The weather in Alabama in September can be maddening. One minute we’re being teased with the promise of crisp fall air, the next we’re back to sweltering heat and humidity. Soon enough, these hot and humid days will be a distant memory, but at the moment every weekend is a guessing game as to exactly which September weather we’ll be getting. At any rate, the last time it was my turn to pick our weekend adventure, it was heading back towards hot and humid, with a real chance of an actual popup shower, so I decided on a kayak trip thinking it would keep us cool. Way back in April of 2016, we’d floated down the first leg of the Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail, and I decided this would be the weekend we did the final leg.
This last leg of this trail down the Elk River in Limestone County starts at a boat ramp near Alabama Hwy 99 on Hatchery Road and ends at Sportsman Park on Elk River Mills Road in Athens. We loaded up the truck and headed towards our takeout point in Athens, watching the dark clouds roll west to east over us and passing through at least one rain shower on the way. I was worried that it would be rainy and gloomy our whole time on the river, but it turned out to be a passing shower after all and we had glorious blue skies after that. We dropped my car at Sportsman Park, where there is a huge parking area, boat ramp and dock available at no cost. The drive to the boat ramp at Hatchery Road is only 11 minutes. We’d been there before, when we did our last Elk River float, and found the parking lot to be much the same. It is a very large gravel parking area with a concrete boat ramp leading into the water. This time around we had the added bonus of a welcoming party of sorts. A large blue heron was hanging out right next to the parking area near where a little creek enters the river. My first heron sighting and I hadn’t even left the car!
We made short work of unloading the kayaks and were soon floating out on the river. The Elk is a broad and slow moving river by the time it gets down to this point, which makes for a very different kind of a float trip than what you’d get further upstream. Last time we were out, we had a pretty strong headwind to paddle against. This time around, winds were calm and had we not had a schedule to keep to we probably could have just let the river slowly carry us down the stream. As it was, I had plans in the evening and hoped to get off the river in time to get home and shower first so we helped ourselves along a bit but still, the paddling was pretty easy.
The first landmark was the Alabama Highway 99 bridge just downstream of the boat launch. Beyond the bridge, the river flows slowly between low tree-covered banks. I kept my eyes open, as always, for turtles. One problem with a wide, deep river like this is that it is an awfully long way between the shorelines, so veering from side to side to scope out all the potential turtle-sunning spots becomes pretty exhausting. Chet spotted one that slipped into the water before I could find him. I was worried that would be our only turtle sighting, but I was wrong – we saw several, most of which disappeared before I could get a camera focused on them, but one little guy was pretty bold and hung out long enough for me to coast up on him and snap a picture before he slid off his log. We also spotted several houses with lovely riverside settings. Must be a nice place to live.
Next up were a couple of coves in the river. These seem to be the favorite haunts of wading birds as we saw a couple of snow white egrets standing or wading in the shallows away from the main channel. While floating to watch the egret, Chet suddenly pointed towards the nearby shore, where we saw some type of large hawk – brown and red with yellow feet – perched in a shrub. I took a video, but it’s too far away to really tell much. I tried to float closer, only to have it jump down on the ground where I couldn’t see it any more. After some Google research at home, I’ve decided it was likely either a red tailed hawk or a coopers hawk. I’ve never been so close to such a large bird in the wild!
The next big landmark was the pier at Marbut Bend. Chet and Casey and I had checked out this TVA property back in May and admired the pier from the land. This time, we saw it from the water and it was lovely as ever, though I’m not sure you could really clamber up on the pier from a kayak anyway.
Just past the pier, the river takes a sharp, nearly 90 degree, turn to the left. There is water to the right as well, but that way just leads to another cove. Right at the bend, the land rises up on the right side to form tall tree-covered bluffs. The other side is still flat as a pancake, making the bluffs seem even more dramatic. In this section of the river, the wind picked up and we had to paddle straight into it. The river channel is long and straight, and with the headwind, it felt like we were paddling down a wind tunnel. Here again, we saw some pretty jealousy-inducing homes with large decks and views down to the river. I also spotted turtles along either shore, but with the wind I wasn’t about to waste any energy trying to get close enough for a picture. Straight ahead there was a transmission tower at what looked to be a bend in the river. When we got closer, we saw that it was just covered with birds of all types. I laid back for a few minutes, and watched them soaring overhead and then landing back on the tower. This trip was actually remarkable for all the birds. We saw at least 4 herons, 4 or 5 egrets, plus the hawk, plus all these birds on the tower. I saw more birds than turtles, and that’s a little unusual.
Just past the tower, there was a small island in the center of the channel. We’d had lunch before we hit the river, but I was a little hungry and pretty thirsty, so I was hoping to find a good beach. No such luck. That’s another downside to a broad deep river like this – not many good beaching spots! Just past the island, though, we spotted a place that looked like it would work and headed across the river to it. It turned out to be a spot where a road dead ended at the water just next to where another one of the many unnamed little creeks flowed into the river. We checked out Google maps to figure out where we were, and it looked like we were pretty close to our take out spot so we had a short break and then headed back out on the river.
Here, the river had become really wide – I later measured the main channel at around .3 miles wide at this point. The widest part, counting the large coves, was 1.2 miles wide. It felt more like a lake than a river to me! Indeed, my memories of playing on a lake in my childhood summers all revolve around being pulled around by a motor boat while I skied or tubed along behind, and sure enough, there were folks out pulling tubers behind them. Chet got a nice video. It’s interesting to note that I think we saw not one other kayaker on this whole section. We saw pontoon boats, and I think a motorboat, but we were the only people-powered boats we saw on the river.
Next up were a series of snags in the middle of the river, making me wonder if it was really that shallow or if these were flooded islets. Google maps shows some little islands right around there, so I’m guessing it was the latter. After negotiating our way past the snags, we could see the bridge at Elk River Mills in the distance. Now on our past kayak trips, spotting the takeout point meant you were maybe 10 minutes from landing. Here, we paddled and paddled and the bridge didn’t seem any closer. We watched motorboats speed ahead of us, duck behind some smaller islands off on our left, and finally pop up still some distance from the bridge. I thought we’d be paddling for days! Later I measured the distance and it was 1.3 miles from where I think the snags were to the bridge. No wonder it took so long!
We pulled our kayaks out at the boat ramp and dragged them out of the way. While Chet went off to pick up the pickup truck, I hung around the parking area and checked out the nice little dock, the river views and some of the informational signs about the canoe trail. There’s also a gas station and convenience store at the top of the parking lot, which is a nice change from the usual nothing-for-miles take out points we use.
So that was it – we’d completed all four legs of the Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail. The Elk River continues, of course, until it flows into the Tennessee River another 12 miles downstream, but that section didn’t make the cut for the canoe trail for some reason. The Elk is a river of many personalities – small, rocky and windy up near Tim’s Ford Dam, deeper but still narrow near Veto, and finally broad as a large lake near its end. All of it is beautiful, quiet, and chock full of wildlife. Any of it would be a good spot for your next float trip!