Where the Wild Things Are: A Trip Down Alabama’s Mobile-Tensaw River Delta

A writer tours this vibrant but vulnerable ecosystem with the human who knows it best
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Alabama’s Mobile-Tensaw Delta

Photo by John E. McDonald

Alabama’s Mobile-Tensaw River Delta is one of the richest repositories of life on the planet. A writer tours this vibrant but vulnerable ecosystem with the human who knows it best. Plus: More great escapes into the wild South. 

 

There’s something wrong with the motor. Jimbo Meador looks up plaintively from behind the outboard of his flat-bottomed boat, which bobs idly alongside the pier in Meaher State Park. We are in Spanish Fort, Alabama, near the junction of Mobile Bay and the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, but for the moment, it appears we’re stranded ashore. “Water pump ain’t working,” he says, syrupy accent smoothing over both r’s. His disappointment is palpable, even with his face obscured by aviator shades and a long-brimmed hat. This trip was important to him.

Jimbo Meador has been navigating the delta for decades

Photo by John E. McDonald

“Let me make some phone calls,” he says. “I’ll see if I can get somebody else to take you out.”

Meador climbs out of the boat and walks down the pier in a white, long-sleeved sun shirt and slacks rolled up to reveal feet as brown, worn, and leathery as the sandals they’re in. He pulls out his cellphone and starts calling around before he even makes it to his pickup. To him, taking journalists like myself out on this delta is something between a public service and a sworn duty. He grew up on these waters and in these swamps and woods. He courted his wife, Lynn, on nearby Mobile Bay. As an adult, the delta has been his lifeblood and livelihood; he’s run everything from tugboats to shrimping boats, loaded ships, managed seafood plants, been a fly-fishing guide and a private ecotour director. Over the decades, he has watched as civilization steadily encroached, choking out the delicate natural wonderland that is his—and he stresses, everyone else’s—birthright.

In his view, the public needs to be made aware of this hidden treasure—this remote American Amazon—and the dangers their presence poses to it. That’s why he opened Jimbo’s Delta Excursions in 2014, taking groups of six out in a boat custom-built to float into the less-traveled shallows and submerged grasses. It’s why, despite the fact that he shuttered the business months ago to care full time for Lynn, who has Alzheimer’s, the 80-year-old retiree agreed to take me and a photographer on a personal tour of his childhood playground, free of charge.

And it’s probably why, after calling a few of his boat-captain buddies and his mechanic, he returns to the vessel ready to take a chance. He starts the motor. “Could be a bug or a dirt dauber just got into the motor’s pee hole,” he says. “Or the pump’s broke, the engine might overheat, and we’ll be stuck in a beautiful place.” 

The delta is teeming with wildlife of all shapes and sizes

Photo by John E. McDonald

As Meador pilots the boat away from the pier and toward the river, he gives us a choice: south toward the bay to see some colorful birds or north to see some “pretty flowers.” It’s a trick question. 

Every inch of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta’s 260,000 acres is teeming with wildlife of every size, shade, and taxonomy. Starting at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Alabama rivers and flowing southward, fed by six more rivers (Mobile, Tensaw, Apalachee, Middle, Blakeley, and Spanish) and some 250 other tributaries all pouring into Mobile Bay, it’s the second-largest delta in the United States, behind the Mississippi. It’s recognized as one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, home to about 500 species of plants, some 300 birds, 126 fishes, 69 reptiles, 46 mammals, and 30 amphibians—67 of these species rare, imperiled, threatened, or endangered. 

Meador suggests we head north, and before we have a chance to agree, he opens the throttle and speeds up the Blakeley River. Above us, brown pelicans soar and dive for striped mullet, and osprey spring from the branches of towering cypress and live oaks draped in Spanish moss. Long-billed blue-and-orange belted kingfishers dart to and from their tiny burrows in the red clay of the naked bluffs. As we slow, we see American alligators floating just beneath the water’s surface, the smaller ones submerging as we close in, the larger ones standing their ground, daring us to come closer. 

Farther upstream, as the Blakeley flows into the Apalachee and then the Tensaw, Meador kills the motor. In the newfound silence, he identifies the jeeb-jeeb-jeeb of an unseen boat-tailed grackle; he coasts into a patch of lily pads heavy with pools of water from recent rains, clean enough to drink. Standing tall above the floor of pads, a floating forest of stems stretches upward, holding white petals around a golden core: the mythical lotus. “Buddhists believe that the lotus grows from the mud, up through the murky water, and into enlightenment,” says Meador. “And the roots and the seeds are good eatin’ too.” He pulls out a pocket knife, clips an unopened lotus pod from its stem, slices it open, but decides these seeds aren’t quite ready for consumption. 

