Down on the Delta

Sunday, August 18, 2002

SPANISH FORT, Ala. -- With ecotourism on the rise, veteran kayaker Jeff Evans and fishing guide Craig Key have found the Mobile Delta's watery wilderness to be a profitable showplace.

Evans' Tensaw Eco Tours and Key's Delta Outdoor Guide Service had overlapping interests, so the two men became business partners after meeting at a chamber of commerce session.

"We're still bootstrapping it," Key said.

They take people on nature trips, fishing, hunting, birding or after-dinner air boat rides from two restaurants on the Causeway, the eight-mile stretch of highway and bridges connecting Mobile to Baldwin County.

Adventure-seeking visitors to the Delta don't have to stand in line to shoot the rapids because there aren't any, Evans said. But the Delta offers a wide array of wildlife, marine life, flowers and untouched scenery.

Wilderness tourism is a large market in the United States, which has the most people with this activity profile and also has the most wilderness destinations. Several other Coast Guard-certified boating companies in the Mobile area provide group trips.

Unfamiliar term

The term ecotourism, more popular with young people using the environment to fulfill a challenge -- like rock climbing or scaling mountains -- still is unfamiliar to some.

"Never heard of it," said Scott Yates of Anniston during a visit to Mobile on a rainy break from the beach. He said his family lives near Cheaha State Park and doesn't have to seek out the wilderness for leisure. "We're already there."

Tim Donellan, touring Mobile with his family from Denham Springs, La., said he had always wanted to take a river cruise, but, he said, "The water is not too far from my house. I do a lot of hunting and fishing."

Evans' Eco Tours, now in its second year but still without its own Web site, is located in one of the Causeway buildings that have survived hurricanes. Key's fish-camp base is about 32 miles away by water near Stockton.

Besides air boats, Evans and Key also take visitors by power boat, barge, canoe or kayak. Key enjoys playing host to smaller groups that offer more eye-to-eye contact.

Many of their customers are local residents taking out-of-towners or relatives on trips into familiar areas, looking for where grandpa had his fishing camp, for example. They offer day or night trips, making their work schedules unpredictable.

"We try to do what people ask," Evans said in planning his year-round trips. "There's no wait. A lot of days we go out and we're the only boat around. We're just developing a business. We're not getting rich off it."

Even in December, the Delta is worth a visit. "The weather in January and February is not always cooperative," Evans said.

Other trips

Trips aren't restricted to the Delta. Evans said they also visit Mobile Bay and the Eastern Shore of Baldwin County, anchoring at Middle Bay Lighthouse or over good fishing holes.

Evans, a 32-year-old Mobile native and Birmingham-Southern College graduate in finance, has a background in the restaurant business. His love of the Delta began on fishing trips with his father. He still has the first kayak he built and lives in an apartment above the tour office on the Causeway.

Key, also 32, grew up at Patrick's Landing, a fish camp in north Baldwin County.

"My grandfather ran it for 26 years," said Key, who now leases his own fish camp -- Upper Bryant's Landing -- with wife, Tamatha. "I run charter trips from here."

Key has a "party barge" for scheduled trips. His sightseeing customers all want to see alligators. "That's one of the main attractions -- gators and wildflowers," he said.

With 400 to 500 square miles of Delta to explore, Key said there are four popular sections -- saltwater flats, cypress and hardwood trees and caves.

"Salt caverns were used back in the 1700s by early settlers," Key said.

Visitors can go up and down miles of the Delta and never take the same stream twice.

Ecotourism, a niche market in the massive tourism industry, has been discussed at meetings of the Scenic Causeway Coalition.

"The coalition is trying to find a common ground between environmental protection and human use," said chairman Robin Delaney. "I think that's kind of what ecotourism is about."

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