Cross Country by Pleasure Craft

by Dave Swanson

When your editor asked me to write an article about our recent boat trip from Mobile, Alabama to Red Wing, Minnesota, I thought, “Why would a scholarly publication like Pietisten want an article about boating?” Then after thinking it over, I remembered the ads, or perhaps better-called non-ads, by Covenant Chris Crafts, The Museum of the American Outboard, and even a delivery of Pietisten by canoe, and concluded my assumption about the level of scholarship is perhaps exaggerated. Or, maybe more to the point, even scholars can have recreational interests.

This trip was something that I dreamed of several decades ago, having lived most of my life within sight of one river or another. I had invested in navigational charts for the Mississippi River, pored over them, and concluded that a trip down the Mississippi is more suitable for a power boat than for a sailboat—the focal point of our boating interest at that time. This year, our son, Mark, who lives in Red Wing, Minnesota, bought a ten-year-old, 25-foot Larsen San Marino with a Volvo 302 engine to take his family down the river both to enjoy the boating and also to learn about the river and the part it played in history. We offered to bring the “Odyssey” home for them, not knowing that the destination he had in mind was the Gulf of Mexico. He purchased updated charts, and we all started reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and Twain’s Autobiography, a travel book on the Great River Road for information on the river towns and history, and also the current volume of Qwimby’s, a compilation of the information on all the marinas and locks on the 14,000 miles of navigable waterways of inland US.

As our reading progressed, our interest in the adventure grew and plans were made. Mark and family started down the river from their home in the mid-July. As they boated south, they talked to a lot of people who advised them to avoid the commercial Lower Mississippi and encouraged them to use the alternative route on the Ohio, Tennessee, Tenn-Tom waterway and the Tombigbee Rivers to Mobile, Alabama.

Ann and I drove south, camped in RV parks and visited Civil War battlefields on our way to the rendezvous at Fairhope, Alabama, where there is a nice marina on Mobile Bay about 20-miles south of Mobile. When we met the tanned foursome, they greeted us with: “We’ve just spent 40 days in the wilderness, and are really glad to see you”—not too encouraging greeting since we had less than 20 days for the return trip. We swapped gear, took over the boat, got a good night’s sleep, and went our separate ways in the morning.

Leaving the Eastern Shore Marina sea buoy with its ubiquitous pelicans perched on top, we set out across Mobile Bay on a perfectly clear day with no land in sight on the other side. Ann said: “How do we know where we are going?” (The river charts do not include Mobile Bay.) I responded: “No problem, remember the ad for the marina we saw in the magazine? We just use the reciprocal of the course showing the approach to the marina. We should pick up the ship channel buoys in about 40-to-45 minutes.” But I didn’t know the compass on the boat was off about 30 degrees and in about 30 minutes we began to see shore we were not supposed to and, worse than that, a bunch of little white floats that I knew were fishing floats of some kind, perhaps set by oyster fishermen.

As I picked our way between these floats, a fisherman in a small boat came out waving at us and pointing way off to our left. I followed his advice and got out of the danger area without mishap, except to my ego. Once I dead reckoned across 50 miles of the Gulf Stream with a two-knot cross current, and another time sailed the 350 mile length of Lake Superior without problem, and here I couldn’t get across Mobile Bay without eliciting the ire of local fishermen.

The first day promised to be long because the first gas stop, Bobby’s Fish Camp on the Tombigbee, is 119 miles up from Mobile, and the Bay added about 20 miles. After passing industrial Mobile and the seagoing ships in its harbor, we went under several bridges and over a couple highway tunnels before we entered the river itself.

The scenery changed quickly from industrial to pristine. We were on a gentle, well-marked, undulating river with a few sandbars, great blue herons or American egrets at every bend. Forests lined both shores and there was very little water traffic. It was gorgeous.

When we pulled up on a sand bar for lunch, we suddenly realized it was hot—Alabama in August gets that way. A boat underway creates a breeze, so we hadn’t felt the heat until we stopped. We worked up a sweat eating lunch so I decided to take a swim. The water was luke warm—not very refreshing. When we told Mark and Ann (both my spouse and my son’s spouse have the same name) about the swim, she said: “You are crazy, there are alligators in that river!”

We went through the first lock a couple miles before Bobby’s Fish Camp, 39 more locks between us and home. Bobby’s is not a first class marina, just a gas dock to tie up overnight and a boat ramp for fishing boats. But, he served a wonderful catfish dinner with hush puppies at his restaurant, prompting me to compare catfish recipes along the way.

