The Tenn-Tom Waterway: Aqua Yacht Harbor to Columbus and on to Demopolis

Second time around, our departure from Aqua Yacht Harbor was uneventful, and we managed the 54 miles to our next stop at Midway Marina, without mishap. We slipped quietly away from the dock early in the morning, and were off down the Divide Cut, the first section of the Tenn-Tom. This is a 25-mile, man-made, long straight section of the waterway which links Pickwick Lake and Bay Springs Lake.

The Divide Cut

Bay Springs Lake

 

Below Bay Springs Lake, a series of 10 Locks takes the Waterway down to Demopolis.

 

The first six locks, which are fairly close together, comprise the Canal Section.

The first Lock is the deepest. Jamie Whitten Lock, named for a local politician, is 84’ deep.

Jamie Whitten Lock

Jamie Whitten Lock

Midway Marina is halfway down the first flight of six locks.

Tree stumps at Midway Marina

Assistant dockhand at Midway Marina

As we left Midway, it was a beautiful day with the Fall tints lighting up the river banks.

Fulton Lock

Coming up to Glover Wilkins Lock

After Amory Lock you come into the River section. Here, the waterway broadens out and the remaining four locks are more spaced out. There are lots of oxbow lakes where the waterway has been cut through, and in some of them you can anchor. We stopped at Acker Lake and the next day went on to Columbus.

near Acker Lake

Fall colours near Acker Lake

Coming up to Aberdeen Lock

We intended to have two nights at Columbus, and leave early the next morning with a group of Loopers to get through the nearby John Stennis Lock all together. But on the second night we ventured into the town centre to eat at Huck’s Place, generally acknowledged to be the best restaurant in town. It was certainly very good. The town centre looked interesting, and on the way back to the marina, our Uber driver recommended a visit to Waverley Mansion, an antebellum house a few miles out of town.

So we decided to stay another day.

The journey to Waverley wasn’t without incident. What our Uber driver hadn’t told us was that the mansion was some distance away along narrow, country roads. It should have taken about 20 minutes, and after driving for half an hour through forest interspersed with the odd tract of farmland, we suspected that the satnav might have led us astray. Google maps confirmed this, but even when we were on the correct narrow country road, we still couldn’t see anything resembling an antebellum mansion.

Things were getting a bit tense. We had to get the car back to the marina by 12, and if we didn’t find the house soon, we wouldn’t have enough time to see it properly. It wasn’t quite a disaster in the making, but there was certainly the potential for a minor domestic, with unspoken blame being cast equally on the one who had programmed the satnav, versus the one who had insisted on the expedition in the first place. Eventually, we came to a country park and just before a dead end at the water’s edge, I caught a glimpse of white down a rough track through the trees. There had been no sign indicating the house’s location.

A young man was sweeping leaves in front of an imposing house. It turned out he was the guide, and we had just enough time for a tour.

Waverley Mansion

Jimmy told us he was a history graduate and he was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the house and its history. He had worked for the owners for 10 years.

The house was unusual. Two wings led off a central octagonal entrance hall, topped with a cupola. The upper storeys had balconies overlooking the hall.

Waverley was built in 1852 by Colonel Hampton Young. He named it because Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels were his favourite books. He and his large family came from Philadelphia MS and lived in a log cabin nearby, while the house was being built. In the Civil War, the Union armies didn’t get as far as Columbus, so there are a number of antebellum houses in the area which escaped destruction.

After Billy Hampton Young, the last surviving son, died in 1913, the house was effectively abandoned, the heirs being unable to agree about what to do with it. It became derelict and a favourite haunt of high school and college students.

In 1962 it was bought by Mr and Mrs Robert Snow. They did much of the restoration and repair work themselves and furnished the house with beautiful antiques.

 

Central Hall, Waverley Mansion

Library

Dining room, with a portrait of Mrs Snow above the fireplace

Bedroom,  bedspread knitted by Mrs Snow

Drawing room

Mr Snow died aged 91 in 2017 and the house and contents are now for sale. It is registered as an historic building and the hope is that an organisation will buy it and preserve it for future generations.

