Turtle City: Elk River Father’s Day Float

Chet will tell you that he’s really more of a feet-on-the-ground, mountains-instead-of-beach kind of guy. Our extended family Labor Day gatherings were spent camping in the mountains, not splashing in a lake. He always said he didn’t much like water sports – if his feet weren’t firmly on the ground he wasn’t really happy – so there was no pool built in our backyard, no ski boat in our driveway. Still, put that man near a river and exceptions will be made, especially if his girls are involved. So it was not really that surprising that this Father’s Day when asked what he wanted to do, he suggested a kayak float down the Elk River.

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Last time, we floated from Veto down to Highway 127. This time, Chet wanted to take the next leg of the Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail and go from Highway 127 down to Easter Ferry Road. Being Father’s Day, this was really a trip for Chet to take with the child who lives close enough to allow such outings, but they graciously let me tag along. This, however, meant that we had to come up with a third kayak.  Luckily, Fort Hampton Outfitters came to our rescue.   I will admit that I had some reservations about how they were going to work out. First of all, we were a bit confused about where they were located – one web search turned up an address on Fort Hampton Road and one pointed us to downtown Elkmont. Since our route to the put-in at Highway 127 took us through Elkmont anyway, we stopped in the parking lot next to Belle Chevre to check out that address first. It was an empty storefront. I called their number only to get a recording, but it had a current message,”Yes, we are open on Father’s Day and have single and double kayaks available. Text us and we’ll get right back to you.”  I did and within just a few minutes got both a text and a call from Don. It turns out the cell reception where they are is spotty at best, which made the phone call not go so well, but the text message directed us to the Fort Hampton Road address so we headed that way. We had one more slight problem which was that our navigation system insisted that address was a burned out building close to the bridge. Of course, it turned out that they were instead up the driveway directly thumb_IMG_3771_1024across the street. To be fair, there was a sign, but it was small and we totally missed it. They told us later that better signage is on the way, but not yet installed. Once we found them, though, we found them to be very helpful and very reasonably priced. They have single and double kayaks as well as SUPs, which I learned are those stand up paddleboards. Someday, I’ll have to try one of those out! Don swears they are really fun and not at all difficult. They set Katie up with a kayak, paddles,and  a life vest, then offered to shuttle us all for only $20 extra. Katie’s shuttle was part of her $25 rental fee so we were just paying $10 a person which is a very reasonable price for the convenience, I thought.  Don and his wife  Tonyia loaded all the kayaks on the racks and drove us next door to the boat ramp. We arranged for them to meet us at Easter Ferry Road in 2.5 hours, then headed out on our adventure.

The put-in spot here could not be easier. There is ample parking and a nice wide concrete boat ramp to launch from. The river here is broad and slow moving. Don told us that the water was very low that day which I think he said made the current slower than normal. At any rate, we all three had no problems getting started though Chet had to do the “Dad thing” and help push Katie off.

 

One of my favorite things to do on a float trip is look for turtles sunning themselves on logs. The first pet I can ever remember having was a little box turtle I named “Tiny Tot.”  I don’t remember how long I had him – probably not that long in the grand scheme of things – but after he was no longer around I got my second pet, a tiny water turtle of some sort that I named “Tiny Tot 2.”  I wasn’t very creative with my names, was I? Ever since, though, I have had a love for turtles. These days, I prefer to find my turtles in the wild and float trips are turtle-spotting heaven to me. This trip, we spotted nine turtles! And I managed to get zero photos. I swear that once I announced to the river that I wasn’t even going to bother trying to get a picture of this one turtle, and it stayed put on its log as we got closer and closer – closer than we’d been to any other turtle on the river. As soon as I changed my mind and told Katie “He’s so calm! I’m gonna try to get a picture,”  he slipped off the log and into the water. It’s like he knew! Maybe turtles are camera shy?

