The section of the Tombigbee River above Coffeeville Dam holds some outstanding paddling and wildlife viewing opportunities. The area abounds with fossils and is riotous with its morning birds. Mississippi kites and swallowtail kites, eagles and osprey reel overhead while belted kingfishers and great blue heron guard every point along the river.
The trips, from their access points, are brief excursions fit for the novice and family.
Many of the towns and creeks in this southwest Alabama area are Choctaw. The name Tombigbee itself is said to mean "coffin-maker" in Choctaw, as a caste of elder men of that tribe prepared the bodies of its dead for burial.
The entire area sits on a large salt dome, beneath which often lie trapped deposits of natural gas and petroleum. Gilbertown, a short distance from the river, was the site of the state's first oil well. The northern blockade of the south during the civil was effectively cut the state off from its salt trade in a time when salt was the only satisfactory way of curing foods—especially meat—for the winter. The discovery of salt close to the surface in the area is said to have created such a panicked industry that men working shoulder to shoulder were killed every day during the last months of the war by accidents with picks and shovels. Look for historical markers placed at such sites on the roads to Lock One Park.
Lock One Park near Salipa Alabama is less than two miles above the dead town of St Stephens. St Stephens is very much alive today as an archaeological park because of the town that grew atop the bluffs over the Tombigbee and came to be an early land office for the sale of Indian Lands and Alabama's capital prior to its admission to the American states.
Even before America became a country, scientists were hopping on and off of boats up and down the Tombigbee River because it is a great place to view the geological and fossil record of our earth.
Lock One Park's exquisite setting is that of an ancient pecan grove beside the remains of the first of a series of locks that served the Tombigbee a century ago. New locks and dams and natural sedimentation have made a dead lake out of this former tight bend in the river. The remains of the old lock, the free camping and day use area beneath the monstrous trees, and the public boat ramp are a local curiosity and a growing point off access for the sport of paddling. There is no charge to camp or for day use in this US Army Corps of Engineers park.
Leaving the ramp and paddling to the right will lead immediately to the remains of the old lock and to the dead arm of the river. The "island" circumscribed by the river is home to wild hogs of every size and birds of nearly every description.
The Bluffs of St Stephens
Leaving the ramp to the left is a quarter-mile-or-less-long channel to the main river. Paddling upstream about a mile after entering the river are black bluffs rich in marine fossils like fern and seaweed. Paddling south leads in less than two miles to the beautiful bluffs below St Stephens. It is said that several mosasaurus skeletons in New York's museum of natural history came from near this site. In fact, at the downstream end of the scenic bluffs stand a number of large stones that emerge from the water. The stones are riddled with holes like so many termite-eaten stumps. The holes, or "negative spaces" in these stones are mainly the cavities left by the deteriorated vertebrae of marine creatures of nearly 100 million years ago.
Landing beneath the bluffs is easy at one particular spot which will be obvious upon approach. Fossils emerge from the chalk banks through the action of water and weather.
On the way to the bluffs, all to the right, are two items of interest.
One is the gigantic infrastructure of the defunct cement plant that provided the building materials for the city of Mobile for a hundred years. Over time, locals have gone out in small boats to mark high water events on the towering gantries during floods. The heights of these markings will astonish you.
An interesting fossil-viewing area is to be found on the banks beneath a park on a bluff above a river. The fence along the edge of the parking lot makes the site obvious from the river. Millions of tiny fossils, many as perfectly preserved as the small shells found today during a morning stroll along any living beach, crowd a seam just above the waterline.
The paddle is a safe and short one, save for a few considerations. One, this is a river, and the wind can blow the waves into troughs very quickly. If there is wind or other dangerous weather conditions, don't go until you know. If you do go, keep an eye out for a way out. Two, this river has commercial barge traffic and large powerboat traffic. Most large craft you encounter will be respectful but that is no guarantee. If you encounter the wake of a larger boat, turn your boat into the oncoming waves and keep your paddle moving. Don't let these waves come at you from the side.
Another consider is the water level. The Tombigbee suffers both flood and drought. Check the level before you go by consulting the Coffeeville Gauge. The ideal level is ten feet. Anything over 12 or 13 will cover a lot of what you came to see.
The Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge
The American jungle to be seen at the Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge is fascinating. Accessed from Lenoir Landing, another free US Army Corps of Engineers primitive campground. The campground and its adjacent ramp are located in a slough between the river channel to the right and the backwaters adjacent to the Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge to the left.
There are a number of long, fingerlike bayous to explore. The nicest of them is probably the first slough to the right after paddling left from the ramp. This area is at its most beautiful as sundown, but stay on top of your location as you paddle the maze that can lead you on, unaware of where you left or how long you have been gone..
And while you're this close to the Cretacious-Tertiary Boundary...
The Cretacious-Tertiary (also known as the K-T) Boundary marks the end of the age of dinosaurs and the rise of the age of mammals on the earth one day when the earth was stuck by a huge meteorite 65 million years ago as America was breaking off from Europe. The dramatic climate and physical changes from the impact is said to have cause the extinction of most species of dinosaurs, and the K-T boundary is associated with the K-T extinction. There is a lot to know and learn about this catastrophic geological event, and there is no better way to start learning than to see it at the one place that it is visible between your feet as you stand on the banks of the Tombigbee.
There is no paddling involved in viewing the K-T. This is purely a driving and walking destination not far from the two paddling trips mentioned. The driving part takes you to the end of Sumter County Road 25 as it drops three miles south to the Tombigbee from US Highway 80 near Bellamy, Alabama. Park on the right side of the road at what was formerly a bridgehead when the bridge was in place. Don't park on the left on the property of the immense wood products plant.
Imagine being on this spot the day a tugboat rolled under the bridge and popped up on the other side.
Cross the road to the plant side and descend the steep slope to the banks below. At normal water levels, you can walk easily past the brush along the bank back beneath the bridge and the hundred yards or so to the level banks where the two colors of gray come to the abrupt line of the K-T. This is probably the only place on earth you can do this. Everywhere around you are embedded fossil bones, gigantic fossil oysters, and a 3-D maze of whitish structures that are the chalk-filled former tunnel homes of prehistoric shrimp emerging from the clay.
If you search all day with a magnifying glass, you might find the tiny glassy beads of condensed gassified earth that rained from the sky after the impact of the boundary's agent, the Chicxulub Meteorite that struck Mexico.
Lock Number One Left Bank Public Use Area, Jackson, AL 36545 (signs will direct from Salipa, AL) US Army Corps of Engineers Park
Lenoir Landing, Toxey, AL 36921 (near Womack Hill, AL) US Army Corps of Engineers Park
Service Park, the full-featured US Army Corps of Engineers park in Coffeeville, has complete hookups for RVs and lies approximately midway among the destinations mentioned here. Those who are looking for the extra amenities of a high-end USACE park rather than the primitive camping at the sites mentioned near the put-ins should consider this alternative.
Use the following link to view the water levels above and below each dam in the area: <http://www.sam.usace.army.mil/Missions/CivilWorks/Recreation/BlackWarriorTombigbee(BWT)Lakes.aspx>
Use the following link to view all USACE campsites in the area, including Service Park:< http://www.sam.usace.army.mil/Missions/CivilWorks/Recreation/BlackWarriorTombigbee(BWT)Lakes/Camping.aspx>