Front driveway and garden

In the afternoon we went into the town. It was a bit disappointing. It wasn’t as lively as it had been the night before, and sadly, a number of businesses seemed to be closed down. We did have a look in the Arts Centre though, where an impressive photography exhibition was being staged. We wandered round the tree lined streets looking at the lovely old houses.

House on 3rd Avenue

3rd St S

On 3rd St, as we walked past, a lady opened her front door and called to us. Apparently it is obvious that we aren’t Americans, and she wanted to know where we were from. It turned out that she was a British exile, having moved to Columbus from Birkenhead in 1979. We had a long chat on her doorstep. She hadn’t been back to the U.K. for a few years and she said talking to us had made her day.

3rd St S

Tennessee Williams’ childhood home

Scarecrow on 5th St – a local custom

Main St

5th St

Columbus Marina at dusk

We left Columbus the next day. We knew that the weather forecast for the next few days was miserable, but we needed to get going. There were only two locks to go through, and it wasn’t raining very hard at that point, so we didn’t get too wet. But it was a pity that we only saw this beautiful stretch of river in cloud and rain.

We anchored at Windham Landing, and the following day at Sumpter Recreation Area.

Tom Bevill Lock, with an egret looking for something to eat

Leaving Windham Landing

Mile 272

There are some quite sharp bends on the River Section, and a couple of times large tows took us a bit by surprise.

Crimson White appearing round a bend

Sumpter Anchorage

There was another thunderstorm in the night and we were woken by brilliant flashes of lightning, claps of thunder and heavy, lashing rain. The last stretch to Demopolis was over 50 miles and as it’s now dark by 5.30 (November seems nearly as miserable in Alabama as it is in England) we got an early start and were away by 6.45. But it was bad timing.

Howell Heflin Lock was 3 miles away. Ian hailed them when we got within a couple of miles, only to find that a tow was just about to lock down in front of us. This meant waiting, ie hovering about in the channel, while the lock emptied and then filled up again, so we lost about 40 minutes.

At Epes and at Mile 234, 18 miles from Demopolis, we passed spectacular white cliffs.

The geology of Alabama is complex and the white rocks along the Tenn-Tom are fossiliferous, clayey, sandy glauconitic limestones laid down around the  Eocene Period around 50 million years ago, in warm, shallow seas. Thanks to my friend Elizabeth Capewell for this information.

By the time we got to Kingfisher Bay Marina at Demopolis, it was raining hard again and we were grateful to Anna-Marie, the dockmaster, for finding a covered slip for us. Demopolis is the last marina before Mobile, more than 200 miles away, so we planned to have a few days stocking up and having a bit of a rest before tackling the last, difficult stage of this year’s trip. What we didn’t realise at that point was that once more, Fate and the weather had decided to overturn our plans and that Carina would be staying in Demopolis for rather longer than we had anticipated.

 

 

 

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The Tenn-Tom Waterway: Aqua Yacht Harbor and Back

I didn’t mean this blog to be a long, introspective, self-pitying catalogue of all the mishaps that have befallen us on this part of the trip. Really.

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Leaving Aqua Yacht Harbor #1

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Flying the flag of the American Great Loop Cruisers’ Association on the Tenn-Tom

But when we realised, two hours out of Aqua Yacht Harbor down the Tenn-Tom Waterway, that hydraulic fluid was leaking from the lower steering helm and that we would have to turn around, go back, and get it fixed with no small loss of time and money, it felt as though we had reached a very low ebb.

Coming on top of everything else that has gone wrong on this trip, I felt that things were out of control, and that shrugging it off, going with the flow, and accepting that stuff happens, no longer seemed an appropriate response. Wallowing in gloom was much more comforting, even for an innate optimist with a belief that most things usually happen for the best.

It was Saturday, so no one could come out till Monday, to see if it was just a leaking seal or something more serious.

