Inland Rivers (Mississippi River to Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway)

After a rather lengthy hiatus, I’m returning to the blog.  Since my last post we have traveled just over 700 river miles and have completed all the “big” rivers – Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee - as well as the Tennessee-Tombigbee (“Tenn-Tom”) Waterway.  A very loyal subscriber sent us the great graphic below which illustrates our progress.

Thanks again, PBW!

We are now on the very peaceful Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway making our way to Mobile Bay and the transition to salt water, tides and points south.  As I began to write this, we were tied to the dock at Bobby’s Fish Camp in rural southern Alabama.  Bobby’s is an iconic location among loopers.  It boasts one of the oldest restaurants in Alabama and a 150’ dock that’s the only game in town other than a few anchorages that we find are either a little too small for us or too exposed to tow traffic.  Our first night there and the following morning, we had the whole place to ourselves, and it was delightful.

More boats arrived mid-day, and we ended up tied to the dock with 2 other boats tied to us (rafting), 3 boats rafted in front of us and another boat behind us.  Because there were 7 boats here that night, our hosts opened the otherwise-closed restaurant for us and served what is generally considered to be the best fried catfish, hush puppies and cole slaw in the region.  We concur.

We ended up staying for 3 days due to strong storms that pushed through yesterday, so I finally had some time to focus on the blog. I sat there on a stormy day literally surrounded by boats and tried to figure out how to describe the last several weeks.  I had a really hard time writing my last post and an even harder time rereading it.  Too much of it focused on detail and logistics and not enough on our experience.  I noticed, too, that the tone reflected a degree of stress though we weren’t necessarily aware of it at the time.  I have gained some perspective on that in hindsight.

Once your loop takes you into the inland river system, a few things happen.  First, it's fall and the days start getting shorter so your daily planning needs to ensure that you reach your destination before nightfall.  The number of river miles you can travel in a day can vary greatly due to the strength of the current and whether you are moving with or against it. For example, cruising downstream on the Mississippi River getting pushed by a 2- to 3-knot current, we were able to travel 110 river miles in one day – our greatest distance yet.

On the other hand, when we entered the Ohio River the very next day and began cruising upstream against the current, our average cruising speed of 9.5 knots immediately dropped to 5 knots.  We made it only 54 river miles that day.  About half the distance!

One small turn to port, around the corner from the Mississippi to the Ohio, and an abrupt loss of 4.5 to 6 knots of forward speed

One small turn to port, around the corner from the Mississippi to the Ohio, and an abrupt loss of 4.5 to 6 knots of forward speed

Next, finding good marinas becomes even more challenging, not only because those that can accommodate larger boats are fewer and farther between but also the number of loopers moving south and funneling into the rivers increases the (mostly but not always) friendly competition for resources.  Anchorages are also more challenging because in a river you are dealing with current, sometimes a strong one, and debris, not to mention passing tows which traverse the rivers 24/7.  Just a couple of weeks ago, an anchored sailboat (which had its anchor light on) was hit by a tow in the middle of the night - the boat was damaged; thankfully, no one was hurt.  Not something anyone ever wants to happen but certainly a risk that comes with this kind of journey.

And even the best laid plans can be halted by fog.

Photo taken by another looper

Photo taken by another looper

Interestingly enough, our enjoyment of the rivers has increased as we’ve moved south, and in ascending order.  The Illinois was the least appealing.  We found any beauty overshadowed by industry and pollution.  Oh yeah, and Asian Carp. The river’s relatively narrow with lots of tow traffic as I’ve described in an earlier post.  So navigation can be quite stressful. And the locks are notoriously unpredictable which gets back to the planning challenge.

Next, the Mississippi. The Mississippi locks also added an element of uncertainty, but there were only two of them.  The biggest issue we had with this river was the swift current, lots of floating debris large enough to be hazardous and the sparsity of marina/anchorage locations and distance between them.  But it’s a nice wide river with lots of room to maneuver and for me, at least, it evoked some sentiment due to its place in US history and literature.

See what I mean?

See what I mean?

