Vestavia Hills Grad Hunter Nichols Chronicles His 44-day Journey along Alabama’s Rivers
By Cary Estes
There has always been a bit of wanderlust coursing through Hunter Nichols’ veins. As a teenager growing up in the Vestavia Hills/Cahaba Heights area, Nichols would often explore the nearby creeks and woods, alone, with only the fish and turtles as his companions.
One of Nichols’ favorite haunts was Little Shades Creek off Dolly Ridge Road. He soon discovered that if he walked along the bank far enough, he would arrive at the Cahaba River.
Nichols made this trip several times in his youth, adventures that inevitably ended with him calling his parents to come pick him up.
It didn’t take much research for Nichols to discover that the Cahaba River led to the Alabama River, which led to the Mobile Delta, which led to the Gulf of Mexico. An uninterrupted, 350-mile aqueous path.
And with that, a dream was born.
“I wanted to canoe from Birmingham all the way to the coast,” Nichols said. “It intrigued me. It fascinated me.”
Nichols attempted the journey not long after graduating from Vestavia Hills High School in 2003, but he barely made it halfway before being forced to halt the trip because of flooding along the Alabama River.
The dream didn’t die that day, however. It was just put on hold until 2011. During that time, Nichols graduated from Auburn University with a bachelor’s degree in radio, television and film and began working as a freelance filmmaker creating videos and photography projects for several environmental organizations.
So when Nichols pursued the endeavor again in 2011, he used his filmmaking experience to record the trip. He then produced a 72-minute documentary called “River Dreams,” which chronicles his 44-day solo sojourn along Alabama’s waterways.
“River Dreams” premiered last October at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival in Birmingham. It will be shown in March at the George Lindsey Film Festival in Huntsville and the Lookout Wild Film Festival in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Copies of the DVD and Blue Ray can be purchased through www.RiverDreamsFilm.com.
The film, which includes a musical score by Nichols’ fiancée, Cat Porter, has been well received among the paddling community. Andrew Stern with canoe manufacturer Bending Branches said, “The film is euphoric … one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever seen.” And Canoe & Kayak magazine called it “a 72-minute meditative window into the joys and difficulties of a solo river adventure.”
“The paddling community across the nation has really embraced this,” Nichols said. “I’ve had a lot of outreach about it. It’s a niche film, like a surfing film. There’s a core demographic that really appreciates it.
“It’s a personal memoir of how much I love the rivers and these places, and what they do for me. I’m hoping it will inspire people to get out and experience these places and fall in love with them and help protect them. These places mean a whole lot to me and have changed my life.”
The photography includes numerous shots from within the canoe, giving viewers a fascinating first-person view of what Nichols was experiencing.
“I tried to get people into those moments,” he said. “I used a custom monopod that I could attach to the stern or bow of the boat and adjust the height. That yielded some beautiful cinematography. I essentially turned the boat into a tool. It’s basically a dolly, gliding under the trees.”
Nichols began preparing for the trip more than a year in advance, saving up money to buy the needed equipment and provisions. The solar panel to charge his camera batteries costs $1,000 alone. He also needed cameras, food (60 pounds worth), a hammock (with a built-in mosquito net), a canopy and lots of odds and ends such as a small first-aid kit.
Nichols placed his 16-foot Wenonah canoe into the water on May 23, 2011, and set off for the Gulf Coast. There was no itinerary, no strict schedule to maintain. This was the adventure of a lifetime, and Nichols was determined to enjoy every minute of it.
“I took my time, which was the nicest freedom about it,” Nichols said. “I’d stop to look at things and explore what was around. That’s what it’s all about. It’s slowing down and spending time in those areas and getting to know them. It definitely wasn’t a race to get anywhere.”
Of course, spending six weeks alone in a canoe is not without its perils. In addition to the otters and eagles and birds and deer that gather along the rivers, these waters also are home to numerous alligators, some up to 13 feet long. And since Nichols often was floating silently along, he occasionally would stumble upon a slumbering gator without warning.
“They can hear a bass boat coming and will head toward the bank. But with a canoe, I’d literally wake them up,” Nichols said. “I’ve paddled up to some and their eyes would suddenly open. Some are scared, some are curious.
“I’d bathe every day at the end of the day, and sometimes it could be real nerve-racking. I’d use binoculars to scan the surface and make sure there were no gator heads sitting around. I’d dip in and get out of there as quickly as I could.”
Heat was also a problem. Alabama suffered through a record-setting heat wave that June, and it was difficult for Nichols to find relief from the soaring temperature as he reached the southern part of the state. The water temp was 90-plus degrees, and the heat index reached 110. Even at night, the air temperature remained in the 80s.
“So I’d just sit there and sweat all night,” Nichols said. “I kept getting dehydrated. The heat was the hardest thing to deal with.”
But such challenges were more than offset by the alluring landscape that constantly surrounded Nichols. He was alone, often without cell phone service, but never felt lonely, he said. Nichols calls it “solitary confinement in a beautiful place.” In the film, he says being on the water “felt amazing. It always does.”
One of Nichols’ favorite moments occurred near the end of the trip when he reached Horn Island, a national park about 10 miles off the Mississippi coast near Pascagoula.
“It’s basically a small wilderness in the Gulf of Mexico,” Nichols said. “I camped on the ocean side where there are these large dunes that rise up. One night there was a half-moon, and I was sitting on those dunes looking out over the ocean. It was just beautiful. Moments like that are special.”
It wasn’t long afterward, on July 5, that Nichols brought his excursion to an end, once again calling his parents to pick him up. The journey was over. The dream fulfilled.