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Thursday, March 27, 2003

Paddle Report: French's Lake Part 2
March 25, 2003
by Matt Darring

A total of four paddlers in four kayaks launched from French's Lake Kiosk in the northern delta going west at 1:15 PM. The area is quite beautiful right now. The dogwoods are in bloom, as are many native azaleas. Also, the water was a lot higher then last time, but still about 3 feet below the high water mark on the trees.

As we paddled east, we somehow paddled off the main channel into the flooded timber and away from French's Lake (Majors Creek). This is kind of an interesting area to navigate anyway, as the creeks flow out of the hills and into either Tensaw Lake or the Alabama River. We came out into a clearing, which we soon realized was a flooded road. We paddled along the road until we came to a bridge, which was elevated and dry. We decided to paddle on to the creek the bridge was crossing, which at this time was flowing south.

After a short time on the creek we got the feeling we were heading in the wrong direction, so we went back to the bridge. We ate some food there, and decided to head upstream. So we portaged around the bridge, because the water was too high to go under the bridge. Once we were on the main channel of the creek we saw a Bartram Canoe Trail sign, which was reassuring. However, we didn't know which part of the trail we were on. We paddled up this creek, which had a very stiff current.

After paddling up the creek for a little over an hour we reached a junction with a large waterway. At first we thought this was a connector waterway, but after a scouting paddle around the bend we realized this was the Alabama River. This meant that we had missed Majors Creek, our ticket home. We went back down the creek a bit and found the mouth of Majors Creek, which was flowing in the opposite direction of the creek we had launched into.

We paddled down Majors, trying to remain on the main channel, and not get into the flooded timber. At one point there was a small break in the natural levee, and the force of this water sucked my boat into the flood plain. It was amazing how much power it had.

At a couple of places where the creek became confusing, we would search around for the channel. At one point, George went to left scouting, while Bruce, Tate, and I stayed together. We were still in shouting distance when George said he had found the channel, and then shortly after that he didn't respond to our calls. It was getting late, and I have to admit that I was getting a little nervous.

Bruce, Tate, and I paddled along a natural high ground through a rather beautiful area of woods. There were night herons and squirrels in the trees, then we came to a flooded area with no underbrush. It was a huge stand of cypress, tupelo, and gum trees, and on the high ground were dogwoods, azaleas, and some other plants I don't know. I figured the high ground would take me to a major waterway. As the high ground began to steadily drop in height, I noticed a large creek ahead. Just as I saw that I saw George's kayak paddling along. It was French's Lake. We popped out about a quarter mile from the launch. We took out at about 5:45 PM.

This was a great paddle. A little nerve-racking, but great. The best part was that no one freaked out, or got upset, which doesn't really help the situation. I was probably the most nervous of all of us. Everyone contributed to our getting home. We worked together to find where we were on the map, and what was the best course of action. It was a great lesson that staying calm and working together is always the best plan. I also learned more about reading creeks and waterways then I have on any other paddle.

Thursday, March 06, 2003

Paddle Report: Pelican and Sand Islands
March 4, 2003
by George Borne

The original plan was scratched because the Escatawpa River was at flood stage. The morning sun never showed either, but the weather man promised a decent day. Promises, promises.

So the plan was changed to Dauphin Island. Meet at public beach near fishing pier; short walk to the water there, but 2 feet of shorebreak suggested we take the longer walk, and put in at Isle Dauphine Country Club.

Bruce (and his bag of cookies) arrived at public beach parking lot just as I was walking back over the dunes. I told him about the shore-break (even though I knew he had heard it when he opened his car door). He brought up the subject of the fog. Visibility was less than a mile. With my tongue-in-cheek, I assured him it would be burnt off in a little while. So we drove around to the golf club. It's about 120 yards to the water from the parking lot, only the last 100 feet is sand so it's not bad. A good little leg stretch before the paddle.

So we've got both boats on the beach and I notice the visibility has gone to about to about 3 miles (nothing like a little positive thinking) (or luck). Good beach to launch from, no break there.

We slid off the beach and paddled over to the north side of Pelican Island. Most of the island is only about a foot or two above water with a few areas having grass and sand dunes along it's 4 mile length. Most of the time we were paddling we could look across the island and is the waves breaking on the south side -- about a 3 to 4 foot swell peeling off to the right and left.

