The depth sounder’s bottom alarm is screaming and flashing 3 ft. Off the bow I can barely make out the tree covered shoreline about 20 yards away and it fades in and out. The view in all other directions is nothing but a ghostly white. I am working back and forth across the width of the river looking for the channel. It has to be here somewhere! Earlier I had thought about just staying in the berth and sleeping another hour. Now it looks like that would have been a much more sane choice. But I am getting ahead of myself. As with all my river trips the real story starts days before with the preparation or in this case the lack of it.
The 2003 boating season had been a little lean. I did take some nice trips but my work schedule was fairly brutal and kept me off the water more than I would have liked. I did make another trip from the bottom of Kentucky Lake to Chattanooga – my favorite river destination. Towards the end of the season I ran a section of the Arkansas River from Little Rock to just past the Oklahoma border. I was working on a story about that when a hard drive on my computer whimpered and then died. I not only lost the story but every photo I had taken during the 2003. Really dumb when two minutes and a 25 cent CD-R would have had them safely stored. In disgust I just let the story fall to the wayside.
But now the urge to hit the water is growing strong. It is early March and the weather still cool (down right cold in the mornings!) but I have this need. The obvious answer is to look south. Surely it is warmer down there somewhere.
Two years ago I was heading to Destin FL with a friend who lives right on the Intracoastal Waterway but was turned back right at the Alabama/Florida state line because of an approaching hurricane. I still wanted to visit him so this was my first choice. I looked at towing to Columbus, GA and dropping in on the Chattahoochee River and traveling south to Apalachicola, FL and then west on the Intracoastal. This would require a fairly ambitious schedule for the nine day window I had available for the trip. Two days would be lost to transportation.
Another problem was the weather - or more precisely the temperatures. The forecast for the area was still showing morning lows in the 30s. In an unheated berth that’s pretty chilly. And even worse are the middle of the night “relief” calls I seem to have to make these days. Standing outside lightly dressed at 38 degrees trying to get a brimming bladder to cooperate is something I normally try to avoid. So I looked elsewhere.
The New Orleans area showed promise as the temps were 10 degrees warmer. I could drop in there and head west on the Intracoastal and go as far as I wanted before turning around. It would be a nice trip. But somehow the Destin area still seemed to draw me. Decisions, decisions. I decided I would watch the forecast and let that decide.
As my departure date approached I still hadn’t decided where to go. I need to make a choice so I did – the Alabama River. I know, it wasn’t even on the radar but I decided it made sense. I really wanted to go to Destin and it would get me there with a few less miles. Temps were about the same as the other route and it was about an hour and a half shorter drive. The plan was to tow the 550 miles to Montgomery, AL, drop in and run the Alabama's 288 miles to the Tenn-Tom and then south to Mobile Bay and on to Destin. River miles would total somewhere between 900 and a 1000 with three locks both ways. Other than the temperature it was workable so I decided just to deal with it and took an extra blakent. I hitched up Therapy, topped of the truck's tank and set off for Montgomery.
I had called ahead and made arrangement with the owner of Montgomery Marina to use their ramp. For a fee of $5 I was able to launch and leave my truck and trailer parked there as long as needed. He suggested I move the truck from the normal lower parking area up to the higher lot just in case the water came up. There was nothing in the forecast but better to be on the safe side.
I arrived about an hour after dark but had no problems finding the ramp. I decided to go ahead and drop in and just hang on the side of their dock for the night. Since I planned to leave at daybreak I figured I wouldn’t be in anyone’s way.
Once I had myself situated I climbed in to the berth with the idea of reading a new book my wife had just given me for my 52nd birthday “Honey, Lets Get a Boat” by Ron and Eva Stob. It details the yearlong adventure of first time boaters buying a 40’ trawler and setting off to do the “Loop”. An interesting read.
But here I bumped into my first oversight in planning for the trip. I failed to top of the charge on Therapy's single onboard battery. It had been about three weeks since I had her on the water and during the down times the battery always wanes a bit. Not a big deal as it still showed about 11.8 volts and would easily start the Honda. BUT I have a “Priority Start” device installed that cuts off the battery from everything but starting if voltage falls below 11.9V. So I had no interior lights. Oh well, I planned an early start and since it was now about 9 pm I decided to try to get some rest. The 12-hour drive had worn on me a bit so it wasn’t hard to allow the quiet darkness to induce the needed sleep.
During the night I stirred several times and could tell it was cold. I had an urge to pull the sleeping bag completely over my face. The next morning as the light from the rising sun peaked into the berth I glanced at the thermometer I have on the forward bulkhead and it read 36 DEGREES!!! NO wonder I was chilly. But as the sky started to lighten I was up, refreshed and ready to take on the Alabama. There was some fog on the river but it didn’t look like a problem. The Honda 50 fired on the first try and I was on my way doing what I enjoy most – exploring new water.