Friday, November 16, 2012

Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway: Columbus, MS to Mobile, AL

October 28 – November 1, 2012

We left Columbus on a sunny day, but chilly and windy. Apparently the winds were a byproduct of the system kicked up by Hurricane Sandy, which was then approaching the eastern United States. It was a sign of how big this storm was going to be that we were feeling some effect – albeit mild – as far away as Mississippi.

As a result of the winds and trying to dodge the abundant floating water hyacinth clogged in the Stennis Lock, we had some difficulty tying to the lock wall – for the first time after nearly 140 locks.  Craig had to approach the lock wall three times before he could get me close enough to secure a line, and on his third and successful try, he backed up to the lock wall, rather than pulling forward.  That was a first.  Anyway, we eventually locked through with no further problems and continued on our way.


We planned a short trip that day to shave a bit off what would otherwise be a very long trip the following day. In Columbus we had been warned that the marina we were heading for, Pirates Cove, left quite a lot to be desired. Well, that was true.  The docks and facilities were pretty rustic, but the managers were nice and they gave our dogs biscuits, and for one night it was fine. 


They did have a courtesy car they let us borrow and it was no better or worse than the average courtesy car, and we were happy to have use of it. We arrived early afternoon so we asked if there might be some place in town for lunch. We were told that if we went to the flashing traffic light, there was a restaurant there, but if we wanted a “sit-down” restaurant, we needed to go about a mile further. We decided to go whole hog and opt for the sit-down restaurant to check out the best Pickensville, AL has to offer.

This turned out to be the Down Yonder Restaurant, and predictably the specialty was fried catfish, so that’s what we had.  It wasn’t bad.  The decor of the place was a hoot, including this displayed box of “Roadkill Helper.”

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When Craig and Joe (Seaquel) were paying the bill, they asked our young waitress where the local hot spots were, and she replied, “a long way from here!”

On our way back to the marina, we walked around the Bevill Visitor Center and Museum next to the lock.  It was closed, so we couldn’t go in.  We also walked around the dry-docked 108-foot US Snagboat Montgomery, now retired but used through much of the 20th century for clearing the rivers of logs and other debris. It’s usually open for touring, but it too was closed the day we were there. We asked the marina manager if there was anything else in the area we should see, but he said, “Nope.”

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So much for Pickensville. But as we keep reminding ourselves, wherever we are, we always have a water view, and no matter the other shortcomings, the view from our bridge as we sat in the marina was very pretty.


The next day we had a long ride, 90 miles and two locks to Demopolis, Alabama. Along the way we passed the striking white cliffs at Epes. The cliffs presented a rare change of scenery along the Tenn-Tom.

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Demopolis is a popular stop for Loopers since it is the last real town on the Tombigbee until Mobile, 216 miles downstream. It’s a pleasant little town that has all the usual provisioning needs out on the highway strip (Walmart, etc.), and an attractive but struggling old downtown – struggling no doubt due to that Walmart out on the strip.

The marina is really nice, nearly brand new with wide floating docks. Beautiful laundry and shower facilities, too. It ranks right up among the leaders of my “Best Bathrooms on the Loop” list! The new docks were a bit of a walk from the main marina base, but they had complementary golf carts we could borrow to buzz back and forth.  Fun!


The marina also had cable TV on the docks, just installed the day we arrived. We plugged in to watch some of the coverage of Hurricane Sandy blasting ashore on the east coast. Truly unimaginable power and devastation. So many of the places we boated through not too many months ago are now really suffering. In fact, the storm turned out to be so huge that of all the places we could have been along the Loop, right where we were on the Tenn-Tom turned out to be about the calmest and safest. So while we appreciated the emails and calls of concern about our well-being, we are grateful to say we were just fine through it all.

That night we ate at the marina restaurant with Snow Cat and Seaquel.


