Happy New Year!
A few of you that were in contact with us over the holidays realize we are in Mobile, Alabama and at the end of our inland river voyage. This letter details our final days on the rivers and tells of the transition from a surveyed, constructed waterway [the Tenn-Tom] to a natural, winding river – the TomBigbee.
We last told of our harrowing departure from the Cochrane Rec Area amidst a flood situation and storms surrounding us. We anchored once in the Fenache Creek and then stopped in the Demopolis Yacht Basin, our first paid inhabitation in an actual marina. I negotiated a dirt-cheap price for dockage [20¢ a foot/day], that allowed us to enjoy restrooms, showers and laundry facilities at the end of our dock. There was also a TV room there – we haven’t watched that much TV since 1998, before the Windigo refit!
We didn’t experience any rain for our trip to, and stay in Demopolis. In fact, the weather was exceptional yet again. Wet weather to the north kept the river current running 4 or 5 knots, though, and water levels were very high.
The first evening in Demopolis we were treated to “Christmas on the River”, a parade of ‘floating floats’ – many of them animated! Fireworks accompanied the passing of each lit display. Another treat was the discovery that there were pecan trees EVERYWHERE, dropping their fruit around our feet. We gathered a nice bag of these snacks and scoffed at the price of the store-bought variety.
A sad thing occurred in Demopolis; a crack was discovered in my bike frame and required it to be sent off to England for repair. I have been getting a lot of walking exercise since then, and at least the Moulton makers stand behind their work and are fixing it under warranty. I was really getting used to a lot of cycling from our anchorages.
Demopolis was a cool place, but we were anxious to move on, so we locked through the Demopolis Lock, spent the night anchored next to a bridge and locked through the Coffeeville Lock the next day. This would be Windigo’s last lock on the inland river system. Now we are directly connected to ocean tides and unchecked currents. We raced along with currents we haven’t experienced since the Mississippi River. It seems that when we went searching for bald eagles in the Land Between The Lakes in their mapped & posted habitat, we saw none. But the like the Illinois Waterway, Alabama is populated with eagles, and we were close enough to get a couple pictures.
We found an unusual mooring a mile up a channel, off the main river, that was used many years ago for an old lock. Sure enough, we ventured far enough to discover the old lock walls still intact. With the flooded state of the river, we were able to tie up right in the old lock structure. On of the local hunters there told us the lock was dry in the summer, and that it might drain out while we were in it! But with current measurements, and weather reports tracked, I figured we could occupy it for the night. I was so curious, that in the morning we ventured 3 more miles back into the channel. What I was curious about was to see the alligators that live there! But alas, it is the cooler season for them, and they hibernate most of the winter months here. What a photo for the website that would have been!
So we moved down a few miles and anchored near Jackson, AL. This is NOT a normal cruisers stop. Our anchorage was adjacent to the public boat launch ramp & next to a RR trestle. A curve in the river allowed us to be out of the main navigation channel near the shore. But with the big currents and rising water [it went up twenty-some feet in less than three days] some of the barge tows would swing right next to our boat! It was easy to pick out the ‘good’ tug captains from the ‘rookie’ pilots.
While we were locking up the dinghy on the second day, we met Tommy Hart & Dr. Gene Smith launching their fishing boat at the ramp. It turns out these fellows don’t use rods & hooks and they weren’t ‘fishing’ for supper. Their hobby is hunting for historical remnants along the rivershore. Lots of civil war refuse – bits of artillery and clothing & such. But their main treasure is ancient evidence of habitation from THOUSANDS of years ago. Tools, pottery, religious symbols, etc. left by Indians from many eras. Very impressive fossilized remains of plants and animals are sometimes found, including fossilized teeth (bigger than your hand!) from prehistoric sharks that occupied the seas flooding the area prior to the ice ages.
Tommy & Gene [and Tommy’s son-in-law John Gunn] are such successful archeologists, that Tommy has erected a small museum to house his collection. His favorite use of the museum is to invite school groups to visit and explore the contents of the museum. The variety of the collection is staggering, raging from hundreds of spearpoints and arrowheads to dozens of grinding and hammering tools. All types of animal fossils and fossilized wood span tens of thousands of years in age.
