Bluewater Paddling on a Green River

The mighty Cahaba River has serene views of diverse wildlife.

A river runs through the heart of Alabama, providing a wondrous water show that delights even the most avid of paddlers. For nearly 200 miles — from the Birmingham suburb of Trussville to Old Cahawba just south of Selma — the Cahaba River offers up a delightfully diverse mix of natural scenery, wildlife and foliage.

“I’ve been paddling my entire life all over the world, and I’ve never been on a river that has all the different aspects that the Cahaba has, ” says Gordon Black, education director for the Cahaba River Society. “The surroundings change every 10 to 15 miles. There are sections of easy whitewater, then it becomes calm, then you get into slightly bigger whitewater. There are high cliffs and big sandy beaches. The wildlife is amazing, and the plant life around the river is stunning. Everything on that river is designed to entertain.”

But for the most part, this ecological entertainment has been a sparsely attended show. Unlike many popular rivers in surrounding states, there has been no coordinated effort to promote the Cahaba as a tourist destination. There are only a handful of developed access points along the waterway, with few companies providing paddling equipment or transportation.

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Several organizations — including the Cahaba River Society, the Nature Conservancy, the Freshwater Land Trust and the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development (UACED) — are seeking to change this and turn the river into a legitimate tourism attraction through the creation of the Cahaba Blueway.

The goal is to develop an access point with parking every five miles or so, plus a website and GPS app to compensate for spotty cell service.

Brian Rushing, the director of economic development initiatives for the UACED, says organizers have been working with public and private partners to raise $50, 000 for the initial phase of the Blueway. More than half the proposed access points on the river should be developed later this year or by early next year, he adds, at which time the Blueway will officially open. 

One of the primary long-term objectives of the Blueway is to generate economic activity for the rural communities near the Cahaba — attracting more canoes and kayaks and thereby increasing demand for food, lodging and outfitters.

“We think the Cahaba Blueway ultimately could have an economic impact in the millions of dollars, ” Rushing says. “In particular, it will be beneficial for Bibb, Perry and Dallas counties, which are three of the poorer counties in our state and are really in need of some economic development opportunities.

“For example, the city of Marion in Perry County is within a 15-minute drive of five of the access points. If we can get a canoe operator in downtown Marion, people could go there and do the historic homes tour, see Civil Rights and Civil War sites, spend the night and then paddle the Cahaba, ” he says. “These communities already have a lot to offer, but the Blueway can help them get to the next level.”

Cahaba River Society’s Black has experienced firsthand the strong economic current that can be created through river tourism. He worked for 16 years as an instructor and guide at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in western North Carolina and watched as the Nantahala River became a major attraction for both whitewater rafters and casual paddlers with an economic impact of more than $48 million.

“About 40, 000 people a year go down that river now, ” Black says. “But it didn’t happen overnight. They had to develop put-ins and work with local governments. At first it was just a few people who were into paddling. Then it grew into more things: the church youth group, the Scout group, families. Some people come to fish or look at the wildflowers. The river brought in all these folks, and it became a real tourist hotspot.

The Cahaba is considered to be one of the most biologically diverse rivers in the United States, offering numerous attractions beyond the water’s edge. In fact, the Cahaba lilies that bloom along the river are so well known that there is an annual festival held in their honor each May in West Blocton.

“The biodiversity along the Cahaba is amazing and wonderful. And it’s also a family recreational river, as opposed to a heart-pounding whitewater river, ” Cahaba River Society Executive Director Beth Stewart says. “So the Cahaba has its own attractions and charms that can’t be found on a lot of other rivers.”

Cary Estes is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.

Text by Cary Estes

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