Day #26: The mornings when we wake up at anchor or ‘on the hook’ as some boaters say, are consistently my favorites. There are inconveniences, of course - having to boat Dorothy to shore, for example, and running the generator – but if I was in seek of conveniences, I wouldn’t have started this trip in the first place.
The anchorage spot itself and the perfect weather conditions definitely contributed to our high opinion of the spot. There wasn’t a speck of wind and the water was so still the stars and sunrise were epic.
Pic: Dottie getting a ride to shore from anchorage at MM: 277. Nov. 2nd.
Nightingale, the boat we'd been cruising with and who we had anchored near the night before, did not have our K9 commitments. As a result, they lifted their anchor and set off for the next lock just as the sun was rising. With only about 60 miles to travel for the day, and knowing that the next lock was our only one we'd have to naviagte, Melby indulged Dorothy with a little more time to play on shore. We were underway before 8AM and looking down the barrel of some ideal weather.
As if we had earned a little good luck, the weather was beautiful all day and it was easy cruising throughout. So much so, Melby and Dorothy napped together in a little patch of sun while I listened to my book. (The last book of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Series. I am increasingly confident that both Roland and I are going to make it!)
A couple of hours later, we transplanted to the fly bridge and reclined in the sunshine, watching the shoreline roll by us like we were in an Imax. Amazing.
.Pic: A stretch of the Tenn-Tom looking pretty. Nov. 2nd.
Until, of course, the starboard engine gurgled to silence. Ain’t it always the way.
This time, however, the fix was easy. If you’ve been reading this blog with regularity, you may remember that the communication between our gas tanks and engines is spotty. Although the two engines should draw gas evenly from both tanks, depending on how we run them – one may run out long before the other. And when it does, the running engine doesn’t always draw the gas form the other, full tank, but instead dies.
But like in life, experience makes all the difference. With hardly a gasp or a raised voice, I darted to the cabin helm while Melby grabbed an auxiliary gas tank, a wrench and solved the problem. 30 minutes later, we were back in easy paradise. We laughed that we were an entirely different crew than we had been three weeks ago. "Seasoned", I think they call it.
And experience had also instructed us to utilize the full-services of the Demopolis Yacht Club to stack the deck for our final few days. The port engine sounded great at low RPM’s and started every time like a dream. We were convinced that the problem was a bent prop – likely the result of one of our beaching exploits from a week prior. When I bought the boat in 2006, she came with two pretty bronze spare props. And although financial famine had hit several times between then and now, and they are worth rent and groceries for a little while, I was never tempted to sell them. Somehow I always knew this trip would happen and their use would eventually come.
After gassing up, we drove The Road – for the second time on this trip – into the harness straps of an industrial lift.
It wasn’t until I got a thumbs up and turned off the engines that I realized… I would be inside when she was hoisted.
Pic: The Road being hoisted out for prop replacement in Demopolis, AL. Nov. 2nd.
Technically, I trusted the process. I wasn’t afraid of being dropped or crushed, but good-god… This boat is my precious baby and it just isn’t a kind or gentle process hoisting her girth out of the water. Watching from land – as I did last time in Burlington, IA - was bad enough. But here, on board, I could hear and feel every moan and creak she exhaled. And each one broke my heart.
But the worry was quickly replaced by joy when our suspicions were confirmed – the problem was a bent prop. An easy, quick fix that would make all the difference.
An hour later, she was back and floating contentedly in a fully powered slip. Ecstasy.
Ecstasy made richer by the arrival of both River Derci and Nightingale. Nightingale took the marina car to the grocery store while we were being hoisted and were kind enough to bring us eggs, English muffins and coffee. It’s wonderful how quickly little families develop out here.
We spent the early part of the evening on the back deck of River Derci – drinking to excess and laughing explosively.
As I’ve mentioned, Jim and Pat are traveling what is known as The Great Loop – a route which includes the Great Lakes, the Mississippi, the Illinois, The Tenn-Tom and the entire eastern coast… It will take them 2 years from beginning to end.
In a way, it reminds me of what happened when I started running marathons. To run 26.2 miles is a totally absurd concept to most people – much like going 1,700 miles in an old houseboat to the ocean. The bulk of those who hear that you’re doing it look at you with disbelief – is it even possible? But right when you start to feel like an A-league rockstar, you get closer to marathoners and marathon culture. By the time you get to the start-line on race day, not only are you one of thousands of others who are doing it – but you’re going to finish near the end (in my case, anyway). Then, you are passed by an amputee, and meet someone who ran 300 miles TO GET THERE. Then you meet the ironman competitors and the triple ironman competitors and you see it all in perspective.
The Great Loopers are the triple-ironmen of boaters.
When we first arrived at Demopolis, we couldn’t help but notice the marina’s restaurant. A place with “bayou food”, up on stilts and overlooking the river. It was rickety and dirty and appeared like it could tumble off it’s stilts at any moment. Perfect, right? We thought so too. And indeed it was.
Jim and Pat joined us and on the way out, we noticed that giant turtles collect under the walkway, begging, it appeared, for peoples’ left-overs. I love turtles and was devastated that we had nothing to offer them. So after a quick detour to The Road to grab a few ends of an old loaf of bread, I made my contribution. It was neato.
Pic: Demopolis Marina's Restaurant. For the record, I'm 89% certain it will fall into the river in less than a year. Nov. 3rd.
Day #27: It wasn’t enormously shocking that we were hung-over on Saturday morning. Being sore of head and dry of mouth was not enough to delay us, however. We had loads of motivation to have an early start. For one thing, we were both really excited to hit the river with two full-functioning engines and full-to-the-brim gas tanks. Also, we had only one lock that day – and we figured that if we made good enough time – we could reach a place called Bobby’s Fish Camp – almost 100 miles away - by sunset.
