- PSA – This post, unlike the others I’ve done so far, has more to do with the story than the photos. It’s a good story, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading about the day we *almost died in a storm*. (only a slight exaggeration …..)
Last April, when we were still on altered work schedules due to the pandemic, we decided to take a couple days and float the Cahaba River starting directly behind my townhouse in Birmingham. I’m located in Hoover by the map below, right off of Lorna Rd, and we started just down from the red dot for Old Montgomery Hwy/Bains Bridge. We took Shannon’s truck and boat trailer to the Living River take out point (56 miles from my house) the night before. Important to note is that James Spann was predicting rain and possible thunderstorms over the next few days. Folks in Alabama know to listen to what this man says. We have all experienced hours in front of the TV watching to see where the tornadoes are located and waiting for the sirens. Many Alabamians have a “place of safety” with bicycle helmets in our homes, and we don’t play around when James Spann interrupts our regularly scheduled shows with his often intense weather reports. We knew to expect some rain on the 2nd day and we’d thought we may just hang around in the tent and at the campsite and let the rain pass. We were not in any hurry at all to get anywhere anytime soon.
At the time, we knew the river mileage before we set out, but as we had an “unlimited” amount of time to complete the trip, we had no set stopping points along the way. We’d planned to camp for a night or 2 and take our time.
There is not a great put-in spot behind my townhouse. But we were determined to do it. The access to the Cahaba river is about a 1/2 mile hike from the cul-de-sac at the end of my street, down the gas line right-of-way road that is blocked for vehicles. It’s a very nice walk, shown to me by my neighbor Louise, as a perfect dog walking trek. It is that, but as it isn’t the least bit flat, with several steep inclines, it’s not meant to haul canoes. We drove around for a good part of the afternoon seeking a canoe put-in that was accessible enough to be reasonable. We (and by we I mean Shannon) ended up lowering both boats down a steep hill by rope, behind some apartments. Shannon tied the boats together and floated them about a mile to the spot at the end of my gas company road/ path where we’d embark the following morning. We’d already searched out the spot to tie the boats overnight. It was un-inhabited by civilization, and involved 3-4 foot deep mucky sand that sunk us up to our shins.
The next morning when we woke up early to start the float, we had to haul every single bit of camping and canoeing gear that we planned to use for the next few days down that 1/2 mile hilly path, and it was no small task. All told I bet we each made 4 trips to carry coolers, food, camping gear, and fishing equipment. By the time we set out around 7am it felt every bit the major feat.
Once we started floating, it was absolutely magnificent. A beautiful day, a beautiful float, and the perfect socially distanced activity.
We floated at a nice, leisurely pace, barely picking up the paddles. We tied together for picnic lunch and breaks, and laughed and listened to music. We saw blue heron, and hundreds of birds. A few times we wondered out loud how far we’d gone, but we shrugged and said it didn’t really matter. Sometime in early afternoon we realized we’d hit the “Hwy 52 bridge” in Alabaster. This was the 12 mile mark of our 40 mile float. We got out and took a break and stretched our legs, scouting out a few sets of raccoon tracks in the sand. Shannon said, “if you’re ready to be done, now is the time to do it. This is the last take-out point for the next 30 odd miles or so. We are about to enter no man’s land”. I wasn’t in any way ready to be done. We were having the time of our lives! It was now about 2pm, so we figured it had taken us about 7 hours to go 12 miles = about 1.75mph.
South of the Hwy 52 Bridge, the landscape changed a good bit. Where the 12 miles north had run behind civilization, businesses, and neighborhoods, this section was void of any signs of life. The sun was still high in the sky, and we were still having a great time!
Around 5pm, I started to notice something distinct about the section of River we were on. It was clear that this section had been visited by some destructive storms. There were mangled trees at every turn, evidence of the reality of tornado season in Alabama. My thoughts turned to James Spann, and I could hear his voice on the TV warning the people in this area about the storms that had ripped these trees apart. I now refer to this as “the tornado section” of the Cahaba, and it must have been at around the 18 mile mark on our trip. We floated slowly on, and Shannon started looking for a spot for us to make camp for the night. As we were expecting rain, he wanted something higher up on the bank, to give the river plenty of room to rise. We finally settled in on a spot around 7pm, 12 hours from when we’d started out.
As Shannon started setting up camp, I got the fire together and got it going. We’d brought steaks to cook and by now we had the kind of hunger that only comes after 12 hours paddling the river.
Side note – We didn’t have a lot of daylight left once we set up camp. There *may have* been a stinging nettle situation in the outdoor latrine.
The spot where we camped was remote, but we both had phone service. We’d been in touch with our friends and family who suggested that we keep an eye on the weather. We knew to expect rain overnight, and possible thunderstorms in the morning. Shannon had outfitted us with a tarp over the tent, and he’d also dug a bit of a trench around the tent to direct standing water away. We fell asleep easily as it had been a long, satisfying day. Day 2 was a completely different experience , and I’ll tell you all about that next! Meanwhile, Here’s a preview of the weather that day: