Late fall is the time to see the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. The skies are blue, the alligators still sun on logs and sandbars and hundreds of species of birds are migrating through. It is too cold for snakes in the woods and on the trails. The paths and riverbeds are dry and the underbrush is less dense and tangled.
Shaped like a wishbone between the Mobile and Tensaw rivers, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta has 25 miles of river on over 250,000 acres (an area about 14 miles wide and 45 miles long), the second largest delta in the U.S. after the Mississippi Delta.
Where there is water, there is life. The Mobile Delta, known as “America’s Amazon” is one of the most biodiverse places in America, maybe the world. There are 350 types of freshwater fish, over 300 species of birds, and more types of turtles and snails than anywhere else on the continent. Turtles drop into the river from logs and branches of toppled trees as boats pass by. Delta Safari guide, Chris Wiber, calls the turtles “alligator potato chips” and describes the sound of alligators crunching on turtle shells.
Life on the river. Tupelos, sweet gum, wild pecan, oak trees, great blue herons, kingfisher, osprey, beavers and feral pigs. Spanish moss, originally called Spanish beard by the French, and muscadine vine. Floating houses, tied by cables to the shore, rise and fall with the tide. Two story houses, ranch houses, and houses with water slides, decks and porches. Houses so far out there is no road access, electricity, or running water.
Deep in the Delta is Bottle Creek Mound, the largest Mississippian site on the north Central Gulf Coast and one of the few Mississippian sites not developed for tourism. Once clear cut by the Mississippians, the island is again covered in forest and 6-foot tall palmettos.
The eighteen mounds were built bucket by bucket for over 100 years and they are lined up with solstices and equinoxes proving the Mississippian’s understanding of math and science. The mounds represent the birth of a people and a social hierarchy. The largest mound is 45 feet tall and belonged to the chief who was considered a deity and connected to God. The sun rose when the chief rose,
Wiber says the Mississippian empire was comparable to the Aztec and Incan empires. 10,000 people may have there lived from 1250-1550 until the Spanish arrived with smallpox that wiped out the indian population. The mounds have been excavated by archaeologists from the University of South Alabama and raided by looters. Artifacts are on display at the University of South Alabama.
“A lot of people know about these mounds, but most people never come to see them. It’s not easy to get here,” says Michael Dorie, captain for the tour. “It takes an hour-and-a-half boat ride and there is no dock, just a mud bank to tie up to. If you don’t have a guide, it is easy to get lost on the trail. There is no kiosk, no welcome center. You need a guide to explain the pieces of dirt. This place was once an empire, you just have to look to find it.”
The best way to go into the rivers of the Delta is by boat or Kayak. Five Rivers Delta Safaris offers guided kayak and boat trips and also overnight trips. The guides on my trip, Chris Wiber, and Michael Dorie, know the rivers and their plants and animals because they are on the river all of the time. They can spot alligators in dark shadows and launch a boat stuck in the mud of a bank.
I wanted to take the river tour after seeing the America’s Amazon documentary and reading Ben Raines’ series in the Mobile Press-Register about the importance of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta on a global scale. It is time to appreciate and protect our Delta now before it is too late.
“Scientists have begun to talk about Mobile Bay approaching a tipping point, just as they did around Chesapeake Bay in the decade before that system collapsed.
You can see the same signs of decline in the woods of the Delta, or the dwindling bits of native forest and stream left in the upper reaches of the state. The extinct animals are never coming back. And more creatures that call our hills and valleys and creeks home are surely headed for the history books.
For those that know these Alabama forests and rivers the best, every trip into the woods or a bog or the sprawling Delta is bittersweet. For all the glories to behold, in birds and fish and flowers, there is the nagging thought of what should be there, or once was there, but is now gone.
Alabama stands at a defining moment. We still have the most incredible river system in North America. We are still home to more species per square mile than any other place on the continent. But the clock is ticking.”
Ben Raines, Where the Rivers meet the Sea, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, is Important on a Global Scale, November 30, 2014 in the Mobile Press-Register