It was. Dave came and said we needed a new helm to stop the leaking, and we would have to source one for him to fit. This comes under the costing-an-arm-and-a-leg category of expenditure, but, ever resourceful, Ian went on the Internet and managed to find a reconditioned one at considerably less expense than a new one would have been. We paid for expedited shipping so it arrived the next day for Dave to fit on Wednesday.

In the meantime, the hours hung rather heavily. My usual method of working off frustration is vigorous polishing of the brasses, but Ellen McArthur-style, I had run out of Brasso. Mopping the floors and polishing all the woodwork had to suffice. The WiFi wasn’t that good so checking social media was rather tedious, having to wait longer than five seconds for posts to appear. I was reduced to staring at the laptop, deleting most of the 1500 emails that had somehow accumulated in my inbox.

The marina had a courtesy car which we could use for two hours at a time. So we could go out, but not very far. We went to Corinth, 15 miles away across rural Mississippi, to the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center. This was a purpose-built facility and very well done, focusing on Corinth’s strategic importance in the war, and the battles of Shiloh and Corinth, in which many thousands of men on both sides were killed in action. Outside, there was a water feature with engraved stones, commemorating events in American history.  It was moving, and saddening.

Annoyingly, the weather was bright and sunny and would have been perfect for boating. Instead,we drove out to Pickwick Lake State Park, near the lock, but it’s mainly for boating and picnicking, with no walking trails, so we sat and watched a flock of geese on the water.

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Pickwick Lake State Park

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Pickwick Lake State Park

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Pickwick Lake State Park

Opposite the marina, a little further along the main road, a narrow road led up a hill through the woods, so we went for a walk up there instead. Scattered among the trees were a few houses, some modern and well-looked after, and others more modest. We attracted the attention of a gentleman busy sweeping the fallen leaves from his front drive, who came out and chatted to us. We got the impression that not many people here wander about in the woods for the fun of it.

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Little house in the woods, Iuka

Dave came back and fitted the new helm on Wednesday, so we were good to go. But the next stage involved a 25-mile journey down the  ‘Divide Cut’,  a long straight passage where the waterway was carved out of the rock and where you can’t anchor. We didn’t want to be doing that in the heavy rain and winds which were forecast for the next day, so we decided to stay at Aqua Harbor till Friday and enjoy the journey in better weather.

We went to the small town of Iuka, where the old Tishomingo County Courthouse is now a small museum. On a wet Thursday morning, we were the only visitors and Jeff, the director, gave us a guided tour.  His knowledge and insight gave us a much better picture of the history of the area than we would have gleaned if we’d just gone round by ourselves.

IMG_4226 (3)TishomingoCouthouse Museum

Tishomingo Courthouse Museum

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S Fulton St, Iuka

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The Old Tishomingo Courthouse, Iuka

The restaurant at the marina was open on Thursday evening and we deserved a treat. This time it took the form of Cajun-spiced red fish, followed by Mississippi Mud Pie.

That night, it poured down and Carina rocked on the waves washing against the dock. The extra day at the marina was a price worth paying for the knowledge that we were safely secured in the storm.

We had a very early start on Friday morning, because as well as the long passage through the cut, there would be locks to go through too.

The sky was grey and overcast, but this time the cloud had a silver lining.

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Leaving Aqua Yacht Harbor #2

 

 

Paris Landing to Aqua Yacht Harbor – Boating for Beginners

So the take-home message from this week’s blog is, just because you’ve parked your boat safely in a delightful anchorage, the sun is shining, the water is sparkling, there’s no one else around, you’ve had a nice dinner, and no adverse weather conditions are forecast, don’t imagine that adverse weather conditions won’t suddenly materialise when you least expect them, with unfortunate consequences for your boat and yourself.

We had a lovely week with the family. On the way, we had an overnight stop at Wytheville, just over the border in Virginia, but it rained all the way from Wytheville to Haymarket, and disappointingly, our view of the Blue Ridge Mountains was obscured by heavy mist. 