We stayed in Demopolis two days, and the second day borrowed the courtesy car with Joe and Edie of Seaquel to go exploring. We checked out the old town, made a run to Walmart, and discovered an old Jewish cemetery, something of particular interest to Joe and Edie.  Joe explained a bit of the history of Jewish immigrants in small southern towns, something Craig and I were not aware of.

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Later in the day Edie and I walked back into the downtown to check out a few of the more interesting shops.  It was Trick-or-Treat Downtown Day, and we saw lots of cute kids treat-or-treating in the stores.

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We walked around the town square, took some pictures and walked back to the marina along the river. It was warm and sunny and a great day for a walk.

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The next morning we headed for another of the Loop’s iconic stopping points, Bobby’s Fish Camp. Bobby’s is about 98 miles from Demopolis, and the only dock between Demopolis and Mobile. Since everything we heard convinced us that dinghying the dogs to shore from an anchorage on the lower Tenn-Tom was a dicey proposition (mud, alligators, snakes, things like that), stopping at Bobby’s was a “must” for us.   Anyway, we wanted to see this place everyone talks about.

Along the way, we traveled several of the hairpin turns that lower Tenn-Tom is known for. We couldn’t help but wonder, with all the other cuts and ditches carved out along the waterway, why they didn’t straighten out some of these curves. We were really grateful for our AIS system that allows us to see other boats – particularly barges – while they are still hidden around the corners. This is how our chart-plotter looked on one of the turns. Felt like we could almost see ourselves coming and going!


We made good time and arrived at Bobby’s in mid-afternoon. It’s a real, no-frills river fish camp, with a small dock that can handle no more than 3 or 4 boats tied alongside, but encourages additional boats to raft off the docked boats.  They don’t take reservations, but we called ahead and pleaded with them to hold a dockside spot for us, since we couldn’t imagine getting the dogs across someone else's boat on the way to shore.

We were happy to find two other Looper boats already tied up when we arrived, and a spot available for us. Docked right behind us was 2 If By C, owned by Alan and Jean Lloyd, who live not far from us in the Cincinnati area – when they are home. They are doing their fourth Loop, and from what I can tell, they never really stop Looping except for brief visits home. Alan is the author of Navigation Notes, a navigation guide that I have found very helpful for some of the more complicated parts of our trip. It was nice to see them. 


This is Alan and Jean’s rescued Chocolate Lab, Bliss. The boat in front of them had a sweet rescued Golden Retriever named Candy. Between our three boats, our four rescue dogs made a great showing of the wonderful pets that can be acquired through shelters and rescue organizations.


We took a walk around Bobby’s and admired the sights. This may be a case of pictures speaking a thousand words.

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Eventually we had six Looper boats tied up and rafted, so the restaurant, which is not open every night, agreed very willingly to cook dinner for all of us. We didn’t want to miss Bobby’s fried catfish! It was good, the best yet. But the ambience of the restaurant is priceless. We had a fun evening.

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This thing is called an alligator gar, and it’s a real fish in these waters! It discourages any thoughts of swimming.


In the morning, all the boats left together in light fog and proceeded two miles downriver to the Coffeeville Lock, our last lock until the final two in North Carolina. I guess that means we’ve been through 140 plus locks by now, but who’s counting.


From Coffeeville to Mobile we passed through some really desolate country, including lots of swamps and one bayou. (What’s the difference?  I’m still not sure.) On one bend in the river, we saw two bald eagles diving for dinner, and two deer on the adjacent shore.


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We also saw a couple of huge alligators on the shore.  This was one of them.


Suddenly – poof! – we were out of the bayou and ahead of us was the skyline and busy harbor of Mobile. Lots of working tugs and big freighters.

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We also passed two Navy ships under construction.  This is one of the new super-fast anti-pirate boats that we’re not supposed to know about, but there it is.


Once we navigated a couple of miles through the harbor traffic, our route opened out into the huge expanse of Mobile Bay – and brown pelicans again.  After more than two months traveling the rivers, it was a breathtaking to see the big, blue water ahead of us. 


