Started the Inland Rivers leg of The Great Loop from Chicago on Oct 4. Part 1: Illinois River to Alton IL… starboard engine problem limiting our speed. Part 2: Mississippi and Ohio River… record low water levels and bigger locks and tows, and started on the Tennessee River and took a side trip on the Cumberland River. We left off back at Green Turtle Bay Marina in Kentucky, still with only 1.5 engines and cold weather ‘riding our aft.’
In Part 3, we cruise the Tennessee, Tenn-Tom, Tombigbee, and Alabama Rivers into Mobile Bay and back to salt water. It’s a mix of marinas and peaceful anchorages, Looper flotillas in locks, winding river routes, and dodging debris.
Click the Google Map button below to open the map in a separate window. There you can zoom in/out, and click on the icons to see pictures and more info on the various places along our route.
We had now been on the rivers for over three weeks, enough time to grow comfortable in locking, not getting run over by the commercial tows, and navigating the ever-narrower channels due to low water. Fall was still in full color. We were getting anxious to get south to escape the dropping temps – because frost on a boat deck is not fun. And we really wanted to get out from under this gray cloud of a bum engine and get it fixed.
Paris Landing State Park TN -- Oct 26, 2022
New Johnsonville TN -- Oct 27
Swallow Bluff anchorage TN -- Oct 28
Iuka, MS -- Oct 29-30
So it was with a sense of purpose that we departed Green Turtle Bay and entered the long man-made Kentucky Lake, which was made when the Tennessee Valley Authority dammed up the Tennessee River, which runs right through it. To make it even more confusing, we were in Kentucky for a few hours and then Tennessee again, even though still on Kentucky Lake. (Ed. Note: This is exactly the what makes geography so confusing, along with the whole Kansas City being in two states thing and Rhode Island not being an island at all. We need a law about Truth in Geography!) These would be long days between distance and/or multiple locks, with travel almost every day.
The stops were quite varied, from state parks to marinas in small towns to remote anchorages. Every place had something unique. At Paris Landing State Park it was a short walk to the Raptor Rehab Center. Pebble Isle was the site of the Civil War Battle of Johnsonville, a little known battle that was a last gasp and ‘successful fail’ attack by the Confederates in a futile attempt to halt Sherman’s march to the sea. There’s very little left of the Union supply site, but the park did have some nice hiking trails where armadillos could be seen – but not by us, as once again our presence seemed to strike paralyzing fear in all armadillos and they hid again.
We started our last day on the Tenn River, which happened to be Dave’s birthday, with a beautiful sunrise as we raised anchor and headed out in the company of two other boats we had met at the anchorage, meandering amid rather spartan scenery upriver into the early afternoon until we reached Pickwick Lock. It was to be the last lock where we were going up, which thrilled me as the line handler because locking up is harder due to the buffeting of the boat as the chamber floods. Pickwick really took us for a ride, starting with swirling winds and currents as we entered that challenged Dave to get the boat close enough to the bollard for me to lasso it. Then it was like riding a bucking bronco hanging onto the line as we went up 55 feet.
When the doors finally opened, we emerged onto Pickwick Lake and it was as if we had passed through a portal to another world. Gone were the sandy and rocky banks, replaced with bluffs covered in trees , some of which were still in their fall glory. Houses on stilts and aluminum carports over travel trailers overlooking the river along the steep banks instantly became large, expensive homes scattered along the high bluffs. And most of all – normal water levels on the lake. A few miles later we turned off the Tennessee River, crossed into Mississippi, and arrived at our marina in Iuka, MS.
We stayed a day in Iuka in order to visit Shiloh National Battlefield and Cemetery. A gray, drizzly day only added to the solemnity of this site of the battle early in the Civil War that had such a tremendous loss of life on both sides. The National Park Service does a tremendous job of telling the story of this battle at the visitor center and along the driving tour of the encampments. The rows and rows of gravesites — many of which had but a single square stone marker with a number marking never identified remains – overlooked the river we had just cruised down. Even finally seeing an armadillo in the cemetery could hardly be celebrated in those surroundings.
