New Orleans to Mobile to Demopolis, and back to Mobile

It turned out that Ian had been harbouring a secret desire to travel on a Greyhound bus, and he thought that our journey from New Orleans to Demopolis, where we had left Carina, presented an opportunity. No buses or trains go to Demopolis,  but that didn’t deter him. We could take the bus to Mobile, and then hire a car.

As it happened, the Greyhound bus left New Orleans at 8 o’clock in the morning, which might have impaired our enjoyment of the night before. But there was a Megabus at 11.30, a much more congenial departure time. He booked online, with an air of self-satisfaction, before we left home. The total fare, for us both, for a two-hour bus journey, came to $12.50.

I related this to our friend Jacks.  She regarded me with consternation and then burst out laughing. Other young-ish friends reacted similarly, although my attempts to find out what exactly was the problem with Megabus were unsuccessful.

I was impressed by the fact that Megabus had a meeter- and- greeter at the bus station. But his role wasn’t confined to meeting and greeting. He eyed my bag with suspicion, and took it away to be weighed. Ian’s bag, by definition, weighed several kilos less, but I was only half a pound over the 50lb limit, so I was let off with a warning.

It was true that we didn’t quite fit the Megabus demographic, being the only people on the bus over the age of 35. But the seats, although hard, had plenty of leg-room, and there was free WiFi, which is more than you can say for the Transpennine Express.

I didn’t use the WiFi much though. The bus was a double-decker and our seats were upstairs, so we had a good view as we crossed Lake Ponchartrain and the bayous as we passed from Louisiana through Mississippi and finally into Alabama.

The bus stop at Mobile was a bit of a surprise. We’d imagined that the bus would stop in a bus station, and that there would be toilet facilities and possibly  even a café where we could get some lunch before picking up the car. But it was just a bus stop on the freeway, and we regretted not having used the ‘facilities’ on the bus.

We took an Uber to the Enterprise car hire office, only to find a hand-written note on the door, ‘closed till 2.30’. It was only 1.45 and there was nowhere to sit and no restaurants or shops in sight.

A mechanic came out from the shed behind the office, bringing me a chair, and explaining that there had been a security breach with Enterprise’s computer network, and all branches had been told to shut down till 2.30 while it was sorted out. So we had to wait, but eventually we were on our way north and eventually, we ate lunch, somewhere in the rolling hills of northern Alabama.

Ian thought he was on a roll after his success with Megabus, and had suggested the Econo-Lodge in Demopolis as a suitable overnight stay. But he quickly realized he was pushing his luck, and we had a comfortable night at the Best Western Plus instead.

The next day we went to Demopolis Yacht Basin to have Carina put back on the water. 

Carina in the hoist at DYB
Nearly in the water

Once this was done, we crossed the river to Kingfisher Marina where we were going to spend a few days sorting the boat out before starting the 200-mile journey down the Tombigbee and Mobile Rivers.

After the rodent experience in Illinois, I felt some trepidation about getting back on the boat. But the mousetraps we’d left were untouched. There was a bit of mould here and there, but that was easily dealt with. The weather was fine and dry, so I was able to air the bedlinen and we didn’t need any more nights in the hotel. We celebrated our return to the boat with dinner at the Red Barn Restaurant, reputedly Demopolis’ best, and where we’d had a good meal on our last visit.

Our last trip had been punctuated with disasters of varying severity and expense,  so we were dismayed when Ian noticed fluid leaking from a hose on the steering column. It was all a bit too déjà vu. His initial attempts to remove the leaking hose proved futile, and we thought we were in for another repair bill. But he made a renewed effort the next morning, this time successfully. We had to wait till Monday to get a new hose made at a car repair shop, but it didn’t really matter. We needed the time to provision the boat and check everything  was functioning, because we’d be anchoring out for 3 nights in remote areas before we got to a marina at Mobile .

It was grey and cool when we left the next morning. Fred, Kim, Trenella and their staff at the Yacht Basin had been kind and helpful to us and I was still grateful to Anna-Marie at Kingfisher for her uncompromising advice back in November, when the water in the Tombigbee had risen to flood levels and the amount of debris in the river would have made it a dangerous passage, and she’d told us not to go.

Ian looking pleased to be back on his boat

It had been the right call. Everything happens for the best.  If our journey in the fall on the Tenn-Tom had been spoiled by cold and rain, once the first cloud had dissipated on our first day, we had clear, unbroken sunshine all the way to Mobile. Spring comes early in Alabama, and the trees which had worn their autumn golds in November were now showing the first new leaf of bright green.

It’s only about 100 miles as the crow flies from Demopolis to Mobile, but the river meanders and loops its way down to the delta. Sometimes the bends are quite sharp, and a large tow will appear from apparently nowhere, and quick avoiding action has to be taken.

