Early Saturday morning, on a day trip organized by the Cahaba River Society, a group of committed naturalists, hardy outdoorsmen and women, and a metro something photographer trundled off I-59 from Bham and turned down Hwy 5 past Centreville towards Selma to the Perry Lakes and Barton’s Beach Parks.
I didn’t know that these self-sufficient Thoreaus and Emersonians pack their own lunch for the trip. Since I was expecting a catered box-lunch affair (after all, it cost 20 bucks), I had to purchase a Subway sandwich at a fast-food gas station on the way down because I knew there would be some work in store.
The Perry Lakes, near Marion, consist of oxbow lakes left behind as the river bends back upon itself in the scale of geological time and ties itself off, leaving these landlocked blackwater pools. I was surprised, this far north and west in Alabama, at the Floridian flora such as water lilies and Spanish moss.
And I was told we could keep a lookout for gators.
We paddled through two of the lakes, one of them mainly populated by evergreen cypress trees, with their angular stumps and trunks swollen at the base rising out of the lake. The other oxbow lake, separated by a short portage over which we made a boat bridge to keep the city slickers out of the muck, was populated by deciduous tupelo.
And it dawned on me for the the first time that the Van Morrison song was not talking about honey from a particular town in Mississippi where Elvis was born.
But it was definitely rewarding, on a sunny October day, to paddle between the roots, listening to the breeze in the trees, and experience the look and feel of the different flora.
When we stopped and drifted in our kayaks and canoes for lunch, I was slightly put to shame, when I pulled out my impromptu Subway sack, by all the lima bean hummus and homemade pesto everyone else popped out of their well-prepared, hermetically-sealed containers. I did manage to bum a Granny Smith apple, and thought I was doing a good deed when I tossed the biodegradable core onto the shore. But I was politely instructed that this was introducing matter foreign into the ecosystem.
For a while I felt like Holden Caufield riding back to boarding school on the subway after he forgot the team’s fencing foils. But my new friends were quick to assure me I was not likely to be the Johnny Appleseed of a Granny Smith orchard swinging with Spanish moss beards, any more than I was a threat to introduce killer bees to Trussville. But they are right that it is always correct to observe sound and proper principles. And Nick Saban would agree, if not the country girl.
We saw lots of interesting fauna, too, much of it scooped out of the water by naturalist Randy Haddock of the CHS, and thank goodness the country girl (see link) was not there to kill it. Randy netted a dragonfly larva and CHS education director Gordon Black got the baby bug to jut out its shelflike lower jaw that must have been the inspiration for the mother of all monsters in the movie Alien. The jaw projects out longer than the head itself and then it has two mandibles that reach out farther still to grab up its prey like some poor, hapless Sigourney Weaver.
We also netted some freshwater shrimp, tiny translucent damsels. No one had the guts to try them for sashimi, though. I kept on the lookout for gators, too, speaking of who is gonna eat who.
We climbed a birding tower that rises up above the canopy for a view down on the oxbow lakes and a chance to glimpse maybe a great blue heron. We did not see any, but we did find their large triangular tracks down by the river when we hiked down to the main channel of the Cahaba where the Nature Conservancy has purchased and preserves one of the largest white sand beaches on the river at Barton’s Beach Park.
We even encountered a water mocassin where trail crossed, coincidentally, over Cottonmouth Creek. Wiser naturalists shook their heads as some crazy photographer got down in its face and poked it with a stick to get it to open its mouth, and no doubt wondered what the country girl would have said about that.
The ten-minute hike took us to Barton’s beach, which is part of a preserve purchased by the Nature Conservancy to help protect biodiversity on the river. In particular, the beach by night is an important turtle hatchery.
There was a partial sand beach, but this year the surprisingly large dune-like expanse is mostly gravel. Randy showed us the shells of five different mussels, and explained efforts to hatch threatened species and reintroduce them to the wild. Much of their habitat in Alabama was destoyed when rivers were dammed to make lakes. See links in this week’s blogosphere.
I was a little disappointed when Randy explained, in answer to my question, that this was not the part of the river where you can find fossilized shark teeth (and shark turds- -don’t worry, they’re sanitary by now after millions of years). That will require a more southerly trip, but I am ready.
The river at Barton’s Beach is shallow enough to cross by walking, if you can withstand the swift, incredibly strong stream. And that led to my favorite passtime of the day, launching like a bodysurfer into the freezing cold current and riding it down and around the bend till it stalls in a larger, slower pool- -else I might have ridden all the way to the Alabama River.
As it was, we packed up our gear and headed back, trying to get cell phone service again and listening to the Vanderbilt game. I may be a newcomer, but I hope they will let me go again.
Perry Lakes and Barton Beach are open sun-up till sundown 365 a year. Take I-59 to 5 South and turn off at 175 near Marion.
There are four oxbow lakes making up a wild hardwood bottomland flood plain swamp environment. The lakes are surrounded by an old growth mixed hardwood bottomland forest that provides some of the best nature studies and birding in the State. from The Alabama Front Porches website.
In recent years, Bald Eagles have nested in a giant loblolly pine near the entrance to this 600-acre park, harbingers of the extraordinary biological diversity within it...The 100-foot tower allows birders to peer into forest layers usually obscured by foliage from the ground.
The rural studio is different from other university architecture programs. instead of sitting in a classroom, students gain first hand experience by designing and constructing buildings in rural alabama.
The final project in the perry county recreation park was a bird watching tower. after the bridge opened up pedestrian access to the park’s east side, the pre-existing decommissioned firepower could put to use. the tower was taken apart, re-galvanized and re-assembled. new stairs and handrails were added to complete the 100 ft. tower.
Perry Lakes Park swamps (Round Lake image) is in an article about the Cahaba River in the August, 2009, Smithsonian Magazine. Thomas Wilson took photographer Beth Maynor on a canoe trip through the swamps and she was thrilled with the beauty of the Spanish Moss draped Bald Cypress forest. Beth is famous for her photographs of the Cahaba River and other wild places in Alabama.
We love having a natural, beautiful and life-filled Cahaba flowing close to our homes for easy recreational access. But this is also the River’s great challenge – the Cahaba winds through growing communities, even interstate interchanges. The Cahaba’s banks are collapsing, our groundwater and drinking water sources are starved of water during dry weather, our creeks and river run brown during rains, our properties flood– outcomes of conventional development and stormwater design.
Bald cypress, wreathed in Spanish moss, blows in the breeze, bringing a distinctly southern feel as you hike along the trail to the Beach, which is really a large sand and gravel bar that has long served as an important nesting area for turtles...This river has the most freshwater plants and animals in need of protection anywhere in the State. Some of these plants and animals occur nowhere else in the nation now because loss of their freshwater environment has caused their extinction. The Cahaba River contains more types of freshwater fish than any other river in North America. From the site of The Nature Conservancy.
Mussels Relocated in Bear Creek in North Alabama “It’s amazing to watch someone helping save a species from extinction,” Claire Datnow said as scientists placed the rare mussels in gravel on the creek bed. “What could be more thrilling than seeing a species being saved?”
Paul Johnson, director of the Alabama Center for Aquatic Biodiversity, said the Alabama lamp mussels released Thursday are one of the rarest mollusks in the world.
Thought to be on the brink of extinction 10 years ago, the mussels are propagated at the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center in Marion in Perry County.