Meador slices a lotus pod

Photo by John E. McDonald

He restarts the motor, reverses the boat back into the river, and darts down a narrow creek, where he continues to point out flora (water hemlock, morning glory) and fauna (blue heron) without slowing, careening through the seagrass maze with an intuitive sense of every corner, shallow, and invisible obstacle below. He hands out a trifold checklist of birds and passes around sand-encrusted laminates that illustrate the life cycles of the brown and pink shrimp and blue crab that dwell in the muddy water beneath us. The handouts are remnants of his days as a tour guide. But the encyclopedic knowledge was built over decades of coexisting with these plants and animals. “People always ask me why I quit school,” he says. “I tell them it was interfering with my education.” 

Meador was born in Mobile’s Spring Hill neighborhood, about 20 miles from the delta, but his family summered in Point Clear on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. Regardless of the season, his parents let him have the type of free-range childhood one can only imagine these days. He spent every spare hour running through the delta’s flood plains and bottomland forests, wading the brackish marshes, rowing across the swamps, spending the night aboard a friend’s dad’s houseboat, and puttering up and down the creeks and open water. As a young boy, he would trap furs to sell in the winter. He’d hunt duck and snipe in the morning, fish for trout and bluegill during the day, and gig for frogs at night. As he grew, so did his reputation as the man who would catch and relocate gators with his bare hands and swim mostly naked in the dead of winter. “It’s a great playground for a kid growing up,” he says. “It still is for an older kid. I’m still growing up.” 

Cypress trees tower over the delta

Photo by John E. McDonald

Storytellers like Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, and Winston Groom wanted to befriend him. Groom even listed Meador in his dedication for Forrest Gump, the story of an Alabama man who somehow always finds himself eyewitnessing crucial moments in history. (In fact, when Hollywood decided to adapt that story for film, Paramount sent a dialect coach to record Meador speaking so Tom Hanks could mimic his singular Alabama-delta accent.) As Meador has aged, he’s witnessed more gradual, but no less significant, developments in the life of this estuary. 

As he motors up and down the waterways pointing out plants and animals, he mentions that some of them, like the water hyacinth, alligator weed, and Eurasian milfoil weed, weren’t here when he was young. He also talks about the new developments and houses that have popped up on the perimeter of the delta, tended lawns and concrete driveways amid the wild grass. 

“You know what the most invasive species is?” he says. 

The Mobile-Tensaw delta is recognized as one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world

Photo by John E. McDonald

Even as it remains a well-kept secret compared with the Mississippi Delta, the bounty of this place was bound to attract human inhabitants. Evidence of people in the area dates back 5,000 years; the Mississippians arrived around 700 years ago, followed by the Alabama, Mobilian, and Taensas peoples for whom these waterways are named. They fished and hunted, gathered vegetation, and even mined clay and minerals as a relatively harmonious part of the ecosystem. 

Spanish explorers passed through in the 1500s, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that Europeans arrived here to stay. In 1702, the French built a fort and a surrounding town they called Mobile, after the native people that helped feed them. It was a story of Whites cooperating with their newfound neighbors that would become increasingly rare. The following century saw an 1813 Creek Indian attack that killed more than 250 settlers; the 1860 wreck of the last known American slave ship, the Clotilda, illegally carrying 110 African captives into Mobile Bay; and the last major battle of the Civil War at Fort Blakeley on the delta’s southeastern rim, which raged for hours after the war had ended. (“Lee had surrendered,” says Meador. “But no one here got the email.”) After World War II, these deep fresh waters were home to the so-called “Mothball Fleet” of navy warships built in the nearby shipyards to keep them fit and free from salt corrosion. 

Meador recounts these stories to visitors interested in the history of this place. However, it’s not the ancient battles between humans but rather humankind’s much quieter and ongoing war on the environment that most concerns him. Since the 1920s, Mobile Bay has been crisscrossed with concrete, including the causeway, I-65, I-10, and a railway line. Upstream dams have inhibited river flow and increased sediment and pollution. The Mobile River is considered one of the most endangered in the country, owing to all the chemical, manufacturing, and coal-powered electrical plants built along its banks. On the eastern side of the delta, what was once acres of farmland is now subdivisions of five-bedroom homes, strip malls, and Taco Bells whose driveways, parking lots, roads, and roofs drain unfiltered runoff. 