Fulton MS - Oct 31
Columbus MS - Nov 1-2
Heflin Dam Spillway anchorage AL - Nov 3
Demopolis AL - Nov 4-5
Next up was the Tenn-Tom waterway, 234 miles with 10 locks between Iuka MS and Demopolis AL, connecting the Tennessee River at Pickwick Lake to the Tombigbee River in Demopolis by canals dug between a bunch of smaller natural lakes. This year, there was more commercial tow traffic utilizing it as an alternative to the perilously low water levels on the Mississippi, which could mean long waits at locks for we ‘pleasure craft.’ So every day we had to have a Plan B of bail-out points if lock delays should keep us from making our planned destination.
The first day we had three locks to get through, traveling solo through the first 25 miles of monotonous, rip-rap lined straightness known as The Ditch. We got lucky at the first lock and the lockmaster said we could go right in with a solo tug and wait for some other Loopers behind us at the next one. And the tug was named Mr. David! Surely a good omen. About a third of the way as we locked down, I noticed a little water squirting out from the wall off the bow — nothing unusual. We dropped further and the water had more distance to travel out and down, becoming a shower on the bow deck. Soon the whole front half of the boat was getting a good washdown, including where I was standing tending the line. Then it dawned on me that I was wearing a water-activated inflatable life vest! Fearing that my vest might explode like an airbag at any moment, I began contorting to keep my back to the spray while hanging onto the line in a series of Advanced Boat Yoga moves that must have been highly entertaining to the tug and lock crews. The good news is that while I did deflate my pride, I did not inflate my vest.
Following my TikTok-worthy Dance of the Leaking Lock, we waited briefly at the second lock for two other Loopers to catch up as expected. One advised the lockmaster about a third boat that had run aground a couple miles back. The lockmaster hailed the stuck boat on the radio and told him to sit tight for about 30 min. He then coordinated a release from the dam to raise the water level between the two locks about 6 inches, which floated the boat again. That guy then helped pull another boat out of the mud that had strayed out of the channel avoiding a tow, and they both caught up and locked through with us at the third lock. How’s that for a community effort???
Even with minimal delays at the locks, our now six-boat flotilla arrived at Midway Marina as the sun was setting. Though they were closing and starting their annual Halloween party, the staff was still there at the docks to get us tied up as we came in. We were greeted by a zombie, a pirate, and a couple things that I’m not sure exactly what they were – and they invited the Loopers to join the party!
The next day we had 60 miles and four locks to get through. A pre-dawn phone call to the lock got an ‘I’ll be ready for you,’ so the day’s nine-boat flotilla headed out in mass and went right into the lock. One down.
Coming out, one of the boats suggested we all go faster than 7 knots. Several (including us) responded that this was as fast as they could go for various reasons, but faster boats were welcome to pass. Dave did point out that with only a few miles between locks, they would probably lock us through as a group anyway. And remember that the lockmasters talk to each other to tell them what’s headed each other’s way, so the next lock knew that nine Loopers were coming. In the end, the group stayed together.
Second lock: doors were open and waiting for us. Two fast boats had caught up, so we were now a group of 11. One of the fast boats took off at high speed.
Third lock: Doors were opening as the lock came into view. What else did we see? The fast boat sitting there waiting, as we had predicted. We were all starting to think this was going to be an easy day after all. Which of course turned out to be premature.
The fourth and final lock was an hour away, and our leader of the day reported she had called and the lock currently was closed while working on a hydraulic problem. Uh-oh. The 15 seconds of radio silence following her announcement was the VHF version of a collective groan. On arrival, they were still working on it, but expected to resume operations in about an hour. We had 20 miles to go to Columbus after the lock, and would be pushing sunset if the repairs went much longer than that.
With no place to tie up, the options were to drift randomly while avoiding fellow boats, or drop the anchor. That’s when things started getting a little Lord of the Flies as people began jockeying for turf near the lock to anchor, dribbling around boats holding station to get to the front, and having testy radio exchanges about who had anchored too close to whom. The long day and anxiety over approaching darkness was wearing on everyone. We didn’t want to run the risk of snagging a submerged something in these areas, so hung back at the rear with a couple other non-combatants watching. They eventually opened the lock and let us tie up and wait the remainder of the time inside, with the faster boats toward the front.
