When the Alabama summer arrives and the air itself is boiling, our thoughts naturally turn to “where can we go to cool off?” Around here, there are only two outdoor options — head for a cave, or head for a river or lake. We’ve been writing quite a bit about the woodlands, but this blog post is the first one on the topic of our local waters.
A couple of years ago, Ruth and I gave each other kayaks as an anniversary present. We already owned an aluminum canoe, but the Minnow is a beast, and we don’t really have a good way to haul it, so we thought we’d try something that didn’t draw as much water and was easier to maneuver and load. We had given sit-in kayaks a try at Elk River Canoe Rental and liked them, so we thought we’d get on the water more if we had our own boats.
Like many folks around here, we’ve floated sections of the Flint River. In fact, we’ve done several segments, from Oscar Patterson Road in New Market down to Big Cove Road, and lack only a couple to complete the trip to the Tennessee River. Here’s the thing — the Flint is great, it’s reliable, and not too technically challenging. But it’s growing familiar, and we were in the mood for something different. While doing trail maintenance at the Whitaker Preserve earlier this year, we had noticed that the Paint Rock River was pretty, with a moderately swift current, so we started researching put in/take out places.
This wasn’t as straightforward as I thought it would be. The Paint Rock is the river less traveled, or so it seemed. North Alabama Canoe and Kayak (NACK) had been known to organize trips in the past, but after hours of searching (well, three or four hours anyway) I found very few accounts online of trips on the Paint Rock. I did get a glimmer of an idea for one place to put in or take out, and from there started studying Google Maps and came up with a plan.
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So on a sunny July Sunday morning, we tossed the kayaks in the back of the truck and headed for the river. Our first stop was at NACK, since they presumably knew the river and might be willing to shuttle us. Alas, NACK was swarming with folks, and we were told that NACK isn’t doing trips on the Paint Rock anymore. I guess they’ve decided that they’ve got as much business on the Flint as they can handle. So we would be on our own. As The Decemberists sing, “On the road/It’s well advised that you follow your own bag.”
We hopped back into our vehicles and drove east on Highway 72, through Gurley and into Jackson County. We turned north on Alabama 65, and about 1.8 miles past the turnoff to Jackson County Road 20 Highway 65 heads downhill and curves to the right. In the bend of the curve, a dirt road takes off to the right. There’s parking along that road for about five vehicles. For a look at the location on Google Maps, search on 34.775363, -86.251535. If you see mile marker 10, you’ve gone too far. We walked down to the river and said hello to a family that was playing in the water there. The river was shallow with easy walk-in access, and we saw that the river forked just upstream of this location, with an extremely shallow, weedy route to the right and a fallen tree across the left (main) channel. We marked the location on our GPS and dropped our shuttle vehicle.
We then drove farther north on Alabama 65, 3.7 miles up to where Jackson County Road 507 took off to the right. At that junction, there’s a small grassy area with room for two vehicles, though if you drive across the bridge there’s room to park another vehicle or two as long as you are considerate and don’t block access to the fields. For a look at the location on Google Maps, search on 34.827768, -86.244078. There was another family there, packing up after having spent a few days canoeing and camping along the river. There’s a path down to the river, so after dropping the truck on the east side of the bridge, we carried the kayaks down the muddy path, which merges with a drainage ditch from the road. It was dry when we made the trip, but this could be a muddy, slippery launch point under wetter conditions.
I had figured the route to be around 4.5 river miles. The river was relatively wide and slow at this point, which I always like when I’m remembering how to maneuver a kayak. The water wasn’t particularly deep — in fact, I’d be surprised if the river was over 5 feet deep at any point in the trip. Most of the time it was under three feet, and had a little bit of a current.
Within 10 minutes of our launch, we picked up an aerial escort, as a blue heron rose from a grassy bank and winged downstream, with a few grumpy croaks of warning or reproach. He led us downstream a while, then tagged up with another heron who escorted us farther down the river. Are herons territorial? We enjoyed watching the big birds gliding down the river, though I’m not sure they enjoyed watching us, glowering from the bank or from a tree.
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The river was largely docile, and was mostly shaded though there were more than a few sunny stretches. There are a few simple rapids where the channel narrows, usually around a grassy bend. We had only one difficulty, where the river made a right turn between a couple of grassy shoals and a small tree trunk was across the channel (which was about four feet wide at that point). Ruth got hung up on the tree, but simply hopped out into waist-deep water and dragged her kayak to the bank and went around the snag. She was ahead of me and alerted me to the problem, so I did some proactive portaging. That was the only part of the trip that required a portage, though there were around three times that the river was so shallow we were briefly beached. For the record, the water flow was 110 cubic feet per second, as measured on the USGS Paint Rock River gauge. You might want to check this site before you plan a trip. For instance, as I write this post, the river is running at 48 cubic feet per second, which suggests to me that you’ll be doing a lot more portaging when the river is this low.
We stopped about halfway into the trip for a lunch break. There are plenty of accessible rocky beaches if you’d like to have a look at some flowers (like this phlox) or if you’d like to have a butterfly land on your back.
I’ve heard the Paint Rock described as “snaky,” but Ruth only saw a couple of snakes swimming in the water, and they weren’t interested in us. Alas, we didn’t see any turtles, but we did see raccoon tracks at our lunch spot.
This stretch of the river doesn’t have many obvious landmarks, but the bridge at County Road 506 is roughly the halfway point. Overall, it was much cooler on the river, and there were a couple of times there was a lovely breeze that sure made it feel like around 70 degrees.
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I’d say the Paint Rock and the Flint are of similar difficulty, which is to say “not much,” though you can certainly get flipped if you make unwise decisions or fail to execute. I’m not that experienced a paddler, but I suspect this run would be a Class I. I’m not trained in classifying rapids, but my system consists of something like this:
- Class I — overall pretty easy, with only about one swearing session per mile
- Class II — moments of pleasure, long stretches of swearing
- Class III — when/if I get off this river, someone’s gonna pay
- Class IV — consists of standing on the bank, with lots of swearing, because I’m not going in there
- Class V — (faints)
Getting back to the Flint-Paint Rock comparison, the scenery is pretty similar, though the Paint Rock is much less developed. The Paint Rock is shallower overall, and I’ve heard that the fishing is better there than the Flint. The biggest difference between the Paint Rock and the Flint is the solitude. After we got on the river, we didn’t see another person until we came upon some folks about half a mile from our takeout point. So in 4.5 river miles, we saw one group of people.
It took us just a smidge over three hours to make the run once we hit the water. Ruth took these pictures as we neared the takeout point, so if you’re trying this run you would be well-advised to study them. If you go toward river left near the takeout point, the channel is blocked by a tree that is very likely to give you a swimming lesson. Head river right instead, and prepare yourself to walk the last 50 yards or so since it will be too shallow to float.
According to our GPS track, the total distance on the water was 5.1 miles.
We had a great time floating the Paint Rock, and will definitely be looking about for other good routes on this river. On our way back, we drove past NACK again and there were even more cars there. I suspect on most weekend summer days you could almost walk down the middle of the Flint, stepping from boat to boat. Follow your own bag.