August 18 - August 22
Tennessee River Narrows * Clifton * Delta Queen * Adopt-a-Kitty * Locks and more Locks * Big Gator Rumors * Boating in the Dark * Very Hot * Bayous Back to Home Page
Day 52 - Friday, August 18
Double Island, Tennessee River, Tennessee
Mile 149 Tennessee River
Another big day of travelling up the Tennessee River - fifty miles today. We did some sailing using just the genoa as a spinnaker. We did well, but the current was getting stronger against us so we didn't make as many miles as we had hoped.
Dan pulled up the anchor early in the morning, about 7:00. He got the kids up so they could see the railroad bridge lift up for us to pass underneath. A little further up the river, we saw a strange sight. It was the remains of a huge building standing right up in the middle of the river. We assume it was there because the river flooded much of the surrounding land when the big dam was put in to make Kentucky Lake. We heard that some whole towns were put under water when the dam was built. They had to move to new locations.
In the afternoon we stopped at the Mermaid Marina in Gumdale, Tennessee. We got more gas and a pump-out, and Dan and the kids got some ice cream and a chance to talk to the locals. (I stayed on the boat to let my back heal.) Everyone was very friendly and they all got into a big conversation about our favorite TV show - "Survivor". It's the one TV show we still try to watch every week, even if it comes in fuzzy and static-y on our little six-inch black and white TV. We're all cheering for Susan to win, the trucker from Wisconsin. Next week will be the finale. We hope we won't miss it.
The kids continued with piloting and school work. They are each going to try to memorize a new poem or song each week. Tricia has already learned her first one - a charming little poem by Robert Frost about man's strong but mystifying fascination with large bodies of water. Here it is:
Neither Out Far, Nor In Deep
The people along the sand
All turn and look one way
They turn their backs on the land
They look at the sea all day.
As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull
The wetter ground, like glass
Reflects a standing gull.
The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be-
The water comes ashore
And the people look at the sea.
They cannot look out far
They cannot look in deep
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?
I've been wondering myself why people seem so fascinated by large bodies of water. Why do they go to all the trouble and expense of owning a boat, getting it in and out of the water, etc. just to spend a few hours on a large body of water? Why does spending a day in the sun, sand and water make your soul so content? This is closely related to a question I pondered a few weeks ago when we were spending lots of time on sand islands in the Mississippi. The kids always begged for a campfire at night. Other people on the islands always made campfires, too. The interesting thing about the campfire is, once we had it we didn't know what to do with it. If you sat too close you got too hot. If you sat too far away, the bugs got to you. We had no marshmallows to roast, and no one wanted to sing together. So we pretty much admired our fire for a few minutes, then went to bed. Yet the kids are always anxious for another campfire.
I've concluded that there is some gut-level affinity that most people have for the basic elements of air, water, sand and fire. Maybe the old guys like Aristotle really had things right when they said those were the elements of life. Being close to water or fire makes you feel closer to the earth and everything in it. We can't help but be attracted to it. It calls to our deepest nature. It must, because if it didn't I can't explain why being close to large bodies of water feels so good. I guess Robert Frost couldn't quite figure out why either.
Zion was the chief chef and bottle-washer today. He made scrambled eggs for breakfast, beef stew and chicken noodle soup for lunch, and tuna salad sandwiches and pork & beans for supper. We ate well.
We spent the night anchored behind Double Island. This anchoring
was very strange because their was a strong current in the opposite direction
of the wind and they were both of equal strength. Our boat didn't
know which way to go. We spun in circles until we put down a second
anchor. In the morning, the current was gone. We've noticed
that the currents are very unpredictable and changeable here on the Tennessee
River. We're not sure why, but assume that it must have something
to do with the lock system.
Day 53 - Saturday, August 19
Shallow Bluff Island, Tennessee River, Tennessee
Mile 170 Tennessee River
Today was an eventful day.
The best news (to me) was that my back was much improved. I don't need to take aspirin anymore to be comfortable. I can get around much better. I just have to remember not to stoop and not to pick up anything heavy.
