Last year Gypsies Palace and our Buddy Boat, One Eye Dog decided to revisit the Inland Rivers for the summer. Our options were rather limited with Covid shutting down our initial plans. I thought you might enjoy this account that April Smith on One Eye Dog wrote to summarize our summer boating on the Inland Rivers in 2020.
Ah, 2020 – the year of Looper Interrupptus! We all donned face masks, ran out of toilet paper, learned about social distancing, lock downs and closed borders. Some Loopers in Progress had to leave their boats wherever they were docked, rent cars and head back to their land homes. Others were stuck waiting for locks to open or trying to understand the requirements to make it through the closed Canadian border. Throughout the year, poor Kim Russo of AGLCA was tearing her hair out holding virtual rendezvous and helping Loopers figure out what to do. Those planning to do America’s Great Loop or the Down East Circle Loop had their dreams temporarily shattered.
The crews of the One Eye Dog and Gypsies Palace planned on heading north for the Down East Circle Loop. We had our reservations already set for Shady Harbor’s famous pig roast and bought our AGLCA DECL burgees to proudly fly. Our boats were ready for adventure, lobster rolls and seeing the beautiful sights the Down East Circle Loop has to offer.
We pulled into Fort Myer’s Edison Ford Marina for a week’s stay on March 16th when – BAM – the world shut down! Our week turned into two and a half month’s while we nervously looked at the calendar as it quickly ticked towards June 15th. The One Eye Dog’s insurance requires us to be above 32 degrees (Charleston) by June 15th. We decided we’d head to the Chesapeake, but marina and fuel dock closures along the ICW, Covid hot spots, quarantine requirements, etc. were a constant worry for making our way north. Fortunately, we have to ability to make water and have sufficient solar, but we can’t make diesel fuel! Everything was compounding with the “Great Unknown” of what to expect with Covid!
One day at lunch, we were discussing our plans and I piped up in my typical April fashion saying “you know, we can always go west and up the inland rivers!” At first, three surprised faces looked back at me before we all started talking excitedly. Within 24 hours, the One Eye Dog and Gypsies Palace crews changed our plans as the inland rivers were calling our names! The Covid cases were minimal in the small towns along the rivers and as we soon discovered, very few boaters take advantage of these amazing waterways.
We left the West Coast of Florida at the end of May enjoying an uneventful Gulf crossing and started making our way across the Panhandle. There were two dates we had to beat – our insurance requirement of June 15th and the Jamie Whitten Lock closure that would take place on July 1st for a month. We didn’t want to be stuck on the Tenn-Tom for an entire month while trying to get north. Of course, the other issue was hurricane season and its seemingly early start!
Little did we realize our two-night stay would be our last at the Palafox Marina in Pensacola. A few months later, in September 2020, Hurricane Sally destroyed the beloved marina where our boating lives began. Hurricane season traditionally starts on June 1st, but our eyes were on Tropical Storm Cristobal as it headed east while we were heading west. We were already on “C” for named storms and it was only June 4th! We all decided we would be safer riding it out at the Wharf in Orange Beach and we were right!
The Tennessee River
After spending a rocking and rolling 4th of July at Aqua Yacht in Iuka, MS and visiting the Shiloh battlefield, we went to Florence, AL on the Tennessee River. Florence is by far one of our favorite small towns due to all there is to see there. We immersed ourselves in the Alabama music scene visiting the famous recording studios of Muscle Shoals, the Alabama Country Music Hall of Fame (we were the only four people there), the Rattlesnake Saloon and the National Coon Dog Cemetery! There was still so much more to see, but we would return on our way down the Tennessee River too.
Heading through the Wilson and Wheeler locks, we anchored out at Joe Wheeler and continued traveling the Tennessee. We stopped at Huntsville to visit the NASA Rocket Science Center where I began to look for cots to spend the night since I didn’t think we’d ever get Larry and Steve out of there. Our stay in Scottsboro, AL took us to the Unclaimed Baggage Store. Who knew that your lost airline luggage ended up in a little bitty southern town where your vacation souvenirs, electronics, designer purses and clothing, etc. were sold in a massive department like store?
We journeyed through the beautiful Gorge with its astounding cliffs before arriving in Chattanooga which was simply AWESOME! We saw Rock City (there are barns all over the country with the saying “See Rock City” painted on them), visited the incredible Chattanooga Aquarium, rode our electric bikes on a fabulous bike trail, checked out the Chattanooga Choo-Choo and even participated in a Zoom Jazzercise class held on the bow of the One Eye Dog and broadcasted to Jazzercise members in California! We also started relearning the history of the Trail of Tears and the Cherokee Indians.
