I Like Turtles: Terrapin Creek Float Trip

A few years ago, somebody in our family came across a YouTube video that cracked us all up. It was a reporter in Portland out at  a festival of some sort trying to get cute kid video. There was a face painting stand and a young boy had just had his face painted like a zombie. She bent down and asked him what he thought of his awesome zombie face. His response? “I like turtles.”  Totally deadpan. This of course put the reporter in an awkward situation, which she handled by totally ignoring the turtles comment and then pivoting away to the rest of the fair. The combination of the total out-of-left-field nature of the kid’s comment, the way he pronounced “turtles,” and  watching the reporter maneuver her way out of all the awkward was just hilarious to me. Thus was born a family catch-phrase. Any time we see turtles, somebody is probably going to say “I like turtles” in a voice and cadence as close to the boy’s as we can manage.

You’d think, then, that when a co-worked suggested we should go to eastern Alabama to check out a kayak float down Terrapin Creek,  I’d make the leap from Terrapin to “I like turtles” immediately and that that would be all it took for me to high-tail it over to Piedmont, Alabama. To be truthful, that’s not really how it happened. I’d had a pretty tough week at work, so honestly all I thought about was “nice peaceful float down a river” and I was in.

We had been told that the best thing to do was to go through Terrapin Outdoor Center, a local outfitter with whom we could arrange shuttle service.  Reservations are recommended and we didn’t make the decision to go until late on Friday, so we had to wait until they opened at 9:00 am on Saturday to make sure this trip was going to happen. They said as long as we got there by noon, they could help us out. That was actually cutting it pretty close, as it’s at least a 2 hour drive from our house and I was still in my jammies when we called. We quickly dressed, packed a lunch,  loaded the kayaks in the truck and took off for Piedmont.

The drive over was an easy one and took us through parts of Alabama I don’t think I’ve ever been through before – Collinsville, Sand Rock, Leesburg, Centre, and the south end of the Little River Canyon National Preserve. It’s beautiful country! Thanks to Waze, we arrived just before noon, checked in with the friendly lady at the rental counter, paid our $15 per kayak for shuttle service, and were given directions to the put in spot. Basically, you drive down what looks like (and probably is) the driveway to a house, unload your kayaks and gear, drive back up to the field by the road to park, and then carry your kayaks down the lovely brick pathway right next to the house and down the concrete ramp to the creek. If you rent a kayak from them, it looked like they’d give you a ride on a golf cart down to the house, then they would do the carrying down to the water. I imagine they’d help you in the boats as well. Having our own kayaks, we were basically on our own, but we managed it just fine.

We hadn’t been on the creek more than a few minutes before I saw a splash and thought “turtle!” and then spotted not just one turtle, but several turtles – one the biggest I think I’ve ever seen while I was on a kayak trip – all sunning themselves on logs. These turtles were unflappable, too. I actually was able to get fairly close to them and get a few pictures before they slipped back into the creek. I’m pretty sure I told Chet right then that this was my favorite river ever!

However, I soon discovered some downsides about this particular float. For one, the first section of the creek is right next to a road. It’s not a highway, but I really don’t like hearing road noise when I’m out for a peaceful paddle down the river. The road noise was only a minor annoyance though. What was a little harder to deal with were all the other kayaks and canoes on the creek. I’m going to sound like a crotchety old lady here, but I really prefer my floats to be peaceful. It might have been more crowded than normal because it was the last Saturday before school starts back, but the creek was absolutely mobbed. And mobbed with the kind of people who like to share their music with the whole county. Terrapin Outfitters advertises itself as a family friendly activity, but they aren’t the only outfitters on the creek, and honestly they would have no control over folks once they got on the water anyway. This particular day the creek was full of very loud folks who thought nothing of dropping the F-bomb right and left for all to hear. It’s not that I’m easily offended, but if I’d had a young child with me I would have cringed an awful lot that trip and there were young kids in canoes with their parents or grandparents all over the place.

One more complaint about all the people and then I’ll move on. The water level that day was lower than normal. One graph I saw put “average” discharge at about 141 cubic feet per second and on this day, the measurement was around 86. This meant that it was very easy to get hung up on rocks and little shoals, which is a pain. It also meant that in some places there was really only one way to get through a rocky area, and with so many people on the creek it seemed like every single one of those spots turned into a massive kayak-jam. All it took was one person to pick the wrong path and get turned sideways to block up the whole creek. I can’t tell you how many times I ended up steering myself into a rock just so I’d avoid ramming another kayak.

