The Lively Mississippi
Those that have taken on the challenge of cruising the Great American Loop have often been accused of developing a “pack mentality”, but Stel and I have come to fully understand why it is smarter, safer and a lot more fun to cruise along side other couples for periods of time. It has become obvious that we need each other, and not purely for social reasons. Although having fun together is a major part of the overall experience, we have also found that strength in numbers equates to successfully getting from point A to point B when facing the challenges of each day’s journey. “Loyal” and “self-sacrificing” are words that describe the loopers that we have met along the way. We have been overwhelmed by an atmosphere of caring and sharing among all the people who are committed to this wonderful journey.
After talking to experienced cruisers and reading much of the information that was available, Stel and I understood that the Mississippi River might be one of the more challenging legs of the trip. With the swift running currents, changing water levels, increasing amount of log debris, leaping Asian Carp, monster tow boats, unpredictable lock schedules and busy mining ports, our boating skills were tested in conditions that we had never experienced before. During our days and nights on the rivers, we thanked God for giving us 4 consistently beautiful weather days, but were also grateful that we had some very experienced couples cruising and anchoring alongside us. Over the 4 day period, we spent a long days at the helm as we made our way from Grafton, Illinois down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. We ran with the fast current of the muddy Mississippi and reached speeds of 13 knots at very low engine rpm (pretty exciting when you are in a trawler!). It was favorable for our fuel consumption until we made a radical turn against the current into the clearer blue water of the Ohio River and immediately slowed to a crawl of 6.5 knots. We spent a memorable night at “Hoppie’s Marina”, an infamous barge-side tie-off where the owners, Charles and Fern Hopkins, give river condition briefings to each group of loopers passing through. We were fortunate enough to be there over a Sunday night when they cook and host a potluck supper for all loopers! After leaving there with our group of five boats, we spent 3 consecutive nights at recommended anchorages off the main stream of the Mississippi River. It was our longest period without stepping on land, so it was a great time to test our ability to live on the boat with a finite supply of food, water and power. The Estrellita proved once again to be a comfortable and reliable little “home” on the water!
After a long, but memorable journey down these two great rivers, we entered the winding Cumberland River for 31 miles to the Barkley Lock and Dam where we were quickly lifted 57 feet to the north end of Kentucky’s Barkley Lake. We exited the lock chamber and were immediately greeted by the beautiful Green Turtle Bay Marina where we joined about 20 other looper boats enjoying a respite from their great river adventure! We were excited to find out that the marina was hosting their annual Looper appreciation cookout that very night, so it was good to celebrate with couples that we had been traveling with, and also some couples that we had not yet met. There was no shortage of great stories to be told!
Looping Back Toward the Deep South
As we continue to move further into the deep south, Stel and I find that we are no longer the minorities with southern accents. We can finally refer to our northern based friends as the ones that talk a little funny. I have enlightened many of the northern loopers with the definitions of “y’all” (2 to 4 people) and “all y’all” (5 or more) to get them ready for their entry into the wonderful southern legs of the trip. I have happily spent a great deal of time convincing them that “grits”, properly pronounced gri-yets, should become a regular part of their diet, whether ordering breakfast, lunch or dinner….and should never be ordered without a tall glass of sweeeeet ice tea. It will be a hard sell, but maybe by the time they pass the coast of South Carolina in the spring, they will have adapted to some of the ways of life unique to the deep south.
Stel and I have spent the last 10 days cruising down beautiful Kentucky Lake and into the Tennessee River. Kentucky Lake is one of the largest man-made bodies of water in the world. It covers 160,000 acres, has 2,380 miles of shoreline and even though the southern half looks more like a river, the lake is technically 240 miles long. On the east side of the lake is the “The Land Between the Lakes”, officially designated a National Recreation Area by John F. Kennedy is 1963. We discovered some beautiful bays in this wilderness area and enjoyed some quiet, moon-lit nights at anchor as we made our way south. This area is one of our country’s bass fishing hot spots, so there were high powered bass boats blowing past us all day long. Sharing the waterways with bass boat traffic was a pure pleasure compared to all the tow boats that we had been dealing with during the prior weeks. As a matter of information for my fishing buddies back home, I was no threat to the bass population in the area, but was able to catch a few lumbering catfish with a high degree of fishing finesse…hotdog on a bare hook!
We have decided to take a long side trip up the Tennessee River to one of our favorite cities, Chattanooga. Our daughter, Katie, went to college in that area and we fell in love with it. It will add another 500 miles to our trip, but we may never have another opportunity to see this part of the country by water. We will be meeting some friends there, and they will hopefully be enjoying the peak of the fall colors with us as we cruise through what is known as the “Grand Canyon of the Tennessee.”
Tennessee River Excursion
The month of October is usually a great weather month in our home state of South Carolina, and as we headed east on the Tennessee River, we found it to be much the same in Alabama. Mild sunny days and cool nights were the norm, and we were excited to see a preview of fall color as we made our way through the river gorge on the way to Chattanooga. We cruised in company of “Roundabout” (Ken and Terry Westby) for four days as we made our way across the state of Alabama and through the 30 mile long “Grand Canyon of Tennessee”.
The City of Chattanooga was as wonderful as we remembered when our daughter Katie went to college there in the late 90’s. We could see the Bell Tower of Covenant College on the backside of Lookout Mountain as we came up the river! Our slip at MarineMax was within walking and biking distance of all of the main attractions of one of the most family friendly towns in America (in our opinion). It is obvious that this city has spent a great deal of thought and money on the planning and construction of buildings and infrastructure that emphasize art, history, fitness, family fun and the conservation of natural areas, especially around the river front. As usual, we found it much easier to see the sights from the seat of our bikes. We have grown to really love our ability to secure the boat at the marina and immediately lift the bikes over the rail and onto the dock for a tour of the towns and parks that we visit. We have been able to see so much more on our bikes than if we were restricted to walking and the bikes were particularly great in a city like Chattanooga, where it seemed to be designed with biking in mind.
Our good friends, John and Lori Pitner, drove from Mount Pleasant, SC to Chattanooga to spend a few sightseeing and cruising days with us. After spending a little time in Chattanooga, we shared a bit of our looper life with them by cruising a couple of 6 hour days, spending a night at a pristine anchorage, visiting a couple of small town marinas, and of course, negotiating a couple of big locks. Our days together were filled with beautiful weather, gorgeous scenery, delicious meals, great music, a few southern dance lessons and wonderful fellowship. We thank God for friends who are willing to move into our little home for a while and share a little piece of our cruising life, as well as bringing fun and interesting news from home.
Stel and I are now coming close to the end of our Tennessee River side trip. Our eastward trip to Chattanooga and back added about 500 miles to the loop, which took us a total of 17 days. During this time, we encountered a few stiff winds, swift currents, intense thunderstorms, thick fog and slow locks. But more memorably, we experienced beautiful blue skies, calm water, romantic sunsets, a unique southern city and great friendships.