Sand, gravel bars plentiful below Claiborne damPublished 12:00pm Thursday, August 30, 2012
By Harold Banks, Special to the Outlook
Editor’s note: This is the 12th installment in a fascinating diary chronicling a 400-mile paddle down the entire length of the Alabama River.
April 12, 2012 – Day 12
Hi 76, Lo 52 – Clear
Thursday night – Mile 254 – One mile below old Dale Ferry Landing
Ralph perks a pot of cowboy coffee over the campfire and makes his version of egg McMuffins. I wish I could stay and let my little brother spoil me longer, but I must break camp and begin what will be very primitive camping for the next several days.
Just below Isaac Creek Campground, I lock through Claiborne lock and dam and though it is my third such experience on this trip, I marvel that the Corps will operate this mighty contraption for the benefit of my little canoe. Below Claiborne dam, the river is no longer constrained and is free to run its natural course. Large sand and gravel bars are numerous. Many of the upstream bars are now underwater though their names still remain on the map. Early steamboat pilots named every one and relied on them as navigation markers.
I stop for lunch on a big gravel bar and find a paddlefish washed up on shore, the first one I’ve ever seen outside of books. It is almost four feet long and hasn’t been dead long because the eyes are still clear. The skin is barely broken, but one side appears to have suffered a heavy blow, probably from a motorboat. Paddlefish are bizarre looking creatures with a long paddle-like snout that comprises a third of its length. They look almost shark-like and remind me of a sawfish without the teeth but are more closely related to sturgeons. They are filter feeders and have a huge gaping mouth to suck in the plankton they feed on. They will not bite a baited hook, but people used to snag them with big treble hooks for their tasty flesh and caviar. They are now threatened in Alabama and illegal to catch.
Despite a late start and having to go through the lock, I’ve covered 20 miles by 3:00 p.m. and decide that it’s a pretty good day. I stop at an abandoned boat landing no longer accessible by road and find a decent camping spot not too far uphill. Almost two hundred years ago, Alabama’s most famous canoe trip began and ended near here. For just downstream in November 1813, a black man named Caesar paddled Sam Dale, Jeremiah Austill and James Smith in a small canoe to overtake a large canoe occupied by nine Redstick Creek warriors. When the two canoes collided, Caesar locked them together with his mighty grip while Sam Dale and his other two companions, though outnumbered three to one, dispatched the Redsticks in brutal hand-to-hand combat amid cheers from spectators on both sides of the river. The skirmish was of no strategic consequence in the Creek War, but it elevated Sam Dale to legendary status as a frontier hero and many places in Alabama still bear his name.
All is at peace on the frontier now, and I explore my surroundings without fear. A big bonus of this campsite is a patch of ripe dewberries that make a great compliment to my freeze-dried beef stew. A good campfire and a few coyote calls end a pleasant evening in this remote part of the world.