DAVID GREENE, HOST:
You know, you trust us to guide you through the news each morning. We're trying something else this summer at MORNING EDITION - being trail guides. We're taking you on adventures off the beaten path on trails that take us to special hidden places. And we begin today in Alabama, in the shadow of Mobile's skyline where several major river systems come together. We're going to the Mobile Delta, and our trail guide is NPR's Debbie Elliott.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: This trail will be by water. We start at the point where five rivers empty into Mobile Bay. It's a fisherman and hunter's paradise, but it's also a draw for naturalists and history buffs. Our captain is Ben Raines, director of the Weeks Bay Foundation, a conservation group. He's got a center-console skiff that's small enough to navigate the more than 40 miles of rivers, creeks, bays and bayous that make up the Mobile Delta.
BEN RAINES: You see downtown Mobile over there. And then within a few minutes, we're teleported into this totally alien world.
ELLIOTT: In moments, we see egret, osprey, pelicans, wild rice, the giant yellow blooms of the American lotus and purple pickerelweed. The lower end of the delta is a wide expanse of water and wetland grasses. As we travel north, Raines steers the boat through a narrow creek and into a small bay.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT MOTOR)
ELLIOTT: This is Little Bateau, spelled like Bateau in French. Spanish explorers were here in the mid-1500s. The French came 150 years later. The creatures have been here the whole time.
RAINES: There's an alligator there. It's a pretty good-sized one, about 10 feet probably. Oh, he went underwater.
ELLIOTT: He calculates its size by estimating the length between its snout and eyes. Ten inches equals a 10-foot gator.
RAINES: Alligators, you've got manatees. You've got bull sharks that come up here. You've got bears, and you've got...
(SOUNDBITE OF MARSH HEN CHIRPING)
RAINES: ...Those guys - I think that's a marsh hen - and multiple species of poisonous snake. So you've got, you know, all these ways to get killed just a couple of miles from home.
ELLIOTT: With the motor off, a deep quiet sets in, save for a passing breeze. Raines says about 300 bird species migrate through the delta, and it's home to more species of fish, turtles, salamanders, crawfish and mussels than anywhere else in the country.
RAINES: This place is as rich as the Amazon in fish species, in animals, in plants.
ELLIOTT: As we move deeper into the delta, the air feels thicker, and Spanish moss-draped trees form a canopy over the water. Raines says this is a classic maritime forest. The banks of the bayou are lined with saw palmetto.
RAINES: And the palmetto fronds make all this racket when you touch them. And that's how you can tell the wild hogs are coming. And so when you hear that, you know, get up in a tree because they've got teeth like a German shepherd, and there are a lot of them (laughter).
ELLIOTT: They can't get on our boat, can they?
RAINES: They never have (laughter).
ELLIOTT: Next, we head upriver and climb off the boat in search of an ancient Indian shell mound.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)
ELLIOTT: This was once the center of Native American culture on the Gulf Coast. Through thick vegetation, we reach the 8-foot shell mound that would have been a dry ground for camping near fishing waters.
RAINES: So here's the mound, and you can see it rises up, you know, head high above the surrounding swamp. And it's nothing but these shells, you know, these big ole white clamshells.
ELLIOTT: Just beyond the shell mound is what's known as the Ecor Rouge - giant red river bluffs and the site of a Civil War battleground.
RAINES: We're on the banks of the Blakely River here. It's the sight of the last battle of the Civil War, which was fought after the Civil War was over, about a week later. So I always feel like these woods are kind of haunted with all these people who died after a lost cause was already over.
ELLIOTT: Out on the river, the water is nearly 100 feet deep.
RAINES: And so the legend is after the battle was over, when the Confederates were getting overrun, they started pushing their cannons off the cliff into the water so that the Union soldiers wouldn't get them. And supposedly the current roiling around this mass of iron cannons in the water has dug this hole deeper and deeper over the last century.
ELLIOTT: In this upper part of the delta, we're now seeing signs of human life. Homes and houseboats dot the river bank. Cloverleaf Landing is a private boat launch, and the proprietor is stepping off a houseboat to greet us.
LUCY HOLLINGS: I'm Lucy Pie. Most everybody calls me Pie. That's all they know me by is Pie. My real name is Lucy Hollings.
ELLIOTT: She lives off the land and river here.
HOLLINGS: I love to eat fish and eat just about everything out the delta. I've got a wild hog running around here now. I wonder - he's rooting up everything. Yeah.
ELLIOTT: A wild hog.
ELLIOTT: Hollings says the delta provides just about everything she needs.
HOLLINGS: My foreparents was Indians. My grandmama was Cherokee. So I enjoy living off of the land - very seldom go to the store and buy food - don't have to.
ELLIOTT: Out on a long wooden pier, her grandchildren are gathering the day's catch.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I got a crab.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Twenty.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I got a crab.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Where's the net?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Right here - go.
ELLIOTT: They use a long-handled scoop net to pull the crab from the water below.
KENDALL JAMES: Got him.
ELLIOTT: Seven-year-old Kendall James explains how to get a crab on your line.
KENDALL: You tie the chicken on it and you throw it in. And then when it goes straight, you pull it up very slow. Then you get the net and scoop it - the chicken up, and you'll get the crab.
ELLIOTT: Pie Hollings says she's seen life in the delta change as suburban subdivisions move ever closer. And Ben Raines says that's the biggest threat to biodiversity here. There's a move to have the Mobile Delta preserved as a national park, but conservative local politicians don't like the idea of the federal government having control. Raines says either way, it's a national treasure.
RAINES: Alabama in the public mind is civil rights and steel mills; it's cotton fields. Those are the things we've done to Alabama. Those aren't what Alabama is. This is what Alabama is - it's America's Amazon. It's the wildest, most diverse place we've got in the country.
ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Mobile.