Next, friends and fun on Mobile Bay.

(Real-time update: On November 16, we are sitting at the dock in Carrabelle, FL, waiting for a good weather day to cross the Gulf of Mexico so we can head home for Thanksgiving!)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway: Pickwick, TN to Columbus, MS

October 25 – 27, 2012

When we left the Looper Rendezvous at Joe Wheeler State Park in northern Alabama, we looked ahead to the next significant phase of our trip – cruising down the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, or Tenn-Tom as it is commonly called. It’s significant because the completion and opening of the Tenn-Tom in 1985 (after a century or two of discussion and delays) made it possible for recreational boaters to travel from the Tennessee River to Mobile, Alabama on the Gulf of Mexico without having to negotiate the perils of the Mississippi. The Great Loop is a feasible trip for most of us due to the twelve locks and dams of the Tenn-Tom.

This is the part of the trip that confuses our friends and family who try to follow our route on their road atlases, because there doesn’t appear to be a waterway through this area large enough to accommodate our boat. In fact, not only is the Tenn-Tom big enough to handle Looper boats, it is big enough for commercial barges. Not the huge barges we see on the Ohio River, but we definitely saw some 3-wide, 3-deep barges being pushed by tows. You can be sure that this $2 billion project was not undertaken solely for the benefit of pleasure boaters, but we enjoy the result.

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The Tenn-Tom is 450 miles long and begins at its northern end in Pickwick, Tennessee, at the junction of the Tennessee River and Yellow Creek, and continues through a combination of made-made cuts and the natural course of the Tombigbee River and the Lower Black Warrior River, to the Mobile River and finally to Mile 0 in Mobile harbor. These are all the small rivers that are hard to see on your road maps. 

The Waterway is often twisty-turny, with big barges lurking out of sight around the bend. There are long stretches with few if any marinas and many of the anchorage areas are inhospitable to taking your dog to shore. There are urban legends (more appropriately, swamp legends, I guess) about local fisherman who shoot at passing cruisers who throw off too much wake.  Apparently that did happen one time, over twenty years ago when the Tenn-Tom first opened, but the legend lives on.  There are stories of poisonous snakes that curl up and sleep on the bollards in the locks, and alligators on the muddy banks where you might need to stop and walk your dog. All in all, the image one gets of the Tenn-Tom is that it’s one long backwater challenge, and not a particularly enjoyable part of the Loop.  In reality, while much of it is in fact backwoods, rural or downright swampy, our experience was at worst benign and at best an interesting glimpse into a part of our country most of us never see.  We had no problems with any of the fishermen we passed, we found most tow captains to be helpful and pleasant, and we never saw a single snake.  We did see a few alligators and other wildlife along the way, but that was part of the fun.


But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Before we could tackle the Tenn-Tom, we needed to address the dilemma of leaving the Looper Rendezvous with 50 other boats, most heading south as we were. With 12 locks to negotiate and limited space at the few marinas along the way, it was going to be important that we all spread out a bit. We had already agreed with Joe and Edie on Seaquel that we would be “buddy boats” for our eventual Gulf crossing, since our boats are compatible speed-wise, and since we both had family reasons for wanting to cross the Gulf and be in the Clearwater-Tampa area before Thanksgiving.

So our plan was to leave very early on the morning after the Rendezvous ended and be in the first group of boats through the Wheeler and Wilson locks that day. We pulled out of the harbor with 10 other boats at 7:00 am, and found the Wheeler Lock just around the bend open and ready for us.


We all travelled more or less as a group, slow and fast boats alike, to the next lock, the huge 94” high Wilson Lock.

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After the Wilson Lock, the five faster boats took off and made good time to Grand Harbor marina at the entrance to the Tenn-Tom. When we passed the Wilson Lock at Florence, AL, we called the Florence marina to let them know we were moving faster than expected and that we wouldn’t be staying with them that night. The very friendly harbor mistress responded that she was disappointed because, “I was looking forward to seeing the dogs again.”  The story of our Loop!


