(State #6/50) I got a late start on the Yellow River. Pulling off the road, I drove beneath the CR 4 bridge early in the evening. There was scattered evidence of, presumably, teenage partying — beer cans, cigarette packages, 40 ounce gas station cups and old campfire scars. I loaded up in full view of the highway. A woman with the Conecuh NF said my car should be fine there, but I grew nervous as person after person drove over that bridge, rubbernecking all the way. Surely, I was paranoid. They’re just gawking because you’re dressed like an idiot. No one here, no one anywhere, covets your Focus, I told myself. To assuage my fears, I stashed the car between a patch of poison ivy and several faded Natural Light boxes. With the Focus hidden from the prying eyes of Southern Alabama, I got on the river.
I worked up a good sweat canoeing upstream, fighting the current. The Yellow River, over the first mile, was a wider, less attractive version of the Black Creek in Mississippi; there was more erosion and unsightly cuts along its banks. But, perhaps that was an unfair comparison. After all, the Yellow was still a clear, swift moving, blackwater stream with white sand as pure as Pensacola. Wide buttressed cypress trees and water oaks lined the banks, while magnolias and pines filled in the gaps higher up the bank. The river action shaped the sandy bottom into attractive patterns and the evening sun glinted off the riffles and snag-laden runs.
I kept paddling upstream, racing daylight. Okay, around this next bend, start looking for camp. I told myself. I kept an eye on the western facing tree line, looking for sunshine on the canopy. Once that disappears, you’ve got 40 minutes till dark. I thought. Besides just finding a camp, I wanted to set up my tent, build a fire and look around before nightfall — I decided it’s far less spooky that way.
I did just that; I found several good sandbars and picked the middle one, not too big, not too small. Once at Camp Goldilocks, I scouted the best place for the tent and a fire. Timing myself, I pitched a tent in 7 minutes (I’ll hold for applause…). I brought one large piece of driftwood in the canoe from another bank and gathered more wood. Daylight growing dim, I pulled the canoe up next to the tent, a good 5-6 feet above the waterline.
I lit the fire as the stars blinked to life. Satisfied, I opened my final Shiner Bock can from the ice-less cooler. Enjoying my lukewarm beer, I wrapped a month-old potato in foil and threw it in the coals. I hadn’t cooked one like that since Boy Scouts so I tried to recall how hot and long it needs to cook — the answer is very hot and quite a while. I fried up summer sausage and added chucks of gouda cheese, salt, pepper, chili flakes and Cholula hot sauce to make my Alabama loaded potato. Despite the crunch of ash and sand, it was glorious.
Though over a mile upstream, I could hear trucks on the highway. Thinking of my car/roof rack, I figured I could hear the alarm go off at that distance. Now, I’m not sure what I would have done if I had heard my car’s cries. “No! Stop! Leave her alonnne!” I suppose I’d have shouted into the night with utter futility.
Closer to camp, I heard loud splashes from the black water river. I scanned the surface with my flash-a-light and swore I saw red glowing eyes from the river. Alligators? I thought. “Well, any body of water south of the Mason Dickson line is liable to have alligators in it.” The Forest Service woman explained by phone. I knew they lived on that river, but in lower numbers. I’m sure it’s just beavers or something. I told myself. After dinner I consolidated the wood, hoping to still have coals in the morning. Then, I constructed my alarm system by stacking dirty pots and pans on the food bags, brushed my teeth, looked at the North Star and crawled into the tent. I fell asleep without turning a page in my book.
I awoke with sunlight hitting the side of my tent. Crows, woodpeckers and songbirds called and the stream added trickling noises. Dogs barked in the distance and a rooster crowed from some far off farm. Trucks droned from the highway. As spring in the South goes, the morning turned from chilly to pleasant to hot in about 30 minutes. I made eggs on the smoldering fire, boiled water and broke camp. I continued upstream.
A half mile before my turn around, the Yellow River transformed. White sand bars vanished and high banks, encased by cypress roots and knees, grew on each side of the river. All trees grew taller, overarching the water and providing shade. The river was shallow, clear and yellow-bottomed. I was enamored and felt bad for judging the entire waterway by the first section the evening before. I wondered if all rivers turn pretty if you paddle up far enough.
I turned around about 3.5 miles upstream of the bridge. Canoeing back I noticed a small black object in the water. I had passed over hundreds of similar dark shapes on the Yellow River — they all ended up being patches of decaying leaves on the bottom or, more common than not, logs and sticks. But, as I canoed over this one, I detected movement. I did an abrupt U-turn in the canoe and went back to the spot. In 3 feet of water, I saw a yearling alligator swimming along the bottom with that distinctive reptilian, Godzilla motion. I had never seen one swimming in clear water. Confused by my canoe, the little guy surfaced long enough for me to get a picture. Then I panicked, thinking I was missing good GoPro footage. As I fumbled for my dry bag, the baby gator panicked, dove and swam off. I watched him disappear into deeper waters and thought, I guess those were alligator eyes last night.
With the noon heat bearing down, I went for a swim 15 minutes later; I stuck to clear, knee-high water. I almost jumped into a deeper pool, but thought of that alligator’s mother, shuddered, and returned to my canoe. I took out at 1 p.m. and found my Focus untouched. A truck passed over the bridge, slowing to gawk. A minute later, a tall, older man with a gut pinned in by overalls walked down to the landing. “You need any help? I wanted to make sure you weren’t in any trouble.” He said. I thanked him and told him no. We spoke for a few minutes about the river. “Well sir, travel safe.” He said before letting loose a dixie cup’s amount of tobacco spit into the bushes. I watched the man saunter up the hill to his truck. So that’s why the river is yellow, I decided.
River Stats and Fun Facts:
- Yellow River, Alabama (4/18-19/17)
- Weather: Warm, Sunny with 10% Cloud Cover
- Miles canoed: 7
- Songs Sung on Water: Alabama by Neil Young, Oh Susannah and, yes, a little Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd
- Launch/Takeout Point: CR 4 Bridge (31.009928, -086.537236)
- Camped: A night on a high white sand bank (31.032066, -086.53741)
- Thanks to the Conecuh National Forest staff for advice on the phone.
- Wildlife Spotted:
- Birds: Swallow-tailed Kite, Cardinal, Crows, Great Blue Heron, a pair of ducks and vultures.
- Reptile/Amphibians: 1 baby alligator! Tiny frogs, many turtles and a gray, banded snake (on highway out).
- Noted Species: Black Bear, River Otters, Beavers and Alligators.
- Dominant trees: Many species, but Bald Cypress, Water Oaks, Southern Magnolias, Sweetgum, slash pines and a Palmetto
- Ecoregion: Southeastern Plains, (65f) Southern Pine Plains and Hills
- Current Threats: Erosion, causing mass-bank wasting (what I noticed near the bridge) and excessive sedimentation.
- Trash collected: lots of beer cans, plastic bottles, cardboard beer boxes, cigarette packaging and styrofoam cups