"Broad water-lilies lay tremulously,
And starry river-buds
And around them
the soft stream
did glide and dance
With a motion of sweet sound and radiance."
—Percy Bysshe Shelley, "The Sensitive Plant"
WE TURN THE LAST BEND of the Cahaba River before Hargrove Shoals, and the murky river bursts into almost blinding whiteness. Whitecaps foam where the rapids sputter over rocky shallows, but the snowiest dazzle flares from hundreds of six-inch lily blooms bobbing several feet above the rushing water.
The Cahaba winds nearly 200 miles from the foothills of the Appalachians through urban Birmingham to rural Dallas County, Alabama. There it connects with 630 miles of canoe routes that form the longest intrastate water trail in the country. To view the river's namesake lily, I'm paddling with the Cahaba River Society seven and a half miles downriver from outside Birmingham. In these drought times, the water is historically low, making it sluggish and the journey more challenging as we dodge rocks and push off unseen boulder shelves.
The Cahaba lily decorates the river from roughly Mother's Day to Father's Day, and its greatest concentration is found in the tiny town of West Blockton. Isolated clusters linger in the free-flowing creeks of Georgia and South Carolina, as this rare plant demands the freedom of untamed water. The lily drops its weighted seeds into the shoals; as it sprouts, it wedges into crevices in one of nature's more astounding adaptations. No matter how swift the water, even in spring floods that can leap to Class III rapids, the river cannot scrub away the tenacious flower.
While the lily stands out as the most spectacular and easiest to photograph imperiled species, the Cahaba River harbors more than 60 others. Its waters are home to about 130 fish and dozens of mussel and snail species, making the Cahaba one of the most biologically diverse river systems in the world.
Hundreds of revelers join us at our destination at the annual Cahaba Lily Festival, where the blossom draws fans like a botanical rock star. Its beauty even overshadows the fresh cheeks of Miss Cahaba Lily, still blushing from a wardrobe malfunction caused by hyperopic sash-pinning botanist Larry Davenport, who forgot his glasses. —Verna Gates