But on the way back it was different. Crisp autumn sunshine lit up the tree-covered slopes which were still only just beginning to show their fall colours, in the mountains where Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia all meet. The Great Smoky Mountains dominated the view as we drove through north-Eastern Tennessee. 

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The Great Smoky Mountains from US 321

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We stopped at Johnson City and just down the road from the hotel was the intriguingly named Cootie Brown’s Restaurant. The young woman on the front desk couldn’t recommend it personally, but other guests had raved about it. 

The exterior was not particularly inviting, looking a bit like a post-war prefab. 

Inside, the tables and chairs were painted a bright distressed yellow and were almost fully occupied with people enjoying good home-style food. They didn’t do wine, but the Sam Adams  seemed more appropriate anyway. There wasn’t a frie on the menu and my side consisted of an interesting combination of artichokes, whole bulbs of roasted garlic, roasted red peppers and spinach, garnished with crumbled blue cheese. Another one to try out on our unsuspecting friends when we get home. And our meal wasn’t expensive. 

All was well at Paris Landing, but not for long. On the Saturday night we anchored at Rockport Landing, where an oxbow lake forms a sheltered channel away from the main river. We had it all to ourselves. 

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Paris Landing to Densons Island

The day started overcast but gradually brightened.

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Just south of Paris Landing

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Richard Creek, Mile 89

Moderately strong winds were forecast for late afternoon, but they came and went. Frost was forecast for the next morning, but nothing else of note. 

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Near Rockport Landing

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The anchorage at Rockport Landing

Around midnight, we were woken by a noise on the deck. Ian went up and secured the little steps that we use to get on and off the boat. 

Ten minutes later, a much louder bang had us leaping out of bed and throwing our coats and life jackets on over our pj’s. 

Carina was bashing on a channel marker which we didn’t remember being there before, and was dangerously near the rocky shore. It was very cold, very dark, the winds were  strong and howling, and suddenly Carina was being tossed about in waves which had come from nowhere. 

The diagnosis was that the anchor had slipped, and it was only then that we remembered the words of wisdom and experience in the Captain Bob Guide, ‘the anchorage is relatively narrow and you may want to set a stern anchor’.

We hadn’t set the stern anchor. It had seemed a quiet and peaceful location and the stern anchor is very heavy and a faff to drop.

But now it seemed like a good idea. First though, we needed to reverse Carina away from the errant channel marker and to a safer position. Once we’d done that, and it seemed that the bow anchor was firm again, Ian dropped the stern anchor. Unfortunately, in the darkness and the panic, neither of us remembered that the engine was still in gear, and for the second time in a month, we had a rope wrapped round the prop. 

The boat was now firmly anchored and there was nothing to be gained by continuing to battle the elements. We went back to bed but found it hard to sleep with the winds howling and the worry of how we were going to extricate ourselves from this particular predicament. 

The next day all was calm and the sun shone, though the air was freezing. Ian was out of bed at 6, but I refused to emerge from under the covers. I saw no benefit in tackling the situation before the air had warmed up a bit and we had had breakfast. 

Eventually we went out and had a look. The plan was to lower the dinghy and try to reach the rope beneath the prop with the long boat hook, and lift the anchor that way. Miraculously, and after a lot of effort, Ian succeeded and we had the anchor back on the deck. Of course we still had the problem that the rope was entwined round the prop, and we had to get that off somehow. 

52 years ago I was Swimming Captain at school. No doubt that was what Ian was thinking of when he mused that actually the water was not that cold and I might like to dive down and take a look. Predictably, this met with a John McEnroe-type response but in the end I gave in, took off my many layers of warm clothing and put my swimmers on. 

He was right that the water didn’t feel cold at all. Relative to the air temperature, that is. But although I could feel the rope on the prop, I couldn’t stay under the water long enough to untangle it. 

We resorted to cutting the rope as close as we could to the prop. Then we tried the engine. Amazingly, it worked and Carina moved, so we were able to make gentle progress down the river to an anchorage at Denson’s Island. This time, we set the stern anchor. 