Spotting turtles was a good distraction because the river on this leg was so broad and calm it could almost have been monotonous. I don’t know that I’ve ever been on a river that had so little current. Really, it was almost like paddling in a giant swimming pool. Sections of the river were so still that the surface was covered with leaves and other small bits of debris and it looked like nothing was moving. It was good exercise, for sure, because if we had relied on the current to move us on down the river it would have been a very very long day.  It did make it easier to loop back up river to get a better look at anything interesting though. At one point, Katie spotted a set of three little ducks trying to hide under the tree branches along the bank. Katie and Chet paddled on upriver, while I looped back and tried to follow the little guys to get a good picture. I failed, of course, and only succeeded in scaring them so much that one of them – maybe Momma – flew across the river while the others darted quickly in different directions.

While I was distracted by ducks or some other photo op, Katie and Chet spotted something in the water up ahead. It was too far away at first to tell how big it was, so I think they were first thinking snake but it turned out to be a raccoon swimming across the river! They watched it swim all the way across, and then get out and scamper up the bank. I, of course, missed the whole thing, just my luck.

A little more than halfway down this section, there is a large island called Gallus Island in the middle of the river. This is more than just a little sandbar. It looks to be at least a quarter of a mile long, with big mature trees growing down the middle. We landed on the upriver end and joined a couple with a fishing boat and another group with a pontoon boat. We had our delicious mid-float snack of fresh cut fruit, peanut butter crackers and crispy M&Ms (Chet’s favorite), and Katie and I went for a short swim in the river. The water was warm as bathwater on the top, but there were cool spots too. It was pretty shallow – I don’t think we ever found a spot where it was deeper than maybe mid-thigh, but it was deep enough to float around and cool off a bit anyway.

 

After we finished up our snack and swim break, we headed on down the river. You can go around the island either on the right side or the left. Don had said there wasn’t really a “better” way, so we chose right. When we were almost past the island we saw a beautiful spot that obviously is much-used as a campsite as it came complete with a stack of chopped firewood and a nice bench along the bank. I can imagine doing a multi-day float trip and camping out here. A little bit down the river, we started seeing a blue heron flying ahead of us. As they do, it would fly a little ways down the river ahead of us, then wait for us to catch up. As soon as we were close enough to spot him again, but too far to get a good picture, he would take off down the river again. If you can zoom up on my picture below you might see a white bird flying low to the water. If not, well, just imagine it – I promise he was there!

 

This part of the river was deeper than above the island and we were passed by at least three fishing boats. Farther upstream the water is too shallow for a fishing boat to maneuver, plus we saw lots of fish jumping so it must be a great spot for fishing.  It’s amazing the amount of wake even the most considerate and polite folks will kick up with a fishing boat! All three boats slowed way down to pass us in order to minimize how much we were rocked by the wake, but it did make for a bit of excitement bumping over those waves after they went by.

 

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Just as we were starting to think we would have to pick up the pace or else be late, we rounded a curve and saw the bridge at Easter Ferry Road up ahead. We even saw Don, already there at the water’s edge. He told us later he had just gotten there and walked down to the river when we came into view. We could not have timed things better. There is a good bit of debris piled up on the side of the bridge nearest to the take-out point, so we had to swing out through the center of the river then make a sharp left turn to get to the boat ramp, but with the water running so slowly that wasn’t any problem at all. Here again, there is a nice wide concrete boat ramp to make getting out of the river easy. Don and Tonyia helped us out of the river and loaded our kayaks up for the trip back to our cars.

On the way back, we told them about the swimming raccoon. That was a new one for them! They’ve seen deer wading across the river, but never swimming raccoons. We also found out a bit more about them. Don Bowling is an American History teacher at Athens High but is transferring to the Renaissance school this year. He has been a teacher for 15 years.  Tonyia is the Assistant to a Vice-President at Athens State.  Three years ago they got the idea to start up the business while on a vacation in South Carolina.  As far as I could tell, it is just the two of them,  but they also rent at Point Mallard and Joe Wheeler State Park so I imagine they keep pretty busy trying to be at all those locations.  If you’d like to rent from them, I’d definitely recommend calling ahead to organize things. They are super easy to work with and they love meeting  people and getting  people out on the water for the first time. After unloading our kayaks and helping us get them into Chet’s truck, they had one final nice surprise for us – they gave us each a mini moon pie and a nice cold RC Cola. What a fun way to end the day!

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