Who hears the rippling of rivers will not utterly despair of anything. -Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Day 50 thru Day 56

Tombigbee to Mobile

Day 50. After cousin Michael Baskin left and we dropped Rachel at the Memphis airport, my son Adam and I drove back to Midway Marina on the Tenn-Tom Waterway at Fulton, MS. Very generously, George (the fellow on duty at the marina) loaned us his nice car so we could run the twenty miles to Tupelo and drop off the rent-a-car. Nice man. Let me comment: all down through the "deep South" I was repeatedly struck by the hospitality, courtesy, politeness, and generosity of folks we came into contact with. It was a real pleasure to me to have practically everyone I passed look me in the eye and offer some pleasantry, respond to my greeting, etc. This is not the case everywhere I go, and the difference was very noticeable.

Since it was Sunday evening, the restaurant at the marina was closed, so we cooked on the boat. Our pantry was not well-stocked at this point, but Adam cooked up some red beans and rice burritos, which really hit the spot. As it turned out, this would be the last supper cooked on the boat, because of the heat at day's end and the availability of restaurants near our docking places. Tonight it was hot into the evening, but the marina was quiet and we slept all right.

Day 51. We were already 50 miles along the Tenn-Tom, and still had 400 miles to Mobile, Alabama. Today we had an easy cruise to Columbus, MS and the river was beautiful.

We had to go through four locks and were unsure about what delays they might present. We got out fairly early, and had only short waits at all the locks, so made good time to Columbus Marina, arriving early afternoon. Adam took the helm most of the way, and became a proficient deckhand in the locks.

We were greeted at the marina by T. Caldwell, the manager, who got us into a covered slip and invited us up to the store/office which was deliciously air-conditioned and had a lounge area and cold beer. We spent the afternoon visiting with T., who entertained us with tales of his Air Force time in Colorado and Wyoming, his avocation as a competitive barefoot water skier (new one on me) and other tales. T. And his assistant Jimmy run a clean, efficient, well-maintained marina and they're good company. We enjoyed the stay.

Some days earlier I had gotten a call from another of my WMA high school classmates, Loren Horn, in Tuscaloosa, AL, and we had arranged to meet in Columbus. Again, this was a first contact after 49 years, but living four years in a military boarding school makes pretty strong bonds. Loren came and picked us up and we had a great visit over dinner in Columbus. He retired after a career in the Marines, and then retired again after a career in the aerospace industry. Hopefully I will see him again next year at the 50th reunion. (50th reunion?? How the hell did that happen??)

Day 52. By this point on the Tenn-Tom, ACE had started dredging out the original channel of the narrow Tombigbee River as much as possible, and were only cutting a new straight stretch through the forest where the river was too tightly serpentine for reasonable navigation. We saw these spots, on the chart and along the river, where oxbow side channels departed and entered the waterway. All along, there was very little of interest to look at. T. Caldwell at Columbus had warned us that "Up here you have some homes along the river from time to time, but further down, nothing but trees for days." During this day the river wandered across the border into western Alabama, and T's prediction was more and more correct.

The river continued to be all ours, but for an occasional fisherman along the bank, and two towboats. We passed through a few more locks without issue, and by late afternoon were happy to finish a 120-mile cruise and pull into the Demopolis (AL) Yacht Basin. There are not many places to stay along the Tombigbee, and this is the second of three along the 335 miles between Columbus, MS and Mobile, AL. You are kind of "out there" -- but not "out there" like you are on the Missouri River in Montana, I reminded myself.

Because, of course, it was impossibly hot and humid and the marina had no "customer area", we fueled up, secured the boat in a covered slip, and repaired to the on-site restaurant/tavern. During happy hour we got into a very interesting conversation with Jim Goodreau, a local fellow at the bar.

Jim had gone to the NASCAR races at Talladega numerous times, and had gotten mobile-camping sites inside the track. The tales he told were very amusing -- crazy folks running around there. The tales he told of a hurricane slamming his town down along the Florida panhandle, and damaging boats people had brought seventy miles up the Tombigbee to escape the storm, were all but amusing. I'm glad I live in Colorado. Jim was good company. After we had dinner and the evening had cooled slightly, we went back to the boat.