We headed out early in the morning, about 7:00. At 8:30 we passed
the town of Clifton, Tennessee. The town is on top of a bluff and
there were big tents set up. Our friends at the Mermaid Marina had
told us that there was a festival in Clifton today. There was a beautiful,
huge paddle boat anchored in the river, the kind that carries passengers
on river cruises. It was named
the Delta Queen. A big sign on shore said "Welcome Capt. Gabe
and Crew and Passengers".
We slowly passed the steamboat. First we passed the huge, red, wooden paddle wheel. We got a chance to talk and wave to some people on board. Dan asked if it was a real steam boat, and one man told us that yes, it was. The boat was seventy-six years old. It was a little difficult to have a good conversation over the noise of our engine, but we did the best we could. The first floor of the boat was very utilitarian -white siding and plain modern windows. The second floor had wooden railings and gorgeous stained glass windows. We could see chandeliers shining thru the windows. The third and fourth floors looked sort of like motels. Outside the cabin doors there were white wooden rocking chairs and wrought iron chairs in abundance.
Dan had always wanted to see a real working steam engine, and he wanted to show it to the kids, so we decided to stop and see if we could get a tour. We turned around and went back to anchor along the shore. There wasn't any dock, but there was an outcropping of rocks. One set of rocks was about the same height as our boat, so we pulled up to that and tied off. The rocks were a bit more jagged and uneven than we would have liked, but we put out lots of fenders and crossed our fingers. While we were anchoring, the calliope on the top of the steamboat, above the paddle wheel, started to play. First we heard "Take Me Out to the Ballgame", next was "The Tennessee Waltz". You could actually see the puffs of steam coming out of the different pipes as each note was played.
There was a gangplank extending from the boat to the shore. Passengers
were leaving tbe boat to spend the day in town. We went on board
and asked if we could have a tour. The man in charge said there would
be tours available to the public in the afternoon and we could see it then.
We had really hoped to get some more miles behind us today and weren't
sure we wanted to spend most of the day just waiting. We were debating
what to do when the man we had been shouting to on the top deck appeared
and solved our problem. It turned out that he was the ship's carpenter,
and he was willing to give us a personal
tour of the boat even though most of the rest of the crew was busy
taking care of engine maintenance and the comfort of the passengers.
We were treated to an exceptional tour of the steamboat. The ship's carpenter was from the St. Paul area and he has worked on the Delta Queen since 1979. You could tell he did a fine job because the boat was in excellent condition. He told us that the boat was all wood, one of the few wooden boats still left in commercial service.
On the first floor we saw the boiler rooms at the bow of the boat. They burn a heavy oil to make their steam. We met a few of the boiler room crew who seemed happy to see some new human faces. At the stern was the double-reciprocating engine that turned the huge paddle wheel. The engine room was very large and spotless. I don't think I've ever seen a cleaner room. He showed us the hand-operated control that was mechanically linked to the similar control in the fifth floor control room at the bow of the boat. The pilot communicated his needs for more or less power to the engine room by moving the handle on the control. The people in the engine room would watch the control and respond. (We have a picture of Tricia with her hand on the control if you want to see what it looked like.) Of course, mechanical things always have the potential to fail, so there was an emergency back-up communicaton system. There was a long tube (it looked like the hose from a cannister vacuum) with a golden mouthpiece on the end. This tube ran all of the way up to the pilot house so they could shout and listen to each other. It still works, but they've also added a telephone and a radio since then to make things a little easier.
Next we saw the giant piston rod that the engine pumps to turn the paddle wheel. It was shiny silver and connected to lots of other pieces. All of the connections had to be oiled regularly to keep them running smoothly during operation. One man's job was to go around and keep oiling everything whenever the paddlewheel was operating.
Seeing the paddle wheel up close made you realize how big it was. It is still made of wood. They used to be made of pine and parts had to be replaced regularly. Now the carpenter was using a new kind of wood, some type of ironwood from the Phillipines, that held up much better. But he said that there was no way to avoid an occasional dead tree going through the wheel and busting some of the boards, especially in spring.
The first floor also contained the kitchen and dining area. We got to see the shelves and shelves of food that was stowed on board, as well as the piles of trash bags that were hidden away. I understood this very well - our small boat has its own pile of trash bags accumulating. They grow quickly, and its hard to find a place to get rid of them.
