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Sunday, May 26, 2002


Paddle Report:

A Place Far Away To Paddle -
THE SIPSIE RIVER OF NORTH ALABAMA

By Frank Laraway
_________________________

Early in the morning of May 20, 2002, I set out for north Alabama with all my paddling gear and kayak, to spend several days paddling the upper most part of the Sipsie River. I had paddled the same creek at even greater length a year earlier with Greg Plug and Marty Sullivan from the Orlando area of Florida. Greg is a trip leader for a number of the Sierra Club paddle trips as well as private tours of his own in Florida. I took one of his Sierra six day trips down the Suwannee River last year. Marty, his friend is also a skilled paddler and is a self-employed computer programmer with a physics degree. They are busy this year, having babies and working at their jobs, so they will not join me.

From southern Alabama, the area is reached by travelling up I-65 to the Cullman exit, then driving west on Highway 278 to Double Springs, then north up 195 to Rabbit Town and then only a few miles farther north of there to the Thompson Creek bridge put-in. The water to be traveled is mostly in the "Free State of Winston", the only county to secede from the Confederacy during the Civil War. However, the upper end of the creek is in Lawrence County.

Only a mile or so in the forest, one encounters Kinlock Falls on the side of the dirt road. This is a very beautiful, sloped fall that could be run by a very skilled kayaker with the proper boat and gear. It descends at about a thirty degree angle to a pool below. It is white water at its best and probably would be classified at 4 or 5, depending on water volume.

Arriving at the bridge at four in the afternoon, I spent an hour or so hiking up trails emanating from that area and then go into camp near the bridge. I am completely alone. I then ready my boat and gear down in the stream bed, covering it for the night for the trip the next day. There is a fee of $3 per night per car at the trail heads and landings.

In this area in the Bankhead National Forest much of the work that was done on bridges, roads and trails originally was done by the CCC Corps back in the 1930's. The bottom lands have been protected from timbering for sometime and thus appear to the eye as being virgin. Far above on the top of the cliffs and lands bordering this river canyon, timbering goes on and some of it is desolate. Presently, the area is suffering from a pine beetle infestation so in the non- protected areas, dead trees are being harvested. In the preserve, they cannot be cut for production and are allowed to rot there.

The trees that predominate are the poplar, hemlock, pine, large leaf magnolia and hickories and most tower up to the top of the forest cover eighty to one hundred feet. The cover is so complete that there is very little undergrowth unless the area has been damaged by wind storms or cut. But it is the rock formations that are so dramatic in this canyon. There are high and sheer cliffs of sand stone, hundreds of feet high that border the creek and its tributaries.

Up a hundred feet above the creek in elevation, one can find signs of previous stream rock erosion when the land was covered by inland seas millions of years ago. What one sees off the river by hiking, is quite different from what one sees paddling down in the river. Of course the ideal is to do a little of both, so at regular intervals it is wise to pull the boat up on the bank and do a little hiking. The cliffs and the trees are spectacular in character and beauty. Flowering now are the magnolias and hydrangea. The animal life is deer, otter, raccoon and beaver. The woods echo with the calls of tanagers and other birds.

On Tuesday morning early, I push off from the sand and gravel bar just above the bridge, my dog Fred follows me down the river on foot. Rains from only several days before have given Thompson Creek sufficient water where I can mostly float down without bottoming out on the rocky bars. Yet the water depth for several miles is only six to twelve inches deep.

The bottom and sides of the creek are mostly rock of various sizes. The hiking trail with its numerous camp sites, runs along one side of the creek, sometimes very near but other times, farther up the hill. The sites usually have camp fire pits, bordered by rock containments and seats.

About two miles down stream the waters from Hubbard and Quillan Creeks hit the Thompson and it becomes the Sipsie River. This juncture is called the "Eye-of-the-Needle" and is a ox bow in the river course. From here on down, there is considerable flow and volume and immediately, a series of rapids occur. One can hear their roar as they are approached. This is when the preserver comes off the deck of the boat and on to the body. Yet I have left my skirt at home, leaving me with an open cockpit, so I anticipate the worst as I approach these rapids.

On the most difficult section of the rapids, I go over a rocky drop of about three feet almost straight down that brings water over the bow of the kayak, into the cockpit. I have also forgotten my sponge so I use an old shirt to sponge out the water. Fred, my dog howls at the task of getting through the rapids, but he soon does and becomes very skilled at the feat of rock- stepping thereafter.

Near the rapids on the high bank are excellent scenic camp sites but it is still morning and too early to go into camp. I travel on down the river encountering from time to time some treacherous log jams.

