscurity. Its replacement, the Harriott II, is a larger, more elaborate riverboat replica that makes excursions from its dock at Montgomery’s Riverfront Park, and I can see it from here less than a mile downstream.
This is not a great camping spot, but I will be able to eat supper at Capitol City Oyster Bar just up the hill. I take a swim from the riverboat pier which is the best I can do for a bath in this very public place. I call Amy at 6:00 p.m. for the essential two-day weather forecast: Hi’s, lo’s, rain chance, wind speed and direction. Shortly after, I’m surprised by two friends I know only through Facebook and e-mail. John Hayes and Sam Lentz are young adventurers who contacted me after finding my Tallapoosa River trip journal online. They repeated the same trip described in my journal, in less time I might add, and in sections, they have paddled the same route I am taking now. Their advice has been most helpful in my planning and I’m honored they have made the effort to meet me on this first and most accessible camping spot of my trip. Sam and John treat me to a big meal of fried grouper, slaw, and a baked potato with all the butter and sour cream I can get on it, washed down with at least a quart of sweet tea and a fine Sam Adams beer. We exchange adventure stories, and I am impressed how eager these young explorers are to experience everything the outdoors has to offer. They remind me of myself at that age when they lament how the necessity to hold down a job interferes with real living. When I was a young man I used to think leisure time was wasted on the old. Now, I think youthful vigor is wasted on the young. Case in point: I regretfully have to excuse myself about 8:00 p.m. because I am tired and fading fast from paddling hard in the hot sun.
I want to take another look at my maps before I turn in and start for my canoe that I left on a floating pier attached to the bow of the Harriott I. I halt when I notice the gangplank from the riverboat to the pier is now raised about four feet above the floating pier. At first I think maybe the marina raises the walkway at night for security purposes, but when I take a closer look I see the stern of the old boat is obviously very low in the water and that has raised the bow. I watch for a few minutes and realize this boat is going down. I hurry up to the bar and grill to announce that I think the riverboat boat is sinking. The word spreads quickly and soon several people are shouting, “The boat is sinking, the boat is sinking.” The restaurant empties with about half of the people running at full speed down the hill while others scramble for cars and trucks. Someone has the presence of mind to cut off the electricity to the boat and its party lights. Pickup trucks pull close to provide illumination with their headlights. Several restaurant employees board the boat and start recovering a sound system, chairs, and a few other valuable items. The boat is going down fast, stern first, and there are creaking and groaning sounds as moorings and connected walkways bend and break. The order is given for everyone to abandon ship and someone says, “If that boat sinks all the way, the gas dock is going to float out in the river.” That prompts me to exclaim out loud, “Drat, I guess I’m going to have to swim over there and retrieve my canoe.” A lanky young man about 20 years old overhears me and says, “Heck man, give me a paddle and I’ll get that canoe for you.” I give him one of my paddles that was serving as a pole for my nearby tent. He runs down the aluminum walkway leading to the bow of the boat, now raised high out of the water, and ignores a woman who yells, “Get off of there.” Despite protests from the crowd, he gets to the boat and makes a dangerously long jump down to the floating pier. Clumsily, he manages to get my canoe to shore. Some people were calling him a fool, but I will call him brave and am most grateful because I really didn’t want to go swimming that late. Someone then assures that the gasoline dock is permanently anchored to more than just the sinking boat and that it cannot escape. Eventually, the stern of the old boat settles on the bottom and someone of assumed authority announces that everything is stable now, there is nothing more that can be done tonight, and everyone should go home. Everyone does leave except for bewildered Harold Banks who has nowhere to go.
Finally alone, I retreat to my tent located just 50 feet from the boat, much later than I had planned. I quickly go to sleep but am soon wakened by more creaking and groaning from the dying boat. Awful sounds of metal bending, cables popping, and water gurgling continue to wake me through the night.