The dining room had small tables with linen tablecloths and flowers. The floor was hardwood. The carpenter told us that the boat had once been used as a ferry, and the hardwood floor still had some dings from when it had been used to load cars and such on board.
The second floor of the steamboat was a showpiece of elegance. Along the walls were pictures of famous events in the steamboat's life. One picture showed the boat covered in battleship gray paint, patrolling the San Francisco shoreline. During World War II, all large boats were put into government service and this graceful riverboat was no exception. The entire exterior was painted in gray for the war effort; even the stained glass windows were covered with gray paint on the outside. The carpenter said that one of his first jobs when he started was taking down each window, one by one, and stripping the gray paint off of the frame. In the middle of the hallway we were in there were some decorative wooden columns. They were beautifully stained wood today, but he said they had been painted white up until a few years ago to cover up the gray paint underneath.
The second floor had lounge areas, and party rooms, a gift shop, a bar and a dance floor. The steamboat even had their own live Dixieland jazz band on board. When Tricia and I saw the large, carpeted staircase that led from one deck to the other, we looked at each other and knew that we had seen all of this before in "Titanic". It wasn't exactly the same, but it was close enough to make us feel like we were really there.
We got a glimpse of the cabins on the third and fourth floors. They were small and tight, just like what you would expect on a cruise boat. But I don't expect that passengers did anything in their rooms except sleep. Of course, we had to ask if there were enough lifeboats on board for everyone. We were assured that there were plenty of inflatable lifeboats tucked away in different places. Although, with both shores of the rivers almost always in sight, we felt the passengers were pretty safe even before we knew that.
Our final special treat was a tour of the pilothouse. I had always
wondered what a tug captain could see from his pilothouse on top of a five-story
tug. Now I knew. He could see everything for a long ways away, but
he couldn't see what he was right on top of. This pilothouse didn't
have a steering wheel, just two tillers that controlled the rudders.
They were connected and always had to move in the same direction.
And here we saw the other end of the control device that was round and
gold and shiny, an exact duplicate of the one we had seen in the engine
room. Amazing. Right in the middle of the pilot's control board
lay the same book of Tennessee River charts that we were using, open to
the same page that we had been staring at in our boat that morning.
There were also some pieces of modern navigation equipment around the room,
like a large radar screen and a GPS unit.
Then, to our surprise, Capt. Gabe himself came into the pilothouse.
He was tall and distinguished, and the most gracious man I've ever met.
He's everything you would expect in a riverboat captain. He told
us he had been with the Delta Queen for thirty-three years, and he had
a crew of seventy-seven to take care of two hundred passengers. He
was very proud of his boat
and his crew, and I'm sure they were very proud of him, too.
He even let the kids pull the cord to operate the big steam whistle on
top of the boat (the one that makes all the little kids on shore cover
us their ears).
We learned a few more things. Most passengers are onboard for one week cruises. There are several river cruise boats operated by the same company and they travel all over the inland water system. Sometimes they even go along the Gulf coast. The Delta Queen is the largest, oldest all wooden boat in the fleet. And, Captain Gabe is the calliope player on board, among others.
Well, we had seen it all and it was time for us to go, and the ship's carpenter did have to get back to his work. A big THANK YOU for the great tour, and I apologize that none of us could remember your name. But we'll always remember the beauty of the Delta Queen.
Next we checked out the Art & Craft Fair on Main Street in Clifton. We saw hand-woven baskets and homemade fried pies (peach and chocolate). There were women and girls dressed in hoop skirts and parasols, and a vested, bewhiskered banjo player singing "You Are My Sunshine".
We decided this was a good opportunity to check out our e-mails if the town had a library. We were told that the library was open, and it was just a few blocks down if you followed the bluff along the river. Well, the sidewalk on this street along the bluff was made of slabs of stone. Charming, historical and very uneven! The houses along this sidework were all beautifully restored old homes.
It never ceases to amaze me how all of the little towns we visit seem
to hold their own secret treasures, wonderful things that you never expect.
The Clifton Library was one of these surprises. It was in several
rooms of a beautifully restored old home. The house had been the
retirement home of Thomas Stribling, the 1933 Pulitzer Prize winner, who
had grown up in Clifton.