The Ohio, while still quite industrial, began to offer more glimpses of the natural environment, and our passage on it was blessedly short with no real locks to contend with.  That’s because a new lock that just opened (and is still under construction after 30 years and $3 billion!) has replaced two old locks that frustrated prior loopers to no end.  The big issues with the Ohio were the current, which the Captain fought all day and which meant slow, tedious progress.  On the bright side, our long pull upstream landed us at the Paducah municipal dock, a very secure mooring in a cool little city where we got off the boat to enjoy a delightful steak and wine experience at historic Doe’s. Check it out! http://www.doeseatplace.com/index.html We also treated ourselves to a a night at the Riverside Holiday Inn with a real bed, a real shower and an escape from the incessant heat and humidity! This was our first night off the boat since leaving Vermont in June.

Paducah is protected from changing river levels by a high wall that seals off the city when necessary. The images that follow are a few of the many paintings that line the city-side of the wall and share the city’s history. They’re huge and really beautifully done.

Paducah is protected from changing river levels by a high wall that seals off the city when necessary. The images that follow are a few of the many paintings that line the city-side of the wall and share the city’s history. They’re huge and really beautifully done.

As we were finishing up on the Ohio, we had a decision to make as there are two possible routes south.  One route follows the Tennessee River.  It is shorter in terms of river miles, but boaters must pass through the Kentucky Lock, a lock that is known to have no patience or love for pleasure boats.  The cruise itself may be a more direct and shorter route, but chances are you are going to be held up at the lock, sometimes for hours and for no apparent reason, or so we’ve been told.  The second route is the meandering Cumberland River which ends at Barkley Lock, a more friendly place that opens to beautiful Lake Barkley.  We chose the latter and were locked right through with no wait.  

I enjoyed the Cumberland River because it marked our return to a narrower waterway where we could see both riverbanks, and I could hear birdsong over the engine. We were still going against the current, but it wasn’t as strong, and the narrower waterway meant smaller tows to contend with. I found it to be a lovely fall day and a leisurely cruise. The Captain, however, was distracted by an out-of-the blue problem with one of our stabilizers – still to be addressed – and the tedium of an endless cruise in the “ditch.”

The “ditch” led us to Green Turtle Bay Marina which is where we picked up the Tennessee River.  The following graphic from Captain John’s website provides a good illustration of the transition from the Cumberland to the Tennessee River, and shows how the two run in parallel for quite a while.

We followed the Cumberland River through Barkley Lock and stayed at Green Turtle Bay in Lake Barkley just below the Kentucky Lock and Dam (which we avoided). From there we passed through the tiny Barkley Canal, into Kentucky Lake and then headed south on the Tennessee River

We followed the Cumberland River through Barkley Lock and stayed at Green Turtle Bay in Lake Barkley just below the Kentucky Lock and Dam (which we avoided). From there we passed through the tiny Barkley Canal, into Kentucky Lake and then headed south on the Tennessee River

The Land Between the Lakes is a huge recreational area between the two rivers that apparently has abundant wildlife.  We passed by in the fog and rain. But it was lovely, nevertheless.

Most of our cruise alongside the Land Between the Lakes looked like this, but that was okay because it provided relief from the heat and was scenic in a different way

Most of our cruise alongside the Land Between the Lakes looked like this, but that was okay because it provided relief from the heat and was scenic in a different way

For the first couple of days on the Tennessee River we cruised in the rain.  Overnight, the weather changed from the hot, humid cycle we’ve experienced almost since leaving Vermont to fall with morning temps in the 40s.  Good thing I packed our quilt!  Cloudy days followed the rainy ones, and we tucked into small marinas on the way down the river.

In Paris Landing State Park Marina (Buchanan, TN) on a cold rainy morning, we lost our shore power cable splitter in the water due to a collection of errors on our part, a very expensive loss. And who appeared but our guardian angel, Ray, offering an extra long boat hook and other useful resources which allowed us to recover our loss. Remember Houlegan from the Big Chute Railway in Canada? Turns out they’re our guardian angels …

In Paris Landing State Park Marina (Buchanan, TN) on a cold rainy morning, we lost our shore power cable splitter in the water due to a collection of errors on our part, a very expensive loss. And who appeared but our guardian angel, Ray, offering an extra long boat hook and other useful resources which allowed us to recover our loss. Remember Houlegan from the Big Chute Railway in Canada? Turns out they’re our guardian angels …

I do like Tennessee, rain or shine.  We passed through beautiful natural sections with abundant wildlife. We spotted foxes, coyotes, deer, tons of great blue herons and great egrets, more eagles, hawks, turtles and lots of smaller birds I couldn’t identify by sight or by song. Of course, we were still navigating around tows and some riverbanks littered with industry, but they were well-balanced by the natural environment that is still intact.  

