Waves tested the limits of Banks’ canoe on his 19th day. | Harold Banks, Special to the Outlook

Archived Story

Banks encounters rough winds near bay

Published 11:45am Thursday, September 13, 2012

By Harold Banks, Special to the Outlook

Editor’s note: This is the 19th installment in a fascinating diary chronicling a 400-mile paddle down the entire length of the Alabama River. 

April 19, 2012 – Day 19

Hi 82, Lo 56 – Partly cloudy

Thursday night – Mile 380 – Sand spit on Bon Secour

I leave my motel room at 6 a.m. with packs in hand and cross the street to where my canoe is stored under the American Legion pavilion.  I am disturbed by how rough the bay looks.  At first the wind is not terribly strong at about 10 miles per hour, but it is from the north northwest and crosses miles of water before it hits this point on the Eastern Shore.  I get the canoe loaded and shove off.  The choppy, two foot high swells are hitting me from the stern.  The wind gets worse and I begin to worry.  It is strenuous paddling into the wind and waves, but it is more dangerous to paddle a canoe in a strong following sea.  For one thing, I cannot see the big waves coming, but worse, the canoe wants to surf down the larger rollers, and canoes are not made to surf well.  The tendency is for the canoe to broach sideways, and I have to be on constant guard to prevent it.  Paddling hard gives me the best control, but sometimes my paddle catches only air when canoe is perched on the crest of a large wave.  I wouldn’t say I was terrified, but I am remembering all the warnings I received that Mobile Bay was no place for an open canoe.

In three miles I reach Point Clear and the Marriott Grand Hotel Resort.  Inside my head a voice of reason says: “You should pull over here.  You’ve made it 362 miles, no bad accomplishment, and why risk disaster?  What’s wrong with staying in a luxurious four-star hotel until Amy and company arrive on Friday?”  But at Point Clear the coast line makes a sharp turn to the east and suddenly I am in more protected waters.  Reason gives way to the optimism that maybe I can make it to the Gulf of Mexico after all.  After a couple of miles, the coast turns more southerly, and the following seas sneak up behind me again.  It is not as scary as an hour ago, but bad enough that reason says, “You missed your chance for a graceful exit back there buddy.”

At 9:00 a.m., the winds suddenly cease completely.  The bay calms down, and the birds go berserk, squawking and taking to the air from their perches.  It is easier for them to see their prey fish when the water is smooth, and the feeding frenzy is on.  The gulls and terns dive for their catch gracefully and immediately resume full flight.  But pelicans look awkward falling into the water with wings askew and then, fish or no, they sit motionless in the water for a few moments as if stunned by the impact.

The calm I enjoyed signified changing weather conditions but not an end to the wind.  Before long the wind starts increasing, this time from the west.  As I adjust to wind and waves from a new direction, I am faced with another dilemma—I need to pee.  The Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay is very heavily populated with almost one continuous seawall and no break between residences from Spanish Fort to Weeks Bay.  There is simply no place to pull over to answer nature’s call.  Finally in desperation, I pull out a large plastic cup from my canoe thwart bag and do what I have to do.  I rinse it well in the salt water and hope I’ll have a memory lapse next time I use the cup for its intended purpose.

The winds get stronger and the westerly direction means big waves build up on the east side of the bay.  Before long I’m rocking, rolling, surfing and sloughing in the big rollers.  I have now had experience with waves from all directions and have more confidence in the ability of my canoe to handle them as long as the captain pays attention to what he’s doing.  Paddling in large waves first from behind and then from my right side has been nerve wracking, but it does not impede my forward progress, and I cover the 21 miles to Bon Secour bay in record time.  There is a long, narrow, uninhabited sand spit protruding into Bon Secour from the north that is my planned camping ground.  According to both Wikipedia and the website of the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Bon Secour is a French phrase meaning “safe harbor.”  But I believe the literal French translation would be “good rescue.”  Both meanings sound good to me, and I am glad to find a good rescue from the waves in this safe harbor.

The sand spit is mostly covered in brush above the tide line, but I locate an open, level camping spot elevated just enough to be safe from high tide.  There is marsh to my east, but maybe the westerly winds will keep the mosquitoes away from me.  It is a pretty site, and I look forward to a leisurely afternoon.  There is a lot of driftwood lumber around, and I use it to pave a little sand free area in front of my tent for my stove and gear.  I explore the shore and come to a section of beach sparsely covered with patchy cordgrass where the ground seems to be moving.  There are many thousands of tiny crabs that move in unison away from my approach.  Depending on what is closer, they scoot into the water, run into the dense undergrowth higher on shore, or drop down their burrow holes in the sand.  At their densest there must be 30 per square foot.  They look like baby blue crabs to me and, if so, there will soon be no shortage of tasty adults.

Higher up on the beach there are low crawling vines sporting funnel-form flowers, white with yellow centers.  I find a pile of bones from some unidentifiable sea creature and enjoy beachcombing a shore seldom marked by human footprints.  Looking up the Bon Secour River I watch a shrimp boat, the Becky Lyn, move slowly into Mobile Bay.  It looks to be an older wooden boat, but is spic and span with a fresh coat of royal blue paint, ready for the shrimping season that opens soon.

After supper, I sit on the makeshift driftwood patio in front of my tent and watch the big red glowing sun sink into the bay.  I enjoy breathing the salt air carried by the westerly wind that also keeps me more mosquito free than any camping night this trip.  At bedtime, I have a new sound to lull me to sleep—waves lapping against the shore.