But my journey for the day is almost done. As the sun is starting
to set I reach the city of Florence
AL. I idle into the impeccable Florence Harbor and Marina & Restaurant
and pulled into what I believed were a row open courtesy slips. On shore
just adjacent to the slips is a clean restroom. Quimby’s states that it
is open to dawn to dusk but I am a little late and find no one around to
ask about using the slip over night. I was looking for an evening meal
but found the restaurant was also closed. Not wanting a cold cut sandwich
and chips for dinner I decided to break out the Nikes and take an evening
foot tour of the downtown area.
Unfortunately, there was no easy was to get there on foot but driven by a gnawing in my stomach I scaled an embankment to main highway and walked a few blocks on the road edge until reaching streets with sidewalks. By now it was late and most businesses were closed. I did pass a nice looking Italian restaurant that was open but wasn’t in the mood for pasta. I walk up about a mile and found little else open. I was about ready to turn around when I came upon a Subway. By now I was really hungry so what the heck – I had a cold cut sandwich and chips for dinner.
Florence has a population 40,000 and it was obvious it was a prosperous community. The downtown area was very well maintained and the city boasts one of the lowest crime rates in the country. It looks to be a nice place to visit with several museums, art galleries and recreational facilities. But it’s late, they are all closed and I am planning another early start. Today I covered 228 miles, negotiated one lock and I am ready for some rest. I make my way back to the boat and crawl into the small but comfortable berth and fall asleep in minutes.
I wake a little before six o’clock and find no one around the marina. I decide head on up river for two miles to Wilson Lock and Dam. As I approach I am somewhat taken by the shear size of this lock. At 600’ x 110’ the length is considerably less than Pickwick but here the lift to the lake is a staggering 93 feet! This makes it the third or forth highest lock in the world. (See small photo inset - shows enlarged view of men on top of lock!)
When Departing Florence I called on the radio and was told by the lockmaster that a tow was about ready to enter the lock and it was a “double.” This means that the tow and barges are too long to pass through in one trip. The procedure is for the tow to enter and secure the front barges in the lock and then cut them loose. They then back out with the aft section of barges attached to the tow. The doors close and the orphaned barges are lifted to the lake level. There a mechanical device sometimes called a “mule” is then used to pull the non-powered barges out of the lock. The lock is then lowered and the remaining barges and tow take their turn and come up to lake level then reconnect to the forward barges.
This is a common practice for long barges and is repeated over and over again daily. It is no problem but it is dead dog slow. The apologetic lockmaster told me I would have about a 3½ hour wait. Not a good start! I have boated for about 5 minutes today and now will wait for 3½ hours. But no one has ever said that river travel was fast. I settled back and watch the sun climb over the hydroelectric plant on the dam.
Finally my turn comes and the giant doors open so my lowly 18 ft craft and enter. The lockmaster directs me to the far end of the lock and suggest I tie off to the very last floating bollard at the 50’ mark. This is a common position recommend by almost all the lockmasters as it provides the less turbulent ride as the lock fills. When the doors close the full impact of the size of this lock becomes apparent and I suddenly know how a cockroach must feel hunkered down in the corner of a bathtub.
As I reach river level and am ready to depart I realize there is another difference in this lock. Most locks I have been through have doors that are hinged at the sides and swing open. But at Wilson the lake side gate is one piece and it slowly descends vertically and sinks out of sight. Once the watercraft pass over it magically rises from the river and again restrains the flow from the lake.
Once on Wilson Lake my first order of business is to locate some fuel. My calculations suggested that I could make the next lock just 16 miles upstream but I decided to be cautious and top off the tank before venturing out on to the 15,500 acre Wilson Lake. Quimby’s placed the closest marina at less than a mile from the lock. I cruise in and tied up at the pump but could find no one around. After searching for a while I decided I had wasted enough time set out for the next marina about five miles away.
As I pulled to the pump at Marina Mar I was again struck but the lack of activity. Although Quimby’s listed the hours being “dawn to dusk” obviously they were not open. I noticed a sign on the door stated “New Hours” with the opening time of 1PM. No indeed, things aren’t going well today. I have spent about 4 hours and have only gotten about 8 miles closer to Chattanooga. And this is a good time to point out that although Quimby’s is a valuable reference source almost all the information is subject to change. If it is critical be safe and call ahead.
So now what? It is 10:30 and I sure don’t want to wait until 1:00 for fuel. I decide to trust my calculations and head for Wheeler Lock. As I leave the marina there is a very small barge like craft with a drilling rig working near a bridge taking core samples. They have set several floating buoys to designate their work area and I steer clear as I pass by. Everything is fine until I start to advance the throttle and I realize I have a problem. I look back and have somehow managed to snag one of their markers on the lower unit. I stop and it falls free and as I stand there wondering how I caught it one of the workers comes over on a pontoon boat. He apologizes and says that he had left the rope too long and the wind had pushed them farther than expected.
I told him it was no big deal and as we talked for a few minutes I ask if there was any other fuel available in the area. He directed me on up Shoal Creek about a mile to Emerald Point Marina which is not on the river chart or in Quimby’s. Here I had to wait for 2 other pleasure craft to fuel but I topped off the tank with the lowest price fuel I found on the whole trip.
I left Emerald Point with a full tank and piece of mind and made
my way up Wilson Lake. As I approached Joe Wheeler Lock and Dam I
noticed that unlike the other locks the downstream side of the river does
not narrow. In fact it is quite wide and the dam measures 6,300’ long. The
main lock is again 600’ x 110 and there is an auxiliary lock about half that
size. Again there was a barge waiting and another two hour delay is
in the making before I can climb the 48 feet to the lake. But it is lunchtime
any way so I break out the cold cuts and chips. I set munching away
under an overcast sky with rain drizzling and wonder if I have allowed enough
time to make this trip.