When we finally locked down and the doors opened, it was like a Running of the Bulls. Our Fast Freddy from earlier gunned his obnoxiously loud engine before being completely out of the lock. The other faster boats waited a little longer before kicking it in the butt, and then the rest of us worked our way out and set our standard cruising speed, some a little faster – or slower—than others. This fortunately spread us out over the remaining 20 miles so we didn’t all arrive at the same time. We were bringing up the rear but in the end we all got there before dark, tired but feeling like we accomplished something.
After two very long days, we took an extra day in Columbus and it surprised us with its charm. A stop at the small visitor center (which was Eugene O’Neill’s early childhood home) yielded a map for a very enjoyable self-guided short walking tour of antebellum homes, several of which were described as ‘Columbus eclectic style’ of architecture. The storefronts along the small downtown area were busy putting up Xmas decorations. And an ornate set of wooden doors led us to a unique bakery with a flying saucer on the wall (and some great treats).
Everyone who stops at Columbus Marina knows Jimmy the Fuel Dock Attendant. The incredibly slow fuel pumps give him ample time to tell everyone that he’s 77 years old and has been pumping fuel for 23 years, followed by many wisecracks and jokes.
From Columbus, the first lock was right around the corner. We had developed the habit of checking AIS as soon as the alarm went off in the morning to see what the commercial traffic was like. This morning, Dave noted a big tow coming. He alerted our point person for the day, who called the lock and was told he would lock us through if we could get there pronto. It was still darker than we prefer to be leaving – especially through the shallow approach channel there at Columbus – but everyone did a mad scramble to depart 20 min before planned. We were the first one out, and I was up on the bow with a spotlight while Dave maneuvered expertly. Five boats followed us out and into the lock, with the approaching tow captain graciously saying he was going to throttle back to give the lockmaster time to get us through. Now that’s a cool guy.
Our group split in half from there – the faster group and us along with two Canadian boats. The route wound back and forth between Alabama and Mississippi for a bit, bringing us to the next lock. The faster group was tied up in the lock, but the lockmaster said he was going to wait for us. We heard one of the boats try to prod the lockmaster to lock them down by telling him that we were 22 minutes away (which was correct). The deadpan response from the lockmaster was “Thank you for that information,” a very professional way of saying ‘stuff it.’ Trying to tell a lockmaster how to do his job is not a good idea.
Later on, we could see the faster boats had pulled off at the first decent anchorage. The two Canadians pulled off at the next anchorage a few miles up, inviting us to join them. But we decided to continue on because we had time to make the next lock and we could see that there was no commercial traffic anywhere nearby to delay us. We locked through this final lock on the Tenn-Tom and turned into a well protected anchorage with a nearby boat ramp to easily get Roxy to shore immediately after exiting the lock. It couldn’t have worked out better, especially the next morning when the faster group that had taken the earlier anchorage ended up waiting almost three hours at the lock while we weighed anchor and were on our way to Demopolis.
Demopolis is a longtime Looper gathering place and final major stop on the rivers. There’s not much to the town, but the marina has a small boatyard and many boats end up laying over to get work done, such as replacing damaged props from running into floating debris coming down the rivers. We waited out a day of heavy rain along with a couple dozen other Loopers there, catching up with a few we knew and meeting new ones. The general sentiment was that everyone was ready to be done with the rivers.
Bashi Creek anchorage AL - Nov 6
Three Rivers Lake anchorage - Nov 7
After Demopolis we were in the home stretch. Fifteen boats left the marina at first light, headed for Demopolis lock a few miles away and our only lock for the day. Once through, the group spread out as everyone chose their cruising speed.
The Tombigbee flows over a very tortuous course, doubling back on itself numerous times. We ended up traveling with Blue Yonder, a retired Air Force couple who we had actually first met way back on the Hudson River in June, because they happened to be running at the same speed as us. We anchored with them at Bashi Creek and the next day at Three Rivers Lake. At Bashi, we anchored close to shore on the bank of the river out of the channel. We were rewarded with a front row seat to the Tow and Barge Show passing that evening, alerted to their approach by the throb of the tug’s powerful engines that had become so familiar and so distinguishable by now.
After an early start right behind Blue Yonder from Bashi, we made it to our last lock of the rivers at Coffeeville at 9:30. The doors were open and we went right in. And then, we were done with locks!!! It was actually a little strange and hard to grasp that we were done. It also meant that we were now back in tidal waters, and needed to start changing our thinking and route planning.