American alligators float just beneath the water’s surface

Photo by John E. Mcdonald

All of this muddies water that was once so clear, Jimbo and Lynn could spearfish while they were dating. She’d scrape barnacles off the pilings into the water to attract hungry sheepshead; he waited with the spear. Now the waters are as murky as those decades-old memories, shutting out light from submersed grasses and killing the habitat and breeding grounds of all manner of aquatic life. Aerial studies conducted by the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program showed that, between 2002 and 2009, Alabama lost more than 1,300 acres of underwater seagrass, mostly in the delta. And while a 2015 study showed that some of the seabeds had recovered, Meador says that the entire lower eastern shore south of I-10, once lush with native eelgrass, is still bare. “The delta is like a giant kidney,” he says. “The vegetation absorbs all the nitrogen and phosphorus and utilizes it and filters out all the dirt and silt. Without that vegetation, the muddy water is killing the sea grasses. You can’t have grass without clear water, and you can’t have clear water without the grass.” 

The best way Meador can illustrate it is with a personal story. When he was a boy, humans seeking hides hunted alligators to the brink of extinction. As a result, there were no natural predators for the furry, long-whiskered rodents called nutria that invaded the area, wreaking havoc on plants and other wildlife. To get relief from the little pests, the community staged nutria rodeos, where contestants packed their firearms, fanned out across the delta, and collected as many critters as possible. One year, 15-year-old Meador took home the prize for biggest beast caught. But all the rodeos and hunts combined didn’t have the same impact as one piece of federal legislation protecting alligators as an endangered species. The gator hunting stopped, the ancient reptiles returned, and over time, the invasive nutria disappeared. “Nature has a way of taking care of itself,” he says. “If you let it.” 

Meador would like more federal, state, and local regulation to protect the delta, but he’s realistic. “You can’t stop people,” he says. He just wants those people to appreciate what’s in front of them. “I’m sad because kids don’t even know what I had. They won’t know what they’ve lost because they never knew what they had.” 

Vibrant sunsets stretch over the delta

Photo by John E. McDonald

As the sun climbs higher and the heat intensifies, Meador turns the boat toward home. He needs to get back to replace an air-conditioner that gave out in the middle of the June heat wave and, of course, to care for Lynn. 

The return trip is a review of sorts as we again notice the McMansions and piers populating the shoreline—just a trickle of the development going on upstream. It’s certainly not a problem unique to the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. It’s also happening throughout Mobile Bay and along the Gulf Shores. “Wherever there is water, people want to live on it,” says Connie Whitaker, executive director of the South Alabama Land Trust, an environmental protection agency for Baldwin County, which makes up much of the east side of the delta. 

Environmental organizations can’t compete dollar-for-dollar with the private developers buying up all this land. But they can make a lot of noise when it comes to government approval and zoning. They can also raise awareness and encourage residents to make sustainable decisions in their landscaping and construction. Meador supports Whitaker and almost all the area watchdogs and does what he can to share his passion for this place. 

As we fly downriver, the motor drowning out any other sounds, we spot in the distance a blue heron perched on a log. Then we notice the eyes of a gator just above the water’s surface, heading slowly toward the bird. Anticipating a possible confrontation, I look to Meador. But he’s looking westward toward Mobile, which looms just above the horizon like a city in the clouds. 

We travel farther, and the skyline vanishes behind the tree line. Once again, we are enveloped in the lush green of the delta. Our only companions are the birds above and whatever else is hiding in the waters below. The wind rushes against our faces. I swear I can see the corners of Meador’s mouth turn upward, as if his mind is awash in memory. He’s a kid again. He’s home. 

Explore the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta

DO: Jimbo Meador may have hung up his hat, but you can still explore the delta with a knowledgeable guide. Just a five-minute drive from downtown Mobile, WildNative Tours leads private chartered ecotours and wildlife-focused kayak excursions. Glimpse hard-to-reach corners of the waterway with Airboat Express, which offers hour-long ecotours as well as a nighttime experience devoted to alligators.

STAY: After a long day communing with nature, relax in modern luxury and take in the historic downtown Mobile setting at the Admiral. Spacious, high-ceilinged rooms replete with marble bathrooms offer a privileged view of the Port City, with easy access to the delta and Mobile Bay.