There were only two locks between Demopolis and Mobile. The first one, Demopolis Lock, was just round the corner, and proved to be the first snag. We’d got up early to make the most of the day, but when Ian rang them to let them know we would like to pass through, the message came back that a large tow needed to go through first. And repairs were being done, and we wouldn’t get through till 11.30.

Inside Demopolis Lock
Looking back at Demopolis Lock and Weir, the river still turbulent

The delay getting through the lock meant that we wouldn’t get to our planned  anchorage at Bashi Creek before dark, and we had to anchor instead by the shelter of the Route 10 bridge over the Tombigbee River. The important thing was keeping out of the way of the tows which pass through all night. We set two anchors and kept the cabin light as well as the anchor lights on. As darkness fell, Ian spotted an alligator looking for its dinner.

During the winter, the river level at Demopolis had risen to 80’, 40’ above normal. We could now see the evidence of this in the terraces of sand that had been deposited along the riverbanks.



Tow suddenly appearing round the bend

Setting the anchor at Route 10

Close-up of the river bank
The table set for dinner on our first night on the boat
Sunset on Route 10

We anchored out each night, the second night at Okatuppa Creek in the Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge, and the third at the Alabama River Cut, where a short canal links the Tombigbee with the Alabama River. The only place we could have tied up was Bobby’s Fish Shack, but off-season it’s only open from Thursday to Sunday. Apart from one boat which left Demopolis at the same time as us, we didn’t see a single other pleasure craft. We passed through another lock at Coffeeville, but through no towns or settlements.

Anchorage at Okatuppa Creek
Morning at Okatuppa Creek
Approaching Coffeeville Lock
Pelicans at Coffeeville Lock
Leaving Coffeeville Lock



Limestone cliff at Lovers’ Leap

The river widening out as we approach Mobile

Suddenly we hit the Mobile Shipping Channel. We’d done the 200 miles in four days,  which was a record for Carina, helped by the river current southwards to Mobile. Everywhere there were tows, barges and big ships. One of the ships hailed us from what seemed like half a mile away, to politely suggest that it might be better if we passed him on starboard, rather than on port, as he needed to come into the dock. As we passed him, he wished us a good day and a safe trip.

Cochrane Highway Fixed Bridge, Mobile

We tied up at the transient dock at Dog River Marina, 10 miles south of Mobile. It had been a long day and the shipping channel had been stressful, but it was good to have the rivers behind us. It was a bit late in the day and the marina staff had gone home, but Jim and Lynn, whom we’d met at Demopolis, were on the dock next to us and helped us tie up.

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Demopolis – should we stay or should we go

We arrived in Demopolis after 3 days of more or less continuous rain, which was not really what we had envisaged when we were happily anticipating this trip.

Demopolis stands at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers, and our plan was to travel a further 200 miles down the Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway to Mobile on the Gulf Coast, and leave Carina there for the winter.

There are no marinas between Demopolis and Mobile, and not many places, apart from Bobby’s Fish Shack, where you can anchor or tie up. It was going to take us four days to do the whole journey, so we needed two or three days to re-provision, get the laundry done and have a look round Demopolis.

On Saturday we got the bikes out for the first time on this trip. Since getting them in 2015, we’ve acquired some proper bikes at home, and in comparison our $130 folding jobs from Walmart seemed clunky and inefficient. But we needed the exercise after sitting on the flybridge all day for 3 days.

It’s not far to Demopolis downtown from Kingfisher Marina and we passed  Bluff Hall, which dates back to 1832.

_MG_0001 (2)Bluff Hall

Bluff Hall

 

_MG_0003 (2)Rooster Hall

Rooster Hall

Rooster Hall is on Demopolis Public Square and was built in 1843 by the Presbyterians of Demopolis. After the Civil War, it became a courthouse. It then became an Opera House, sometimes featuring performers from New York or New Orleans. It has since been the city hall, a fire station, a meeting house and auditorium, voting station, and an office building.

_MG_0002 (2)N Walnut Avenue, Demopolis

Walnut Avenue, Demopolis

We stopped at the Mustard Seed Gift Shop, on the corner of the square, where Ian noticed that coffee was served. Coffee shops seem to be rather few and far between, and after 20 minutes’ cycling, we needed coffee.

We went on to Gaineswood, a plantation house on the south side of the town. It was designed and built by General Nathan Bryan Whitfield, using slave labour, with construction starting in 1843 and taking nearly 20 years to complete. It’s now operated by the Alabama Historical Commission as a historic house museum. Paige, the director, greeted us and was interested to hear we were from Northumberland. It transpired that General Whitfield was a third-generation immigrant, from the beautiful Whitfield estate in Northumberland, about 30 miles away from where we live. He wasn’t actually a general, but had inherited the title from his father. Paige told us that one of the general’s descendants had gone to Northumberland hoping to visit  Whitfield Hall, and was disappointed to find that it is still a private residence and not open to the public. He was talking about this in the village pub and was overheard by the present owner, who gave him a conducted tour of the estate.