Still, despite all the people and the noise, I was really impressed with the wildlife I was able to spot. There were, of course, the turtles. We tried to keep count of them and ended the day with a record-tying 9. I also floated so close to a heron I could almost have touched him. Unfortunately for me, my iphone was uncooperative at this point and I nearly ran myself under a tree trying to get a picture. All I got was a photo of where he had been, I’m afraid. I also had another sighting that I wish I’d  gotten a picture of or at least corroboration from Chet! As I was paddling down a quiet stretch I happened to look towards the right bank just as something four-legged and light brown picked its way across a small beach and up a ravine. All I know for sure is that it was too big to be something like a squirrel, too long-legged to be a racoon, beaver, or otter. It seemed about the size of a fox, but it didn’t really read fox to me in the one second I saw it. I’m wondering now if it was a small bobcat or something. Sadly, I’ll never know.

This creek is rocky and while it was shallow the day we were there, there were still some small rapids to navigate. While I was still all in a dither about the turtles, I almost swamped my kayak when I was careless for a second. I got good and wet and my kayak ended up with a couple of inches of water in the bottom.  The rapids or riffles are at most Class I according to the International Scale of River Difficulty, but it is not completely flat. According to Chet’s scale, these rapids were also Class I:  “overall pretty easy, with only about one swearing session per mile.”

 

Though the creek was shallow, there were quite a few places where it was deep enough to tempt people to get out and swim, and a couple of spots were deep enough that folks  were jumping off rocks or doing flips off tree branches.

One thing to pay attention to, though, is that much of the property along the creek is private property and clearly marked with no trespassing signs. I can’t say as I blame them. Floating along looking at these creek-side retreats made me really wish we had a river house! We saw everything from empty land, to a lot with a rickety looking dock, to a screened in gazebo, to a very nice looking full brick, landscaped home alongside the creek. One house had rigged up a slip-n-slide down the bank – I’m thinking that’s the cool kids’ house!

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After we’d been on the water for a couple of hours, we started hearing thunder. We started paddling faster. Soon, we were paddling into a pretty serious headwind as the storm in-flow started rushing past us. Next, of course, was the deluge. We were already wet anyway, and there was no lightning to be seen, so we just forged on. The cameras went in the dry box though, and we didn’t really sightsee at all so there’s not a lot of detail I can go into about that part of the trip. Soon, though, the rain stopped and then shortly after that we arrived at the bridge. We were told by the Terrapin Outfitters folks that after about 6 miles, we’d come to a bridge. This is an important landmark because right after the bridge you are strongly encouraged to pull your kayak over to the right bank, get out, and portage it around a small dam. The day we were there the dam wasn’t very impressive, but I heard people commenting that there is rebar in the middle section and it’s tricky to get through even with little water going over it. We opted to play it safe and hauled our kayaks around the dam. I should note that this is also the take-out point for another outfitter – No Worries Kayak Rentals. It’s a little difficult to tell at first where the Terrapin Outfitters folks are supposed to go, but in the end it didn’t really seem to matter. I’m pretty sure we pulled up at the takeout point instead of edging on around a bit to the closer spot to the portage point, but nobody seemed to care. Also, for future reference No Worries had concessions there. I had not brought any money with me at all, or I might have been tempted!

Once past the dam, there’s only about a mile left of this float trip. We were told to keep our eyes open for a white bank straight ahead and the creek making a sharp left bend. Right after that is the takeout point for Terrapin Outfitters. We found it to be exactly as described, and then joined the swarm of people beached there waiting to get ferried back to their cars.

 

We chatted with a scout leader from Trussville who was there with his troop of boys while we waited for the very efficient Terrapin staff to load up the kayaks, and then hopped in the back of a pickup truck (with wooden benches provided for seating) and chatted with a couple of women up from Birmingham for a day trip while we bumped along back to where we’d parked our truck. We’d spent about 4 hours on the water and despite the rain, the crowds and the noise, enjoyed ourselves immensely. I’d do this trip again, though I might try to time it next time for a quieter day – maybe a mid week trip? – and also keep an eye on the discharge gauge and try to go when the water is a little bit deeper. After an uneventful trip home, we decided we’d top off the day with a celebratory beer: Terrapin’s Wake-And-Bake Coffee Oatmeal Stout in our Terrapin pint glasses. Because, you know, “I like turtles!”

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