We got this cool story in from fellow Woody Boater John P. Thompson. We could not have said it better.. nor would I have had the time, or spelled it all right.. Thanks John.
485 miles, seven days and a dozen locks in our wakes earned us an open view of the Gulf of Mexico from our cruise’s southern most point— halfway through Mobile Bay.
That we did this in 19 foot and 24 foot wood boats, vintage 1965 and 1984 respectively, proved that even relatively small craft can safely navigate these wonderfully mostly rural stretches of where America finds her heart and soul. In the 19 foot Carver, Wave Toucher II, were Captain Dick Baner and friend and veteran of many river cruises, Gary Weiss. Both are from Eureka, Illinois. Our 24 foot Skiff Craft, Lily Pad, I was piloting alone. Our boat’s home port is on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri.
We started this voyage on the Tennessee River at Pickwick Landing State Park near where Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama meet. We attended about half of the 2013 Fall Rendezvous activities being held by the Antique & Classic Boat Society’s (ACBS) Dixieland Chapter at this picturesque state park resort. After the Dixieland cruise to Aqua Harbor for a nearby lunch, our two boat fleet left the rest of the Dixieland crew and began our journey south. In a few miles we found ourselves at the mouth of the largest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project in their history: The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.
Starting in 1972 they moved more dirt on this project than was moved for the Panama Canal. Since its completion in 1985, it has provided a much safer and more direct link from the Tennessee River Valley to the oceans of the world— as well as providing new recreational and tourist opportunities to the rural areas it transits. It has become the course of choice for recreational mariners in live-aboard cruisers who make the “The Great Loop” or who migrate with the seasons from north to south.
After over 470 miles on the Corps managed waterway, using the canal like Tenn-Tom, the channelized Tombigbee, Black Warrior and Mobile Rivers, we found our wooden vessels dwarfed by the sea going military and commercial ships of the Port of Mobile.
We were fortunate to find early fall just beginning to paint the leaves crimson, yellow, and burnt orange. Water temperatures were in mid 70’s. Overnight air temperatures would drop to about 40 degrees. Afternoons would peak in the 70’s— until we finally topped 80 degrees as we came into Dog River Marina off Mobile Bay.
The serenity, beauty and tranquility of the ribbon of green glistening waterway was our welcome companion through mile after mile of snaking through lightly settled or unpopulated and “nature-scaped” countryside.
The stars of the middle stretch of this trip were the “White Cliffs” of Alabama. They are part of the Selma Chalk deposits and were reportedly created about the same time as the more famous and taller
“White Cliffs of Dover” in England. Shorter yes, but stunning still are these white riverbank bluffs deep in the backwoods of America’s friendly south.
As we cruised ever closer to the Gulf of Mexico, sightings of alligators soaking up the late season sun were made from both boats. We could almost feel America’s South yawn at us as we rode the water through her peaceful, color changing backwoods. We felt her embrace us through her people’s welcoming and inclusive ways. Eventually engulfed by her busy port of Mobile, we saw her one hand busy in peaceful trade with the world, and her other in production of the most modern technological ships for the defense of liberty.
Time and current news events seem less relevant on a cruise such as this. Life seems to be enough in each moment savored in our old boats, atop picturesque waters, and in the company of good friends. One feels no need to look to the years already spent, or peer beyond the instant to obligations ahead: The moment is sublime and to be relished.
Side bar— Our Tenn-Tom cruise combined with the over 600 mile trip we did in these two boats this spring— through, across and on both coasts of Florida— encompassed over 1,000 miles of the Great Circle Route, or Great Loop. The Great Loop is a roughly 6,000 mile mostly inland waterway that circumnavigates about half of the continental U.S and portions of Canada.
This trip had fewer marinas and facilities– like hotels and restaurants— along the route than most of the miles we have cruised. These facilities ranged from top-of-the-line to “rustic and well used.” Since restaurants were in short supply, we had to provision for some meals while underway. Since the fuel stops—particularly on the lower half of the waterway—are very limited both boats had portable fuel tanks on board. This ensured we could make the longest stretch—the last day—which was about 130 miles plus one last lock without a place to refuel in between the day’s start and finish.
We soon found the 12 locks (fascinating once or twice through) to be a necessary evil for the trip from Middle America’s Tennessee River to the Gulf. Though time consuming and schedule confounding, they should not be feared, as even working solo in our 24 foot boat I had no trouble locking through. Good fenders that are large sized and well placed, a boat hook, and twenty feet or so of dock line to hook the floating bollards in these locks made passage relatively easy on boat and crew.