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!)

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