Archived Story

Banks completes his 20-day river journey

Published 12:20pm Friday, September 14, 2012

By Harold Banks, Special to the Outlook

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

April 10, 2012 – Day 20

High 79, Low 59 – Partly cloudy

Friday afternoon – Mile 400 – Gulf of Mexico at Fort Morgan

I wake to seabirds calling, and the breaking dawn is wind free.  But as I’m stuffing my sleeping bag into its sack, the tent suddenly shakes from a gust.  That is soon followed by another, then another, until it is strong and steady out of the southwest while I’m trying to strike the tent.  By the time I am ready to launch, the waves have built up considerably.  I have three miles of open water to paddle before I hit the northern shore of the Fort Morgan peninsula and am a little uncomfortable in the crossing until I get within easier swimming distance from the shore.

The Fort Morgan peninsula extends due west and blocks some of the southerly component of the wind.  Running close to and parallel to the shore is long string of big fishing floats about 30 feet apart, and I lift one to find a large crab trap attached.  Before long I see a big flat bottom boat rigged with a small crane.  A lone crabber on board is methodically checking each trap in this line that must extend for at least two miles.

The day is pretty with an azure blue sky, decorated early with cirrus mare’s tails that are slowly replaced with cumulus puffs.  The shore in undeveloped areas alternates between snow white sand and marshes where tall but scraggly pond pines grow right to the waterline.  Osprey and other raptors are surveying the marshes from high perches.  I have a special treat when two porpoises pass by me, and then leap repeatedly in front of the canoe as if leading the way.

The wind shifts to a more westerly course, and I have to work hard to drive into it on this last day.  I had told Amy I expected to arrive at the Fort Morgan pier by 2 p.m.  After all, I paddled 21 miles yesterday to arrive at my campsite by 1:30 p.m., and I only have to paddle 19 miles today.  But I had not counted on this strong headwind, and I call Amy at lunch time to tell her I will be later than first expected.

After passing by heavily developed Navy Cove, the Fort Morgan peninsula widens and a point juts out into Mobile Bay.

My course turns northwest for a few miles and the paddling is easier along this more protected shore.  I am passing by the largest portion of the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, and it looks very interesting.

The wetlands on my left are intersected with numerous channels and bayous that lead to both salt and freshwater marshes that are havens for a wide variety of birds and animals.  I would like to come back some day and explore this area at a leisurely pace, but today I am focused on completing my journey.

As I round the point called Little Point Clear, I am only about six miles to the end, but now my course abruptly turns west southwest and directly into the brunt of high wind and waves.

Family is waiting on me, and I don’t have to reserve any energy for the next day, so I paddle with maximum effort.  It still takes me two and half hours to cover what I could easily do in an hour and a half on a calmer day.

I make it to the Fort Morgan pier just before 4:00 p.m., but force myself to paddle beyond it until I can truly say I stuck the bow of my canoe into the Gulf of Mexico.

I stare at the Gulf a few moments, aware that some of that water came from the tiny Georgia stream feeding the Tallapoosa River where I started three years ago.

The river comes into existence moving like a living creature.  As it moves, it continues to grow, and on its journey nourishes and harbors more lives than can be counted.

Finally, the river reaches the mother of all waters, the interconnected seas, but that does not really end the journey.  For the sun is jealous of the earth’s water and sends heat to evaporate it and draw the moisture nearer.  But the earth will not be robbed without a fight and uses all the gravity it can muster to reclaim the water for its oceans.  This struggle between heaven and earth, powers that amazing, continuous cycle of vapor, cloud, rain, stream, river, and ocean that began long before we arrived and will continue long after we are forgotten.  The wind aids my short trip back to the Fort Morgan pier, and a good thing too, because I am near total exhaustion.

Amy and Jennifer are at the pier waiting for me.  Grandson Jack, soon to be four, is jumping with excitement as I paddle the last few yards to the boat ramp.  I am so tired I can hardly hold my head up and seem to be moving in slow motion trying to load the canoe onto Amy’s SUV.  I get in the backseat with Jack, and Amy drives toward the Gulf Shores beach condo we have for the weekend.  I want to savor what I have accomplished.  I should be grateful that Providence blessed me with generally favorable conditions and proud that I had the perseverance to follow an ambitious plan to the end.  But Jack wants my attention and is talking about the big holes we are going to dig at the beach and the sand castles he wants me to build so he can stomp them flat.  I will do all those things with Jack, and I will later reflect on what this journey meant to me, but at the moment I am just fighting to stay awake amid visions of giant seafood platters, key lime pie, and sweet, sound sleep.