As we were setting up our bunks, we noticed a few little brown ants filing along the gunwale. We brushed them off and I thought "Okay, somewhere along the way we've picked up some ants. We'll see if they become a problem." I think we established that they didn't seem to bite, and they weren't very numerous. We went to bed. It was hot.

Day 53. Imagine my surprise, as I quietly crept out to the bow the next morning and found it fairly swarming with little brown ants! I stepped off onto the dock and looked at the stern line, where we had trussed up the side of the boat snugly against the dock bumper. The line tying us there was covered with ants, scurrying back and forth. They were coming aboard from here!! I cast off the stern line, leaving us secured at the bow, which line did not yet show a brown parade coming down its three feet to the boat. It would shortly.

I thought it was interesting that, when I asked in the office/shop about borrowing a courtesy car to go out and buy ant spray, they had Raid on the shelf right there. A known issue. I went back to the boat and Adam was up. His Therma-Rest pad lies on the deck, but he hadn't gotten bitten during the night. At least that was a good thing about our little brown stowaways. We recognized a serious management problem now. We could not spray anything we would be handling (lines, etc.) because the danger of getting Raid in our eyes, etc. would be too great. We did a little spot-spraying and set about getting out of there as fast as possible.

But, that brought up another issue. We were at the end of the row of slips, next to the shore, and for some reason every bit of driftwood in the marina basin had drifted over in front of us during the night. This was a logjam, with logs up to 5-6" thick.

After Adam shoved some bigger ones aside, I gunned and then stopped the engine. We lurched out of the slip and coasted through the debris (which could have damaged a churning propeller), floating clear. As we pulled out onto the river and headed south with our hundreds (thousands?) of new passengers, we did not have a very glowing memory of Demopolis Yacht Basin.

The only haven for boaters in the last 218 miles from Demopolis to Mobile is Bobby's Fish Camp, about 100 miles down the line. It's just about the only sign of civilization through that stretch, as I recall. We had called and reserved a small cabin there, so went through the last Tombigbee lock and ran the hundred miles by early afternoon. Bobby's is an interesting spot, with a dock running maybe 150' along the river bank as the total accommodation for boats. If there are too many boats, they then double-park, one tying off outboard of another, their fenders and good graces making this a workable deal. Actually, a sign in the office prohibits tying up more than four abreast! It would block too much of the river.

As soon as we tied up and checked in, we removed all the storage boxes, coolers, etc. from the boat and laid a heavy stream of Raid around the perimeter of the deck area. Ants had not gotten into food, though they were in the storage boxes. Thank goodness for zip-lock bags. We closed up the boat to fumigate, as we had a cabin to go to for the night.

Lora Jane Dahlberg McIlwain runs Bobby's. Bobby was her dad who ran the place all his life and passed away a couple of years ago. Her great-grandfather started the business in the 1880s as a place for steamboats to refuel, presumably with wood. What a tradition. Lora Jane runs a good operation. There is a sign as you come off the dock prohibiting a list of activities, ending with "Bad Behavior". Among their claims to fame is Best Catfish in the Southeast, but this was a Wednesday night and the catfish were off on Wednesdays.

As the afternoon wore on, four sizable yachts pulled in to the dock, and Little Sadie had just room to tie up at the narrow downstream end, where she was politely bumped to make room for the yachts. One of the others was outboard of a second one. We got to visiting with the folks on two of them. Janet and Harold Creel's boat "Bucket List" is from Merritt Island, Florida.

The other yacht, "La Marie", is owned by Brian Morisset and Susan Fisher of Adelaide, Australia. The boat's master is Capt. Bruce Peterson, whose boat services business Yacht-Pro is out of Aventura, Florida. The three of them were taking La Marie (soon to be re-christened "Invictus") from its previous owner in Chicago to Mobile. Then the owners would fly home to Australia, and Bruce and a first mate would take the yacht to Ft. Lauderdale for painting, then to Savannah, GA where it would be loaded onto a ship and taken to Australia. Bruce will fly there to meet it in Melbourne, and he will pilot it a thousand miles down the coast to Adelaide. I know, and the answer is: They don't make boats like this in Australia! It is an absolutely gorgeous 58' craft, and Adam got a distant shot of it before other boats had come in to dock.

