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Tuesday, June 25, 2002

Paddle Report: Escambia River Paddle - Gut-Busting Log Jamming and Clay Chutes
by Frank Laraway

Jan Hart of the West Florida Canoe Club, led a paddle camping trip on the upper Escambia in Alabama on the weekend of June 21-23. She was kind enough to let me come along, though I had never paddled with them before.

After traveling the 70 miles from Fish River, I rendezvoused with the five others of our group at the Flomaton exit on I-65 north. From there we drove 5 miles further north, turning west at Barnett Crossroads, then on to a bridge put-in on the Big Escambia. The shuttle of cars was very complicated. Several of us drove back to an I-65 restaurant to leave our cars parked, while another car was driven down to the take out some 15 miles down river.

We all got off from the put-in about 2:00 p. m. We floated in relatively low water but in a swift current. All of the others had canoes, loaded down with cargo. They traveled in luxury: tables, chairs, grilles, uncooked foods, big tents and ice chests. My kayak carried the minimum: tent and mattress outside on the top deck under the elastic cords. My food stocks consisted of water in small soft drink bottles, tucked in the narrows of the boat hull, sandwiches, crackers, trail mix and cans of fish and beans. There is obviously a big difference in camping life style of the canoeist and kayaker, due to their differences in cargo capacities.

The most common characteristic of this river all the way down is the gravel. There is gravel everywhere, even sometimes five feet up on the bank. This creates a lot of gravelly, shallow places that do not channel easily in a flood, so there is a lot of bottom dragging by our boats. Between the low water and the gravel, this creek is very wearing on both our boat hulls and our paddles.

Then there are the log jams. They are particularly numerous where the land has been denuded by clear-cut logging. Generally all the pines have been taken all the way to the bank, if they have not already fallen across the stream. The few evergreens that are left along the bank are naked to winds and then they also go over into the water, encouraged by eroding flood waters. So we had some thirty challenging log jams to get heavy canoes through, over, around and across, all the way down the nine miles to the I-65 bridges. It was hard going to that point.

The first night, we stopped well above I-65 to camp on a gravelly sand bar. Most of the others had free standing tents so they camped on the gravel. I was forced to camp up on the higher bank where I could drive my stakes for my small tent. We had plenty of fire wood to make a nice bonfire to sit around and talk into the night. There were no mosquitoes but there were several light rains in the night.

For birds, we were seeing herons, vulture, crows and some song birds. Tanagers were scarce, heard but not seen. Leading well ahead of the crowd with a more agile and fast kayak, I also saw one turkey.

The trees on this section of the river were mainly magnolia, gum, poplar and various oaks. The pines had all been cut, except for those that had fallen across the river, and these were particularly troublesome to cross with our heavy cargoes. White cedars were scarce also but some were in the log jams. At times, some of us attempted to cut them out of the jams to get across but it was difficult sawing near and in the water.

The geological sequences of the coastal plane can all be seen as we pass down river: limestone at the top, then gravel, then silty clays, then red clays and then white potters clay. It had sometimes turned to rock where it occurred high on the banks and thus was exposed to the air. Potters clay became the most prevalent feature of the river bed for the last five miles of our run.

On Saturday, we had a leisurely breakfast and got off the gravel bar about 9:00. The log jams finally ceased to occur just below I-65, the stream got deeper, the gravel became less bothersome and the clear cut banks ceased, so the woods were prettier. In this lower part of the river, the ty-ty and white cedars dominated along the banks as they do in lower Baldwin County. Everything was prettier and more inviting.

About two miles below the I-65 crossing, we came to the Sardine Bridge Landing where County Road 45 crosses the Escambia. This is a popular swimming hole for many, especially teenagers. They are all over the beaches, out on the clay shoals and up on the sandy banks. One of our group decides to take out at this point and wait for a later pick up to go back to his car.

While three canoes go on down river, I lingered awhile at this swimming hole to swim and to swing-dive from the rope swing with the boys. The others have got ahead of me by about half a mile so I go on down river as fast as I can. This area of the stream is full of clay chutes (about 6 feet wide in some places) providing a rapid push down stream. Catching up with the others, I find them body surfing the clay rapids in life vests. We linger at this lower chute for a while to swim. There is much more trash of all sorts on this portion of the river.

Another couple in our group, go on down river to the take out and thus end their paddle after the first day. They will take Jan's jeep back to their car on the expressway and return it to the take-out, on their way home.

Three of us went on down river, searching for a suitable camp site for the night. We find a site not far above the river crossing of the gas line and the take-out. I set my tent up on the bank under the trees and the women camp on the gravel beach. We have grilled hamburgers, rice and other foods under the tent in a drizzling rain. Later, we get a camp fire going out on the gravel bar. Rain again visits us during the night but our tents keep us dry.

Next morning I go back in the woods to hike and explore several miles up and down river while the women sleep in. We all help each other to break camp and get our stuff to our boats, getting off the bar about 10:00 a. m. We come to the take out in no time at all. It is a very large gravel/sand beach high above the river. Jan drives her jeep down almost to the beach and we load all our cargo and boats on the vehicle. We put the two canoes and the kayak on the roof and tie them down in several places.

We then take a fast but convoluted route back to the restaurant on the expressway, where our other cars are parked. We pass over the Sardine bridge and the swimming hole that we stopped at with our boats. After our boats and equipment are reloaded to our separate vehicles, we have a late breakfast at the restaurant and then head our different ways home.

This paddle location and the put-ins are about 70 miles from Fairhope. The leg from the Sardine bridge down with its clay chutes is worth the drive but not the portion above I-65. Lifting boats over thirty log jams is a fatiguing gut-buster. It was a good trip nevertheless.

Fish River, Alabama