Whether it is canoeing on the Cahaba River or making a run down the rapids in a kayak on the Mulberry Fork in Blount County, the state of Alabama is a paddlers paradise.
In our third and final installment about outdoor adventures in Alabama, we explore one of the fastest growing sports in the last two decades…paddling.
Top to Bottom
If there is one person that knows a thing or two about paddling Alabama’s creeks, lakes and rivers from top to bottom it is Greg Wingo. A few years ago, he was hired by the Alabama Scenic River Trail, nonprofit organization, as its Race Director for the Great Alabama 650. His task? Create the longest annual paddle race in the world on the organization’s 650 mile namesake the Alabama Scenic River Trail.
When we talked with Wingo about paddling in Alabama, he surprised us with a bit of information that even our state’s most die-hard paddlers did not know.
Alabama is the one of the best places to paddle in the country, if not the world.
Here is why.
Second to Nobody
“I think what separates the state of Alabama from so many other states and places around the world is the sheer number of miles and miles of mapped and marked waters. We have more than any state with the exception of Alaska of miles to paddle,” declared Wingo.
“On top of that, there are vastly different kinds of experiences to be had. You can get whitewater on rapids that feel like you’re in North Carolina. Then you can go to the southern end of the state, and paddle in an area that can only be compared to the Amazon from a biodiversity standpoint. There’s no other place like it. I hope more Alabamians will learn that from a paddling standpoint, we are pretty much second to nobody, when it comes to the diversity of what you can paddle here. I love that,” he added.
Falling In Love With Kayaking
There are many reasons people get hooked on paddle sports. For Tony Diliberto, President of the Alabama Cup Racing Association, it was to avoid his boss.
“It started as something that got me away from my Blackberry (a mobile phone that predates the IPhone and Android). My boss got everybody blackberries and it was the one place I could go where no one could call me,” he said with a laugh. “I started it and just kind of fell in love with it. Kayaking got me in shape and kept me in shape. It allowed me to go places and see things that you can’t, unless you whitewater kayak, because there’s just a lot of canyons you can’t get to.”
Diliberto called kayaking a confidence builder, comparing it to video games. He used Mario Brothers, which he said dated him, as an example.
“There is a whole lot of build up. You spend so much time doing it, learning it, figuring it out. You start on lower class rivers, and work your way up — the more time you’re in your boat, the more comfortable you get.”
Close Knit Group
Paddlers in Alabama are a close-knit and welcoming community according to Diliberto.
“Our Alabama Cup races have always been like a huge family. It’s like a reunion every year.”
Held annually on the Mulberry Fork and the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River, the race on the Mulberry is one of the longest running slalom races in the country. There is on-site camping at both race locations and the events, which are traditionally held in late February and March run from Friday to Saturday. Racers range from novice to championship paddlers. Recently, the Alabama Cup races have become an incubator for youth competitive kayaking.
Beyond participating in the race, it is a special event for spectators too.
When you come to the races, you’ve got kids running around with dogs on a leash, college students playing on the banks of the water and spectators from Birmingham, Huntsville and all over the Southeast. Then there are the campfires in the evening, people singing, playing guitars and even drums. It is a big family reunion.
How To Get Started
Interested in learning how to participate in a paddle sport? We asked Helen Hays, an avid boater, and certified instructor and instructor trainer, who teaches beginner whitewater classes for the Birmingham Canoe Club. When she’s not on the water, Helen serves as Public Information Officer for the Jefferson County Commission.
She told us joining clubs like the Birmingham Canoe Club or Huntsville Canoe Club is a good place to start.
For example, the Birmingham Canoe Club regularly offers:
- Different level paddling classes at Oak Mountain State Park and other locations
- Basic safety courses
- Group paddling trips of various levels
- Take-out property on the Mulberry River (owned by the club)
“We love bringing people into the sport,” said Hays. “That’s what we’re all about at the Birmingham Canoe Club. It is an all-volunteer effort. The Huntsville Canoe Club does an incredible job too. I’m a member of both organizations. They each have great people who get people out on the river and have a good time.”
Want to get started this spring? The Birmingham Canoe Club Facebook calendar lists three upcoming classes on the schedule. They are:
- Paddling 101 – April 10
- Float the (Mostly) Lazy River – April 24
- Beginner Whitewater Kayak Class – May 1-2
Similar to our two previous stories —mountain biking and ultra trail running—getting the right kind of gear is essential. Instead of buying it all in the beginning, it is a good idea to start with an outfitter who provides everything you need for a rental fee. Thanks to the Alabama Scenic River Trail organization, here is a map with a list of outfitters across the state, in addition to a few more we’ve run across.
When it comes down to lifelong friendships and love of nature, Tony Diliberto summed up why paddling Alabama’s beautiful waters means so much to so many people from all walks of life.
“We look out for each other. That’s what it’s like to paddle. Because when you are paddling, you have to constantly be watching out for your friends. We all have stories where we have taken care of each other.
There’s not a bond in this world like a bond that you have with your river family.”