MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — "Where are we going?" asks somebody in a loose flotilla of kayaks pulling away from the bank of Dog River late on a Monday afternoon.
"Thataway," says Joehannis Warner, known as Keve, which rhymes with Steve. There's a laugh, and the group moves on. "Thataway" seems to be about all the detail anyone need, wants or expects. The concept here is very simple, and it's laid out on a Facebook page titled "Kayak with Keve:" On just about any given Monday at 5:30 p.m. you can launch your kayak from Navco Park, aka Dog River Park. Look around and you'll see a group of people setting out from a nearby waterfront residence. You're welcome to join. There'll be some leisurely exploration and then a sunset; Warner will select a spot to view it and then lead the group back to its starting point.
There's no membership, no fee, no age limit, no minimum skill level, no one particularly in charge. As tenuous as that may seem, it's been happening like clockwork for about four years now. With various governmental entities planning to spend millions upon millions of dollars opening up Mobile County's waterways to kayaks, canoes and other paddled or rowed vessels, it's a timely reminder that having such a small, inexpensive vessel opens up a world of grassroots-level activity.
Yes, the County is spending GOMESA money acquiring and developing new waterfront property. Yes, the county is early in the process of mapping out how to spend an $8 million RESTORE Act grant developing a county blueway. Yes, another chunk of RESTORE Act money will fund a rehabilitation of Mobile's Three Mile Creek and yes, there's also an effort to map out an Africatown Blueway that would open up waterways connecting the historic Africatown community, Prichard and the north side of Mobile.
But no, you don't have to wait on any of that. All you really need, if you're a rank beginner with a cheap plastic kayak, is reassurance that a friendly group will launch from a given spot at a given time, provide the comfort of numbers, and take an interest in your safe return to land. Which is exactly what "Kayak with Keve" does.
The group came about through a chance meeting. Artist Renee Wallace sold a business a few years ago and had some free time. A friend and fellow river resident, Tere Dixon, urged her to participate in a regular Wednesday bicycle ride through midtown Mobile, a relaxed and informal group event.
There she met Warner. "He's a character, as you know," she says. After they got to know each other a little bit, she said, one night "He rode up to me and said, 'So-and-so tells me you have a river.'"
They struck a deal. He was welcome to use her property as launching point if he taught a group of her friends to kayak. The sessions snowballed.
"I started the Facebook page for him," she says. "I told him, 'I'm going to make you famous.'"
Warner's path to Mobile, like his path to fame, was unusual. Originally from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, he lived in New York and then first visited Lower Alabama after his sister and her husband moved from New York to Mobile. They visited Dauphin Island, took the ferry and spent some time hanging out at Fort Morgan. "I think I was hooked then," he says.
He moved to Mobile and began looking for ways to get out on the water. "I started kayak fishing," he says. "I discovered I'm a better paddler than I am a fisher."
Why do this at the start of the week rather than the end? Warner calls it "Monday Therapy." It's a good finish to the work week's lousiest day.
On this particular early August voyage, Dog River is at its most therapeutic. A drenching thunderstorm rolled across Mobile at about 4 p.m., but by 5:30 it's as if it never happened. The skies are blue and the sun is out full force -- though the heat of the day is slowly fading, and the air feels cooler out on the water.
The paddlers are a motley group, mostly middle-aged and older though it's not unusual for people to bring children along. A dog enjoys the ride on one couple's tandem kayak. A few of the paddlers are river residents, but many have come from Midtown and west Mobile.
"It varies. It's just people who like nature," Warner says of the group's makeup. "It's always very social."
Warner leads the group along the fringes of the river, sticking to the shallows and exploring shady channels between little islands and the mainland. Houses and docks line much of the shore, but there are sections of marshy grassland and undeveloped woods as well. Birds call. Fish jump. Powerboat traffic is minimal.
Tidal flow affects the salinity of this short but twisty river, meaning there's an unusual diversity of plant and animal life. Signs posted on many docks serve as a reminder that manatees visit these waters in the warmest months, though they're unlikely to be spotted in the evening.
As the light starts to fade, Warner finds a good spot to watch the sun set. Boaters line up to enjoy it, and then the group heads back to its starting point. Warner begins plotting upcoming trips, discussing them with some of the regular attendees. The next full moon is Thursday, Aug. 15, so there'll be a bonus paddle that evening.
"We'll probably leave at 6 so we can catch the sunset and then watch the moon rise," he explains. "Sometimes we howl at the moon."
Someone asks about Paddleween. That'll happen again, he assures them. Paddlers are encouraged to wear costumes for the trip on Monday, Oct. 28, and there'll be some waterfront trick-or-treating at participating docks.
After the boats have been put away, Wallace and some friends discuss the longevity of the low-key event. Wallace praises Warner for his quiet approach to setting the tone. "Keve takes it very seriously, though," she says. "He's very up on the life jackets."
"The first thing people ask is, are there alligators?" she says. (They are sometimes spotted but haven't been aggressive.)
Dixon, who went out on tonight's voyage, says that part of the beauty of the activity is its simplicity. "Kayaks don't break down," she says.
"Kayakers do," says Ruth Breland, who sometimes serves as group leader when Warner can't make it. (Note: The Aug. 5 trip lasted around two and a half hours and covered just over four miles in calm water with minimal currents. Warner says that's about average.)
Breland adds that the kayakers pick up trash, sometimes in organized cleanup events. Wallace says that part of the reason she and her husband, Mark, have continued to facilitate the weekly trips is that as longtime river residents, they simply like to see people getting out on the water and getting in touch with their environment.
"That's the thing," she says. "I've lived here 25 years and there's never any activity."
It might just be that "Monday therapy" is as good for the river as it is for the paddlers, in that it gives more people a stake in their natural environment. But Warner, for his part, defers any credit for being the therapist.
"I just show up," he says. "Mother nature does the rest."
Information from: The Birmingham News, http://www.al.com/birminghamnews