The Sipsey River: Paddling at Ultra-Low Water is still a Great Hike
The Sipsey is definitely a “destination” river, meaning it was worth the trip to north Alabama just for this river. If not for a fortunate twist of fate, however, Susan and I would never have paddled the Sipsey River, and we would have missed out on the stunning views and experience it offered. As we looked down at the scenic river on that sunny June day, it was obvious that the water level was too low for us to paddle. The canoes, unfortunately, would be staying dry that day. Not long after that, we started downstream anyway.
Susan and I were spending five nights at Monte Sano State Park in Huntsville, Alabama; and, as we usually do when we are away from home, we looked for nearby places to paddle. Most of the area rivers that I could find information on were a bit larger than I like and a bit too popular, as in there were kayak rentals. To complicate things even more, I wanted to figure out a biking or hiking shuttle, so we could go downstream on our own. I’m pretty sure I could have arranged a shuttle via FloridaKayak.org, even that far north, but our schedule was a bit fluid.
The Sipsey River in Bankhead National Forest was about 75 minutes from our campground, but we could tell it was our kind of river. The 11-mile section that we planned to paddle was fairly narrow, fully bordered by national forest, exceptionally scenic, and offered lots of solitude. There’s not much more we could ask for from a river, except for, well, water.
The Water Level was Too Low
Things were pretty dry in north Alabama, and I had been watching water levels online hoping for a decent rain either prior to our arrival or early in the week. Rain had been in the area forecast, but it never materialized. Several sources, including Alabama Whitewater, suggested that the minimum water level for the Sipsey River online gauge should be about 4.0 feet. I figured we could go a little lower than that because the minimum for whitewater paddlers is probably a bit higher than the minimum for Florida small creek paddlers. (The numbers on the Alabama Whitewater flow page have been really helpful.) The gauge was reading 3.20 feet and not much water was headed downstream.
My best guess was that we would be spending a lot of time dragging boats and getting stuck in shoals. I generally never shy away from a river trip, but I was thinking we should bail on the river and find a nice bike trail instead, but Susan wanted to go to the Sipsey. I agreed to go with the stipulation that if it looked too low in person, we’d switch gears and hike one of the Bankhead National Forest trails instead. I predicted that hiking was in our future, and I was right -- sort of.
Since it was just the two of us, we planned to unload our gear at the upstream launch and leave Susan there to watch things. I would drive the truck to the takeout and ride my bike back up to the launch. My planned bike shuttle was about 12 miles total: about 8 miles on Alabama Highway 33 and 4 miles on Cranal Road. Even with north Alabama hills, I figured that wouldn’t be much of a problem. As we drove in on Highway 33, however, I started having second (and third) thoughts. The hills still didn’t worry me, but the road was a whole lot busier than I expected. Also, the shoulder of the highway was almost non-existent and big trucks sped by, one after another. I kept picturing my corpse down in a deep drop-off under my mangled bike.
We made it to the Cranal Road launch, and we both agreed that the Sipsey River is undeniably beautiful. As soon as we saw the river, we were both glad we’d made the trip, even if we didn’t paddle the river. I was right when I’d guessed there wouldn’t be any other people on the river on a hot Tuesday with a river that was much too low. There were no vehicles in the canoe launch parking area that was across an ancient-looking bridge from the hiking trail parking. Despite the 30-foot or more drop to the water, we were surprised there were warnings to be prepared for flash floods in the parking area. That was not a problem this day.
Looking just downstream from the launch, there were two separate downed trees that would require pulling over. If there were two pullovers in the first 500 feet, what would it be like further downstream? I’ve done more than my fair share of pullovers, but when you factor in the biker death ride, leaving the boats on the truck was sounding really appealing.
An Unexpected Twist
Just as I had pretty much talked myself out of paddling the Sipsey this day, a truck pulled in towing a trailer with three boats on it. I was shocked that there was someone else foolhardy enough to even consider the trip. It turned out to be a family of four: the parents, Josh and Krystal, were in their mid to late 30s and were accompanied by their 13-year-old daughter Ella and 11-year-old son Isaac. We introduced ourselves with the hope that they knew something about the river that we didn’t.