Capt. Bruce prevailed upon Lora Jane, and she and her assistant opened up the kitchen, feeding the crews of Bucket List, Invictus, and Little Sadie our fill of The Best Catfish in the Southeast. And it really may be that. So good. Adam got the group: Jon, Janet, and Harold on the left, Susan, Brian, and Bruce on the right.

Then all the three crews repaired to the upper deck of Invictus and sipped wine and shared stories until late evening.

Day 54. By the time we rallied the yachts had gotten underway. We set out into the pleasant morning, again having the river to ourselves, again having nothing to look at but trees. Unlike the Missouri River country, where cottonwoods dominated the riparian strip, here the unbroken thicket was a mix of many deciduous varieties, and gave the impression that if you left the river you would be jungle-crashing through it for miles.

The water was calm, so we were up on plane, cruising easily at 25 mph. We each, when piloting, found it refreshing and relaxing to stand up in the open walk-through door, head and body out in front of the boat roof, enjoying the wind in the face while controlling the boat with minor flicks of the hand on the wheel. The river was a bit monotonous, but truly beautiful.


As I had read in a boating guide, the sudden shift from pristine forested river scene to industrial frontage opening to the Mobile area was a little shocking. The changing weather as we passed the downtown area was as well.

As we left the city and followed channel markers out into Mobile Bay, we could see that a large storm was overtaking us from behind. I had set a waypoint on the GPS for Dog River Marina, down the right-hand shore several miles below the city.

The prescribed approach was to go past that point down the main channel toward the Gulf, then turn back to the northwest and enter the mouth of the river. In this area of the bay, getting out of a channel could quickly mean running aground. Because rain and wind and waves were picking up rapidly, I elected to try a shortcut showing some depth on the chart, as an alternate access across the bay to the river mouth. We followed the line on the GPS and the depth gauge intently for fifteen minutes, bouncing in two-foot waves and heavy rain and depth hovering at 4-1/2 feet with momentary dips, and we were very quiet. Then we were through the shallows, joined the channel into the river, and were much relieved to pull into the marina, albeit in a downpour.

Dog River Marina is a good place to stay, and Little Sadie was set up in a covered slip now for three nights. With some coaching from another boater we tied the boat so it would properly handle tides, which was an issue for the first time. If the dock doesn't float and you tie up too tightly, then you can have problems with the water level rising or falling, sometimes a couple of feet or more -- potentially tipping your boat over. We teamed up again with the Invictus trio, as we knew they were also going to stay here for a few days. We continued to get to know the Aussies Susan and Brian and the Floridian Bruce over dinner at the nearby yacht club that looked out over Mobile Bay.


We turned in for the night on the boat, but during the night Adam had to rearrange his bed because the fumes from the Raid had not dissipated yet. It was hotter and muggier than ever.

Days 55-56. We spent a lazy Friday and Saturday around the marina, I doing laundry, housekeeping, blogging, and making arrangements with downstream crew members and places to stay. And, we spent time relaxing and reading in the shade and breeze on the office/store porch, where we also enjoyed lots of stories offered by the manager Ricky, about the marina, boats and boaters, and many things. We also spent time on the boat and were happy for a covered slip during the daily afternoon downpour.

Friday evening we went with the Invictus folks across the river to The River Shack, which was an excellent no-frills fish place. Adam caught this evening view up the river from the Shack.

Saturday afternoon Adam said goodbye to our fellow travelers and I took him to the airport. We got the Tenn-Tom week done on schedule, and got him home to Denver in time for his first anniversary on Sunday. It was a fine and memorable week.

After I returned to the marina I enjoyed the company of the Invictus folks at dinner, and then I returned to the boat to get ready for an early departure south across Mobile Bay. I was a little concerned but mostly excited, to be venturing out into such a big open body of water, and going alone.


1 comment:

  1. Jon, I have really enjoyed following your adventure. What a marvelous trip. Thanks for taking the time to blog great pictures and a terrific narrative. Best regards, John Elwell, WMA63