 

_MG_0004 (2)Gaineswood

The back door, Gaineswood

Dining room

General Whitfield appeared to be the sort of man who could turn his hand to anything, and he not only designed and made the silver epergne for his dining table, but made it specially high so that his guests could converse with each other across the table and still see each other easily. He then went on to make the special cabinet with the rounded front, on the left of the photo, to store the epergne in when it wasn’t in use.

Music room

He also made the pianola-type instrument on the left of the photo.

Front entrance hall

The slave quarters

Sunday was fine too, so we took the bikes out again and rather overstretched ourselves with a 14-mile ride out to Foscue Creek Park and the Spillway at Demopolis Lock, on the Black Warrior River. It was particularly arduous for me, since after wondering for some time why I didn’t seem able to keep up with Ian, we realised that one of the brakes on my bike was locked on.

Black Warrior River at Foscue Creek Park

Taking a break

You know you’re in the southern States when you see the Spanish Moss hanging from the trees.

More Fall colours

The Spillway Falls, Demopolis Lock

Swamp Cypress roots

We knew the weather was going to change again and that the earliest we’d be able to leave Demopolis would be Thursday. We were in for 3 more days of rain and a spell of very cold weather, with temperatures barely above freezing. On Monday, heavy rain fell continuously. Anna-marie, the Dockmaster at Kingfisher Bay, asked us when we planned to leave and looked at us in a concerned way when we said Thursday. She said the river level was going to rise by 20’, and would carry on rising because of all the rain that was falling upriver. The river would be full of logs and debris. And if we got stuck, because a log had damaged the propellor, TowBoat US wouldn’t come out and rescue us until the river had returned to normal levels, because it would be too dangerous. And that could take days.

That did it, really. The prospect of inviting more damage to the boat, and more expense, and possibly being stranded in a dangerously flowing river was enough to stimulate some lateral thinking.

Kingfisher Marina has a sister establishment at Demopolis Yacht Basin.  They are adjacent to each other on the river. Ian investigated the possibility of leaving Carina there for the winter. It turned out that we could have Carina hauled out, and stay on the boat while working on her, for what seemed like very reasonable charges compared with the marinas in Mobile.

Carina is an old boat, and if we’re being honest, she is really a fixer-upper. In the five years we’ve owned her, Ian has dutifully kept up with all the maintenance jobs on the engine, and the rest of the mechanics. But there’s lots about the fabric and fittings that could be improved. Our problem has been that we’ve never seemed to be anywhere where doing much fixing up seemed a possibility, and all our time has been spent either on the water, or exploring the surroundings.

Ian had long wanted to build a new door for the port side, ever since we had visited Jim Zevalkink in Michigan and seen his amazing workshop. The old door had obviously suffered from water getting in long ago, and was rotten and badly stained. Ian had variously patched it up but it looked a mess. So here in Demopolis Yacht Basin was a perfect opportunity and we had time to use it. But we still felt sad that boating was effectively over for this year.  It felt as though we had hardly got going.

But our decision seemed vindicated on Tuesday, when an experienced boater addressed a gathering of Loopers in the marina lounge and said that the river was too dangerous, and  that it would remain so for a week. It was also very cold. The temperature hardly rose above freezing, and the small fan heater which we have on the boat, which is great for taking the chill off the air when it’s a bit cold, was no match for the wintry conditions.

The marina had a courtesy car and the local shuttle bus would also come and pick people up at certain times. So we went out to the big local hardware store for materials and Ian ventured into a barber shop for a long overdue haircut.

In the barber shop, Demopolis

On Thursday morning at 7.30, with frost on Carina’s railings. two lads came over from the Yacht Basin to help us get the boat taken out of the water. They were encased in thick padded body suits, wellingtons and balaclavas. We were rather less well protected from the cold, and I was glad that at the last minute before leaving home, I had packed some cashmere fingerless gloves and a fleece beanie. We crossed the river and Carina was carefully lifted out of the water in the big  travel hoist. We were welcomed to the yacht basin by Kim and Trenella and plied with coffee and cookies in the office while we waited for Carina to be taken to her place on the hard standing.

We got a hire car the next day, which made life a little easier. We tried a couple of the local restaurants, Foscue House and the Red Barn, which were both good, and discovered Simply Delicious, a local bakery where we indulged ourselves with coffee and cinnamon rolls. They had managed to transform the interior of a modern, plain brick building in a shopping mall into somewhere with a downhome, country-style atmosphere.

Simply Delicious Bakery, Demopolis

We had a stroll along the Bigbee Bottom Trail, near Demopolis Lock.

Bigbee Bottom Trail

The new door took a few days to complete, and wasn’t without setbacks. But it’s now in place and looks really good.

Work in progress

Carina and her new door

We’re leaving tomorrow for two nights in Natchez, the oldest town in Mississippi, and then on to New Orleans before flying home.

We’ll be back in the spring with the aim of crossing our wake in Clearwater, FL and acquiring the prized Gold Looper flag for Carina.