Archived Story

Banks voyages through lock at the dam

Published 1:04pm Wednesday, August 15, 2012

By Harold Banks, Special to The Outlook

Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment in a fascinating diary chronicling a 400-mile paddle down the entire length of the Alabama River. 

April 4, 2012 – Day 4

High 79, Low 64, partly cloudy

Mile 84 – Steele’s Landing

I was wrong about no sounds but owls, frogs and mosquitoes last night.  Coyotes started getting excited about the coming full moon and were yipping all around.

I enjoy hearing them though and wonder if they are really communicating with each other or just celebrating the joy of another night of adventure.

After my bird wake up call, I eat a quick breakfast of granola with freeze-dried blueberries and powdered milk, skipping my usually essential coffee.  I want to be gone before the gates to the park open at 7 a.m.  I don’t think the ranger could spot my stealth campsite, but an early exit guarantees I won’t cause him any unnecessary alarm.

I pull out of Cypress Creek into the main body of the Alabama River, and it is dead calm.  Great for paddling, but I know it won’t last.  There are houses and cabins scattered here and there along the R. E. Woodruff Lake all the way from Montgomery to the Robert F. Henry lock and dam that creates the impoundment, everything from mansions to crude fishing camps.  Eventually, I come to huge bluffs on river right, which I am told are the true southern terminus of the Appalachian Mountains.  Of course they are not that tall by most mountain standards, but the underlying geology is the same.

At 9 a.m., the wind kicks up strong from the southwest just as I begin a long stretch of the river in that direction.  I hate having to work so hard this early because I have a lot of miles to cover today.

I take the back side of a long island where the wind is less severe, but that passage is choked with vegetation that drags against my canoe and is a worse impediment than the wind.

In this marshy area there are turtle heads everywhere bobbing up and down comically, and it reminds me of an old video game my son used to play that showed gopher heads popping up and down.

Eventually, the river turns due south and by hugging the western bank I am out of the worst of the wind.  I pass certain spots in the shallows where creatures make big splashes as I pass over, but I can’t see or identify the source.

On a long straightaway, I spot the Robert F. Henry lock and dam from several miles away and it seems to take forever to get there.  I finally reach the lock and turn on my cell phone to call the lockmaster.

When the lockmaster answers I say, “I’m requesting permission to lock through downstream sir.”  He asks, “Where are you?”

“I’m at the upstream gate.”

“I don’t see you,” he says.

“I’m in a black canoe with a yellow spray cover.”

“Oh there you are.  I was looking for a bigger boat.  I’ll be right down.”

Soon, the big gates creak open and I paddle into the lock.  The lockmaster walks above me, leans over and asks, “Would you like some bottled water?”  “That is mighty thoughtful of you, but I have plenty,” I say.  “Where are you headed?”  he asks.  “I’m going to try to make it all the way to the Gulf of Mexico at Fort Morgan,” I tell him.  “Well good for you young man.  I’ll tell the folks at the locks below to be on the lookout for you.”

The monster gates close behind me, and I am now trapped in a huge tank meant for trains of giant barges.  A loud horn sounds to warn anyone below the lock that a lot of water is about to be released.

The water begins draining from the steel and concrete box I’m in and my canoe sinks deeper and deeper with the dropping water level.

It is amazing how quickly the lock drains.

Finally, all the weird clanking and gurgling noises cease, and the lower gates swing open, my canoe now level with the water below the dam.  The friendly lockmaster shouts, “You be safe now,” and I paddle strongly downstream.

Just below the dam there are all manner of waterfowl including coots, loons, ducks, anhingas, commorants and geese.  There is actually a significant current this high above the next dam, and I’m grateful for its assistance against the headwind.  After a few miles a big bend in the river takes me on a generally northerly course, and the wind is no longer a factor.  But the miles are.  I push hard because I want to arrive at my campsite in time to take a swim after setting up camp.

After covering 28 miles, I arrive at my camping spot called Steele’s Landing.  There is a primitive campsite here consisting of one picnic table and a chemical toilet about three hundred yards up a steep bank from the concrete boat ramp.  After making three round trips hauling gear and canoe up the steep incline I am pooped.  But the camping spot is actually pretty nice, level with dry, leaf-covered ground.  There is no one around in this very isolated spot, and I feel somewhat refreshed after a skinny dip.  I reassure myself that tomorrow will be an easier day at only about 20 miles, but a call to Amy tells me there is a good chance of strong storms all day tomorrow.  I knew I would have rainstorms on a 20 day trip this time of year.

I think I am equipped to paddle in the rain, I just hope any rain I encounter will end before I have to make camp.

I close out my journal listening to a shrill chorus of hungry mosquitoes screaming for my blood, but my mosquito netting lets me laugh at the little vampires.

Their frenzy to feed usually lets up before midnight, and I hope I can hold off that long before I have to go pee.