My V-hull kayak is particularly unstable when passing over logs so it is tricky to get over logs or rocks where the water is shallow or impassible. My hull is loaded with gear that demands waterproof storage such as food, sleeping bag and camera. The top decks have tent and mattress exposed under the elastic ropes. More gear and water is stored in the cockpit behind the seat.

At about 4:30 in the afternoon, I watch for a good beach and camp site as I pass down the river. The sun disappears early behind the canyon walls. The banks have become very steep so it is difficult to find both a good site and place to dock the boat at the water's edge. When I find a satisfactory spot, I pull the boat well up into the rocks at the site and take the usual precautions about covering and tying up the boat for the night. It takes a number of trips to get the gear up the bank and to the camp site. By mere chance, I find myself on the camp site of a year ago.

There is always the nightly routine of finding a good place to put a tent, devoid of slope, rocks and poison ivy. Mine is away from the camp fire to avoid spark damage to the tent. There is plenty of firewood around the camp site due to recent wind storm damage of trees. Fred is content to have a rest from his swimming and walking the river.

At first's light the next morning, I get up early to break camp. It is quite cold, so cold that I must constantly warm my finger tips by holding them to my throat. I attempt to utilize work gloves while rolling up my sleeping bag, mattress and tent but that does not work. It takes me about an hour to get all my gear repacked and back in and on my boat. I am layered down in clothing to keep warm at this early hour and gradually remove layers as the sun comes up warm and clear. It is a beautiful morning and paddling is invigorating.

Huge boulders the size of a small house have rolled into the river at various places increasing the scenic character of the river. I speculate that the huge rocks have rolled down from the cliffs above, being shaken loose by earth quakes that rattled this area in a distant past. Most of the rocks are well rounded, indicating that they have weathered and eroded for quite some time.

At the bottom end of my trip, I encounter some very challenging log jams, due to the recent high water and wind storms occurring last week. The worst of these is one fifty feet across and ten feet high, impossible to pass over or through. So I beach the boat the best I can on a very steep slope and get out and search for a path through the woods. As I find a path of least resistance, I mark the way by breaking the limbs of small trees. Returning to the boat and removing minimal deck gear, I pull the boat up the bank with the bow line, drag it though the woods, up other banks and then let it down the steep bank on the other side of the jam with my stern line. Again, the V-hull makes this task tricky without having the boat over turn. I make it back in the cockpit, headed downstream with a sense of relief and accomplishment that I have mastered log jam passages.

I can hear the trucks and cars on the highway as I approach the Highway 60 bridge and take out. I carefully maneuver my boat in behind a set of huge rocks where the river is pinched into a small passage running very swiftly. It has been my plan to conceal my boat here out of sight from the bridge and leave my dog tied to a small tree on a long line, amidst the rocks. No sooner than I do this, he starts howling and soon joins me, walking down the trail to the bridge. He has wrapped his long leach around a tree several times and pulled out of his collar.

At the bridge is a fee-park that straddles the creek, both sides being connected by a secondary bridge and walkway. The canoe take-out is up the steep banks on the west side of the river. I immediately get my dog to seek the shade of the woods near the highway where I start hitch-hiking to get a ride back to my truck at Thompson Creek, some sixteen miles away.

It takes me about thirty minutes to get a ride to the end of Highway 60 above Rabbit Town. My benefactor, after passing me and crossing the bridge headed west, backs back down the highway to give me a ride. I have carried my red life jacket with me to set me off as a boater. He is also, and this is why he chances the risk to pick me up. We carry on pleasant conversation about boating, rafting on the Oconee River and his knowledge of the Bankhead Forest for the six miles to where he lets me off at my turn in the road.

There is absolutely no traffic on this stretch of the road so I set off walking, hoping I can find someone out in their yard. After about a mile of walking I find a trailer with two trucks in the yard and I approach to a barking dog. A man comes to the door and I am able to persuade him to take me down to my truck, he says for nothing but I give him ten dollars for the ten miles to the put-in. We discuss local conditions, the virgin poplar tree location and information about the forest.

I am back to the Forest Service Park where my boat is hidden by 2:00 p. m. I hike down the forest trail to my boat amidst the rocks and find my dog Fred waiting for me there. All my gear is still there, including my expensive camera. I then paddle the boat down through the rapids to the take-out and begin the routine of unloading gear to the truck up the bank and then pulling the boat to where the truck is. I am loaded and checked out by 3:00 p. m. and we strike out for home. It is an uneventful drive except for dozing off to sleep from time to time. After the 380 mile drive, I arrive home at Fish River by 10:30 that night. It has been a challenging paddle to see again some beautiful country and paddle a river filled with rock rapids.