Beyond the library, the rest of the house was the Stribling Museum. The veranda of the library/museum was set with several small tables, each covered with linen tablecloths and bouquets of fresh flowers from someone's garden. The garage had become the museum's Welcome Center, and we feasted on ice cold lemonade and homemade cookies. Our favorites were the orange creams - two small round sugar cookies put together with orange buttercream icing in the middle.
I had never heard of Thomas Stribling before, but I learned about him today and I now admire him a great deal. He was a contemporary of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway and wrote his stories in a similar realistic style. He wrote more and sold more than either of them, but he was a little too realistic in his portrayal of the prejudice in the South in those days, and he made many more enemies. He was particularly unpopular in his home town, since his books drew from the places and characters he had grown up with. His Pulitzer Prize-winning book was "The Store". I would like to find it and read it some day. Actually, he only wrote a few novels, but he wrote hundreds of short stories for magazines over the years.
The Clifton librarian was very friendly and helpful. They had
two internet computers on a beautiful wooden table in the old dining room
of the house. The walls were lined with books. The old kitchen was
now the children's library, and the entryway housed the check-out area,
videos and periodicals. The library is trying to collect originals of all
of Stribling's works. If you happen to find any, they would give
them a good home.
While Dan, Zion and I were fooling with the computers, Tricia was busy with a little calico kitten that kept trying to get into the library. Everyone she talked to said the kitten was a stray and she should take him along. The big eyes were just too cute to ignore (both the kitten's and Tricia's). We knew that Tricia missed her Wisconsin cats a great deal, so despite knowing better Dan and I said she could bring the cat along on the boat.
At noon it was time to get some ice and milk and kitty food and get back on our boat. We pulled away from the rocks with the help of some people on shore and continued motoring up the river. When we got to a wide, quiet spot Dan jumped into the water in inspect the boat. We wanted to know how many dings we had gotten from those rocks we had tied up to. Luckily, there was nothing serious, just a few small dents in the paint that didn't even go through to the wood.
A little farther down we anchored at a sandy spot for swimming and collecting sand for a litterbox. The kids even washed all the algae off from the bottom of the hulls. Losing that algae improved our speed by one knot.
The new kitten was great entertainment for Tricia and Zion. In
addition to making her litterbox and some play toys, they had the fun of
arguing over a good name for her. They both liked "Tennessee Wildcat"
because the name fit so well. She could get pretty rowdy at times.
But she was a girl, and Tricia didn't think that Tennessee Wildcat was
feminine enough. What to do, what to do? Well, Tricia remembered
that the most famous Tennessee Wildcat of all was Davy Crockett.
So she pulled out her book of tall tales and did some reading. It turns
out that Davy Crockett married an equally wild woman named Polly
Finley Thunder Whirlwind. That name seemed to fit, so our cat
is now called Polly. Of course, Zion also had to have a chance to
contribute a name, so the kitten's second name is Squeaker since she never
meows, she only squeaks.
We motored some more, then anchored behind one of the last islands in
the Tennessee River before the lock. It was Shallow Bluff Island.
Again, the currents were doing strange things. But we all got to
sit down to dinner together in the quiet boat and it felt good. For
the last few days someone was always eating while piloting. After
dinner Dad took Polly out in the cockpit and gave her a bath with Head
and Shoulders to get rid of the bugs in her fur. She has been very
well-behaved and happy on the boat. She stays in the cabin and doesn't
like going up on deck very much, which is good.
Day 54 - Sunday, August 20
Yellow Creek Cove, JP Coleman State Park, Pickwick Lake, Mississippi
Mile 449 Tenn-Tom
We were all pleased this morning when Tricia announced that Polly had proven that she knew how to use her litterbox. The kids really enjoy playing with her throughout the day.
Today was very cool and pleasant (about 80 degrees with overcast skies so the sun was never direct). We continued down the Tennessee River until we came to Pickwick Lock. It's been awhile since we did a lock. This one took us up about 40 feet. When we came out we were on Pickwick Lake. It was crowded with weekend boaters. There was no wind and no current, but the lake was bouncing with the wakes from all of the boats. Tricia started feeling seasick, and that hasn't happened for a long time.
