Bob and Gwyn Willis had just moved to Montgomery from San Antonio Texas where Bob had retired from a career in the military as a Colonel in the Army. Meg, Stephen and I were visiting Mary and George when Bob and Gwen stopped by on their way to Lineville. I hadnt seen them since I was about 5 years old. My most vivid memories of them came from an 8 mm home movie of their wedding and some water skiing footage taken of them on Lake Martin. I had with me a box full of mens French Schriner shoes of all sizes that sold for $5.00 a pair. Bob , George and I were trying on shoes and talking about no matter how ugly they were, you couldnt pass up a deal like that. The conversation drifted to camping and fishing and it wasnt long before I started telling about how much fun Steve and I had on our 3 day fishing/canoeing/camping trip year. After about two milliseconds of arm twisting, we were making plans for a trip on the first full moon in April.
April came around amid high anticipation of the upcoming trip. We planned every detail and talked about things several times over each time we got together. A friend of Bobs gave him a yellow fiber glass canoe that was about 14 feet long and weighed a mere 200 pounds. Even weighing as much as it did, it still beat an aluminum boat. George planned to use my red Coleman. Since it was his first trip down the creek, I wanted him to enjoy it and not spend 99% of his time getting in and out of the aluminum canoe and having to drag it over rocks for 3 days. Steve used his green Coleman. The canon ball sized dent in the nose popped out once the sun got on it and warmed it up. I used the dreaded aluminum canoe. We made a make shift canoe trailer out of my utility trailer and carried all four boats plus our gear.
The long awaited day finally arrived and we decided to put in at Shorts bridge. This is the same bridge that Steve and I just barely managed to float under last year. Our putting in there cut about an hour or so off the first days trip. Also, there would be less trees to have to contend with. We decided to paddle tandem on the first day since fishing was top priority. George and I used my red Coleman and Bob and Steve went in the green Coleman. This allowed the person in front to concentrate on fishing while the paddler concentrated on steering the boat. Steve Jr. dropped us off at Shorts bridge at about 6:30 AM. We had taken Steves Blazer and the other two canoes to Cat Den the day before. The weather was perfect, cool in the morning and warmed up to 70s during the day. We planned to drive back into town to cook fish and spend the night. The second day would begin at Cat Den.
We got off to a slow start due to the trees blocking the creek, but as for fishing, I caught one on my first cast. Soon we were all reeling in fish and filling up the plastic buckets. Competition and score keeping soon became the order of the day. Stopped a few times to look for arrowheads and stretch our legs. Time seemed to be suspended as the day unfolded but our stomachs reminded us it was time to eat. We maneuvered through a shoal and pulled up next to a fallen tree on the right bank. A light climb up the bank with our lunch gear brought us to a flat spot under a large tree. This place turned out to be just upstream from the train trestle. Everyone was feeling great and encouraged about the number of fish we had caught so far. The bait of choice turned out to be green beetle spins and chartreuse rooster tails. George was leading in the number of fish caught with Bob in second place. Steve and I wet a line every once and a while but were content with paddling the boats and listening to the two of them carry on about who was catching the mostest and biggest fish. There is no shortage of wit and humor when old cousins like George and Bob get together. There also is no truth to the belief that one has to be quiet while fishing in order to catch fish. There wasnt a time when someone wasnt saying something about something.
For an hour or so we did more paddling than fishing. The backwater began about a mile below the trestle. We glided our boats to the right side of Hatchet Creek dam, hauled our boats over and dragged them through the woods to the bank below the dam. Bobs canoe felt like it made out of lead. He said it handled well in eddies, once under way, but you could forget about turning it on a dime in the shoals.
Survey ribbons could be seen in the woods on both sides of the dam. It hadnÕt been to long when six black children drowned in the water just under the dam. Folks say that one of them fell in and started screaming for help and another would jump into save him only to find himself in the same predicament. This continued until six had gone down. Apparently, another child ran back to the Macerate house with the terrible news. Other people said that they were attacked by a swarm of cottonmouths nesting in the thundering waters below the dam. Ive been on Hatchet Creek most of my life and have yet to see the first cottonmouth, although I have seen plenty of water snakes.
A few more bass were caught below the dam. We decided we had enough to feed the multitudes so we stowed our rods and tackle and paddled on down to Cat Den where the Blazer waited.
The fish we caught were a mixture of black bass, red eyed bass, goggle eyed bass, brim and sun fish. I cant remember the exact number, but no one complained about not having enough fish to eat that night.
After a breakfast of sausage, biscuit, eggs and toast at Georges house, we packed Steves Blazer and headed back to Cat Den. Our canoes were soon loaded with two days worth of gear and ready to go by 8:00 AM. I was going to paddle the aluminum Grumman, George was in my red Coleman, Steve in his green Coleman and Bob commanded his free yellow fiberglass thing. The weather was perfect, cool enough to be comfortable in life jackets.