The best ice cream ever was in Loudon and we visited the Sweetwater Cheese Factory before heading to Knoxville. The lockmaster at the Loudon Lock video taped us and shared the footage on the lock’s Facebook page. We soon had boaters coming from far and wide to see the unusual large catamarans traveling the Rivers. We were the first Aquila in those waters and numerous people stopped to ask questions about our boat.
Knoxville was wonderful. We met up with fellow Loopers, Dale and Sandy from On Missions. The marina gave us huge baskets filled with items from Knoxville as a welcome gift. We went to Pigeon Forge (imagine if Disney and Las Vegas had a love child with a Tennessee accent, that’s Pigeon Forge), Ware’s Valley and toured the beautiful city of Knoxville.
Next stop – the Little Tellico River which takes you right up to the base of the Smokey Mountains. We anchored the boats while enjoying water that was 85 degrees and so clear you could see your toes while swimming. We spent more time swimming on this trip then we have in the four and a half years we’ve lived on the boat. We visited the Sequoia Birthplace museum celebrating the life of Sequoia who developed the written Cherokee alphabet and saw Fort Louden. Then we moved our boats five miles from our 85 degrees water anchorage to the farthest point we could travel on the Lake Tellico. In five miles the water temperature dropped 20 degrees; Larry was the only one that braved swimming! We had other good friends take us to see Cade’s Corner only to find out that it was closed to vehicular traffic that day, but we still enjoyed driving through the Great Smokey Mountains.
We also visited the Cherokee Removal Memorial which listed the names of every Cherokee family and, yes, even their slaves who participated in the Trail of Tears crossing the Tennessee River!
Soon it was time to turn back and head to the Cumberland River. We were all very sad to leave the Tennessee River. On the way, we stopped for a second time in Chattanooga, where we were greeted by the crew of Oysterland. Rick and Susan follow us on Facebook and invited us to stay at the Guntersville Yacht Club. Naturally, we couldn’t turn down their offer. Not only that, we also stayed on their home dock for another three nights! A great time with our new friends and current Loopers.
We enjoyed a spontaneous raft up for a couple of hours with Loopers, Tim and Theresa of Home Office. We turned their little boat into a catamaran sandwich with our two large cats rafted to each side of their much smaller vessel. Next we met up with Loopers, Shane and Beth of Stray Cat for a three-catamaran wide raft up at the Yellow Creek Waterfall by Florence, AL which caused quite a stir as boaters passed us by.
Soon we found ourselves turning up the Tennessee towards the Cumberland River. We stopped at Clifton Marina and discovered that Abby is featured on their website! Stacy and Susan still make a killer hamburger and offer terrific hospitality.
We met up with our dear friends, Mike and Laurie, Gold Loopers formerly of Firestorm, at Paris Landing. They recently bought a log cabin close to the marina. We also met Victor whose home over looks the marina. Victor brought us food gifts because there are no real restaurants or stores within close distance of the marina and he worries about the boaters. What a sweet man!
We were soon on our way to what I call the “Looper reward” you earn after traveling down the rivers from Chicago – Green Turtle Bay Resort in Grand Rapids, KY. We enjoyed massages, pedicures, great food and meeting up with both old Looper friends and excited new Loopers. It was so fun to share memories of adventures with former Loopers and to give new Loopers bits of wisdom hoping to make their Loop experience even better. The week went by way too fast, but the good news was, we were coming back there for a week after the Cumberland too!
The Cumberland River
We picked up Mike and Laurie along with their two dogs in Clarksville as they decided to hop on board Gypsies Palace as we cruised up the Cumberland. There were six people and five dogs for the trip. We spent the night at a few free docks before making our way to Nashville. It was a blast sightseeing, listening to music (Nashville is LOUD), eating Hot Chicken and tasting various bourbons and drinking Yee Haw beer!
We pulled into Cherokee Marina by Lebanon, TN for one night. Ryan, the marina’s owner, charged us a whopping $15 per night which included power and water. We ended up staying for a total of five nights with the wonderful people at the marina who truly have become friends. They told us to go spend the night at the old Lock Wall #6. Some of the guys went up before our visit to mow the weeds and leave several cords of firewood for us to enjoy in the large firepit they constructed. We tied up to the old lock cleats and a few tree trunks. There was no power or water or people or anything for miles! We made a huge bonfire and spent a glorious evening in the middle of nowhere listening to music and enjoying our time with good friends. It is probably our favorite memory of the summer.
Sadly, it was time to turn back down the Cumberland to drop off Mike and Laurie before going back to Green Turtle Bay. We had planned to travel up the Ohio River to Cincinnati, but it was getting late in the year and we needed to start our way towards Demopolis for our insurance required November 1st below 32 degrees time frame. Besides, we still want to do the Ohio River trip all the way to Pittsburg so we figured we would save it for another adventure.