The wind was NE about 5-10 so the chop was breaking on the small bars on the north side. I was getting a chance to test my hatches. Most of the time I paddle without a skirt but I was glad I had one then. The visibility was up to about 6 miles (we could see the lighthouse) and the wind was swinging around to the east. And it was getting pretty choppy.

Bruce was having a problem with his skirt leaking, so we landed at the mouth of a little lagoon. He put another layer of clothes on and we decided to walk over to the gulf side and beach-comb. I don't know when the reddish egret showed up, but he was standing by our boats when we walked away. There wasn't much to see on the gulf side though; the tide was coming in and it looked like the last tide had washed completely over the outside beach into the lagoon. There are usually a lot of nice shells -- sand dollars, razor clams, angel wings, and lots of "big ridged clams" (or whatever you call them).

We walked back to the boats and the egret was still there watching our boats for us. Nice locals. We got back in the water and continued paddling toward the south-east end of the island. After about 10 minutes of paddling, Bruce asks me "if wasn't there a local law requiring people to have fun today." I was concerned. Had I failed as a trip leader, was my only other fellow-paddler not having fun? His skirt had been leaking, was he soaking wet and freezing? I asked, "Are you not having fun?"

"Oh yes," he says. "I was just feeling a little guilty about playing on a week-day."

"Well I guess I am too." (We got over it.)

We found another little lagoon mouth near the end of the island and went ashore one more time. Bruce opened his bag of goodies and offered me lunch, but I declined. I went for a walk around the lagoon over to the surf-side but there was nothing much there. On the very end of the island there was a sand dune big enough to support a sparse population of sea-oats. At the base of the dune there was small committee of pelicans, probably discussing the less than perfect weather. The weather had not
improved in the last hour. The fog was returning and would occasionally become a wind-driven mist.

We had seen several birds that day but few were flying. Only when we paddled into them faster than they could swim away did we see anything fly. We saw some kind of black and white duck but according to my bird book they don't exist. I've got to get another bird book. There were large rafts of what looked to me like red-breasted merganser. (I wouldn't argue with any one about it, though). They were a fairly large duck, the male having very distinctive black-and-white body markings with a punk-rocker looking hood.

This is a great place to paddle during the summer. When the bugs are too bad inland, you can come here and get sun-burnt. It's probably the most deserted beach in Alabama. And the cleanest.

Well there is nothing left to now but to paddle back to the golf club. When I get back to our boats, Bruce asks me with a wide smile, "Are we going that way now?" pointing back toward the club. He seems to be looking forward to the paddle downwind. But he has a rudder. I don't.

The is wind blowing 10+ with short squalls blowing much harder. Some of big sets of chop are almost head high. We got a couple of really good pushes when we first started out. We are surfing as much as paddling. What a ride. I think I made 3 strokes on my left during the whole 40-minute adventure back to the club. The rest of the time, I had the left tip of my paddle in my left hand, sweeping on the right. When I started getting tired I would use only the back half of my stroke in a draw, keeping the bow pointed at the club and letting the wind and waves take me there. The big chop started to slack off about halfway back. It was still pretty choppy though, and the little wind squalls were maintaining a presence. The visibility was closing back in behind us. I was a little concerned that our take-out point might be a little rougher than when we left it. We were approaching the beach, and it was still pretty choppy. But someone was looking out for us. In the last 200 feet to the beach, the chop calmed to almost nothing. There was just enough wave action to push you up onto the beach (instead of rolling you onto the beach------I hate those sandy wipe-outs!) There was a point of land about 1/4 mile east us that was blocking the chop, allowing us to exit so gracefully. As I got out of my boat, I was wondering how much of my allotment
of good luck I had used up and how much I had left.

Bruce and I were a little drained from the paddle but it was a good fatigue. Being tired from paddling is a good tired, especially when the conditions are a little challenging. You experience an awareness then that we have so much trouble maintaining in our day to day living.

Somehow the boats got back to the cars, loaded and tied-down. (The view from this parking lot is great, it looks like it was put there to see the Gulf from.) Bruce turned around and pointed out across Pelican Bay and said "That's where we were," as the fog moved back in and the visibility returned to less than a mile. Maybe it's more than just a local law we were supposed to have fun on that day.


P.S. We seemed to be very welcome at the golf club, launching from the beach and using the parking lot. I feel if we patronized the little bar and grill there occasionally, no-one would have a problem with us using their parking lot and beach.