Banks makes it to Selma on fifth day of river journeyPublished 1:05pm Thursday, August 16, 2012
By Harold Banks, Special to The Outlook
Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment in a fascinating diary chronicling Harold Banks’ 400-mile paddle down the entire length of the Alabama River.
April 5, 2012 – Day 5
Hi 76, Lo 56 – Strong thunderstorm, then clearing
Thursday night – Mile 103 – Selma City Marina
I enjoyed a very quiet night, and no one entered the Steele’s Landing area the entire time I was there. I have to make three round trips to the boat ramp right after breakfast, but at least it was downhill for the hauling legs. The river level must have dropped three feet last night, and whereas there was visible flow yesterday, today there is none.
The miles go by, and several times I think I see alligators, but they all turn out to be drifting sticks. Later I see a big log floating in my path, but when I get near it thrashes like no piece of wood can to get out of my way. That was one monster gator, but he must have thought I was an even bigger monster.
I like to get out and stretch my legs now and then, but for many miles the only places to get out are covered with gooey muck. I get out in some of these places anyway when I just have to stand up and move around. It feels good to walk barefoot in soft mud, but then I have to go through some tricky gymnastics to relaunch my canoe and clean my feet without getting any mud in my boat. This is a very isolated section of the river, and I go long distances without seeing any signs of habitation. As a paddling friend once told me of this stretch, the solitude is as thick as the humidity.
I pass by an Alabama State Docks facility. It looks impressive, but I have seen zero commercial traffic so far and wonder if it is worth its cost and maintenance.
The sky is becoming increasingly overcast, and I know there is a good chance of strong storms today. I hoped I could at least set up camp before it rained, but I don’t think I will make it. As I come out of a big bend to a westerly straightaway, I see a big squall line rapidly approaching. The first wind blasts hit me immediately, strong enough to move the canoe around. I turn out of the main river into a small stream channel where I’m protected from the wind and building waves and pull out my rain gear. My canoe is fitted with a two piece nylon spray cover with the front piece normally partially rolled up to give me an open cockpit. I snap the spray cover fully around me and cinch up the spray skirt. The storm hits fast and furious, and it is a good thing I am out of the main river channel. Big white capped rollers are racing upriver just a few feet from my sheltered little cove. I look around to see if there is anything that might fall on me and to make sure I’m not under the tallest trees around. The rain is pounding and thunder is booming, but the lightning strikes don’t hit too close. I am snug and dry, and when I realize I am fairly safe and secure, I enjoy the power and majesty of the storm. What a show for all the senses! I savor the smell of rain cleansed air, relish the feel of cool raindrops on my face, thrill to the sounds of rolling thunder and wind rushing through the trees, and marvel at the sight of rain sheets sweeping across the river in ever changing patterns. This grand performance is definitely worth the price of admission.
After about 15 minutes, the wind and waves die down a bit, and I decide to go ahead and paddle in it. It is actually quite pleasant and cool for a change. The rain gets lighter but doesn’t completely stop for a long time, so I skip two of my normal rest breaks. The rain finally quits just as I pass under the U.S. 80 Selma bypass. But instead of taking a long overdue break, I push on since I am only about four miles from my campsite at Selma City Marina.
In a couple of miles I am in sight of downtown Selma and the Edmund Pettus bridge. I had initially hoped to stay at the historic Saint James Hotel, sitting high on the bluff here, but it was not available. This hotel was built in 1837 and is one of the few surviving pre-Civil War structures downtown. It was spared from destruction during the Yankee occupation because it served as headquarters for the invading officers. The famous outlaws Jesse and Frank James also spent time here in the 1880’s. I pass under the Edmund Pettus Bridge and think about what a spectacle I would have seen if I had paddled under it on Bloody Sunday in 1965.
I arrive at the Selma City Marina at 2:30 p.m., early because of my short lunch and skipped afternoon breaks. This city-owned facility has very nice docks and motorboat launching ramps, but there is no store or other amenities. Although it is an official primitive camping spot on the Alabama Scenic River Trail, I don’t like the looks of it. It is way too public with people just cruising around in their cars looking for something to do. I’m glad I didn’t sweat much today because there is not a good place to take a swim. I spread damp gear out to dry on the sole picnic table and try to ignore the people gawking as they drive around my tent pitched on a small grassy island surrounded by road and parking lot. But I am concerned about what it will be like here after dark.