We didnt spend much time fishing since we had to cover about 12 miles that day. The creek ran full and clear under the rock ledges that dripped out the last of the Spring rain. I was having the usual problems associated with using an aluminum canoe in Hatchet Creek. Having gone down this part of the creek before, I knew where to find the deep water in the shoals, but I still had to get out and drag my boat off the rocks time after time. The plastic boats slide off rocks like an eel compared to aluminum boats. Bobs boat was slick despite its not being very maneuverable.
Bob and George were doing well for their first trip solo down the creek. There were no major problems that day and only a couple of times did we have to get wet. Bob was in front of me while going down a long stretch of shoals. My boat got stuck for the 100,000,000 th time, so I got out and gave it a shove and let it drift down creek as far as it would go. At the same time, Bob was plowing through a couple of standing waves. His boat rode up the first wave and nosed under the second wave like a yellow submarine. The water was about four feet deep so Bob just stood up with his paddle in his hand and his feet planted inside his canoe resting on the creek bottom. My boat came floating by with no one in and only added to Bobs confoundment. I waded/swam over to Bob and the two of us managed to resurrect his boat and pour the water out. None of his gear was lost but we both had lost confidence in out transportation at that point.
Bobs boat was heavier that it looked. He said it handled like a dog in the shoals but did fine in deep eddies. Bob soon adjusted to his boat though. One time he came out of a rapid and for some reason angled towards the bank and rammed it at full speed. The bow stuck up in the dirt bank like an ax in softwood. This didnt discourage Bob though. He just stood up, turned around and sat back down. He paddled his boat backward until this happened again. No use fighting something you cant control.
We were at the halfway point where the most challenging rapids are located. The falls required some preparation to go over. In an aluminum boat though, there are no good places to go over. I flipped so fast that the next thing I realized was I was holding my breath and looking for the surface. I had prided myself thus far in the thought of never having turned over while paddling a canoe. I still can claim that in my Coleman canoe, but now a spotless record was blemished and along with it went some confidence in my paddling skills. On the other hand, anyone who has ever been in a canoe has fallen out of it. It just comes with the territory. None of my gear got wet thank goodness. The tedious chore of packing clothes into Zip-Lock bags paid off.
We ate lunch at Dunhams rock and hunted arrowheads in the field. The afternoon found us at the sand bar campsite Steve and I had found the year before. I practically dragged my boat for the last few miles. Exhausted but in good cheer, we made camp and scrounged up driftwood for a fire. Bob had a trout line that he deployed in the eddy just upstream from the camp. Only one small catfish was caught so we settled for Denny Moore stew and coffee. Our tents were set up around the fire and the canoes were pulled up from the water. The moon rose full over the ridge across the creek. The night was cool and clear with stars burning bright through the large pine tree that stood over our camp. Everyone soon crawled into their tents and passed out. Despite the sound of rushing water and croaking Bull Frogs, George and Bob did a fine job of adding to the noises of the wilderness by producing endless noises that sounded like someone ripping their way out of a fabric bag.
Both of my arms were numb from the elbow down. It must have had something to do with the stone that kept moving all night so that it centered itself on my spine. It was a challenge to get dressed and out of a zipped up tent. I got up before the sun did and built a fire. It was 28 degrees F. and frost was beginning to form on our gear. Everyone else began to crawl out of their tents except George. I never knew him to sleep past sunrise, camping or not. After a while, he rolled out of his bag saying that he cant remember when he had slept better. We fixed breakfast and enjoyed the cool clean morning air and the slow warmth of the sun beginning to peak over the same ridge a full moon had passed a few hours ago.