We chose a new stop on the way down at Birdsong, TN which is the home of the only freshwater pearl factory in the United States. They were beautiful and, yes, we bought some lovely freshwater pearl jewelry.
We again visited favorite marinas on the way back – Clifton for another burger, Florence because we simply needed more Florence time and Aqua for great fuel prices.
Down the Tenn-Tom Waterway
Soon enough we found ourselves heading back through the Jamie Whitten lock to begin our trip down the Tenn-Tom. We made it to Demopolis on Halloween in time to attend Anna-Marie’s famous Halloween Party (our costumes were “Social Butterflies“}. There were 10 Looper vessels that would make the last leg of the trip down the waterway with us. Of course, we had been running into several of these vessels at various towns all summer.
We had a little bit of excitement while traveling down when Whiskey Business lost their anchor and ended up rafting to us for two nights. Other than that, it was a lovely, non-eventful trip down the Tenn-Tom.
Before we knew it we were all in Mobile Bay where the real fun began. Of course, not only were we dealing with the issues of Covid, 2020 was a horrific year for hurricanes and tropical storms. Two of which made direct landfall in Mobile Bay and the Panhandle. The devastation was incredible and made for difficult conditions traveling back to the West Coast of Florida. Marinas were destroyed, fuel docks were gone, carnage from the numerous vessels that sunk was everywhere and homes were covered in blue tarps having lost their roofs. We were grateful the Wharf Marina in Orange Beach was able to fit us on their docks as Tropical Storm Eta was now overhead. Seriously, we weathered two tropical storms at the Wharf on this trip!
We continued our way across the Panhandle anchoring the rest of the way as the few marinas that survived Sally were completely overwhelmed with boaters. We were not disappointed as love anchoring as well.
Our trip back across the Gulf was equally uneventful. Well, except when about five miles out, we thought we were out of fuel! We literally limped into Clearwater only to discover that we still had over 60 gallons in the tank and our fuel gage was just acting up! There were strong adult beverages later that evening! We made it back to Florida’s West Coast in time for Thanksgiving and our daughter’s birthday at her new home in Palm Harbor.
Why We Loved the Inland Rivers
When looking back on the five and a half month trip, we are still blown away at what we saw, the people we met and the magnificent country we traveled through. Overall, cruising through the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers is easy. It is pretty much point and shoot. If you get lost, you really had to work hard to do it!! There are lovely anchorages all along the Tennessee where you can enjoy the quiet, swim in clear fresh water and fish.
We didn’t find ourselves fixated on weather apps like we do when traveling the coastlines. The inland rivers are calm and many areas are wide enough for sailboats to actually sail. The Tennessee is a series of lakes separated by locks. The roughest water conditions we suffered were caused by boaters at Aqua Yacht for 4th of July weekend who churned up Pickwick Lake. We did hear one tornado siren go off, but never saw a tornado. We had occasional rain and a few gusty days, but mostly, the sun shined down. It wasn’t overly hot or humid which was a big surprise as well. Mosquitoes were at a minimum too! I was super concerned about bug bites because they love me. I’m happy to report that I received very few bites.
The locks on these inland rivers are a breeze, as long as you learn how to work with the lockmasters and do your homework ensuring there aren’t any lock issues before showing up. Communication is key. We always contacted them by phone the night before and again in the morning prior to departure. We explained that we were pleasure craft and that we would follow whatever instructions required as we knew the tows and barges had priority. The lockmasters willing to accommodate us and great to work with. The One Eye Dog has traveled through 222 locks to date.
Of course, both the Cumberland and the Tennessee are working rivers which means lots of barge and tow traffic. The tow boat captains were responsive when we contacted them and interested in our catamarans as well. Some even gave us tourist advice! They are the kings, and even a few queens of the rivers, and we always respect their authority. We found them friendly and respectful as we treated them in kind. Make sure you learn your Ones and Twos – you are going to need to know which is which! Remember to repeat back what you think you heard after getting their instructions. Using VHF radios over the sound of engines and with many unusual accents, transmissions can be hard to understand at times.
We met many new Loopers and loved sharing the excitement of their upcoming experiences. It was great that we saw many of our good Looper friends that we have known for years. We were astounded by the generosity of the people along the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. The inexpensive (average about a dollar a foot) marinas that were run by competent and compassionate staff pleasantly surprised us. As foodies, we were not disappointed by the offerings we enjoyed along the way.
We are already looking forward to our return trip to the Inland Rivers. They are truly the best kept secret in boating!