For her second inland rivers adventure, Sojourner was joined by Capt. Carol from SEASENSE and “first mate” Jill, captain of the Car Lei VI. The trip began very late in the season: we left Green Turtle Bay Marina on October 28th hoping to beat the cold to the Gulf, and had winter not come early, we would have made it! As it turned out, we experienced frost, freezing –or near– temperatures, and fog every morning for at least the first half of the trip!
The journey from Lake Barkley (created by the damming of the Cumberland River), to Mobile Bay is 600+ miles, including a full day’s travel along the length of Kentucky Lake (created by damming the Tennessee River) before reaching the official starting point for what is usually called the “Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway” trip. This “back” portion of the Great Circle/Loop includes passage in 4 states (Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama), through 13 lock and dam complexes and along 4 natural rivers (the Tennessee, Tombigbee, Black Warrior, Alabama, and Mobile) as well as the human-made waterway and various cuts designed to straighten and shorten the trip. Though traversed by hundreds of “Loopers” and enjoyed by thousands of recreational boaters each year, the “enhanced” waterway is a commercial avenue for the north-south transport of primarily raw materials. Thus, barge traffic is an everyday part of the adventure! Though not usually as big/long as the ones on the Mississippi River, the barges here still presented interesting challenges on the curves and around the locks!
In its form as Kentucky Lake, the Tennessee River is wide, deep and beautifully blue. The lateness of the cruising season was obvious in that we were the only transient boat at the Paris Landing State Park Marina our first night out. Nonetheless, the park ranger provided us with transportation to the restaurant at the State Park lodge for dinner.
We traveled for almost 3 days on the Tennessee River before approaching our first lock and dam, and there we had to wait over 2 hours as a tow took its barges through the lock in multiple sections. That delayed our progress and we almost violated the first principle of boat travel, i.e., leave light at the end of the day! In increasing darkness, we were dismayed to discover that the Pickwick State Park marina had NO transient slips! So we expropriated a vacant “reserved” slip with plans to leave money in an envelope to cover our minimal electric usage. Imagine our surprise the next morning to discover we had taken the slip belonging to the “Pickwick Belle,” the park’s big paddlewheel!
From the Tennessee River, we traversed the Divide Cut, the first of three distinct geographic sections of the trip. It’s a 24-mile gash cut through land to connect the Tennessee and Tombigbee Rivers, and thus create the Tenn-Tom Waterway. Over 150 million cubic yards of land were removed to make the Cut, and it ranges from 280 to 1300 feet wide and 175 feet at its deepest. Next came the Canal section, a virtually straight shot, some 50+ miles long. Even though it is clearly a human addition, the Canal segment offers its own forms of beauty. This section also contains 8 of the 13 lock/dam combinations on the trip. All are 600 ft long and 110 ft wide, but at 84 feet, the Jamie Whitten lock, is the tallest on the trip and the second tallest in the country. It was also the first one we encountered after leaving Bay Springs MS in the early morning fog. All the other locks have a 30-foot rise/fall, but no matter the details, those cement lock walls can be intimidating!
The river segment is the final and longest section of the Tenn-Tom/Black Warrior Waterway. Its winding, back-tracking path also offered the most diverse water, flora, fauna and riverside panoramas as we cruised southward.
The river water lost all vestiges of blue and became increasingly brown and swampy while scrub pine and cypress gradually replaced the stately evergreens and deciduous trees further north. Among the most surprising, unusual, and beautiful sights were the White Cliffs at Epps, AL. And somewhere along here our talisman pumpkin had to be re-dressed after Halloween and wore a Looper’s cap for the duration of the trip! Given our speed (8 knots at best) and the rarity of marinas along this stretch, we anchored out 3 different nights. First was Warsaw Cutoff, an exquisitely remote, quiet AND deep pullout off the river. Next came Bashi Creek where Jill heard a “bump in the night” and the next morning we saw an alligator sunning itself on the opposite bank. And finally, Bates Lake, a safe but infamously shallow spot… and we discovered the chart plotter wasn’t far wrong when it indicated the boat was on dry land!
On the 12th day out, we experienced a rather sudden return to civilization, or at least inhabited land. It came as a somewhat, but not totally welcome, surprise, though after almost 2 weeks “on the river,” we were ready to enter Mobile Bay and experience sunset at Dog River Marina, our final destination for this segment of our adventure, after passing Sojourner’s first crab pot along the way, of course! More pix!