After eating breakfast and packing our gear, we shoved off and headed down stream. The third days weather was just as perfect as the previous days. The sun was bright but not too warm and the wind provided a pleasant breeze. We passed under US 231 bridge about 40 minutes after leaving the camp. The old broken dam appeared against the high ridge of color in the background. We all stopped our boats and hiked around the dam for a look at what confronted us. I didnt want to take the aluminum boat through the trough for obvious reasons. George didnt feel up to paddling my boat through and Bob had already decided to portage his boat after hearing our description of the dam over breakfast. Steve had no problem paddling his boat through and didnt think twice about it. I followed Steve in the Red Coleman and eddied out beside him on the left bank where George and Bob stood watching. The best way to portage boats over the dam appeared to be on the right side. Steve and I ferried my Grumman over and carried it up, over and below the dam and came back for Bobs yellow boat. We had to pull the canoes up a steep sandbank to the top of the dam. Then lower it down to the water on the other side. Bobs boat was unbelievably heavy. Steve and I strained and pulled for some time before we managed to get the boat to the top of the dam. I remember my lungs burning and my breath coming in ragged gasps. Steve and I both had to sit down and rest before attempting the second phase of this operation. We could see Bob and George on the bank across the creek. They were both standing in a posture that suggested their willingness to help, but were helpless to do anything. Steve and I were wishing we had block and tackle to better handle this monster. We couldnt believe the difference in weight between this boat and the others. We stood up and lifted the boat to carry it along the top of the dam to the bank. Steve was walking backward and stepped off the edge. He dropped his end of the boat and somehow managed to cling the edge of the dam. With the exceptions of a few scrapes and bruises, Steve was OK. He kept saying something about, why dont we just shove this thing over, Its probably indestructible. I agreed but we stayed with it until it was delivered back to its owner. I had a renewed respect for anyone, experienced or not, who could stay with that boat for three days and not leave it laying in the woods, or on the bottom of the creek. Bob commented that he now knew why his friend had given him the boat and would not accept payment for it. Knowing what we knew now, he should have paid Bob to take it.
After spending about 1 1/2 hours at the dam, we continued our trip down creek. We paddled forever through the long eddy that follows the shoals below the dam. Several islands appeared on our way to the wide shallow shoals where Spider Lilies bloomed. Conversations were continuous with plenty of good jokes and stories about times past. The scenery was as eye popping as ever. Smells of spring mixed with constant bird chatter added to the warmth of the sun in a clear blue sky. Occasional deer and turkey would burst from the woods along the bank and provide an element of excitement to the already elevated state of outdoor satisfaction.
We ate lunch on the right side of the creek under an overhanging root ball. Steve brought out the artichoke hearts, smoked oysters and crackers. I made peanut butter and cheese sandwiches while George and Bob ate beans, biscuits, and Vienna sausages, (creek food).
Paddling in the aluminum boat was going much better today than it had the day before. I took pride in that so far, I managed to steer my boat clear of rocks. It became a challenge for me to see if I could make it all the way without having to get out. George and Bob were experts by now. It only takes about 12 miles to learn whats important about paddling a canoe. You either learn how to paddle or learn how to suffer. Everyone that goes on these canoe trips is aware that once committed to the three-day trip, there is little chance of being able to give up and quit whenever the notion strikes. It is possible to cut the trip short if an emergency comes up, but how quick one can get out depends on several factors. The element of danger is just one of the many components of this trip that makes it so addictive. There arent many places left where you can enjoy this sort of thing without having to pay a painful fee at the gate, wait in line for hours amongst tourist expecting complete safety and satisfaction around every bend. The enjoyment of this trip depends solely on the preparations and toughness of the individual. Of course, we all help one another when necessary, but for the most part, everyone is self sufficient and left to his own devices as to how he manages. That is why we all have our own canoes and dont paddle tandem. Two people in the same canoe for 32 miles would most likely result in disasters both physically and mentally. Meg and I made the trip between US 280 and US 231 in the same boat when the water was low. This, and hanging wallpaper, were good litmus tests for our marriage. Since we survived those two tests, we are confident there is nothing we cant face.
We came to the falls above the old steel bridge. I was not planning to take the aluminum boat over because disaster would be certain. George and Bob scooped it out and decided to take the narrow path that flowed to the right of the falls. Steve carefully scouted the falls and eventually negotiated them with what looked like an effortless glide. I pointed the aluminum canoe towards the right bank and entered the narrow trough that gently snaked around the falls. George and Bob followed. I remember straining to turn the nose of the boat to keep it from hitting the bank. Fighting it all the way, I managed to maneuver it without getting stuck. When I turned around, I could see George making the last turn with Bob close behind. George had a grimmis on his face and blood running out of the corner of his mouth. When I asked him about it he said that a limb had come out of nowhere and nearly knocked him out of his boat. I guess I must have cocked a limb going through ahead of him and it unloaded about the time he came up. He wiped his mouth from time to time and looked at the top of his hand to see if blood was still flowing.
We cruised on down to the backwaters of the Coosa River to Kellys Crossroads where the trip ended. There was a long stretch of backwater we had to paddle through before arriving at the takeout place. There was a clean sandy boat landing we hadnt noticed before that looked like a much better place to take out than the muddy landing on the other side of the bridge. We were all relatively clean until we started dragging our gear through the mud at the take out. Steve was lagging behind and seemed less talkative than normal. It turned out that he had a fever and wasnt exactly feeling like conversation. Steve Jr. was there with our makeshift trailer. After all the gear was loaded, we all climbed into the station wagon and headed back to Goodwater.