Tuesday, May 22, 2012

the river is wild

Protip: you can always click on these pictures to make them larger.

We (Hodge and I) put our kayaks in the water at 12:30 PM, just after a lunch of sandwiches and granola bars. Had we known what was ahead of us, we'd have packed & ate a lot more food, and wouldn't have left our grill in his truck.

We had a 15+ mile trip ahead of us that we assumed would only take a few hours.  We knew that as long as we averaged 4MPH, we would finish around 4 or 4:30 PM.  What we didn't count on was how shallow the river was going to be.  At times depths would reach 5-6 feet, and at other times, the times we had to carry our gear, the water wouldn't make it past our ankles.  It's not a stretch to say we had to get out of our kayaks and drag/carry them 100 times.  This is not an exaggeration, if anything it may be an underestimation.  
In addition to the times we had to get out and drag everything we'd brought with us, there were another 100 times where we were too stubborn to get out of our boats.  We pushed and pushed with our paddles while we were stuck on sandbanks, essentially turning our kayaks into gondolas.  Over the course of an afternoon, this would eventually wear us out.

Hodge "Gondoling" down the river.

At 3:00, an unexpected thunderstorm rolled through, thoroughly soaking any dry areas left on our bodies.  We were at least smart enough to keep our tents/sleeping bags stowed away in dry bags.  Around 4:30, I pulled out the GPS, checked our maps, and realized we weren't even halfway to the end point, the place we had all of our food and remaining supplies.  If we were going to make it by nightfall, we needed to paddle faster.

Around 6:00 our arms had turned to rubber and we had no idea how much further down the "river" we needed to go to get to the truck.  The water was as clear as any we'd ever seen.  If there was something below our boats, we could see it.  We saw copperheads, fish, turtles and birds all along the river, but we never saw another person.  After 7 hours of continuous paddling we began to wonder if we had taken a wrong turn, perhaps we had branched off into another fork and were lost somewhere in Bankhead.  But there was nowhere to go but downstream.

You can see just how shallow the river was.

One of the many areas we had to get out and drag our gear.

By 8:30, it was getting pretty dark, and dangerous to portage.  One step in the wrong direction could result in a broken ankle. We had to make a decision to camp, or continue on in the dark.  After weighing our options, we agreed that continuing on would be a mistake.  We found a place to set up camp, tied our kayaks off, and tried our best to dry out.  One piece of information I wish we had known about the Sipsey beforehand is there are no places to camp.  It's a river that's cut a gash through the North Alabama limestone and created canyon walls anywhere between 50 & 100 feet high.  The campsite we settled for, was a flat rock jutting out onto the edge of the river.  It was flat because most of the year, water flows over and smooths it out.  However, since the water level was so low, it was exposed enough to set up camp.  It was just big enough to for a pitched tent to fit, and only inches from the water.  If the water level rose in the middle of the night, which was a real possibility given the thunderstorms that had passed to our north, we risked waking up soaking wet and losing all our gear.  We laid out our clothes to dry overnight, climbed inside the tent, and attempted to sleep.

Steep canyon walls.

Nope, can't camp here.

With humans usually being in short supply, the local bullfrog population had no reservations about approaching us, or giving us an impromptu concert.  If I had to guess, this particular breed of bullfrog was prone to vices such as smoking because they were extra hoarse, and extra loud.  Sleep finally came around 11 and lasted until midnight.  Once you finally figure out a way to comfortably lay on a rock, it becomes uncomfortable, and you toss and turn all night, and you listen to bullfrogs sing about flies and crickets.  I flopped all around the bottom of the tent until 5:15 the next morning.  It was one of the longest nights I can ever remember.

At 6AM, after all of our gear was packed, I located my clothes.  They were as wet as they were the night before, and it was 20 degrees cooler outside.  I hadn't packed a change of clothes because I had assumed we'd get back to the truck before we made camp.  This proved to be a bad decision on my part.  I had to will myself to put on soaking wet clothes on a 59 degree morning, wade through the water and paddle an unknown distance on virtually no sleep and no energy.  It was awful.

We set off downstream, and much to our dismay, found deeper, faster flowing waters.  It was the easiest mile and a half of kayaking I've ever done.  This is where we should have put in to begin with.  It was frustratingly easy.  We pulled into the sandy beach where we'd parked, dragged our gear and kayaks up a 100 foot incline, loaded up and headed out.

My only real regret is not taking enough pictures.  Everything was so wet, and I was afraid of ruining my phone.  Reading over this, and describing it to other people, it sounds miserable.  But I can't wait to go back.  This time 20+ miles, and with more people tagging along.