Josh had whitewater experience and had paddled the Sipsey maybe a handful of times many years back. All of those long-past trips had been at much higher water levels. Josh and Krystal had recently returned to the area and had been wanting to bring the kids to the river, but their schedules and the water levels never seemed to line up. They figured they’d just give it a shot on this sunny Tuesday. Josh had a worn, hand-printed note card with guidelines on the river based on a wooden gauge mounted to the ancient bridge. We never found the wooden gauge, which we figured had been washed off in the years since he’d been here.
Josh and family had already left a vehicle downstream at the takeout. I mentioned my bike shuttle plan. I told Josh that we’d happily paddle along with them if they wanted company downstream, as we’d had a bit of experience with shallow creeks. I think the low level made him a bit nervous, too, and he said he wouldn’t mind backup. I was about to ask about getting a ride back with them at the end when Josh suggested it. Absent that offer, Susan and I definitely would have been out on a hiking trail instead.
We were ready to get on the river! Susan and I both had our solo canoes, which are about as good a boat as you can have if you want to skim down a waterway that’s, well, not got much water. Josh and family had a tandem sit-in kayak, a solo sit-in kayak, and a whitewater kayak. These boats weren’t going to be as easy to hop in and out of as our canoes, and I figured they might draw a little bit more water. I did suggest that we rig their boats with painter lines to help walk them through shallows, and I think they really appreciated that as the day progressed. (I do obsess a bit about painter lines, but they really do come in handy a lot.)
Our new river friends turned out to be a very nice family back from several years in Peru doing missionary work. I asked a couple of questions to try to get an idea of how experienced they were at rivers. Josh had mentioned his whitewater experience, but I didn’t know about the rest of the family. The younger members of the group had paddled, but not on moving water. That was OK, though, because the water wasn’t moving much that day. Moving water or not, the kids were pretty good paddlers, in my book.
Josh and company had plenty of water. They packed a large mesh duffel full of water bottles. Before we pushed off, I’d also asked if they had lunch. I was a little surprised by the answer. They were leaving lunch in their vehicle, but they had plenty of snacks. We launched at 10:30, and I was already ready for lunch. I’d figured we’d be on the water at least 5-6 hours, so I knew I’d be wanting lunch, but even that estimate turned out to be a little optimistic.
The two kids proved themselves to be real troopers who I never heard complain during the whole trip. Krystal did intervene in a few sibling disagreements during the day, but that was moderately entertaining. The family boating arrangements worked out pretty good. Krystal sat in the back of the big tandem with one of the kids up front. Ella and Isaac took turns in the solo kayak and with their mom. When Josh or Krystal asked one of the two to swap places, they obliged cheerfully.
We were really happy for the shuttle ride, but were worried that we might be interrupting family time, so we tried to not be too close. We did talk some as we went down the river, though. Both of the youngsters were extremely polite and interesting. Ella noted that “ella” in Spanish is she, so if you said, “She is Ella” you’d be saying, “She is she.” I could see how that would be bothersome!
Josh paddled his whitewater kayak all day. Halfway down the river, he commented that using the whitewater boat was like paddling a basketball – it had absolutely no control whatsoever. Josh spent much of the day just doing partial strokes, to try to keep the thing straight. The boat was great in whitewater, but there was none of that on the Sipsey this day. Josh said, “Never again on flatwater!” Josh’s whitewater history with the Sipsey was also evident in the paddling helmets that his group wore. Later in the day, after we had walked our boats through ankle-deep water, Krystal commented wryly that she didn’t know how they would have managed without them.
The Sipsey River is Stunning
The views along the river made the trip worth the effort. The water itself was the color of weak tea, but clear enough to easily see the river bottom. There were lots of fish with few good places to hide. There were giant boulders lining part of our way, and rock walls that towered above us. Magnificent trees leaned over the river. The Sipsey is nature at its best.
Despite the low water, we were able to paddle most, but certainly not all, of the 12-mile trip. Fortunately, the two downfalls blocking the river near the launch site were the worst that we saw all day. There were several long stretches, however, where we walked our boats, pulling them along behind us like unhappy mules. When the river is so low that my empty canoe drags bottom, that really says something.