There was a little fog down of the Demopolis Lock, but it was already burning off by the time the lower doors opened. We locked through with Nightingale, but they had a more modest mileage goal for the day, and when we passed them shortly after the lock – we didn’t see them again. Emails and phone numbers were exchanged, however, and I doubt we’ve seen the last of them for good.
It was another gorgeous day – over 80 and with bright sunshine. Given the weather pendulum that we had ridden thus far, we both refused to complain but it was at times (whisper) too hot. Tank tops, flip-flops and sunscreen were the recipe of the day.
Pic: Pretty river. Somewhere in Alabama. Nov. 3rd.
It was such smooth sailing and such calm water that we saw something we’ve never seen before: A squirrel swimming across the river. Yes, a squirrel. I guess I wouldn’t have denied that they could swim, but I had never seen it before. Did it fall in? Get chased in? Have a date on the other side?
It may well be with regularity that squirrels swim across rivers, however given the predatory nature of the other critters both in the water and along the shoreline, we both doubted that the squirrel chose the route. In any event, I’m sure that a giant blue and white, 43’, rumbling beast of a boat roaring by him left a mark on the little fellas mind.
To our delight, we made great time and were tied up and secure – along with River Derci – at Bobby’s Fish Camp about an hour before sunset.
Pic: Bobby's Fish Camp. Silas, AL MM: 118.9. Nov. 3rd.
Like Hoppie’s Marina outside of St. Louis, Bobby’s Fish Camp is a bit of a legend among river-boaters. I had read about it in the Quimby’s and the Nitty Gritty Tenn-Tom guide, but I had also heard it mentioned by virtually everyone who made the trip.
The marina itself is off the grid and very cool, a place you’d want to stop anyway, but it is also the last dock before you reach Mobile Bay – about 118 miles downstream. In short, get gas here.
Pic: A stack of 'gator heads for sale at the office of Bobby's Fish Camp. Ya' know, the usual...
After a long day, a lot of miles, and still aching from our excess the night before – Melby and I called it a fairly early night. But not before going into the Bobby Fish Camp store to look at charts. Although close, 118 miles is more than we could realistically do in a day even with everything going our way. We would anchor the next night we decided, but then (gasp, silence, gasp) then we’d be done with the river. We were less than 2 days from Mobile Bay and the big blue ocean…
We have NO IDEA how to navigate the bay. I have no charts and the few I saw were totally alien – lines and numbers that meant nothing to me. If you put a gun to my head, I’d admit that when we left St. Paul I didn’t fully believe we’d get this far… I talked with Ronny – a big fella in denim overalls who was watching Alabama football on a tiny television inside the shop.
A huge map of Mobile Bay hung on the wall and I asked him how it worked. He explained it perfectly. Not only did he tell me that, just like the river, the channel is indicated with red and green buoys, but it’s only 35 miles from top to bottom. In short, we could do it in half a day. In shorter, we were almost there and I literally jumped for joy.
When I told Melby what I had learned, he did the same thing.
Day #28: Our new-found confidence, combined with great weather and daylight’s saving time, had us underway by 6:30AM. And by 7AM we were cruising out of the Coffeeville Lock.
With almost no fanfare, we putted out of the very last lock of the whole trip. We went through about 50 during the course of the trip, and as you may have noticed, they dominate the day. Their trouble or ease often make all the difference – and we’ve had our share of terrible lock experiences…
But by now we were pros. Especially with two great engines and nice weather, I felt like Magellan in those things. I won’t go so far as to say we were disappointed that we were done with locks, but we marked the moment as a big milestone. If we didn’t already feel a sense of ‘almost there’ – we did then.
The next 80 miles were scenic and peaceful and perfect. We were both aware that this was going to be our last full day on the River and we drank it in deeply. We gaped at the moss that hung from the Cyprus trees and marveled at the size of the bugs. We also, no shit, almost hit another swimming squirrel.
Just before sunset, we connected with River Derci and together we navigated our way up a small waterway we found in The Nitty Gritty, the Tensas River. It’s deep and protected from the wind, and has no barge traffic. Another boat, a sailboat from Canada called Rainbow’s End, was already there. This isn’t surprising. Although many of the places we found are remote and unmarked, almost every boat has the same three books we do and they all hip you on how to find them.
Pic: River Derci (left) and The Road (right) at our last anchorage. MM: 39.1. Nov. 4th.
Unfortunately, the River was going to throw us one more hitch before she let us go. Of our nearly full month – this was the first anchorage with no friendly shoreline. To get Dorothy to where she needed to be, it would require taking one’s chances in the thick of the bugs, the ‘gators and the mud.
And as Melby (my hero) putted across the waterway to do just that, Jim of River Derci called out to him, “Hey Melby, we saw a pack of wild boar along the shore today! Cool, huh?”
No Jim. Not cool. Melby said he heard crunching and breaking twigs at every turn and very nearly walked into a spider the size of his head… I would have been a helpless mess. Do I like to think of myself as tough? Sure. Brave? I’ll take that. But a spider the size of my head and I will lay down and die with no fanfare.
Pic: Said-spider. Barf.
But there was no attack and less than an hour later, they were both safely back on board. And we were rewarded with a warm, starry night which we enjoyed on the top deck as Billie Holiday played in the background.
Pic: The last anchorage. Stockton, AL. Nov. 4th
Pic: Two barges passing. Tight squeeze.
Pic: A bayou cabin that DIDN'T have the confederate flag flying. Rare.
Pic: The sailboat 'Rainbow's End'. At anchor with us and River Derci on the Tensaw River.
Pic: Bobby's Fish Camp. Looks, feels and smells like the bayou. Look for The Road in the distance!
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