Three Rivers anchorage was our final night on the river. We tucked in close to shore along with two other boats and put out a stern anchor to keep us from swinging into shallower water; since we were now in tidal waters, we could have a current switch with the tide change overnight that could cause us to swing. As we enjoyed the peacefulness of the anchorage and its cricket symphony, I reflected on how fortunate we had been to have made it down the rivers as scheduled, props intact, no boat damage, no fog delays, only one day of a weather delay, and relatively few lock delays.
Yes, that self-congratulatory reflection was premature. For the next morning when we weighed both anchors, we forgot about the trip line and float we had on the stern anchor and it got wrapped around the starboard propeller. AAAaaaack! Dave quickly donned snorkel gear and jumped in. The water was hardly clear, but he was able to cut the line and run his fingers over the prop to make sure there was not any damage. Total delay was only about 30 minutes, five of which was Dave taking a shower after being in that water. We got underway and I spent the next 30 min cleaning all the mud out of the cockpit and swim platform.
The rest of travel that day was a slalom course dodging debris, mostly logs and tree branches. One thing we noted was how incredibly many red and green channel markers were washed up on shore. We joined the Mobile River mid-morning, and soon the muddy banks gave way to industrial Mobile AL. Small tugs were rearranging empty barges, and loading cranes towered over numerous cargo ships on both sides. This was the transfer point where goods were loaded onto and off of the barges we had been seeing plying the waters we had been traveling on for the last month. We passed by downtown Mobile and popped out into Mobile Bay – our first ‘big water’ in a long time. It was a short and easy crossing to Fairhope, with pelicans diving into the water around us the whole way.
We had completed our journey down the inland rivers of America’s heartland.
Alabama River & Mobile Bay
Fairhope AL - Nov 8 - 11
Fairhope is an absolute hidden gem on Mobile Bay and on our list of Top 10 stops. After five weeks of struggling towns and stops, it was so nice to see a town that was vibrant and thriving. There were lots of restaurants, a funky coffee shop, beaches and beach cottages, spas, parks, and arts. The fine sand beach and clear salt water at the yacht club where we stayed was a welcome change from the mud and tannic waters of the rivers. And the sunsets over the water were just magnificent. We stayed several days, and Fairhope was the perfect place to transition from inland rivers back to salt water cruising.
We are happy to be done with the rivers. There had been beautiful anchorages, friendly towns, and the satisfaction of having mastered locking and a whole new skill set that was river cruising. But the long days, the vigilance needed to avoid debris, and the intensity of monitoring for approaching tows and arranging passing wears everyone down. And we had a date with a nearby boatyard to finally get our engine fixed – at last.
Out big takeaway from river cruising is how necessary a community is to success, one made up of many groups that all work together. Loopers in particular stick together and work together, lending experience and expertise and sometimes just moral support. The lockmasters talk with each other and follow AIS to see who is approaching to keep things moving along; we were the benefactors more than once of their grace in waiting for us when they didn’t have to. The tow captains also looked out for us, warning of shallow spots, best ways to pass them and coming out of their pilot houses to exchange a friendly wave; we heard a comraderie in the radio chatter between the tow captains themselves. Marina staff work to get everyone in safely, happy to share recommendations for things to see and do and local tales. All these groups come together as a community, working within and between each other to benefit everyone. And while each day the members of these groups may change, the community doesn’t. It’s not just pay it forward, it’s also give more than you get.
The common denominator? A love and respect for life on the water.
Pops’ Stats Corner*
- No of Days: 14
- Travel Days: 11
- Miles Traveled: 660.6 ( 574.4nm)
- Locks: 13
- Anchorages: 4
- New States Visited: 2
- Armadillo sightings: 1
Cumulative Great Loop
- Started March 17, 2022 in St. Augustine, FL
- Travel Days: 117
- Miles Traveled: 4759.7 ( 4138.6 nm)
- Locks: 142
- Anchorages: 18
- States Visited: 18 Provinces: 2
*Pops is what the family affectionately called Dave’s dad. He had a mind for sports statistics, earning him the nickname Numbers from the coaches of several Stillwater teams with whom he worked. This regular section of the blog is in his honor, because it’s the kind of thing he would love.