Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Trippin' (Written by BigSip, posted by Jamison)
“Adventure” was the word upon our lips as we surveyed the rock-laden glory of the Tallapoosa last Friday morning. Our trucks were loaded with coolers containing no sparse amounts of beverages, foods, and snacks, boats (mine, at least 40 years old and Jamison’s, only a year at most), and camping gear for a one-night stay. We were ready to conquer the river; or was it ready to have its victory over us?
As Mullins and Jamison unloaded Jamison’s truck, Charles and I walked upstream and took in the breath-taking rapids. I was glad to have seen them and even more glad we were releasing our small barks below them into the milder currents of the yet-unexplored river. After we unloaded my boat and gear, we left Charles and Mullins to guard the provisions while we and Jamison’s friend Wayne headed to our parking spot across from the Tallassee Police Dept. Wayne was a good-natured country boy of around 45 who deserves props for taking his time to help us out (thanks, Wayne, where ever you are). Jamison and I arrived back at the river to find that Mullins and Chuck had not yet arrived back at the boats. We soon found them, but not without some walking that allowed us to take in more of the scenes.
We left at about 7:30 AM with the idea that the river current would be as strong the whole time as it was from the start. How wrong we were. The initial push from the rapids would be one of the strongest currents we would experience on our two-day, 35 mile journey. We soon began to row and row and row. We lashed our boats side by side (a configuration affectionately referred to as a “red-neck pontoon boat) and began to power our heavy boats down the river, our muscles already burning. It was the kind of hard work that made you feel alive and really appreciate your desk job, but it was worth every stroke for the sights and adventures we were soon to have.
The first sites we noticed were the gorgeous rock formations and wilderness. High, striated, colorful rock faces enveloped us as we paddled along. In fact, we all had to concentrate hard on keeping a steady pace as we had so much to divert our attention.
Next, we noticed the fish jumping: striped bass, large mouth, trout, and others we had no time or opportunity to identify. There were entire herds of deer, too. Beautiful, strong animals they were, crossing the river in the shallows. Then the birds flew by and we knew we had reached the center of it all. Kingfishers and woodpeckers abounded. We saw at least 2 blue herons. But the most amazing site of all was two bald eagles who were apparently nesting in the vicinity. At first, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Two bald eagles in Alabama? None of us had any idea that such a thing was possible. Although we really didn’t get close enough to get good footage or pictures of the majestic birds, Jamison, to his credit, took film and pics, nevertheless. It will etched in our collective memory from now on, I can assure you.
The most physically exciting parts of the adventure were the strong currents and downhill runs. The first one we saw would seem quite bland to anyone reading this, but let me explain, if I can, how amazing it was. At about 100 yards, we noticed that the river seemed to end abruptly up ahead. We prepared ourselves for some unknown falls or drop that was, as yet, unmapped. As we got closer, we saw from about another 100 yards that there was a 50-60 foot rock face running perpendicular to us, but we were almost eye level with the top of it. And then, we saw it. A downhill run loomed before us, accompanied by a rush of water we hadn’t heard since the rapids at the start of the trip. We steeled ourselves and made to row into the strong current. We strained against the flow and we topped nearly 5 mph, running with the river, out of control, and into a sharp bend at the bottom which spun us into a wide arc, from which we quickly recovered. The roar of beastly men that went up to the heavens after that run cleared wildlife for a mile at least. The river’s first test was done and we had triumphed!
We ran with the river 20 miles that first day. We heaved and sighed. We gasped at the landscapes and wildlife. We gave and took orders from each other, “Mullins, rudder! Chuck, row! Sip, wake up! Jamison, where the hell are we?” We laughed and sang snippets of songs and laughed again. We named movies from the most obscure movie lines. We shared everything in our small, floating commune. Food and drink were in abundance as were stories and remembrances.
Fortunately, (and I say this at the risk of sounding hypocritical) we had solid cellular communication for the duration of the trip. As a result, we were able to correct an oversight and have Larissa charge a battery for Jamison’s trolling motor which we planned to pick up at the toll bridge the following day.
Eventually, we made for an inviting sand bar and landed our small craft. A grassy trail led us to a small, circular glen, perfect for making camp. It was obvious that the area hadn’t been used in years, but we found plenty of firewood and kindling, including some pre-chopped wood that lasted us through the night. Jamison had pre-cooked some chili which he warmed on the fire after we made camp. It was delicious. Unfortunately, the day was not without one casualty. The mixture of sun, exertion, chili, pineapple wedges and few puffs of the pipe later found Charles in a deluge of upper gastrointestinal infortitude which caused our first and only sighting of a geyser for the entire trip. The rest of us pitched-in and took care of our brother as he heaved and moaned. After 10 such bursts as never witnessed by man, he was calm in the guts and ready for bed.
