Dennis Holt
updated 7/26/2005 1:54:37 PM ET 2005-07-26T17:54:37

All the fish are having a tea party, nibbling crumpets and celebrating. Mr. Crane is not slithering through the Mobile-Tensaw Delta swamps with his fishing rod anymore. But he enjoyed a lifetime doing it. Deep in these mysterious watery byways, he explored some of the most diverse wilderness that nature has to offer.

You can reach some of the same eerie places along Alabama’s Bartram Canoe Trail. Better still, maps and trail markers can help you navigate your way home through these 300,000-odd acres of marshy delta bayous, lakes, and rivers.

“The Mobile Bay estuary is the fourth-largest estuarine system by volume in the United States, and sixth-largest in size,” said Bob Kidd, who works with the Alabama District of the U.S. Geological Survey. “It is one of 28 federally designated estuaries of national significance.”

Furthermore, it has the second-largest river delta in the country, second only to the Mississippi’s. The Delta is formed by the confluence of the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers, which combine to form the Mobile River. The delta is about 10 miles wide and nearly 50 miles long, and is located some 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. While most river deltas are broad areas of alluvial deposit where the mouth of a river fans out upon meeting the sea, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is different. It is believed to be a rare geological phenomenon. Rather than fanning out, the Mobile-Tensaw is an elongated delta. Some experts believe it was formed by a depression, or sinking, of the land between two geological faults. Thus, it has relatively high banks, and water levels range from zero to six feet above sea level.

All of the rivers—the Mobile, Tensaw, Alabama, and Tombigbee—are heading to happy hour at the Gulf of Mexico. They slow down at the delta, so bits of sand and food particles drop out of suspension, creating a five-star food-chain restaurant. Where the rivers have carved out curlicues and sculpted crescent-shaped islands, wildlife abounds. Here you will hear chips and chatters and croaks. Brush rattles on the riverbanks, where critters thrive in unseen nooks and crannies.

Where these might rivers intermingle, it can smell fishy. It can also smell like wet dirt, polecat, and decay—the sweet rot of flora and fauna.

Dennis Holt

There’s a Bartram Trail of sorts nearly everywhere you go in the Southeast. William Bartram, a native of Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia, was a naturalist and explorer who traveled extensively throughout the region between 1773 and 1778. “What a sylvan scene is here,” he wrote about the Mobile River Delta. His illustrated journals inspired so many Bartram Trails that it would take a lifetime to visit all of them—walking, paddling, and even by airboat.

This particular Bartram Canoe Trail so far includes 150 twisting and turning miles of marked canoe trails. Another 150 miles are planned for Phase II, said Greg Lein, who assists the Alabama State Lands Division in managing the trail.

The expanding Bartram Canoe Trail is one of many conservation efforts taking place in coastal Alabama to make this breathtaking, haunting, and riven land more accessible.

Paddling here can be serene, remote, and sometimes spooky. Like when you’ve gone too far and wonder, “Where am I?” Or you’re startled by a creepy sound and ask, “What was that?”

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The designated trails will make you feel safer and more comfortable, but don’t be surprised if you see more gators than paddlers in there. By that I mean, in there. Delving into the underbelly of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta region, you get the feeling that you’re looking at the world from the inside out. And sometimes you want out. Bad!

Getting There: The current canoeing and kayaking trails can be accessed from several landings near Stockton, Alabama. Stockton is located north of Interstate 65 on state highway 59 or 225. Detailed maps are available online at

Logistics: No permit is needed for day trips in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. For overnight trips and to reserve camp sites check with the Alabama Fish and Wildlife Department at the above Web address.

All water routes within the Delta are influenced by water released from the Claiborne Dam. The online maps give detailed information on what water levels are appropriate for each route. For water level information at Claiborne Dam, call (888) 771-4601 and work through the menu options to select Claiborne Dam tailwater, or check the Army Corps of Engineers’ websites at: Additional information can also be found at

Lodging/Camping: There are both land-based and floating-platform campsites within the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Plenty of lodgings are available in Mobile as well.

Outfitters/Resources: Sunshine Canoes,, (251) 344-8664, rents boats and offers guided trips. Mobile Bay Canoe & Kayak Club,, has trip reports and other information on their Web site.

In memory of Mr. Peter Grey Cane Jr., who loved the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

Canoe & Kayak Magazine is the number one paddlesports resource, with a wealth of information about canoeing and kayaking destinations, gear, and techniques.

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