The Pope did it. Marines, British commandos and Olympic athletes still do it. Laid-backs as well as adrenaline junkies can’t get enough of it. New clubs that do it are sprouting up faster than golf carts in downtown Fairhope. It has become the fastest growing family activity along the Eastern Shore—kayaking. And, it is one of the few sports the entire family can do together!
The word “kayak”, which means hunter’s boat, originates from the Alaskan Inuit who wrapped whalebones with sealskins to create sleek, stealthy vessels for surprising unsuspecting seals and whales. Likewise, needing a fast and discreet boat to sneak upon their enemy, British commandos modified kayaks for raiding missions during WWII. Kayaks were also used by the British during the Falklands War and by the U.S. Marines who slipped into Somalia in 1992. Today, the British, U.S. Marines and Canadian Special Forces all continue to train with kayaks.
Normally we don’t associate the head of the Catholic Church as an avid sports enthusiast, but before he became Pope, John Paul ll treasured kayaking as his favorite sport. During 1949, while residing as a parish priest at Saint Florian’s in Krakow, Poland, John Paul often carried his folded Klepper kayak to meditation retreats as well as on vacations. He soon developed such a passion for kayaking, that he competed in numerous downriver races.
Today, kayaking is one of the most watched summer Olympic sports. Competitors race against the clock while piloting through ‘slalom gates’ posted throughout the river run. And just to make it fun, the kayakers must negotiate category 4 and 5 rapids that test their navigational skills in unforgiving whitewater. If you’re brave (or crazy) enough, you can experience the 1996 Olympic whitewater run first hand in the Ocoee River in Tennessee.
We, along the Eastern Shore and Baldwin County are blessed with limitless water activities, but next to swimming, kayaking, especially among families, has become the fastest growing in our area. Why? First, our region possesses one of the most diverse and bounteous ecosystems nature has to offer. Whether paddling the remote river delta north of the causeway—or slowly drifting along the countless streams that flow into Fish River—or challenging outsized waves in the Gulf, kayakers never tire of creating fresh memories and making unique discoveries.
Why It’s So Popular…
Where else can young children and their parents share the excitement of watching osprey and bald eagles plunge into the water and carry off a large fish? Other wildlife including pelicans, blue herons, egrets, cormorants, and even the occasional whooping crane circle and dive for food. And, for the more adventurous, a brief paddle into the lower delta during the summer months is not complete without spotting bull alligators sunning on the marshy banks. Water hyacinths, blue and purple irises, lilies, red maples, and sawgrass are just a small sample of the diverse flora in our area.
Second, kayaking is very safe. Many first-timers are reluctant to try kayaking, believing a kayak will easily tip over. Not true. After just a few minutes nestled down inside a kayak, they realize that kayaks are stable and easy to paddle. Generally, it takes no more than five or ten minutes for the beginner to feel comfortable and ready to venture out. And yes, young children can safely kayak with their parents as long as they have a good-fitting, Coast Guard approve PFD.
Children younger than eight usually do best in the bow of a two-seater (tandem) kayak; but don’t expect a lot of thrust here. Older children may want their own kayak, but depending on the child’s abilities, physical strength, and maturity, it may be best to travel together at first. Allow older children to help plan the trip. Show them a map using Google Earth. Also, begin with a trip goal, taking into consideration seat choice and distance. Finally, let the children paddle, but be prepared to get splashed.
Money is another reason kayaking continues to increase in popularity. Brief respites into the local outdoors give families the opportunity to explore our amazingly beautiful area, especially when the seasons change. Many outfitters in our area rent kayaks by the hour at an affordable cost; however, kayaks can be found that cost as little as $300 dollars to own.
Finally, kayaking is a low-impact, user-friendly activity. It provides great exercise, is always exhilarating, but most importantly, it doesn’t hurt. (Why go to a gym and do laps on a rowing machine when you can experience the real thing?) You don’t have to be an athlete, just someone who wants to enjoy the water. One person can carry a kayak while a canoe requires two people. Almost any car can be fitted for a kayak, even a Volkswagen. Essentially, then, kayaking is a common sense sport.
The Best Places to Kayak in Baldwin County…
Where are the best places to kayak in our area? Anywhere a bridge crosses a creek in Baldwin County suggests an adventure. Several sites, though, are truly exceptional: The Five Rivers of Mobile Delta, Fish River, Weeks Bay Preserve, Polecat Creek, Graham Preserve, and for salt-water enthusiasts, the Gulf. Capt. Michael Dorie, president of Delta Safaris (www.WildNativeTours.com), recommends starting your kayaking adventures at Five Rivers State Park on the Causeway.
Capt. Michael says, “Here at Five Rivers, 250,000 acres of scenic waterways, woodlands, and marshes await your exploration.” He operates the rental shop Delta Safaris in the state-owned Five Rivers complex, and provides kayak and canoe rentals, guided tours, instructions, advice, and a pier for launching. One of the best family outings according to Capt. Michael includes an upper delta kayak visit to the Bottle Creek Indian Mounds or the largest cypress tree in Alabama. Or, you can simply embark from the pier at Five Rivers, paddle up Game Warden’s ditch to Justin’s Bay, and then on to Alligator Alley. Be sure to take your camera, drinks, bug spray and courage.
Finally, one of the best-kept secrets in Baldwin County is Graham Creek Nature Preserve just south of Foley off Highway 20. It offers over five miles of hiking trails and a beautiful access to Graham Creek. If you and the family have the time, you can paddle this creek all the way to Wolf Bay. Or, you might travel up Highway 225 to Byrnes Lake (which is not a lake at all but a slough that flows into the Tensaw River.) Moss covered oaks and cypress line its banks. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep. Alligator eyes peering just above the water are everywhere. It looks so prehistoric some locals joke that dinosaurs may still live back in the woods.
All right! It’s time to gather the family and literally check out your back yard—rent a kayak or two and get exploring. Your children will brag to their friends about their high adventures and you may be inclined as well around the water cooler. Kayaking is safe, fun, educational and a great way to enjoy quality family time together. Just remember, don’t feed the alligators.
Dr. Barry Nowlin, a retired university professor from the University of South Alabama, makes his home with his bride of 42 years on Polecat Creek, a tributary of Fish River. His love for the outdoors arose from his adventures as an Eagle Scout and hikes along wilderness trails through Adirondacks. After 40+ years of teaching English, he continues to love to read, build steampunk lamps, kayak, but most of all, play with his granddaughter, Sara.