We rested peacefully under the stars that night, peering through the tangled circle of trees as sleep filled our bodies. The enjoyment and sweet rest were only punctuated by the hard work and visions of the day.
We awoke shortly after daybreak the following morning and fried bacon and hash browns that Jamison deftly prepared. We also had some nice bread (provided by Mullins) and fried summer sausage (my provision). We broke camp soon thereafter and took the boats out much lighter since we had eaten, drunk, and burned many of our provisions. We also took our boats separately. Chuck and I took my boat while Mullins rode with Jamison.
All was smooth sailing except for the occasional exhortation to “Keep rowing!” from one of us toward another. There were a few obstacles which we managed to get into including some logs Chuck and I couldn’t avoid, but managed to bounce off after a few tense seconds. And Matt and Jamison stuck themselves pretty well on the bottom of the river in one spot (the river flowed only inches deep in some areas, making for some creative paddling for us all).
We had brought one fishing rod and some light tackle which Chuck used to hang one plastic worm from the end of the boat. At one point, the pole bent, but just as Charles attempted to set the hook, a beautiful, striped bass no more than 2 pounds leapt from the water and removed the lure from its jaw. We tried a couple more times to fish, but stopped as we needed to make good time to the bridge.
Good time we made! Jamison and I crawled from the boats beneath the toll bridge and took with us the 2 heaviest packs and one empty cooler. This was no small feat considering the bank was slick and nearly straight up. But, we managed the climb and walked to the nearest gas station where Larissa (who would twice save the day) picked us up. We rode to their house, loaded the motor and battery while she made us some sandwiches (best ever!) and went back as quickly as possible. On the return journey, we placed the battery in the cooler to share the load and took turns carrying the motor. Finally, we slid down, untied, and once more set out for parts unknown.
We were disappointed, at first. The motor would only last so long, so we found ourselves still rowing most of the trip and using the motor for some much-needed rest now and then, which cheered us up and let us know we could continue, at least part of the way.
You see, our original plan was to go 43 miles all the way from Tallassee to Ft. Toulouse, but our hopes of making it to that ramp before the park was closed, trapping Chuck’s SUV and our boats, were dashed. We rowed hard and used the motor, still clinging to the hope of finishing our original undertaking, all-the-while our hopes slipping and finally broken by a beach full of drunk rednecks who insisted we’d never make it before dark.
But, again, resourcefulness and a wonderful, selfless mate prevailed. Jamison knew of a little-used boat ramp at a small camper-trailer park just past the Hwy 231 bridge. It was our best hope and our most difficult task yet. When we arrived at the bridge, we noticed the step rock and muddy faces of the banks first of all. But, those were not the worst of our obstacles. The unfriendly and territorial trailer park residents, Jamison told us, were not welcoming to people not of their lot using their ramp. What would we do?
And then, we hatched the plan that would make our trip even grander than we could have imagined!
Jamison called Larissa. She would meet us soon at a gas station just down from the bridge and transport Chuck, Jamison, and me to Ft Toulouse to get Chuck’s SUV. Meanwhile, Matt would wait on the opposite bank with the boats and pull up to the dock at our signal.
We pulled up to the rocky face beneath the bridge and began our ascent. The cliff loomed before us, but we had no fear. Hand and foot, we scaled the face and were to the gas station 5 minutes before Larissa’s arrival. Soon, we were in Chuck’s ride and motoring to the abandoned gas station across from the police station.
On the return trip, as we neared the trailer park, we saw Mullins, already nearing the ramp. I honked, he waved and he began his convergence on the dock.
Moments later, Jamison and I were in my truck, driving literally 2 mph (the posted speed limit) and acting like we belonged there. I backed down the ramp slowly. The ramp was steep and precariously paved, so great care was needed. At the bottom, Mullins had already begun the Operations Consolidate and Unload. We were ready!
The gear, coolers, and boats flew onto the truck and were tied minutes later. Mullins walked up beside the boat as we slowly (painfully slow) climbed the ramp in the truck. But, our hearts sank slightly as we neared the top. A man who looked like a cross between Panama Jack and Yosimite Sam waited at the top of the ramp, watching us climb.
Fortunately, we had the right man for the job to sweet talk these wary trailer-dwellers. During his wait on the opposite side of the river, Mullins had witnessed this same fellow attempting to start his small boat for about 45 minutes. Finally exasperated and possibly hen-pecked by his awaiting, halter-top bedecked wife, the man admitted defeat, shirtless, hatless, and shaking his mop over the trailer tongue.
“Did you ever get that thing started?” Mullins chortled to the man’s defeated surprise. We were soon home free and laughing again over some cheap Mexican food.
Did we conquer the river in those two days? Did it win over us? I think everyone was victorious. But, don’t ask the river.