Ft. Morgan or bust!
Dentons complete Alabama Scenic River Trail
By David Rainer
AL Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources
Adventure apparently has no time constraints for cousins Will and John Denton, who decided to make the 650-mile journey along the Alabama Scenic River Trail recently after answering two questions.
“John was just finishing up hiking the Appalachian Trail, so he had the camping experience,” said 79-year-old Will. “But, he didn’t know if he could paddle that far. I’ve been kayaking for about 40 years, so I knew I could do the paddling. But I didn’t know if I could sleep on the ground.”
Even though John was not an experienced paddler, he was considering a trip down the Mississippi River before Will found a better idea.
“I allowed I had given that some thought, and I might be interested in doing that with him,” said Will of the trip down the mighty Mississippi. “About the same time, I found out about the Alabama Scenic River Trail (ASRT), and I suggested we try that first.”
The two decided to combine their skills to start the paddle about 4 miles from the Alabama line in Georgia.
The fact that Will’s home on Lake Martin wouldn’t be that far away should something go awry also contributed to the decision. Will had only paddled a few miles of the ASRT, Moccasin Gap just below Jordan Dam to Wetumpka, and had no idea what to expect on the rest of the trail.
“Except for Moccasin Gap, it was all new to both of us,” Will said.
Will loaded up his trusty kayak with supplies for the trip while John, 66, opted for a Verlen Kruger vessel, kayak-canoe hybrid. They paddled across the state line and headed down through the six lakes on the Coosa system.
“It took us five or six days to kind of hit a rhythm and find a pace that was comfortable,” Will said. “We could paddle about 3 miles an hour with no more exertion than if you were walking. We were comfortable paddling at about the same speed.”
The paddlers saw a variety of wildlife during the trip, although Will admitted that John was more inclined to notice because of his passion for hunting.
“John is a big turkey hunter,” Will said. “He spent more time looking for stuff along the bank. He would call my attention to some things. Sometimes we paddled side by side. Sometimes we were on opposite sides of the river. We were looking for eagles quite a bit.
“On our (Coosa) lakes part of the trip, we averaged seeing about an eagle a day. By the time we got to Wetumpka and Montgomery, we didn’t see any more from there south.”
Will said the biggest interest from friends and family he’s told about the trip, which began September 1, is the numbers of snakes the duo encountered.
“I saw one cottonmouth and John didn’t see any,” Will said. “He saw six alligators when we got to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. He pointed two of those out to me. He saw a bobcat. We heard a bunch of hogs at night. We saw deer, and we saw a lot of fish-eating water birds. Interestingly, we saw more of those in the upper end.”
Will, a former public health administrator, and John, a retired farmer from the Mississippi Delta, had only a couple of episodes of difficult paddling during the adventure.
“Really, we had one day on Logan Martin when we had an afternoon trying to get to School Bus Island,” Will said. “We paddled into a strong headwind for two or three hours to get to the island, which was a wonderful campsite. It was about our only option to camp on the lower end of the lake because it is all developed down there. Until we got to Mobile Bay, that was the hardest day of paddling.
“When I look back at the pictures I took on the way, the water was as slick and calm as it could be. The water conditions were wonderful.”
During the time on the Coosa section, rainstorms popped up all around them, but they encountered only a couple of light showers. It turned out to be the calm before the storm.
“We didn’t hardly get the tents wet until we got into the Alabama River,” Will said. “We were below Montgomery when we got caught in a storm. The people who had invited us to stay with them that night saw the storm coming and came out in a pontoon boat and towed us back to their house.
The other significant storm the Dentons weathered was during a stay above Claiborne Lock and Dam at the Isaac Creek Campground lock. Fortunately, they had their tents up when the rain started about 4:30 that afternoon.
“It rained hard until about 10:30 that night,” Will said. “When we got up the next morning to go through the lock, that lock drop is usually about 30 feet. But the drop that morning was only 15 feet because the river was already up 15 feet below the dam. We had that extra push all the way until we ran into some tidal situations in the Delta. We made much better time than we normally would have.
“And I really didn’t have a problem sleeping on the ground. I guess part of it was we were pretty tired at the end of the day.”
The Dentons’ routine was to paddle all day and get camp set up in time to eat and be in the tents before the mosquitoes came out in force at dusk.
“We really didn’t have a major mosquito problem like John is used to in the Mississippi Delta,” Will said. “One time early in the trip, we couldn’t find a place to camp on the upper end of Lay Lake. We finally found a creek and went way back up the creek. We finally did find a place and got our camp set up. The mosquitoes weren’t bad at all.
“Afterwards, John told several folks, ‘We were so far back in woods, the mosquitoes hadn’t even found that place.’”
Will said the ASRT has identified a significant number of campsites on their website at alabamascenicrivertrail.com that paddlers can take advantage of, including those on the Bartram Canoe Trail (alabamacanoetrails.com ) in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.
“One of the things that stands out to me is the Alabama Scenic River Trail Association has what they call river angels, like the Appalachian Trail,” he said. “Their names and phone numbers are listed on the website. When we started working on this trip, some of the ASRT people contacted some of the trail angels along the way.”
Denton said two couples on the Alabama River sent word that they wanted the paddlers to stay overnight with a hot shower, supper and bed at their disposal.
“These couples could not have been nicer,” Will said. “The visits were delightful. One lady in Fairhope moved one of our trucks for us, twice. The couple from Selma drove one of our trucks to Fairhope so it would be there when we got there. These are people with knowledge and interest in the trail. It really was one of the neatest things about the trip.”
After a rather leisurely paddle on most of the trip, the Dentons didn’t realize how they would be tested once they hit Mobile Bay.
“Probably the only uncomfortable moments we had were when we were paddling in the bay,” Will said. “Going from Fairhope to the Nelson Shipyard in Bon Secour, we had a dead headwind. I keep my phone on a lanyard around my neck. I got two or three texts that I couldn’t answer. If I had stopped paddling to check the texts, I would have been going backwards. I paddled for all I was worth for about three hours. I slept well that night.
“There were a lot of things that I will remember. The difficulty of the last two days was memorable. The only whitewater we had was at Moccasin Gap, but we had whitecaps on Mobile Bay.”
On the 34th day of the trip, the Dentons paddled from Oyster Bay to Fort Morgan to complete the adventure. Will said he is proud of the accomplishment, but he doesn’t want people to focus on his age.
“I really don’t think my age has any bearing on it,” he said. “It’s a function of what kind of condition you’re in. I’ve got friends older than I am that are in better shape than I am. Some folks tend to slow down when they get to some magic number and don’t stay as active. I just paddled 650 miles, so, yeah, I feel good about that. Being gone 34 days, if my wife (Charlotte) had not been supportive, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I’m glad I did it. I feel good I did it.
“I would tell anybody who thinks they want to do this trip that they can’t do it any younger than they are right now.”
Pictured: John, left, and Will Denton celebrate the end of their journey at Fort Morgan, the terminus of the Alabama Scenic River Trail.