Archived Story

Easter morning brings long paddle toward Gee’s Bend

Published 10:01am Friday, August 24, 2012

By Harold Banks, Special to The Outlook

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

April 8, 2012 – Day 8

High 80, Low 50 – Clear

Saturday night – Mile 172 – Miller’s Ferry Campground

My Easter morning sunrise was a glorious golden one, bathing the foggy waters of Bogue Chitto with an enchanting light.  It will be a long paddle today, 26 miles on the main river after I paddle over a mile to get to it.  The morning is cool and dead calm, and it is a beautiful start paddling through the low mist covering swampy Bogue Chitto, a name meaning ‘big creek’ in the Choctaw language.

I will have to call this coot day.  I see them in singles, pairs, groups and whole rafts, often with cute coot chicks.  I also spook a couple of larger ducks who fly off and leave a single young duckling.  I try to paddle close to photograph the young fella, and he starts running on top of the water with amazing speed.  I follow thinking he’ll soon tire of that nonsense and settle down so he can have a proper portrait made.  But he keeps up the strenuous water walking for a good three or four minutes while I paddle hard, barely gaining on him.  I had almost decided to stop this cruel game, when all of a sudden he took off flying like an eagle.  I don’t think he was just playing with me all that time, so I take credit for teaching that young’un how to fly.

So far, I have not seen any commercial craft, but this river was once busy with steamboats carrying merchandise upstream, cotton bales downstream and passengers both ways.  Hanging on my living room wall is an 1830 map showing Alabama steamboat routes with a chart listing mileage between major landings from Mobile to Montgomery.  Steamboat travel was not without risk and many wrecked, exploded, or burned.  Just a few miles after I enter Wilcox County, I pass by the site where the steamboat Orline St. John burned in 1850.  Of the 120 or so passengers, no more than 50 survived.  Harvey H. Jackson, III devotes an entire chapter of his excellent book, Rivers of History, to describing that tragedy in horrid detail.

As I get almost halfway around Gee’s Bend, I see the famous ferry leaving Ellis Landing headed toward the Gee’s Bend Landing.   Gee’s Bend is best known today for the quilts made by the community women descended from former slaves and sharecroppers.  Bend residents were isolated for many years when Wilcox County ended its ferry service to the bend in 1962.  Although the county claimed otherwise, many think the ferry was closed to prevent the largely black populace from registering to vote.  Without ferry service, residents had to drive over an hour on poor roads to get to the Wilcox County Seat of Camden located just a little over two miles across the river.  In 2006 the Alabama Department of Transportation finally reestablished ferry operation to Gee’s Bend. The 12 miles of river from Gee’s Bend to Miller’s Ferry campground is wide and lake-like due to the impoundment created by the lock and dam.  The bright sun is bearing down, temperatures are back in the 80s, and I’m beat by the time I get to the campground right at 4 p.m.  At least this is another full-facility campground, so after I haul gear and canoe to my reserved spot and set up my tent, I can shower, shave, wash some clothes by hand and charge my cell phone and camera batteries.

Most people camp in RVs these days, so a tent is a curiosity, especially when the only vehicle is a canoe parked in front of the tent.  A nice lady walking a Jack Russell terrier stops by to admire my canoe and chat.  She asks the usual questions such as how do I get over the dams, aren’t I scared traveling by myself, and how can I possibly carry enough food and supplies for a 20 day trip.  However, I always enjoy answering those questions to people like her who are truly interested.

I try to write in my journal at the picnic table after dark, but again the mosquitoes drive me into my tent.  It’s just that time of year.