_MG_0001 (2)A few miles south of Rockport Landing

A few miles south of Rockport Landing

_MG_0006 (2)Evening at Denson's Island

Evening at Densons Island, the end of a long hard day

_MG_0008 (2)Morning at Denson's Island

Morning at Denson’s Island

After Densons Island, we moved on to the marina at Clifton, and then on to Diamond Island, and through Pickwick Lock to Aqua Yacht Harbour.

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South of Densons Island, the countryside became a little more hilly with limestone outcrops.

_MG_0013 (2)Outcrops at Beach Creek

Outcrops at Beach Creek

We had a couple of nights at Clifton Marina, borrowing the courtesy car, which was in reality a creaking pickup truck, to go to the small town to do laundry and reprovision. The only grocery store was Dollar General, which as the name implies, doesn’t strive to be high-end. Our previous experience of DG was that it sold masses of snack food, processed frozen food, hardware and not much else. So we were pleasantly surprised to find good quality fresh fruit and vegetables on offer, and the frozen salmon we got for dinner was fine. Apparently the stocking of fresh produce has only happened within the last few weeks, so I hope it continues. 

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The CocaCola truck

On the second night two more boats joined us in the marina – Angela and Bob on Aqua Vision and Vicky and Bob on Virginia Hawkeye. We all went for dinner in the little bar in the marina and swapped stories of our various misfortunes. We’ve realised that conditions in the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers are much worse now than when we were there only 3 weeks ago, with water levels higher, and masses of impacted logs blocking the channel. Vicky regaled us with her account of setting off one morning in slightly misty weather, only for thick fog to descend, and getting completely confused and suddenly realising they were going upstream and not downstream. 

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Angela and Bob leaving Clifton Marina on Aqua Vision

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Vicky on Virginia Hawkeye

 

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Near Clifton Highway Bridge

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Limestone at Mile 169

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Near Mile 182

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Open country at Mile 182

  There was a little mist and fine drizzle as we left the anchorage at Diamond Island, but we rather optimistically assumed that things would brighten up. They didn’t. The rain and wind steadily increased and reached their high spot just as we had to negotiate Pickwick Lock, where the Tennessee River is dammed to form Pickwick Lake.  Ian always prefers to tie up on port, so I had put all the fenders out and was standing with my midline ready to lasso the bollard on the wall. 

We approached the wall but not closely enough. In the corner of the lock we’d been directed to, there was a particularly strong wind blowing us away from the wall. I’m not very good at moving targets and my attempt at rope-throwing failed miserably. We reversed, and tried again. And again. This went on for a while, before the lockmaster suggested turning around and tying up to the opposite wall. This worked, as the wind was blowing us into the wall, but we then had the problem that we were facing the wrong way to get out of the lock. A 9-point turn didn’t go well so Ian ended up having to reverse Carina 300 yards out of the lock. Steering in reverse is difficult, but we made it eventually, but not before the crew, who had to stand on the back in the rain watching out, got very wet. 

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Disgruntled crew at Pickwick Lock

We left the Tennessee River a little further down Pickwick Lake and entered the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, the Tenn-Tom for short, which links the Tennessee and Tombigbee Rivers. 

The waterway was first proposed in the late 1700s by French settlers, and engineering investigations were done in 1874. But the project was deemed impractical and although further studies were carried out at various times, it wasn’t until President Nixon finally approved it in 1971 that construction began in 1972. The Waterway was completed in 1985 at a cost of $1 billion. More earth had been moved than had been moved in the construction of the Panama Canal. 

We got to Aqua Yacht Harbor, where we were given a covered slip, which meant we didn’t get too wet walking in the pouring rain to the restaurant for dinner. The next day, Glen, a local diver, came and removed the rope from the prop. It had been twisted several times round the prop and he had to cut it to get it off. There was no way that I could have done it, and that made me feel a bit better.