It was a beautiful warm day, “a great day for a boat ride,” as we like to say.  We saw what would be our last group of white pelicans.


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At Grand Harbor we were surprised and happy to run into Joe and Tara on Seabatical, who had skipped the Rendezvous and had just crossed their wake. They would be heading back up the Tennessee River to Chattanooga, where they would leave their boat and return to life in Atlanta, so we reconnected just in time.  Tara and Craig worked in the same building in Atlanta for years but never knew each other until we started Looping!  Several Looper boats enjoyed a nice docktail gathering that night before we all headed off at our various paces down the Tenn-Tom.


The next morning we had another early start (this would become a pattern on the Tenn-Tom!) in order to get the first lock-through.  We went through three locks that day, and it seemed that just as we tied up in each lock, it started to rain, so we found ourselves standing outside handling lock lines in chilly, damp weather. Not much fun, but could have been worse.

We continued to see pretty fall colors, along with flooded cypress groves in the several small lakes created by the dams.

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These big houses (unusual for the Tenn-Tom) have kind of bleak views, we thought. Flooded trees.


We saw several of these baffles along the waterway, designed to slow down the inflow of water from nearby creeks.


One of the most interesting things we saw that day was a large deer swimming across the river in front of us.  What you can’t see from the picture is that on the bank above him, a coyote was pacing back and forth, appearing to wait for the deer to come ashore.  We were worried that we might witness one of those “nature can be harsh” moments, but the boat behind us radioed that the deer made it safely to shore and the coyote went the other direction.  Maybe he got a better look at the size of those antlers!

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That night we docked at Midway Marina, in Fulton, Mississippi, which has an on-site restaurant where the 10 or so Loopers in port gathered for dinner. It is in a dry county, and when we asked if we could bring our own wine or beer to the restaurant, we were told in so many words, “only if you’d like to get arrested.”  They told us you can be arrested if the sheriff sees you drinking a beer on your own front porch!  We decided we wouldn’t be moving here.  Ironically, that same day, recently relocated daughter Karen was enjoying Saturday wine time in Glendale with several of our friends!


The next day was windy and cold but we had another early start and a five-hour run that included four more locks. We were the furthest south we have been so far on the Loop and it was by far the coldest weather we’ve had. I hauled out layers of clothes that never saw the light of day all the weeks we were in Canada. This is Mississippi, for Pete’s sake! Bailey thought it was cold, too –her tucked-in nose is a sure sign!

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Our travels that day took us through more waterlogged areas with many partially submerged stumps that we hoped hadn’t worked their way into the main channel! These remote places have a special kind of beauty.

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We continued to see a lot of birds, including thousands of migrating coots, and the ever-present herons and egrets.

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Early in the afternoon we pulled into the marina at Columbus, Mississippi, one of the larger towns along the Tenn-Tom, but of course that’s not saying much. It’s an attractive town, though.  We borrowed the courtesy car and with Joe and Edie (Seaquel) drove into town to explore. One of the highlights is the home where Tennessee Williams spent the first years of his life. At the time it was the parsonage for the Episcopal church that still stands (and thrives!) across the street, where Williams’ grandfather was the priest. With a little prompting, our very enthusiastic private tour guide, Marie, played “Amazing Grace” for us on the old pump organ in the parlor.

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Marie also suggested a driving tour around the town where we could see the many beautiful antebellum houses in Columbus.  This one is where in 1866 four local ladies gathered to prepare floral decorations to honor the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers buried in the local cemetery. This “Decoration Day” eventually evolved into today’s Memorial Day.


Next: Continuing down the Tenn-Tom to Mobile.

(Real-time update; As of November 14, we are in Apalachicola, Florida, leaving tomorrow for Carrabelle, further east along the Panhandle, which will be our departure point for crossing the Gulf of Mexico.)