We had reached the state of Mississippi, at its northeast corner. We stopped at Pickwick Tenn-Tom Marina. This marina is at a strategic juncture in the river system. You can go down the Tennessee River to Kentucky Lake (where we came from) or you can go up the Tennessee to Knoxville, or you can go onto the Tennessee-Tombigbee (Tenn-Tom) Canal and go to Mobile, Alabama. We're going on the canal to Mobile.
We picked up some ice and slushies at the marina, along with a special guide book called "The Nitty-Gritty Tenn-Tom Guide". We already had the chartbooks, but this guide gives you helpful hints for getting down the canal, good places to anchor, sights to watch for, etc.
We were anxious to get out of the choppy lake, so we anchored in the first nice cove that we found. It was on Yellow Creek in JP Coleman State Park. It was a beautiful cove, with quiet waters and only two other boats. The kids took Polly up on deck. They were hoping she would fall in the water in this sheltered spot so they could rescue her quickly and she would learn to stay away from the edge of the boat. She explored a bit, then happily went back into the cabin. Apparently, she already knew that the deck of the boat wasn't a great place to be!
After dinner a couple came by in a small boat. We started talking, then were surprised to learn that the captain was Fred Myers, the author of "The Nitty- Gritty Tenn-Tom Book". Dan had just spent an hour or two reading it, so they had a good conversation together. Of course, we had to ask for the author's autograph on our copy, and he graciously gave it. He and his wife also gave us some good tips for our journey ahead. Thanks again!
We ended the evening by eating popcorn and reading some more "Tom Sawyer"
out loud. We are really enjoying this book together. Tom's
exploits (and Twain's satire) are so funny that the kids begged to hear
more even though they were
falling asleep. Since it was 10:00 we closed the book and turned
in for the night.
Day 55 - Monday, August 21
Fulton Anchorage near Midway, Mississippi
Mile 393 Tenn-Tom
Today was one of those days that you have to endure to get somewhere that you would rather be. This end of the Tenn-Tom Canal is 24 miles of man-made waterway. All you see is a narrow strip of water with piles of rif-raf on each side. All of the trees are small because the canal is only ten years old. They say that when the canal opened, this section was as scenic as a strip mine. Now it does have some green along the sides.
We felt like the whole canal was built just for us. We passed
only two barges and a few power boats during the whole day. We all
took turns piloting because it was so easy. It got hot again, 97
In the afternoon we came to a series of locks. The first one was an eighty foot drop. All of these locks had moving bollards, or pins, for us to tie our ropes onto. The bollards float down on the water in a channel in the lock wall, so you just tie on and enjoy the ride down. After we were down about forty feet, some steel doors appeared in the sides of the locks. Some of the doors were leaky and showers of warm water spurted out around the edges. It was nice and refreshing. On the way out, we told the lockmaster that the kids had enjoyed the warm shower. He said they didn't charge anything extra for that. He also said he would call ahead to the next lock so they would know we were coming. It was five miles away, and we travel at five knots, so an hour later we got there. It was all ready for us and we drove right inside. This one was "only" forty feet deep. This one played us music as we went down. Each bollard would make deep squeaks at different pitchs and different times. Hearing all of these echoed between the walls of the locks was really quite beautiful. The kids said it sounded like the underwater songs of the whales. The lockmaster asked if we were going thru the next lock yet this evening. Things were going so quickly that we decided we could get thru one more before dark. It was only six o'clock now, and the next one was another hour away.
The third lockmaster had everything ready for us, too, when we showed up. He came out and talked to us while we descended. He told us about the monster gator that lives in the pool beyond the lock. Sometimes, it even swims across the channel, so we might see it. Shortly after we got out of the lock, the sun started to set. We still had to go a few miles to get to a good anchoring spot. Well, we miscalculated a bit on when the sun would go down and how quickly it would get dark. We are starting to notice that once the sun sets, things get dark much more quickly down here than they do in Wisconsin. We are used to a long twilight up north, but here, once the sun sets the day is done. So, we found ourselves breaking the first Tenn-Tom Commandment - Thou shalt not travel in the dark. We were in a spot where the Tenn-Tom was very wide and very shallow. You had to stay between the winding buoys so you wouldn't get stuck in muck. And now we couldn't see the buoys in front of us anymore because it was so dark.
