Artistic Inspiration From the River: Kayaker Paddles Solo Down Length of Cahaba River in 11-Day Trip

Artistic Inspiration From the River: Kayaker Paddles Solo Down Length of Cahaba River in 11-Day Trip

Artistic Inspiration From the River: Kayaker Paddles Solo Down Length of Cahaba River in 11-Day TripArtistic Inspiration From the River: Kayaker Paddles Solo Down Length of Cahaba River in 11-Day Trip
Halley Cotton, a University of Alabama at Birmingham English instructor, kayaked the length of Alabama’s longest stretch of free-flowing river and one of its most scenic and biologically diverse. Her 11-day adventure on 180 miles of the 194-mile river began at the Grants Mill access point in Irondale.

By Anne Ruisi

Kayaking on the Cahaba River makes for a great day for most outdoors enthusiasts, and some may even extend their trip to an overnight camping trip.

Then there’s Halley Cotton, a University of Alabama at Birmingham English instructor who kayaked the length of Alabama’s longest stretch of free-flowing river and one of its most scenic and biologically diverse. 

Her 11-day adventure on 180 miles of the 194-mile river began at the Grants Mill access point in Irondale on May 25 of last year and ended where the Cahaba flows into the Alabama River in Dallas County.  

Water has long been an integral part of recreation in Cotton’s life. Her family was frequently out on a lake or other bodies of water, and they had a canoe when she was growing up. Her first real experience with kayaking happened in 2018, when her parents gave her a kayak for Christmas. 

It was a good gift for someone who was just starting to paddle in Alabama, which has more than 1,400 miles of navigable waterways – the highest number among all 50 states.

Cotton kayaks mostly on day outings in Central Alabama, and the trip down the Cahaba was her biggest challenge yet on the water. It also was the first long-distance solo trip that involved camping overnight on the riverbank.

“It was a lot of new for me all at once,” Cotton said.

An Inspiring Journey

Cotton, 33, is a writer and a poet who teaches English literature, creative writing and composition at UAB. Her love for the Cahaba and poetry led to her remarkable river journey, which was funded with a $5,000 grant from the Alabama State Council on the Arts. Cotton wanted to paddle the river and use the experience as inspiration for her writing and poetry.

“I want people to see the Cahaba the way I see it, so that maybe we can conserve it and we can take care of it because it provides drinking water for 60% of Central Alabama, and it’s an important river,” said Cotton, who is on the board of the Cahaba River Society and serves as secretary.

She applied for the grant at the suggestion of her friend and fellow writer Randi Pink, was notified in June 2022 that she’d won it and received the funding that November. With a target launch date set for the following May, she had about six months to plan her strategy to safely make the trip.

Preparation Strategy

“I had to figure out exactly how I was going to tackle this,” Cotton said. “I knew that I could do it.”

Water levels on the river were an important consideration. Those levels are optimal in April and May, but it tends to be very rainy and the Cahaba is “very sensitive to flooding. One flash flood incident can make that river so incredibly dangerous,” she said. But the river’s water levels sometimes can be too low, and the first one-third to one-half of the river’s bottom is all rock, which would impede her ability to navigate her craft.

Once underway, the trip took 11 days, which included one day when she simply rested. 

Everything she needed was packed in the kayak. A flat bottom hammock that operated like a tent or could be strung between trees was her bed each night she camped along the edge of the river. 

She brought her own food, including “those fancy freeze-dried backpacking meals … you add two cups of water and pour it in a little pouch and wait for it to rehydrate,” she said. “It tasted like boiled sadness.”

By the fifth day of the trip, she was begging her friends to bring her apples and granola bars. On Day 7, Pink contacted her and asked if she needed her to bring Cotton anything.

“I was like, ‘Lady, bring me a cheeseburger. I’ll be grateful,’” and Pink did, Cotton said. 

Cotton carried a satellite communicator in case of emergency. It was equipped with GPS so her support team of 25 people could track her location in real time. They also helped her by tracking the weather and were available to pick up supplies if she needed them. 

“Once I was on the trip, I was basically as well prepared as humanly possible and now whatever happens, happens,” she said.

There was a profound sense of freedom on the river, and the area around it teemed with wildlife, Cotton said. Deer, bald and golden eagles, herons, hawks, frogs, snakes, mussels, snails, hummingbirds, butterflies, turtles, otters, wild pigs and “more fish than I know how to name,” were among the animals Cotton said she observed. 

One morning after spending the night on the riverbank, she noticed bobcat tracks around her camp but no other sign of the big cat. 

The other animal that gave her pause when she spotted it in the water was the alligator.

“Alligators made my toes curl a bit,” Cotton said, noting she saw two as she paddled downriver from Centreville in Bibb County, the farthest north on the river where the reptiles can be found.

She saw many more when she ended her journey where the Cahaba flows into the Alabama River. 

“I basically ended my trip in, like, an alligator hatchery with tiny little alligators,” she said, including when she was dragging her kayak out of the water to get to her takeout point. “They’re adorable until you realize you are in the water with them.”

Telling the Story

Since her return, she’s been blogging about the experience on Substack and written articles for Alabama The Beautiful and UAB magazines, plus made dozens of presentations to groups. One of her most recent was to the Hoover Historical Society on May 21 at the Hoover Public Library. 

In those appearances, Cotton said, she not only wants to share the trip’s experiences but wants to let those in the audience know about the threats facing the Cahaba. Flooding, for example, is a threat with complex facets that negatively affect the river. 

Development and lawns of non-native grasses with roots that don’t sink deep enough in the soil lead to silt and sediment runoff that muddy the river’s water. Flooding erodes the riverbanks and the sediment  leads to conditions that deplete oxygen and suffocate river mussels, which act as water filters to keep the river clean.  

As for her poetry, Cotton will be working on it. She’s in a recollection phase of the journey as it relates to verse, she said. 

If you’re interested in reading more about Cotton’s experience kayaking the Cahaba River, her day-by-day journal with in-depth details and photos of the journey, a playlist of songs she listened to on the trip, a reading list and other posts are available on her blog, The Cahaba Project, at thecahabaproject.substack.com.

 

Halley Cotton, a University of Alabama at Birmingham English instructor, kayaked the length of Alabama’s longest stretch of free-flowing river and one of its most scenic and biologically diverse. Her 11-day adventure on 180 miles of the 194-mile river began at the Grants Mill access point in Irondale. By Anne Ruisi Kayaking on the Cahaba…

Leave a Reply