5 More great escapes into the wild South. 

  1. Our First National River

Half a century ago, Arkansas’s 135-mile Buffalo River was one of the last remaining free-flowing rivers in the lower 48 states—and its days were numbered. Plans were underway to break it up with two hydroelectric dams when conservationists intervened, imploring the National Park Service to designate it a national river, the country’s first. Today, you can celebrate 50 years of the Buffalo National River—and other protected waterways that followed—by walking the park’s trails, setting up camp, or better yet, paddling the river past the verdant forests and towering bluffs of the Ozarks.

Buffalo River

Illustration by Alexander Vidal

2. Running with the Wolves

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, located on a peninsula in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, is flush with black bears, river otters, and waterfowl. But it’s the animals we haven’t seen there in decades that are getting special attention. Centuries ago, the red wolf could be found throughout the southern and mid-Atlantic United States. But by 1972, hunting and habitat loss led to the species’ endangerment. At that time, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service established the Red Wolf Recovery Program, which began with the release of captive-bred wolves; after some initial success, the effort met with legislative challenges and the number of animals dropped to perilous levels. Thanks to renewed efforts, the North Carolina red wolf population—the only wild one in the world—is rallying and represents the brightest future the species has seen in a century. North Carolina program manager Joe Madison has an update on their progress.

Southbound: Why North Carolina?

Madison: This was a rural area with a good prey base of mice, moles, nutria, and raccoons, and no coyotes to compete with.

SB: What are some of the challenges the wolves have faced here?

JM: The largest issue is trying to repopulate a wild population
with animals raised in captivity. They just haven’t been hunting and aren’t aware of their place in the food chain. And humans are still the top cause of death, by gunshot and vehicle collision.

SB: How much of a danger are humans?

JM: The average lifespan of these wolves is four to five years. Take out the human causes of death, that number is nine years.

SB: Despite that, there seems to be reason for hope.

JM: We released 10 captive animals this past winter. Two were mortalities (one was shot, and the cause of death for the other is unknown). But we fostered pups into a wild den in 2021, and at least two have survived. We also have an island propagation site off the coast of Florida where wolves are born into the wild, and we brought one of those pups to North Carolina in 2020. He paired with a younger female, and they gave birth to six pups—the first known litter in the wild since 2018. As of early July, they are still out there.

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Illustration by Alexander Vidal

3. Scenery from Another Country, Dangers from Another Era

Set high on the Allegheny Plateau of West Virginia, Dolly Sods Wilderness
is a scene from another place and time. Within its rocky plains, hardwood forests, and laurel thickets are upland bogs and course-grass heaths more typically found in the peatlands of northern Canada. Heavy logging around the turn of the 20th century resulted in rapid erosion of the topsoil, making the rocky ground inhospitable to all but the heartiest species of vegetation. Forty- seven miles of trails trace old railroads and logging roads—but be sure not to wander too far from the beaten path. The U.S. military staged training here during World War II, and while crews have scoured the area for artillery and mortar shells, live ordinances remain scattered through the wilds.

Dolly Sods Wilderness

Illustration by Alexander Vidal

4. Everglades Turns 75

Established in 1947, Florida’s Everglades National Park is a window into the South’s largest wilderness—the largest subtropical ecosystem in the United States— and a habitat for hundreds of rare plants and animals. To commemorate the park’s 75th year, here are some stats related to this natural treasure:

1.5 MILLION Acres of wetlands—including mangroves, marshes, and flatwoods— encompassed by the park

20: Percentage of the original Everglades ecosystem that the national park protects

750: Number of animal species that call the park home, 39 of which are classified as threatened or protected, including the Florida panther, the West Indian manatee, the American alligator, and the loggerhead sea turtle

39 Native orchid species found in the park—in addition to about 750 other native seed- bearing plants

10: Difference in degrees between the average high temperature in summer (87° F) and winter (77° F)

Everglades National Park

Illustration by Alexander Vidal

5. South Carolina’s Not-So-Secret Escape

Twenty years after its establishment as a national park, South Carolina’s Congaree remains one of the Southeast’s quieter outdoor treasures. At a time when national park visitation is so sky-high that most parks are admitting guests by reservation only, Congaree ranks as one of the least-visited national parks in the lower 48 states—and the least-visited in the mainland South. (Only Dry Tortugas, 70 miles off the coast of Key West, clocks fewer tourists.) This means you are free to roam amid the park’s signature national-champion trees or go off-trail for a guided “Big Tree Hike” to brush up against the majestic loblolly pine, laurel oak, swamp tupelo, and sweetgum. Just try to keep the secret to yourself.

Congaree

Illustration by Alexander Vidal

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This article appears in the Fall & Winter 2022 issue of Southbound

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