Outside of Time on the Elk River

“Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.”
― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

Last weekend was an absolutely beautiful one here in northern Alabama. Skies were a cloudless blue and the temperature was that perfect not-too-hot-not-too-cold low 80s. There wasn’t even any humidity to speak of, which is a rare thing in the warmer months here. It was, for me, kayaking weather – but where? We are spoiled for choice in this area – there’s the Paint Rock, Flint, or Elk Rivers, Lake Guntersville, Wheeler Lake, and the Tennessee River to name just a few – all within an hour or so of Huntsville. Work has been a little hectic recently, so I longed for a tranquil day on the water where I could forget about the daily grind and just enjoy.  The Elk River fit that bill. A few years back we went up to Elk River Canoe Rental in Kelso, Tennessee and rented kayaks for a day trip down that part of the Elk River. We enjoyed ourselves so much that we decided to buy our own kayaks, so the Elk is the starting point for my kayak love.

This time, though, we wanted to try the Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail. This trail starts just over the state line from Elkmont, Alabama and winds for 21.9 miles to Elk River Mills Bridge.  There are 5 put in/take out sites along the trail, but we didn’t get headed out the door until around 11:00, so we planned to go just the first 6.1 miles. We met up with our good friend Ted Smith and headed to the Site 2 take out at AL Highway 127 to drop off his truck, then drove on up to Site 1 on Veto Road.  Please note that the directions on the Limestone County site we linked above are a little misleading. It says from the start of Veto Road, “Go 5.2 miles to the Tennessee/Alabama Stateline. Continue 6.6 miles to the Elk River.” Having driven it, it is no 6.6 miles from the state line to the river. It’s more like 1 mile, maybe 1.5 miles. Surely they meant that Site 1 is 6.6 miles from the start of Veto Road. In any case, the parking lot for Site 1 is a nice big gravel lot with plenty of room to maneuver. I was thinking it might be crowded, what with it being such a beautiful day, but there were only a few other vehicles there so we had no problems snagging a spot. We unloaded and carried the kayaks down to the put in spot, which was a nice concrete boat ramp – no tripping over tree roots or slipping down muddy banks here – and were soon headed out onto the river.

The Elk here is a big, broad, slow-moving river. It seems like a very gentle river, though the massive pile of tree trunks piled up against the bridge just down from the put-in spot belies the power of massive amounts of water. Some of those trees looked to be bigger around than I could reach! That was the only big pile of debris I remember, though. The rest of the trip, the river was a beautiful, glassy ribbon winding between fields and small bluffs.

About a mile into the trip, my stomach lunch clock started complaining quite a bit, so we stopped at a small gravel and grass island for a quick bite. This was one of several places along the river that looked like really nice lunch spots. This one wasn’t shady, but others farther downstream were more like gravel beaches and had some nice shade trees. We didn’t stop for very long before we headed back out on the river.

I had wanted tranquility and that is certainly what I got. I’m not complaining at all, but it does make for a perhaps less-than-interesting blog. “We floated on a pretty river. It was nice. The End.”  Plus, I stink at taking pictures when I’m in a kayak. I’m not the best of photographers on land, but in a kayak I’m hopeless. I can’t seem to get the kayak to float in any sort of even mostly straight line while I fiddle with the camera so I usually end up not getting pictures of the most interesting stuff. Case in point: about halfway through the trip we started seeing a big long-legged bird flying ahead of us on the river. I thought it was a blue heron, though I heard some guys in a fishing boat calling it a crane so I’m not sure. He never let us get close enough to tell very much about it, but it was nice seeing him flap down the river ahead of us. Just after that, we could hear a shoal in the river coming up and then spotted a bird dive-bombing the river. Ted identified it as an osprey fishing for its dinner. We watched for quite awhile as this gorgeous bird flew down and grabbed a fish out of the river, then circled around to land on a tree for some snacking. I think we were getting too close, because he flew off down the river aways, still with a bit of the fish in his claws. Eventually he decided to give up on trying to stay ahead of us and flew right over us to get back to his fishing spot by the shoals. I got zero usable pictures of all of that, but it was a phenomenal sight!

After all that excitement, it was back to peace and quiet. I may, or may not, have napped in the kayak for a few minutes. The guys floated on ahead of me. We passed a turtle sunning on a log, saw fish jumping (maybe joyful that they’d escaped the osprey?), and saw a couple of snakes swimming upstream. That made it almost as much wildlife spotted as people. We passed two guys and a young boy fishing, a family of maybe five or six folks, and three kayakers heading up river at the very end. For a beautiful day, it was surprisingly uncrowded.

We were almost to the end of our trip when we saw water splashing on the left side of the river. As we got closer, we realized there was a concrete structure there and we could hear a motor. Periodically something was releasing a gush of water into the river. We stayed to the right side of the river as we passed it, and it’s a good thing we did. If you weren’t expecting it, the gush of water did actually produce a surprising amount of wake. I made a joke about hoping it wasn’t sewage being pumped in to the river, but when we got home, we discovered the most likely explanation for it was that it was some sort of water treatment plant. Hopefully, whatever they’re pumping in is clean water. It looked clean. Anyway, if you ever float down the Elk, keep your eyes open for the structure below.


Soon after, the bridge that was our takeout point came into view. It had taken us about 2 and a half hours to float the 6.1 miles. I was actually kind of sad that we weren’t going farther, but everybody had things to do, the truck was parked there, etc., etc., etc. Back to the daily grind it was, though our time on the river had made all of that fall away for a bit. I’m certainly looking forward to kayaking another section of this canoe trail soon. If you’d like to go, but need a boat or a lift,  Fort Hampton Outfitters in Elkmont looks to be the closest.  If you want GPS waypoints for the parking areas, try our GPS Track of this trip. Happy floating!


*If Veto Road sounds familiar – maybe you’ve been reading our blog! One end of the Richard Martin Trail is about a mile away from the Site 1 Elk River put in.

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