by Jenn Grainger, Administrative & Membership Coordinator
Cajun first and Mobilian second, I was bred to see Coastal Alabama as a vacation destination. In my hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana, everyone was hopeful that their summer would include a trip to Gulf Shores for a suntan and salt water taffy. Imagine my surprise when, 12 years ago, Hurricane Katrina hit and I had an opportunity to move to this local paradise.
I celebrated my eighteenth birthday the day before the storm struck the Gulf Coast. We spent the day at a local park as the energy outside became tense and chaotic—a foreboding sign of what was to come. Although Katrina didn’t hit us directly, Hurricane Rita nearly did the following week. Five family members that had evacuated were staying with myself and my parents when they found out that their home in Slidell, LA had been destroyed. The entire community, shut out from the damage, was begging anyone with a boat to ride south and help with the rescue mission. We had 20,000 displaced people in our city overnight; our businesses, streets and homes were all filled. Six months later, I decided to move out.
I packed everything I owned into a small plastic Saturn Ion and hit the road. I was moving to the beach!!! Or so I thought. I ended up in Foley, which, as it turns out, isn’t quite the same as “the beach.” But it was close enough. Like a true tourist, I immediately ran to the beach to take photos of vague words I’d written in the sand. We stayed for a few years before moving to Mobile which, until then, I hadn’t truly paid much attention to other than to honk while driving through the tunnel, a habit my husband still makes fun of me for to this very day.
A little background: I have always been a bit of a tomboy. As a kid, I grew up in South Carolina, and I still have scars from playing in the creeks that weaved through our neighborhood. Back then, we were hours away from the beach, so it wasn’t something I had much experience with, or knew that I was missing out on. Around age 11, we moved back to Louisiana, where we spent our summers tubing in brackish water against our mother’s better judgment and taking our boats into swamps. Having not seen swamps for most of my life, I found them hauntingly beautiful and mysterious.
If we wanted to go to a beach, we made trips to “The Cajun Riviera”, also known as Holly Beach. It was a fraud. The only good reason anyone visited Holly Beach was to go crabbing. Instead, most families chose to vacation in Gulf Shores or Destin, as they were only 4-6 hours away. So, while living in Foley, I took every opportunity to go down to the beach because it made me feel spoiled rotten and brought back the greatest memories of vacations with friends and family.
When my husband and I moved from Foley to Mobile, I made friends who began teaching me about the biodiversity in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Since then, I’ve been amazed at what I’ve discovered.
I’ve studied archaeology in Bottle Creek, where I was able to climb mounds left behind more than 700 years ago by Native Americans known as the Mississippian Moundbuilders. I’ve taken tours with the University of South Alabama out in Mobile Bay at night, equipped with a headlamp, to spot alligator eyes in the brush. I’ve stared at crabs on rocks while exploring Dauphin Island in the middle of the day. I’ve walked aimlessly on the trails at Blakeley State Park only to meander onto a pier that unveiled a completely new view of Mobile’s skyline, framed by a beautiful sunset. I’ve been taken into coves where dolphins have cleared their blowholes right next to our boat, and I’ve kayaked in inlets where, when all is quiet, my own voice echoes off the trees in a way that seems surreal. I’ve found insects and eggs I couldn’t identify and I’ve spent hours online trying to understand alien creatures that washed onto shore. I’ve eaten at restaurants on the water, just to be greeted by people who arrive on a paddle board and jump up onto the pier to join us a table over.
Every new corner I take leads to a magical experience in this wonderful place we call home in Coastal Alabama. As an outsider, it’s incredible, and as someone who is planning on sticking around for a while, I want to help protect what has come to be my favorite part of this area — America’s Amazon!
This past year my hometown had an unprecedented flood that once again devastated the area. Many people lost their homes to the damage, but ever resilient, they came back stronger. I still drive out to old neighborhoods in New Orleans to see if the spray paint is on the walls, a sign meant to let rescue workers know a place had been cleared of anyone needing to be rescued. I think back on all of the inter-woven moments we shared, as a community, while dealing with a natural disaster and of the pride we took in coming together to save and restore the area to the best of our ability. I’ve seen what a community can do when they put their mind to it and now it’s my pleasure to be working with the people who are watching over our local waterways. People who, like me, still want to play in rivers and creeks for many years to come!
Are you interested in sharing your story about your experiences of water and connection to the beautiful natural resources of Coastal Alabama? Contact Hanlon Walsh at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.