By Scott Morris
Every time I commit to floating down Sipsey River, I immediately dread the trip. Once on the river, however, I’m always glad to be there.
The dread comes from the physically demanding take-out, which requires carrying canoes and kayaks about the length of a football field up a steep, rugged and muddy access road. A person can drive down the access road with four-wheel drive, generous ground clearance and a bit of nerve, but I am not so equipped.
Every time I make the difficult walk up the hill with a canoe or kayak, I wonder why the National Forest Service doesn’t improve and maintain the old road down to the takeout, but maybe I shouldn’t complain. Difficulty preserves solitude.
The solitude of Sipsey River has been calling my name since I was a kid, floating down Alabama’s only nationally designated Wild and Scenic River in a 12-foot aluminum jon boat with my dad. He rode in the back and steered with a wooden paddle while I sat in the front and jumped into the water periodically to drag the boat across the shallow shoals. Along the way, we reeled in spotted bass and bream. Mother rolled the filets in cornmeal and fried them in a sizzling cast iron skillet.
Those childhood trips were reserved for summer when the Sipsey flows shallow and lazy, its warm waters inviting schools of fish up from Smith Lake. Mom and Dad are gone, but I’m still paddling the greenish blue waters in Bankhead National Forest. These days, I launch my kayak on cool winter and spring mornings when the water is high enough for the boat to clear the shoals.
Shawn Storm, of Florence, Alabama, and I headed to the river on a cold March morning with remnants of a recent snowfall still clinging to the shade, but temperatures promising to reach the low 60s. We left my truck in the small gravel parking lot above the take-out near the Sipsey River bridge on Alabama Highway 33 between Moulton and Double Springs, Alabama. Shawn stuffed my kayak into the back of his compact SUV, with his boat secured on the roof rack.
He drove us to the put-in at the Sipsey Picnic Area on Cranal Road, where we paid the $3 access fee and launched below the lower parking lot. We both wore life jackets, and I squeezed into my farmer john wet suit and neoprene socks. Our cargo included dry clothes in case of an accidental swim, and I packed a compact emergency sleeping bag, fire starter, matches, flashlight, first aid kit and rescue rope in case anything went wrong.
The Sipsey isn’t a roaring whitewater thrill ride like the Ocoee River and its watery Appalachian cousins, but things can turn upside down, especially when the water level is high. It’s a long and rugged hike out of the canyon. On a previous trip when the water was rolling high, we came across a couple and their two children who had to spend a shivering night in the wilderness after their canoe flipped and got pinned against a rock in a rapid called One Hundred Yard Dash.
On the morning Shawn and I launched, the online U.S. Geological Survey gauge for the Sipsey West Fork read 233 cubic feet per second of flow, which is on the low end of adequate without scraping the bottom or having to get out and drag the boat.
Except for the Hundred Yard Dash, which can churn into a Class III rapid at high water, the primary danger comes from massive trees that fall and block the river. It’s best to keep an eye out downstream and decide what to do before the current sweeps a paddler into or under a tree. The options include getting out on the bank and portaging around the tree, or scooting out onto the log and sliding the boat over it.
The first tree we encountered was several inches above the water, so I lay down on my back in the kayak and did the floating limbo maneuver. I got a mouthful of rotten tree bark and a skinned forehead, but somehow made it. Shawn’s larger kayak sat higher in the water, so he had to get out on the bank and portage around the tree.
Floating Sipsey and its sister creeks in Bankhead forest provides a North Carolina experience in Alabama because of the steep canyons decorated with hemlocks, holly and mountain laurel. This is the southernmost place in North America where hemlock trees grow. Scientists believe the hemlocks repopulated northward from here after the last ice age. So, if you admire a hemlock tree in the Great Smoky Mountains, you can thank Alabama.
Shawn and I stopped paddling periodically to appreciate the subtle sounds of nature — waterfalls, songbirds, wind in the trees high over our heads. Counting the waterfalls would be a difficult task. They seem to be everywhere, splashing directly into the river, plunging over the cliffs close by and falling in the distance.
When it came time for lunch, we beached our boats and scaled the steep bank to a giant rock shelter that had a flat boulder to serve as a table. A modest waterfall cascaded down from the bluff above and tumbled into the river.
Back in the kayaks after lunch, we floated downstream and soon heard the water roaring as the river squeezed into a narrow chute. This was the beginning of the Hundred Yard Dash, which even at low water generated enough waves to soak us. The real danger here, however, is a pinning boulder in the center of the river that has claimed many canoes through the years, sometimes bending their hulls into a U-shaped wreck. But it was easy to avoid the boulder at low water, and we passed without incident.
Caney Creek, which boasts two of the most spectacular waterfalls in Bankhead, entered downstream on river right, and we were able to paddle upstream the creek for a few hundred yards until a small ledge impeded our passage. We turned around and let the current do the work taking us back to Sipsey River.
In an open, sandy area just beyond the concrete pillars of a former bridge, we paddled up a shallow tributary on the river right and got out of our boats to visit one of the most beautiful areas in the national forest. The creek leads to multiple tributaries that branch off, each small stream featuring a waterfall at the head of its canyon. A thirsty person might be tempted to dip a hand into the crystal clear water here and take a cold drink, but a water filter is always a good idea.
We got a little turned around by the confusing maze of small canyons, but eventually followed the creeks downstream back to our kayaks.
Around the bend, we encountered one of the trip’s largest bluffs, a dark gray sandstone monument that rose from the water and towered over our heads making us feel like small water strider bugs floating on the river surface. Yet another waterfall plunged from the bluff offering the chance for a shower, but that was best left for a warmer day.
Soon we floated under the Alabama Highway 33 bridge and began searching for the hidden takeout on the river left. Shawn spotted pink markers tied to a tree and found the steep and white sandy ramp that would take us back to the truck — up that difficult road, which I had dreaded so much.
Carrying both kayaks at once, we made the heart-pounding climb to the top, stopping periodically for this old man to catch his breath.
According to the Strava fitness app, we traveled 13 miles, including the side hikes, and spent five hours on the river and exploring the canyons.
The Sipsey flows from my past through my present and, hopefully, into my future, tying a life together through memories and the anticipation of new adventures. I plan to keep returning here as long as I’m able to carry a kayak up that cursed hill. I will dread every trip until I dip my paddle into the Sipsey and once again enjoy one of the finest river experiences in the South.
For more information, seeAlabama Whitewater.