Touring Alabama...by kayak.

Oct 8, 2019

The “Great Alabama 650” began at Lake Weiss in northeast Alabama. Seven days, 12 hours and 45 minutes later, it was over. For Bobby Johnson, it was a journey that included heat, rapids, heavy chop on Mobile Bay and a collision with an alligator. We met Johnson as he stepped out of his kayak into salt water at Fort Morgan.

“This race to me…I will cherish these last seven days forever,” says Johnson. “I enjoyed it that much. It was absolutely fantastic.”

The race is intended to show off the Alabama Scenic River Trail. That’s a system of waterways across the state.

“The one thing that I feel like we’ve accomplished very well, which is showing off the waterways,” says Greg Wingo. “We’ve had many, many people say not only that they want to take on the challenge of the race itself, but also come and take part on the trail."

Kayakers Bobby Johnson and Salli O'Donnell, two of the winners of the Alabama 650 race.
Credit APR's Guy Busby

Johnson is a Florida resident. He says was amazed by what he saw during his more than six hundred mile trek.

"I liked every single part of the river I got onto. I loved the big sand bars, all the rock. It was just cool. All the different trees, all the animals,” says Johnson, “There were so many animals. Just deer, turkey. They were just everywhere. You could not paddle 100 feet without seeing a deer.”

Johnson estimates that he slept for about 10 hours out of the more than 180 hours. He spent the rest opf the time pushing himself. With that kind of pace, racers realize that the effects can include hallucinations.

“The bison were all in the trees, Kermit the Frog was up there,” recalls Johnson.

One thing that was real were the alligators. Johnson said he was fortunate that the reptile he hit was one of the smaller ones.

“It was probably only four feet maybe. I only saw two big gators,” says Johnson. “Three, three big gators, saw one today too. One earlier, one last night and one today."

Johnson ran into another obstacle less than 20 miles from the finish line. It was the winds that kicked up the open water of Mobile Bay.

“I am dropping in the waves shooting sideways, coming back over the top of them connecting waves and I am wide open flat out having a blast, screaming at the top of my lungs,” he says.

Most of the eleven boats that started the race dropped out. Wingo says heat was a major factor.

“Essentially you’re starting out on some pretty fast-moving down the Coosa River. You hit multiple flat water with the different lakes, Lake Martin, Lake Mitchell and Jordan, and all in between you do have some more fast-moving rivers on the Coosa. Past Lake Jordan, you actually hit some rapids, Class 2 and even up to a Class 3 rapid that you’re going to hit in Moccasin Bend and then it starts to get a little bit slower,” Wingo says. “The water starts to slow down a bit and as you get closer to the Delta region, the water is actually tidal water coming in, pushing you in the opposite direction.”

Credit APR's Guy Busby

The idea for the race began as a way to show off that aquatic variety and the Alabama Scenic River Trail.

“We’ve been getting posts and messages and quotes or comments from all over the place,” says Jay Grantland, executive director of the Alabama Scenic River Trail. “So we’re pretty overwhelmed with the scope and the reach that this has created for these guys to be paddling for 650 miles through our beautiful amazing state.”

While the competitors received prizes in all three divisions, the big winners are the people of Alabama and everyone who discovers the waterways and other natural wonders in the state.

“We’ve got so much diversity here in Alabama, the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the Pinhoti Trail, that ties into the Appalachian Trail,” says Grantland.

“We’ve got the Gulf Coast and the Delta, all these wonderful, amazing, beautiful challenging things for people to do and enjoy ether with their families or their friends or individually.”