We also passed through small riverfront communities. The river architecture in this area is quite different from what we see in New England, with most homes built on stilts due to changing river levels.

Reaching the Tenn-Tom Waterway was another major milestone.  We spent our first night at a marina right on the Mississippi/Tennessee border.  After tying up and making arrangements to borrow the courtesy car, we found a great little bar/restaurant and spent some time talking to the locals. Apparently, we have accents.  Dessert for me that evening was sitting in the cockpit listening to the crickets and squawking herons – there were lots of those around.  That’s more like it.

The Tenn-Tom starts at beautiful Pickwick Lake with the big rivers firmly in the rearview mirror. It’s divided into 3 sections. The first 25-mile stretch is the “Divide Cut” and is entirely man-made.  This section really does look like a ditch, and it’s only real appeal is the engineering involved.  A lot of time and money was devoted to this section of the waterway. And there’s just enough room to squeak by the tows.

From there it’s on to the “Canal Section” where some effort was made to straighten the waterway by digging canals to eliminate switchbacks. And finally, “The River” section, so named because it follows the old Tombigbee River with all of its twists and turns. Both sections basically consist of dams and pools to maintain a navigable depth, so there’s lots of locking.  After the locks of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, these were a pleasure – no lines, no waiting.  And more natural beauty and southern hospitality. 

We are now on the Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway, the most remote of all the inland rivers, and will follow it to Mobile, Alabama.

Black Warrior-Tombigbee, a little south of Bobby’s Fish Camp

Black Warrior-Tombigbee, a little south of Bobby’s Fish Camp

We completed our final lock(!) this morning and have one more river anchorage tonight (our first in salt water with tides to consider). Next stop, Mobile Bay. We expect to be there tomorrow.

Because we just finished our last lock for the foreseeable future, I have to sum up the experience. By our count, we have completed 128 locks since the start of our trip in June. The inland river locks are different than those in Canada where we each grab a line, one at the bow and the other at the stern. In the rivers the boat is secured by a midship line tied to a “floating bollard” which floats up and down as the lock chamber fills and empties. The Captain and I make a very good team and find them to be a breeze, but I thought a couple of pictures might be of interest to those who’ve never seen a floating bollard.


Our fenders, fender covers and lines are dirty and worn in places reflecting what we’ve put them through, but they’ve served their purpose well. In the words of another looper “We’ve cleaned the lock walls with our balls.”

So, I know this is another post heavier on detail than perspective, but that’s because we’ve traveled 700 miles since my last post.  And much of that time has necessarily been spent on planning and logistics rather than in the moment.  Which is probably why this is generally regarded as the least interesting part of the loop.

But I do have a big dose of perspective to share as I wrap up.  We spent a week in Demopolis, Alabama, because we arrived there earlier than expected, and our insurance policy places restrictions on traveling further south during hurricane season.  Under our policy, hurricane season ends November 1 and we arrived in Demopolis the last week in October.  One thing we’ve learned on this trip is that we don’t like to stay in one place for very long unless we have something to do.  We live in a small space that can start to close in when sharing it 24/7.  And we’re happiest while traveling anyway. 

 So, we rented a car in Demopolis and drove along the Florida panhandle to aid our future decision-making. We knew we’d see some hurricane damage but definitely weren’t prepared for the extent of the destruction. Panama City was absolutely torn apart. I don’t even know where one would start in terms of recovery. But people were sorting through debris, making piles, patting each other on the shoulder and doing what they could to make room for the utilities and clean-up crews. Blue tarps served as roofs everywhere. GEICO, Verizon and others filled parking lots with disaster recovery teams. And of course, the churches mobilized to make sure bottled water, meals and laundry services were available to whomever needed them. There are clearly many displaced people who need such support.

I was hesitant to take pictures at first feeling it might be disrespectful to do so, but we ultimately decided that it’s important to understand what happened there. Pictures cannot even begin to capture the devastation, but I am sharing a few.

The Captain and I took all of this in while driving the coastline to make sure we could make safe passage in our pleasure craft as we continue our journey south.  It was both humbling and sobering and even a little embarrassing.  And it drove home the point that while for us this trip is a trip of a lifetime, what really matters is that our family, our friends, our communities, ourselves and the survivors of this latest hurricane are all safe, and we give thanks for that daily.  Literally.

Grateful

Grateful