The Timeless River

This article is from the spring 2024 edition of Mobile Baykeeper’s print quarterly, CURRENTS. The magazine is mailed to active members who have given more than $50 in the past year. To get on the magazine’s mailing list, donate here.

by Cade Kistler

Laughter and the joyous screams of children filled the night, along with the slow hum of cicadas and the singing of the river. Nearby, a cluster of kids, including my own, raced barefoot, their faces lit by the glow of their newfound freedom as much as the flickering campfire. As I walked further from our campsite, watching kids spring through the sandy woods in front of me, I tried to take it all in. Far removed from the fear-inducing news and digital demands of constant notifications, there’s something magical about watching your children fly off a rope swing into a cool river and chase each other under starlit skies with no building or road in sight.

I had been wanting to paddle the Perdido River for a few years, and with my oldest now a practiced paddler, and birthdays for my dad (70) and myself (34) coming up, last year seemed a perfect opportunity. After a long morning that included one person getting lost (the 20,000-plus acre Perdido River watershed is a time ma- chine, prepare for limited cell service), getting the kayak trailer stuck briefly, and shoving all our gear into canoes and kayaks, our group — seven kids between the ages of five and ten, five dads, and one granddad — set off from Staple Fork Landing on a crisp, sunny morning.

Somehow, floating down a wild river seems to slow time down. Of course, anyone that’s ever paddled a canoe or kayak knows how fast that tranquility can be broken. As we rounded another bend in the river, paying little attention to the actual paddling and more to the sandbars and blue skies, I looked up to notice an awkward bend in the river coming up fast. I tried to maneuver around it but before I knew it our kayak was tipping on side. In a kayak with 60 or so pounds of extra weight, we didn’t stand a chance and I quickly found myself coming up from the Perdido’s cool waters. After seeing that my son Sage was okay, I dragged my heavy kayak to the closest sand bank and flipped it back over. Of course, I had been snapping pictures as we went, and my smartphone was now some- where between the bend in the river and Perdido Bay.

As the organizer and Baykeeper, I was embarrassed to be the first (and only) one to flip a boat. But that embarrassment and frus- tration didn’t last long. The sun shone on our backs and the kids turned the break from paddling into an impromptu imaginary game. Maybe God had flipped my boat on purpose to get that cell phone out of the way, so I could focus on the real things right in front of me!

That evening, as we settled into our campsite, I couldn’t help but feel a deep-seated contentment. Connecting kids with experiences humans have enjoyed for centuries is a profoundly gratifying expe- rience. It didn’t hurt that my two-burner glamping camp stove was pumping out heat on a pan of salmon and steak I had marinated earlier in the week. This was a birthday celebration, after all!

As the stars rose on the first truly cool fall night of the year, I tried to take a mental snapshot. Watching my son and friends run through the woods, their faces illuminated by the glow of camp- fires rather than screens, I felt a profound connection to both my past and their present. In giving them these moments of pure joy in the natural world, we’re not escaping reality — in a deeply human sense, we’re getting back to it. William Wordsworth said as much when he wrote: “the Child is father of the Man.”

I already know where I’m going to be when the stars rise this October. Maybe I’ll see you out there!

Photo credit: One of several rope swings along Perdido River. Photo by Cade Kistler

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