We left Bobby’s in the morning—another beautiful river day. The weather report informed us that tropical storm Bertha had passed through Mobile just after we left and the Coast Guard had posted small craft warnings for the Bay. We were fortunate to have had perfect weather when we crossed.

Two days later at Colombus, Mississippi, we called the lockmaster for permission to “lock up.” While in the lock, we got a call on the VHF radio: “Odyssey, this is Colombus Marina, about 300 yards above the lock you’re in. If stop by our gas dock, we can return some toys that your grandkids forgot here a few weeks ago.” The marina operator had overheard our radio contact with the lockmaster, recognized the name of the boat, knew that Mark’s folks would be coming up river sometime soon, and gave us a very pleasnt welcome. We stayed overnight with them. We must say the southern hospitality is infinitely better than what we found in the north. Even the lockmasters would address me as Cap’n The Tombigbee River is connected to the Tennessee River by the Tenn-Tom Waterway—a project of the US Corps of Engineers which opened about 20-years-ago. The Tenn-Tom makes it possible for both commercial and recreational traffic to bypass the Lower Mississippi shortening the route to the Gulf of Mexico by several hundred miles. The last lock between the Waterway and the Tennessee is a deep 84 foot lift.

We waited for a down-bound boat to leave the lock which turned out to be the strangest boat we saw. It was an enormous two-story houseboat, perhaps 60 feet long, with a deck on top its entire length. There were two rows of potted palm trees and garden-type sun shades on the deck, but few people. We suspected that the space below was air conditioned.

The Tennessee River crosses the State of Tennessee and the west end of Kentucky in a northerly direction. It too is gorgeous, with its forest-lined shore minimally interrupted by signs of development. In Kentucky, we entered a National Recreation Area called the Land Between the Lakes. The two lakes are actually the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers which are formed by dams just before the two rivers empty into the Ohio River.

At Kentucky Lock on the Tennessee River, I received a lesson in river nomenclature from the lock master. I radioed him: “This is Odyssey, northbound, how long will the wait be?” He answered, “Oh, a couple hours at least, I have a tow just leaving.” I said, “I see him leaving, can’t we go in after he clears?” He asked where we were and I told him. Then he said, “Hey, skipper, you are south, all rivers flow south no matter what temporary direction they flow. Better you should tell the lockmaster whether you want to go up or down.” I replied: “Thank you sir for the bit of education.” Though chastised, this really made my day. I used to tell my secretary that I considered any day which went by without learning something new a lost day. We locked down, and proceeded to the big, swift, Ohio River, tying up for the night at Paducah, Kentucky, before entering the Mississippi River.

At their confluence, both the Ohio and the Mississippi are big rivers and I made another navigational error. We were so interested in watching the passing shoreline that I missed the turn and went a couple miles down the Mississippi before realizing we were going the wrong way. Oh, well, we did see some of the Lower Mississippi. Now we were headed upstream and did not have to worry whether we were going “up” or “north.”

At Alton Illinois, there is a most beautiful and unusual bridge. Some weeks later we watched a NOVA TV show about the construction of the bridge. “Hey, we’ve been there!” we said.

Hannibal, Missouri, the home of America’s most famous river pilot, Mark Twain, has made the most of it. Tourist attractions are everywhere—Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher, the famous painted fence, etc. Still, it was worth the stop and it is more interesting from the river than the highway.

There are a lot of casino boats in the larger towns. People pulling the handles of the one-armed bandits did not seem to be having fun but we had a nice, inexpensive prime rib buffet dinner on the Casino boat in Clinton, Iowa.

River towns are interesting and we took advantage of some of them. They make much of their place in history, and the history of the river is a large part of the history of America. Guttenberg, Iowa, “the limestone town,” is particularly interesting. Boaters can tie up overnight free if they stay in the inn—an attractively remodeled old, button factory. The factory operated for 100-years cutting buttons from clam shells until the plastics industry put them out of business in the 1950s. Perhaps you remember the “mother of pearl buttons” from your childhood.

The people we met, the stories we heard, the experiences we had, the vast forested shorelines we saw, made this a most memorable trip. We have left out a lot. There is the story of the battle during the War Between the States, when a confederate cavalry outfit defeated the US Navy. And there was the riverboat captain who sued the railroad because they put a bridge abutment in the river which caused damage to his boat. The captain lost because the railroad hired an up-and-coming lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. Abe argued that people had as much right to cross the river as they had to float on it.

Does one get more out of a trip on the river than one would get travelling the same territory by land? I think so, perhaps because of the more leisurely pace, which driving on freeways or even on state and county roads does not allow. Would we do it again? Probably not. Forty locks and 1540 miles made a real adventure. But a few days on a rental houseboat in LaCrosse or Winona would be relaxing.