Guest Blog: Bartram Canoe Trail
Editor’s Note: Thomas V. Ress is a freelance writer based in Athens, Alabama. His work has appeared in The Huntsville Times, Alabama Heritage Magazine, and the Encyclopedia of Alabama, among many other outlets. Tom is also an avid traveler and an accomplished outdoorsman, and a member of Conservation Alabama. He has generously shared this post about his trip down the Bartram Canoe Trail, which is preserved through the Forever Wild Land Trust in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. For more of Tom’s work, visit his blog.
I’m well into my second day of exploring the wilderness of Alabama’s delta country and I’ve not heard one automobile, seen one condo, or caught so much as a whiff of exhaust fumes. Although I have run into a handful of fellow canoeists paddling along the meandering watery paths of the Bartram Canoe Trail, the feeling of isolation and wildness is overwhelming. I never imagined that in this age of sprawling subdivisions and pervasive second homes there was such a large chunk of Alabama land that still remains natural and untouched.
The Bartram Canoe Trail is actually a network of multiple sinuous passageways that snake through the 250,000 acre Mobile-Tensaw Delta, a huge area of swampy bayous and bottomland full of towering cypress and tupelo trees garlanded with wispy necklaces of Spanish moss. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has developed twelve trails that offer a wide variety of human-powered boating trips. Six of the trails accommodate short 4-8 hour day trips. Six more offer longer overnight trips of up to 3 days.
Hiking through the tangled undergrowth of the delta would be a miserable experience so paddling the open waterways weaving through the delta’s heart is about the only way to explore the area. Canoeing or kayaking through this labyrinth is not as daunting as it may sound. A slight current moves the dark, tea-colored water through mazes of flaring 70-foot high cypress trees, thick fields of skillet-sized lilypads, and head-high palmetto and sawgrass. The paddling is leisurely, much of the time you are cocooned by a cathedral-like ceiling of arching trees, and the trails maps are easy to follow so no worries about getting lost and starving deep in the bowels of the delta.
While the day trips are an excellent way to get a taste of the Mobile-Tensaw, an overnight trip really gives you time to immerse yourself in the beauty of the area and slow your body clock down. For overnight trekkers, campsites are strategically placed along the trails. Given the wet and swampy nature of the land, these designated sites are the only dry options for campers so be sure to time your paddling to make it to your designated stop before dark. Some of the campsites are land-based but the best campsites are covered, raised platforms that accommodate up to six persons and are anchored along the trails.
To literally get your feet wet on the Bartram Canoe Trail, try your hand at Dead Lake Island Trail, the shortest of the overnight trails. It is only 3.5 miles from the launch point to the platform where you will spend the night, allowing plenty of time for exploration. It takes about three hours of easy boating—with frequent stops to gawk at beavers, mink and other critters scampering through the snarl of vegetation along the trail—to reach the platform. Set up your tent before paddling out into the surrounding sloughs and swamps to check out the hordes of herons, bitterns, egrets and other birds that can be seen wading through the shallows for their supper. Enjoy a pleasant evening meal back at the platform and watch the sunset over the trees. Camping on one of these raised structures is a unique experience. Take a balmy night, a black sky milky with a gazillion stars, a full moon silhouetting spooky cypress and tupelo trees, boisterous frogs croaking and splashing in the shadows, and maybe an alligator or two lurking just out of sight. In the middle of all this is your tiny, ten-by-twenty-foot piece of dry refuge–a lonely outpost in the vastness of wild Alabama. Your morning alarm clock will likely be the squawking of wading birds near your platform. The second day will find you backtracking to your original launch point. This trail snakes through one of the heavier utilized areas of the delta so you may so you may encounter some motorized boat traffic but it’s still a pleasant trek.
The best times to go are spring or fall (only fools and Yankees dare spend a summer night in the heat and mosquitoes of the southern delta). Spring is my favorite time to go–the lilypads are alive with bright yellow and white flowers, the birds are nesting and the gators haul out to sun themselves on muddy banks, trying to stir from their winter torpor. Come to think of it, the Bartram Canoe Trail is a good way for humans to shake off winter.
Details: The trails are accessible from various put-in points around the town of Stockton, Alabama, which is north of Bay Minette on Highway 59. Information on the trail is available here. Aside from the occasional alligator (which inhibits any urges you may have to swim or wade), watch for poisonous snakes and the usual stinging and biting insects.
(This article originally appeared in The Huntsville Times)