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A Few Miles From Mobile, A Wealth Of History, Nature — And Danger

A cypress tree swamp in Byrnes Lake, part of the more than 200,000-acre Mobile delta. It's the most biologically diverse river delta system in the country.
Debbie Elliott

This summer,Morning Edition is taking you on adventures off the beaten path — trails that transport us to a special, hidden place. We start just minutes from downtown Mobile, Ala., at the point where five rivers converge in the Mobile Bay Delta. With our trail guide, we discover centuries of history, and biodiversity like no other place in the country.

The point where five rivers empty into Mobile Bay is a fisherman and hunter's paradise, but it's also a draw for naturalists and history buffs.

"You can see downtown Mobile over there. And then within a few minutes, we're teleported into this totally alien world," says Ben Raines, director of the Weeks Bay Foundation, a conservation group.

Raines has a center-console skiff that's small enough to navigate the more than 40 miles of rivers, creeks, bays and bayous that make up the Mobile delta.

In moments, we see egrets, ospreys, pelicans, wild rice, the giant yellow blooms of the American lotus, and purple pickerelweed. The lower end of the delta is a wide expanse of water and wetland grasses.

As we travel north, Raines steers the boat through a narrow creek and into a small bay. This is Little Bateau. Spanish explorers were here in the mid-1500s. The French came 150 years later. The creatures have been here the whole time.

"There's an alligator there," Raines says. "Pretty good-size one, about 10 feet probably. Oh, he went underwater."

He calculates its size by estimating the length between its snout and eyes. Ten inches equals a 10-foot gator.

"You've got alligators, you've got manatees, you've got bull sharks that come up here. You've got bears. And you've got those guys," he says, as a bird chirps. "I think that's a marsh hen. And multiple species of poisonous snake. So you've got all these ways to get killed just a couple of miles from home."

Ben Raines, director of the Weeks Bay Foundation, leans over his skiff to get a photograph of a blooming American lotus in the Mobile delta.
Debbie Elliott / NPR
Ben Raines, director of the Weeks Bay Foundation, leans over his skiff to get a photograph of a blooming American lotus in the Mobile delta.

With the motor off, a deep quiet sets in, save for a passing breeze.

Raines says about 300 bird species migrate through the delta, and it's home to more species of fish, turtles, salamanders, crawfish and mussels than anywhere else in the country. "This place is as rich as the Amazon in fish species, in animals, in plants."

As we move deeper into the delta, the air feels thicker, and Spanish moss-draped trees form a canopy over the water. Raines says this is a classic maritime forest. The banks of the bayou are lined with saw palmetto.

"The palmetto fronds make all this racket when you touch them," he explains, "and that's how you can tell the wild hogs are coming. So when you hear that, get up in a tree, because they've got teeth like a German shepherd and there are a lot of them."

Upriver, we climb off the boat in search of an ancient Indian shell mound. This was once the center of Native American culture on the Gulf Coast. A trek through thick vegetation brings us to the 8-foot mound of shells that would have been a dry ground for camping near fishing waters.

Just beyond the shell mound is what's known as the Ecor Rouge — giant red river bluffs and the site of a Civil War battleground.

"We're on the banks of the Blakeley River here, the site of the last battle of the Civil War, which was fought after the Civil War was over, about a week later," Raines says. "So I always feel like these woods are haunted with all these people who died after a lost cause was already over."

Out in the river, the water is nearly 100 feet deep.

"The legend is, after the battle was over, when the Confederates were getting overrun, they started pushing their cannons off the cliff into the water so the Union soldiers wouldn't get them. And supposedly the current roiling around these massive iron cannons in the water has dug this hole deeper and deeper over the last century," he explains.

In this upper part of the delta, we're now seeing signs of human life. Homes and houseboats dot the river bank.

At Cloverleaf Landing, a private boat launch, the proprietor steps off a house boat to greet us. "I'm Lucy Pie. Most everybody call me Pie. That's all they know me by is Pie. My real name is Lucy Hollings."

She lives off the land and river here.

Alabama in the public mind is civil rights and steel mills, it's cotton fields. Those are the things we've done to Alabama; those aren't what Alabama is.

"I love to eat fish and just about everything out of the delta," Hollings says. "My foreparents was Indians. My grandmama was Cherokee. So I enjoy living off the land. Very seldom go to the store and buy food. Don't have to."

Out on a long wooden pier, her grandchildren are gathering the day's catch. They use a long-handled scoop net to pull the crab from the water below.

Seven-year-old Kendall James explains how to get a crab on your line.

"You tie the chicken on it," Kendall says. "You throw it in, and once it goes straight, you pull it up very slow, then you get the net and scoop the chicken up and you get the crab."

Pie Hollings says she has seen life in the delta change as suburban subdivisions move ever closer. And Ben Raines says that's the biggest threat to the biodiversity here.

There's a move to have the Mobile delta preserved as a national park. But conservative local politicians don't like the idea of the federal government having control. Raines says either way, it's a national treasure.

"Alabama in the public mind is civil rights and steel mills, it's cotton fields," he says. "Those are the things we've done to Alabama; those aren't what Alabama is. This is what Alabama is — it's America's Amazon. It is the wildest, most diverse place we've got in the country."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South and occasionally guest-hosting NPR news programs. She covers the latest news and politics and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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