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A Knot-So-Fast Getaway

Knot-So-Fast at Miller's Ferry Campground, across from Miller's Ferry Marina.

Knot-So-Fast at Miller's Ferry Campground, across from Miller's Ferry Marina.

Tom Smitherman

After two years spent building my 20-foot tugboat cruiser, Knot-So-Fast, we were finally ready to plan her maiden voyage. Based on a request of my 8-year-old granddaughter, Abby, to go somewhere she could “see lots of animals and birds,” we chose to take a trip down the Alabama River.

The Alabama River is part of the Alabama Scenic River Trail, the longest continuous in-state river trail in the US. Mostly remote and undeveloped, it has been described by many as one of the most beautiful stretches of river in the country, and we were not disappointed!

Our crew consisted of Abby; my wife, Glenda; and our miniature dachshund, Daisy. Our planned route would take us from Mile 288 in the capital city of Montgomery to the end of the Alabama, where it joins the Tombigbee to form the Mobile River. From that point, we would weave our way through the Mobile-Tensaw Delta area to Mobile Bay. Crossing the bay, we’d end our trip at Gulf Shores, Ala., for a total of about 380 miles.

On Monday morning, day one of our adventure, we motored out of the Montgomery Marina and headed down the Alabama toward Prairie Creek Campground, one of six excellent Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds along our route. As the scenery quickly changed from the metropolitan skyline of downtown Montgomery to wilderness, I silently questioned the wisdom of embarking on such an adventure. There would be little or no cell phone service and no one within VHF range for most of our trip. If we had a mechanical or medical emergency, we would be on our own!

However, my anxiety soon gave way to sheer amazement at the beauty of the river and wildlife. The limestone cliffs rose to more 100 feet high in many places, and the multi-colored rock layers gave witness to how long the river has flowed here. A half-mile upstream of Prairie Creek, we spotted a large alligator that silently sank below the surface as we approached.

Knot-So-Fast’s shallow draft allowed us to tie up at the campground’s floating pier, which normally is used for bass and pontoon boats. After a dinner cooked on our propane grill, we all declared our first day a success!

Henry Lock and Dam is just downstream of the campground, and we arrived there early the next morning. I got no answer on the VHF and had no cell phone service, but as we approached the lock, the doors opened and the lock tender motioned us in. When we got within hearing distance, he apologized for not answering, saying his radio was not working.

After clearing the lock, we continued down the river to Selma, passing under the Edmund Pettis Bridge, famous for its role in the civil rights era. Selma is a city filled with historical homes and sites that once were intimately linked to the river and riverboat traffic. Unfortunately, now there is no convenient access from the river to downtown.

Below Selma, the Cahaba River joins the Alabama at the site of the first state capital, Old Cahawba, now just abandoned streets and a historical marker. As we approached the site, we frightened a couple of white-tailed deer who were standing near the bank.

We arrived at our second stop, Six Mile Creek Campground, in mid-afternoon. The pier at Six Mile was small and in shallow water, but we managed to get the Knot-So-Fast secured to one end. Two friends, Marvin and Belinda Roye, brought their grandkids to the campground to see the boat and re-supplied us with ice for the coolers.

Early Wednesday morning, we puttered out of Six Mile Creek into the main channel for the 60-mile ride to Miller’s Ferry Campground, near Camden, Ala. Just before noon, we spotted two bald eagles circling overhead. This was the first wild bald eagles Abby had ever seen, and it was one of the highlights of the cruise. We stopped briefly at Miller’s Ferry Marina, the only gas stop between Montgomery and Mobile, before moving across the wide creek to a pier at the campground where we tied up for the night. Here, like everywhere we stopped, we were met by curious people who wanted to know about the “little red tugboat” and its occupants.


Alabama River Cruise

Miller’s Ferry Lock and Dam was closed for maintenance during our trip, so we had pre-arranged to trailer our boat from the marina to the next ramp below the lock. My son and daughter-in-law, Nathan and Nicole, would pick up my truck and trailer in Montgomery and come through Camden for our portage on their way to Gulf Shores.

Having a few hours of free time the next morning while we waited for the trailer to arrive was a welcome change in our schedule. We packed up and made the short trip back across the creek to the marina, where we ate a hot breakfast for the first (and only) time on the trip. We had time to update our blog site and visit with the marina owners and several locals. We replenished the ice chests and fueled up the Knot-So-Fast, discovering that we were averaging 16.2 mpg! About noon, Nathan arrived and we made the three-mile trip around the lock.

Shortly after we were back in the water, Glenda was sitting in the cockpit when I heard her scream “Bear!” I immediately throttled down the Yamaha 9.9 four-stroke, but it was too late — the black bear that we had interrupted had scampered back over the riverbank before Abby and I got to see him. We stopped and took a few minutes to let Glenda catch her breath and to take photos of the bear’s footprints in the sandy riverbank where he had been digging for food.

That night, we stayed at Isaac Creek campground, within sight of Claiborne Lock and Dam, the last lock for downstream cruisers on the Alabama. Friday morning’s transit through the lock was pleasant and uneventful, except for the small water snake that poked his head through the scupper in the cockpit and scared Glenda. South of Claiborne, we noticed the terrain had now changed, with lower, rocky banks and large sandbars replacing the high limestone cliffs we saw during the first days of the trip. We also noticed more and more of the beautiful swamp cypress trees that the Mobile-Tensaw Delta area is so well known for.

During the day on Friday, the wind picked up as we entered the upper delta and arrived at Mile 0, the point where the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers converge to form the Mobile River. We travelled down the Mobile for about six miles and then turned to port and entered the Tensaw River. About a mile down the Tensaw, we set the anchor for our first and only night on the hook.

Saturday morning, I awoke to the sound of a couple of bass boats passing us — the first boats we’d seen since we entered the Tensaw the evening before. After a short stop to let Daisy do her business, we headed down the Mobile River toward Mobile Bay.

The typical route into the bay is to continue down the Mobile River through downtown Mobile, but we decided to take an easterly route through this section of the delta via a cutoff that took us back to the Tensaw River. From the Tensaw, we took the Apalachee River south, stopping to have lunch at The Original Oyster House. After lunch we backtracked to the Blakeley River and followed it under the elevated causeway into the north end of Mobile Bay, stopping for the night at Fly Creek Marina in Daphne, Ala.

On Sunday, our final day of the cruise, we left Fly Creek Marina at daylight, hoping to make it across the bay before the wind picked up. For just over four hours, our little boat was pounded by three-foot seas on our beam as we made our way to the lower end of Mobile Bay. Abby decided to stay in bed for this leg of the trip, and Glenda fought to avoid getting seasick, but the little tugboat took the chop in stride, getting us safely (if not comfortably) to our destination, some 382 miles from where we had started seven days earlier.

The Alabama River is not for cruisers who insist on fully equipped marinas and restaurants at every stop. But if you want to see natural beauty at its best and have the river all to yourself most of the time, the Alabama should be on your short list of future cruises.

My thoughts about our cruise were put into words best by Abby when she told her grandmother, “The best things in life go by way too quick.” Even at our normal cruising speed of six mph, the seven days on our Alabama River cruise flew by, leaving us wanting more of the serenity and natural beauty we experienced there.

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