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Thursday, April 26, 2001

Before the month is over, let me get caught up on some April trip stories:

Sunday April 1, 2001
Gulf Shores, Alabama paddle trip with Scott Hayden on Little Lagoon

Directions: Take route 59 south to Gulf Shores, Alabama. Turn right at the T intersection at the beach. Drive to the Pass. Parking, restroom facilities, natural beach put in. No cost.

Scott Hayden contacted the Mobile Bay Canoe and Kayak Club through Mr. Leatherbury following a websearch. Scott was coming down here for Spring Break from Indianapolis with his wife and sons and he brought his Nantucket sea kayak to do some paddling. Frank Leatherbury asked the club for a guide and I volunteered a couple days. Our first trip to Little Lagoon was something Scott and I jointly agreed upon. This location was the first club sponsored paddle I had done in May of last year, so I had some local knowledge. The weather was windy, but with a forecast for the wind to clock around to the northwest and west later, I had hoped it would be a downwind return. This was the first day of Daylight Savings Time.

We put in on soft white sand and paddled through the shallow water of the Pass. The Pass is a cut maintained by a small dredge to keep a waterway open between Little Lagoon and the Gulf of Mexico. We paddled north across Little Lagoon to the north shore hoping to take advantage of the lee shore. The homes on the north shore are less crowded than the beach side. At one home we saw a small boat at anchor and an ultralight aircraft on pontoons. We paddled on until we found the end of the developed beachfront. We landed at a point of land associated with the Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge. This is land in the natural state. We walked a bit on the shoreline to stretch and to look at hermit crabs drawing lines underwater as they pull their borrowed shells along. Around the point of land we could see white sand and tall green topped pines at the west end of the lagoon beckoning. Without knowing how hard the wind might be to paddle into, we kept going west, saying let's just see what is past this next point of land. The water here is quite shallow, 3 feet or so, and clear enough in the cool of the year to see through it to the bottom. Because the water is shallow the wind driven waves can't grow very high. And because it is an almost closed lagoon, no sea swell interferes with paddling fun!

We reached the western beach, about 5 miles straight line from our put in. A 30 foot dune of shining white sand rose up from the beach and offered a vantage point from which to see the whole length of the lagoon to the east. We could see the water of the Gulf of Mexico by looking south across the maritime forest. Looking north across length of the beach we saw the tall pines of the Refuge and a small motor boat leaving the beach. A walking trail is marked with signposts nearby. The trail follows the lagoon's south shoreline to the east where it ends at a gazebo vantage point to watch birds. Another leg of the trail looks like it heads south to the Gulf of Mexico. And then there are those dreaded signs: Private keep out.

The paddle back was all downwind running with half foot following seas alternating surging us forward and drawing us back again. Scott did some wild life photography. The loons were a tease. One would pop his head up and Scott would try to use the zoom capability of his camera and the loon would dive. We reached the Pass just as the sun dipped below the treeline. We stopped turned and took a photo or two of the upper limb of the sun going behind the trees. The parking lot was emptying of the last cars as we helped each other to rack our boats. It is a bit of a hike from the water to the road. We did the 12 mile paddle and photoshoot on the dune in about five hours total.

April 4, 2001
Gulf Shores, Alabama. Shelby Lake, Middle Lake and Little Lake

Directions: Drive on route 59 into Gulf Shores, Alabama. Turn left on route 80 into the Gulf State Park. This bypasses some congestion downtown. Put ins are available at the bridge on route 135 west of Lake Shelby, on 182 at Lake Shelby south side, and the bridge between Lake Shelby and Middle Lake and also in the park campgrounds, if you are a guest there.

The weather was still breezy, but the air was mild on Wednesday after Sunday's frontal passage. Scott Hayden, a visitor from Indianapolis wanted a guide to show him good places to paddle. Little Lake was our objective today. I asked Julie to lead this one since she's been there and done that and I have not. The three of us met at the bridge between Lake Shelby and Middle Lake. The put in is grass over sand so drive carefully. A few people were fishing here when I did the preview. When we put in at 3 p.m., we had the place to ourselves. The wind was up enough to keep the mosquitoes at bay on the put in but not on the take out at sunset. More about that later.
We paddled to the left under the bridge in a channel about 20 feet wide. The banks are covered with reeds and grasses. The water was calm with no current. We paddled easily until we entered Middle Lake.

Middle Lake is somewhat open water. Waves were not a problem but being exposed to the wind was work keeping the boats heading east in a north wind. We paddled past the campground on the north shore. The south shore looked undeveloped. Once in a while we could see a phone wire through the trees. I think it is remarkable that we saw just one osprey and no pelicans or herons. Small fishing boats passed us but they did not claim to be getting many fish.

At the east end of Middle Lake, Julie led us into a naturally winding channel, unlike the straight cut channel at Lake Shelby. This was rather pretty. The channel is not so narrow - 10 to 15 feet wide when we were there. The topographic map shows just a marsh connecting Middle and Little Lakes, not a navigable waterway. Once in the channel we did not see both lakes and generally we don't see the channel entrance from either lake either. When we exited the channel into Little Lake we saw a slightly round body of water with just two cottages on the north edge hidden by the trees. Gourd bird houses hung by the dock of one structure and a dock east of there had a dozen canoes lined up on their sides under the trees. We split up, each going to look at whatever caught our attention.

Scott, I think, was the first to spot a gator cruising on the surface. He does nature photography so he is on the lookout all the time. This was a little lizard about 4 feet long cruising slowly to the west. We got a little too close, 50 feet or so and he sank down tail first. We waited and shortly saw another slightly larger gator of perhaps 5 feet total length. I sprinted ahead and told Julie, I want to have the gator between you and me for a picture. She grinned, Great. She does not like gators much. Scott said something to Julie about holding this one down for him to photograph. Great.

An hour in Little Lake is enough to explore the shoreline so we headed out into the channel. Fishermen were really cordial to us and gave us no-wake speed when they saw us in the channel. The wind still was not helping much in Middle Lake but we came through OK. In the channel to Lake Shelby, the water was mirror smooth. Disturbing that calm surface seemed a shame because the reflected light was so nice. We paddled past the take out to see what there was to see at Lake Shelby.

The east end of the lake has a couple of islands. We paddled north along the longer of the two islands and passed between the two islands. Again we went our own way checking out our own interests. On the western, sunlit side of the big island, Scott found white egrets roosting in the low branches of trees on the island. He had a good close up position to film these birds with a telephoto camera. Unfortunately, I drifted down to him to see the birds too. When I was about 175 feet from Scott, the birds spooked and I took a picture of white wings flailing the air in front of Scott's boat. That was a good shot, Scott; sorry I spoiled your set up. We turned north looking for Julie. She was up in the reeds on the west side of the smaller island watching the sun going down and silhouetting the city of Gulf Shores. The three of us paddled together south towards the channel to our take out as the sky lit up with sunset colors. We were out on the bank, racking our boats about 7:15 in the twilight and feeding the mosquitoes. Mosquitoes say, " So many paddlers, so little time."