Making a list of favorite spots to paddle is easy, but any list is very subjective. Do you like quiet paddles on lazy backwaters, or do you want to power-stroke your way down a strong river? Is a few hours on the water enough, or do you relish the idea of spending a week away from civilization? Do you drive around with a kayak strapped to the roof of your SUV, or do you occasionally get out on the water and then only in a rented canoe?
Fortunately, there are options to suit all desires, but there’s no way this article can cover them all. When my husband and I became interested in paddling a few years ago, we knew what we wanted: relaxing, short trips with no pressure to paddle fast or long. We like to meander, appreciating the sunlight through the trees, the colors of the water. Since we do most of our paddling close to home in Baldwin and Mobile Counties in Alabama, this article will focus in these regions; but thanks to input from a few friends, I’ve added information on a few other popular paddles in Mississippi, should your travels take you that way.
• For those with their own boat, a visit to the beautiful town of Fairhope can easily be accompanied by a few paddle excursions. We like to launch into Mobile Bay at the Fairhope Pier and paddle north along the beaches and bluffs to where Fly Creek enters the Bay just past the Fairhope Yacht Club. We work our way past the docked sailboats and marina, past the small shrimp boat fleet, and continue upriver for about thirty to forty-five minutes (perhaps just past the Scenic Highway 98 bridge) before turning and retracing our strokes.
Last 4th of July, we had a great adventure. We put in around 7:30 pm from the beach at Pier Street in Fairhope and joined other kayakers (and many power boats) bobbing in the waves around the Fairhope Pier. (Good lights on your boat are essential!) We beached just north of the pier for a bit, then paddled back out for optimum viewing as the fireworks began. Afterwards, we paddled back at a leisurely pace, avoiding all the post-fireworks traffic.
• Fish River, southeast of Fairhope proper, offers paddlers several options, starting with a narrow, fast-flowing stream and ending wide and slow at Weeks Bay. When water levels are high, paddlers can put in at Bohemian Park (east on Fairhope Avenue about two miles past highway 181) and work their way downriver to Big Daddy’s Grill, located on the river, just off County Road 32. We also like to put in at Big Daddy’s, paddle upstream for an hour or so, then back for food and drink (and often live music) at the restaurant. Powerboats dominate downriver from Big Daddy’s, so I don’t recommend heading south from there by kayak.
• Fish River empties into Weeks Bay, and while this can be busy, particularly on weekends, there are good options for kayaks and canoes. Put in at the launch at Weeks Bay Reserve (just west of the US 98 bridge), and hug the shoreline going north or south. For a longer paddle, cut south across the Bay to the mouth of the Magnolia River and paddle all the way up past the “cold hole” in Magnolia Springs. There’s a small launch site about mid-river; but honestly it’s difficult to find and hard to maneuver with many stumps and branches clogging the waterway. Perhaps one day the City of Magnolia Springs will improve access to this beautiful river.
On our last trip, we discovered a new route from the Weeks Bay launch. We paddled north on Fish River, under the US 98 bridge, and turned in to a little inlet on our left that turned out to be a loop through the back of the Weeks Bay Reserve Foundation property and back out to the river a couple hundred yards or so above where we had entered.
• Graham Creek Nature Preserve, a city-owned park in Foley, opened in late 2010 and is a nice addition to the easy-paddle list. The park has a canoe/kayak launch ramp, hiking and bicycling trails, and picnic areas, so one can make a full day of it. On our last trip, a family with several kids, dogs, and multiple kayaks entered the water just before we did—they all seemed to have a great time. We paddled for an hour downstream to where the creek widens considerably before entering Wolf Bay. Graham Creek offers variety: upstream, civilization seems miles away but round a bend, paddlers come upon a lovely view of waterfront homes.
• As noted earlier, we like short paddles, so we’re not tempted by the two-hundred-mile long Bartram Canoe Trail, operated by the Alabama Department of Conservation. The trail, named for naturalist William Bartram who explored this area in 1775, has thirteen different routes, including three with floating campsites. If a trip like this floats your boat, learn more about available options at 5 Rivers Delta Center, located on the causeway between Spanish Fort and Mobile.
• Speaking of 5 Rivers, for those who travel without a boat, the best way to get on the water in Baldwin County is at 5 Rivers, where an outfitter, Delta Safaris, has canoe/kayak rentals. Visitors can choose to rent equipment and paddle around the lower Delta on their own or take more extensive guided trips to explore the tangle of rivers constituting this huge estuary.
• In Mobile County, the Dog River Scenic Blueway is a short but picturesque paddle of about seven miles from Dog River Park to Mobile Bay. Alas, this is part of an urban watershed, which means the river is sometimes filled with trash that washes out of streets and lots throughout Mobile. Be a friend to the river and take along a bag to pick up what you can.
• Another popular paddling site in Mobile County is at Chickasabogue Park, off I-65 north at Exit 13. The park offers great short paddle options or overnight wilderness camping along the creek. The park rents canoes daily, from 7 am to 4 pm.
• Brooks Park is a small city park in Chickasaw (off U.S. Highway 43) where concerted efforts are being made to attract paddlers. I’ve not paddled there, but I hear great things about it. According to my paddling friends, there are short and long routes, urban and wild, with creeks and lakes to explore. This 4th of July, the city is holding a fun paddle. A $15 admission includes the launch fee and a t-shirt. The paddle starts at 6 pm, giving paddlers about three hours on the water before a return to the park in time for live music and fireworks. (Details are expected closer to the date at cityofchickasaw.org.)
• About a half hour south of Hattiesburg, Black Creek meanders through the Desoto National Forest. Situated within the interior of the forest, Black Creek Canoe Rental in the town of Brooklyn provides a variety of trip options, ranging from a few hours to a couple of days. They rent canoes and kayaks and provide shuttle service for those who bring their own. Visit them online at BlackCreekCanoe.com.
• A few miles north of Hattiesburg, in Seminary, Okatoma Creek is popular with all ages. Okatoma Outdoor Post is a one-stop shop, providing rental canoes and kayaks, cabins, campgrounds, and a supply post.
• About twenty miles west of downtown Mobile, Alabama, just over the Mississippi line, Sunshine Canoe Rentals rents canoes and kayaks and provides shuttle service on the Escatawpa River. Natural tannins make for amber-colored water, which contrasts nicely with snow-white sandbars. Sunshine Canoes’ most popular trip is six miles, which can take three hours or all day, depending on how often you get out to play in the water.
For general information on paddling adventures in south Alabama, join the South Alabama Paddlers group: groups.yahoo.com/group/SouthAlabamaPaddlers
5 Rivers Delta Safaris (251) 259-8531 • 5rds.com Dog River Clearwater Revival dogriver.org Weeks Bay Foundation WeeksBay.org Bartram Canoe Trail outdooralabama.com/outdoor-adventures/bartram/index.htm Chickasabogue Park mobilecountyal.gov/living/parks_chickasabogue.html Big Daddy’s Grill (251) 990-8555 bigdaddysgrill.net Mississippi Black Creek Canoe Rental (601) 582-8817 • BlackCreekCanoe.com Okatoma Outdoor Post (601) 722-4297 • okatoma.com Sunshine Canoe Rentals (251) 367-4144 SunshineCanoeRentals.com