Their research has included archeological study at the university, and their discoveries have enabled them to reconstruct ancient tools and weapons, including the atlatl, a modified spear launched with a long lever to increase it’s range & velocity. John Gunn has in his collection three greenstone “celts” unprecedented in size and quality. These finely honed religious stones measure nearly 12” in length, much larger than the usual charms and icons carried and used by ancient tribes.
Some museum curators would deem these celts and a few of the perfect finely crafted spearpoints in these private collections gathered by ‘amateur’ archeologists as extremely valuable. What a treat to discover this treasure off the beaten path of most sailors on the waterways.
Not only was this uncommon treat presented to us, but we were also invited to some common but sorely missed holiday events in Jackson – we participated in the Christmas caroling adventure of the Rockville Baptist Church. Then we were dragged kicking & screaming to a potluck dinner at Tommy & Brenda’s house where we were forced to consume all manner of delicious foods. He constructed his home with the assistance of a few friends from lumber cut from trees at the site. He also worked the land around his house to provide beautiful landscaping.
Could we stand anymore Southern Hospitality? Yes, later we were driven to a cemetery where the patriarchal leader Ike Nettles created the gravestones early in this century. This man made bust castings of family members and formed concrete gravestones for each of them from these castings. Very unique.
A tour of Gene & Emily’s homestead was most intriguing. Having been in her family for 150 years, this beautiful setting entrances visitors with its simplicity and tranquillity. The location is so remote, when they moved there in 1988, they occupied the house for several years with no electricity or indoor plumbing. A “Waterboy” was used to bring 2 gallons of spring water up to the house from a well 900’ down the ridge. A length of pipe tapped a wood box constructed around the artesian well. The bucket of the Waterboy was lowered down a tightly stretched wire to the pipe where it filled with water. Reeling in the string attached to the bucket pulled it up again.
We didn’t want to leave Jackson, and neither did Windigo. We had laid out another anchor to assure we didn’t repeat our Ashland City experience, and with the rising river levels, swift currents and backwash from passing barge tows the two anchors set so well, it took an hour to get ‘em up. Of course, during this harrowing procedure we were passed by a large tow; and just downstream from us at the ramp, a working barge decides THIS was the exact time to put ashore to offload a crane. We managed to get outta there without losing any ground tackle, smashing into another boat or wrecking Windigo.
An anchorage along a “hunt camp” was found ten miles downstream. With the storms and swift currents the river was littered with debris, some of it being entire trees! These storms must be common as the erosion and subsequent damage was evidenced by the “riverfront homes” we observed. Is it a boathouse, or a houseboat?
The next day we anchored 10 miles above Mobile, readying for our passage under a brand new suspension bridge and through the shipyards. That was a huge change from our quiet months on the rivers! Ocean-going vessels of all sizes and types litter the shore; some new ones are under construction. Several shipyards line the shores of the river with cranes, slips and drydock ships. These drydock ships are larger than the seagoing vessels they hold. The large cargo ships are steamed into the drydock with it flooded, then the doors are closed and the drydock ship is pumped out, leaving the entire bottom of the seagoing vessel exposed for maintenance.
The shipyard area is at the city of Mobile and the mouth of the Mobile River, which opens out into the 35-mile long, 10-mile wide Mobile Bay. Ten miles south of Mobile is the Dog River, which is the location of most of the marinas in the Mobile Bay area. We were referred to the Grand Mariner Marina in the Dog River, but to get into the river, we had to traverse a narrow, shallow channel. Of course, it was low tide to boot. We touched bottom twice, but one of those times we stayed ‘touched’ for almost an hour, moving only 500 feet in that time. Eventually the rising tide, waves and Windigo’s tiny diesel engine moved us into the river and up to the Grand Mariner.
So here we are, and it looks as though we will be here until March.
Kevin & Karin Hughes
Mariner Marina, Mobile, AL