Tenn-Tom to the Gulf
After 17 days on our side trip up the Tennessee River to Chattanooga, we got back on the Loop route by turning south at the border of Tennessee and Mississippi and onto the Tenn-Tom Waterway. Construction on the Tenn-Tom project began in 1972, and it would go on to become the largest civil works project ever undertaken by the Corps of Engineers, which spent $2 billion to make it happen. By connecting the Tennessee River in Mississippi and the Black Warrior River in Alabama, it provided a direct water route from the Tennessee River to the Intracoastal Waterway and the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile Bay, reducing travel distances from some points in the eastern U.S. by as much as 800 miles. Over the 471 mile waterway, there is a 341 foot difference is water level, which is overcome by 10 locks and dams. We have included a map of the waterway to show the extensiveness of the project. My father’s entire army career was with the Corps of Engineers, so we really enjoyed cruising through these impressive channels and professionally operated locks.
This part of our trip was not without its unique challenges, including a string of cold and windy days, large tow boats appearing around narrow hair-pin turns, logs and water hyacinth floating in our path, foggy mornings, and very long cruising days due to a minimal number of places to stop for the night. In order to ensure that we covered a certain number of miles to get to the next overnight destination, we got up and prepared the boat for departure before the sun came up and sometimes didn’t drop the anchor until the sun set. During the Tenn-Tom days, it was better to travel in a caravan of a few other boats that were moving at the same speed. We stayed in constant radio communication with others as we coordinated passage with lock masters and negotiated the passing of tows in some extremely narrow channels. There were also some situations when fellow cruisers needed mechanical help and it was very reassuring to know that there were fellow loopers near you on this very remote leg of the trip.
One of the highlights of this time on the river was meeting a Canadian couple who was canoeing and camping for 1000 days. Pierre and Jennifer started in Ottawa, Quebec and will be paddling the entire Loop two times and then back up into some northern areas of Canada. We spent a good bit of time listening to their fascinating stories about encounters with nature, their physical challenges and all the wonderful people they had met and helped them along the way. After a few late night discussions with them, Stel and I were very happy to be returning to our cozy cabin on the Estrellita as they wandered back to their tent in the 30 degree temperatures we were experiencing that week.
Continuing south through Alabama, we started to see more and more wildlife and vegetation that we are used to seeing in South Carolina. Deer swimming across the river, big gators, turtles sitting on logs, southern bird life and tall pines got us excited about getting closer to the Gulf of Mexico. We are thankful for the experiences that we have had on the inland river systems over the past 2 months, but we are really looking forward to reaching Mobile Bay, where we will finally be in the saltwater environment that looks and feels so familiar.
Back to the Salt Life
Our re-entry into a familiar feeling salty and sandy environment was grand, to say the least! During our week of cruising east beyond Mobile Bay, we were greeted by the best of weather, water, wildlife and wonderful friends. Coastal Alabama and the panhandle of Florida have some beautiful water and sugar white beaches. And of course, as soon as we entered saltwater, we were welcomed by an abundance of brown pelicans, dolphins and good fishing. Ahhh……we feel like we are close to something that resembles our familiar home waters. But….what’s the deal with the temperatures??? We were hoping for higher temperatures, but obviously we are not quite far enough south yet! We will remain patient and thankful that we are not hung up in Kentucky or Tennessee, where they are experiencing some really nasty weather for this time of year.
A highlight of the past 10 days was our visit to the Pensacola area, where we anchored at beautiful Ft. McRee Cove with “Sundowner” and “Free Bird”. Wow, what a gorgeous spot!! We were surrounded by playful dolphins and beautiful white sand dunes, which were a great venue for watching the Blue Angels perform their homecoming air show on a clear 70 degree day. We were all impressed, to say the least! We also got to do some fishing from the beach and were fortunate enough to find a prime redfish hole, which produced a great seafood dinner for “Sundowner” and “Estrellita”. We rejoiced in this meal and anchorage as one of God’s special provisions for our enjoyment. After two nights at the anchorage, we moved to Palafox Pier in the historic downtown area of Pensacola. We spent time eating out with cruising friends, attending a locally produced musical one night and a Mannheim Steamroller concert the second night. The air had cooled down substantially, so the weather and the music got us in the Christmas spirit in a big way. (Here
Our biggest Pensacola treat was the arrival of our friends, Jo and Boogie Tudor, from Beaufort, SC. We have been hanging out since we were young marrieds, with most of our time together being spent on a boat of some kind. Jo and Boogie cruised with us for a while through the Trent-Severn Waterway and Georgian Bay earlier in the year, so it was good to have them back. We were hoping that they would accompany us on the Gulf crossing, but later found that the weather would limit us to just a few days with them on Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. During our final day in the Pensacola area, Boogie and I enjoyed the Naval Air Museum while the girls spent some good time shopping….perfect arrangement! We left Palafox Marina the next morning and cruised until after dark (not normal procedure) until we dropped an anchor behind Spectre Island in near freezing temperatures. We ran the heater that evening a little too intermittently , so I had to ask for forgiveness the next morning to prevent mutiny on the “Estrellita”. I immediately planned the next day’s cruise toward comfortable Baytowne Marina, a fun little spot in Sandestin, Florida. The captain was eventually forgiven for his thoughtlessness.
We are now hunkered down in Panama City, waiting for things to thaw out a bit. We were a little misty-eyed when Jo and Boogie hopped into a rental car this morning and headed back home. Thank you friends, for your companionship and support along the way, both on this Great Loop adventure and in life.
“Many, O Lord my God, are the wonders you have done.
The things you planned for us no one can recount to you;
were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to declare.”