Dan's Boy Scout background came in handy. Like usual, he was prepared
for this. He hooked up his big spotlight. By shining it down
the river, the reflective tape on the buoys would show up like magic in
the dark, and we could find our way along. We were only a mile or
two from the anchoring area, and it didn't take long to get there.
When we reached it, we pulled out of
the channel. The water was still twelve feet deep, and Zion shone
the spotlight all around to look for hazards. He found some bushes
growing out of the water not too far away - an eerie sight in the dark.
So we decided to anchor right where we were. It turned out fine,
and we all went to bed exhausted after reading a little more "Tom Sawyer"
just for fun.
Day 56 - Tuesday, August 22
Public T-dock at Blue Bluff, near Aberdeen, Mississippi
Mile 358 Tenn-Tom
Three more locks this morning. They are getting so routine that
Dan and the kids can handle them on their own. I spent the morning
in bed, letting my back rest.
We are getting close to bayou country now. As you look along the edge of the canal, you see stands of trees with their feet in the water. Much of the canal here follows pre-existing river channels so the canal winds through wide expanses of water. Much more scenic than yesterday. We made a stop at the Aberdeen Marina. Getting there was a treat. You have to follow the small red and green pipes and buoys on a winding path thru the bayou. There are trees, dead trunks, bushes, and small clumps of red grass poking up on their own in the middle of the water everywhere. Along the edges are banks of a pretty purple lilypad flower. It's quite a sight. The marina is very modern and nice since it is only ten years old. It has beautiful flower beds along the docks with roses and daylilies and iris and pampas grass and pear cactus and purple flowering trees and weeping birch and masses of golden flowers that attract the butterflies. I don't know what these flowers are, but in one mass there were at least ten large butterflies happily feeding, each one different. Some were orange and black and white, similar to monarchs, some were yellow and black, some were black and blue, and some were black and blue and yellow. I've never seen so many different butterflies in one spot before. We got some gas and some ice and made an appointment with the vet to give Polly her shots. We planned on coming back to the marina tomorrow to take care of our weekly errands - laundry, grocery and library.
Since it was so hot we went to the nearby Blue Bluff recreation area. The Blue Bluff is actually a sandy color. It was unusual because it seemed to be made of sandstone, but there were no erosion marks on it. It was a perfectly smooth and flat towering expanse of sandstone. It looked like someone had just sliced it open yesterday. But there were little holes in the stone that tiny birds lived in. In the morning and evening they would flit in and out, but right now they were all wisely napping in the heat of the afternoon.
The path through the bayou leads you straight into the bluff.
At the last minute, you have to turn left to avoid crashing into it.
In a little bit, you come out in a large, smooth expanse of water with
several docks and boat ramps scattered around. One dock is attached
to a flight of stairs that goes up to the top of the bluff. This
would be tempting to try if it wasn't so hot. But we passed up that
opportunity and went to the dock near the swimming beach. There aren't
too many good places to swim around here because the water is shallow,
the bottom is mucky and there are lots of plants sticking up out of the
water everywhere (not to mention the gators). This swimming beach
looked man-made. It was in a small cove that had a sandy beach and
There was a wire fence across the deep end (to keep the gators out? Although the kids quickly noted that gators could just walk around them by going up on shore.) There were restrooms and drinking fountains and even outdoor swim showers, and a nearby playground and basketball court -altogether a lovely place to be on a hot afternoon. And, we had it all to ourselves. We think the kids down here are already in school. This was the warmest water we had ever been swimming in. It must have been at least 100 degrees, because it felt warm to the touch. You could stay in it for hours and never get chilled. In fact, sometimes you had to stand up just to cool off. The bottom inch or two around your feet was cool if you went out to the deep part. We spent the rest of the day in the water.
In the evening the air started to cool down and lots of small fishing boats came into the area. It was nice to see some other people around. At least we knew that we hadn't slipped into the Twilight Zone. About ten small boats gathered in a circle out in the water with their sterns together at the center. We heard a faraway Southern drawl announce "First place - one hundred dolla's, Second place - forty dolla's, Third place - twenty dolla's. Gentleman, start your engines." Then all of the boats powered up and raced away as fast as they could. I'm not sure where the race went to, because they all took off in different directions and we never saw them again. I had heard about Wednesday night sailboat races up in Chicago. I guess down here they have Tuesday night powerboat races.