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