We’ve seen so many river turtles on various trips, that they aren’t worth noting, but on this day we saw something a little different. A hapless box turtle was bobbing its way across the river. It was definitely not much of a swimmer. Isaac excitedly rescued it by carrying it to the shore that we thought it was headed for. It wouldn’t have been that easy to grab a river turtle.
One of the things we were looking forward to was the 100-yard dash. This is a class II rapid tossed into the middle of what is definitely a class I river. I actually scraped my way down the “rapid,” or what I’d call a “crawl” on this day without getting stuck. This would be a really fun rapid with more water.
Josh was walking through part of the 100-yard dash after helping some of his team and saw what looked like a handgun in the water. It looked like a handgun, because that’s what it was – a Smith and Wesson 22 semi-automatic. It was frozen up pretty solid. The magazine release was not working, and we wanted to make sure it was safe. I was able to rack the slide back, and it stuck open. We put a carabiner in it to make sure it stayed that way. We discussed theories on why the gun was there, and a discarded murder weapon was one of the most interesting ones. Josh carried the gun back in his boat, but my finger prints are on it, too. Although the dumped murder weapon theory makes a better story, more likely it was just lost by a paddler who got caught off guard and rolled in the rapid. (Shortly after we returned home to Florida, I met a paddling acquaintance on a local creek and mentioned paddling the Sipsey River. The first comment he made was that he’d been there years before and found a shotgun in the rapid. Dumping at the 100-yard dash while carrying firearms must not be all that uncommon!)
A bit later, a deer charged across the river right in front of us. The water here was deeper than usual, and the deer made a racket getting across. As far as wildlife goes, we did see other creatures, but the most interesting was the up-close encounter with a pileated woodpecker that was bobbing its head up and down only about twenty feet from us.
Motivational Problems – It was a Long, Hard Day
It was a long day, and I was pretty tired. Susan said she was still energetic, but I’m not sure I believed her. I waited up on Josh and company as they walked their boats through yet another shallow section. I jokingly commented that Josh’s gang was starting to look like zombies. Ella made it to deeper water and fell dramatically into it and just sat there. Josh looked at me and said, “We have a bit of a motivational problem.” I wanted to flop down in the water, too, but no one had made me come. Some ways downstream there was a small shoal, and Josh hollered for Krystal and Isaac to “charge” their way through it in the tandem kayak. Krystal’s response was, “We’re way past charging.” Josh pulled them through.
The most spectacular rock bluffs of the day were right around the bend from the takeout. To be honest, I would have appreciated them a lot more if we’d seen them several hours earlier. I did appreciate them, just not as much as I would have when I wasn’t quite as tired. It was almost 6:00 pm by the time we got to the takeout – after about 7.5 hours of paddling / hiking. Lunch was a long-ago memory, and I was already thinking about dinner.
We hauled the boats 200-feet up a fairly steep bank to a small clearing. We only thought the tough part of the trip was over. I stayed with the boats and gear while everyone else shuttled. Josh’s gang had “lunch” in the upstream vehicle, so the kids were looking forward to it. I walked further up the dirt road toward Highway 33. To say that there were ruts at the head of the ¼ mile road was a bit of an understatement. I’m a wimpy off-road driver to start with, but there was no way I was taking my truck down that excuse for a road. Getting stuck would mean that it would be even longer until I got to eat. Did I mention that I was hungry?
Josh was towing a trailer, and he didn’t like the road either. We hadn’t had enough of a workout, so we did the nice quarter-mile hike with the boats and gear, except for one thing: Krystal’s tandem kayak must have weighed a ton, and there was no comfortable way for two people to carry that thing. Josh rigged kayak paddles to make carry bars, but I was sure his paddles would break. I was wrong, and the four of us carried the tandem up the road without an issue – of course the last stretch was another steep climb. By then it was about 7:30 and the kids were dozing. Once everything was loaded up, Susan and I drove away, agreeing that we were glad we had lucked into meeting this exceptional family and shared such a memorable excursion on the Sipsey.
Another great river trip!
Trip date: June 13, 2017 Gauge height: 3.25 feet