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Tuscaloosa to Orange Beach: Alabama Is Made for River Running

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By W. Elliot Free

It was the second day of river running and the hot south Alabama sun was really coming down. Lunch and shade were calling so the first mate and I searched for shade, which is hard to locate on the Tombigbee River.

Finally we found some overhanging trees and just as Joan was securing the line to a branch I heard, “Snake by the bow.” Sure enough, there he was and as quickly as my black max was lowered and started we headed for the middle of the river. Needless to say, the snake got the shade and we dined under the big eye — so much for river cruising in Southern Heartland.

All of this commenced in the fall of the year when, on a Tennessee River trip to Chattanooga, some of the Cullman boaters thought a river trip to the beach was a good idea. The closest reasonable trip for open boats in the 20-foot size was down the Black Warrior, to the Tombigbee and on to Mobile Bay. Well one-by-one they dropped by the way and so my permanent first mate, Joan, and I decided we would solo the trip. The float plan was to trailer to Tuscaloosa, cruise for three days to Orange Beach near Gulf Shores, then have our son come down so we could all trailer back.

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May times, planning the event is almost as much fun as the event. So while the weather was too cold for center-console boating, I started the plan. There are many good books on our heartland rivers that will tell distances, fuel, accommodation stops, and locks. Take this type of information and the known distance your boat will travel between fuel stops and the planning is under way.

The first day we left Cullman, which is in the center of north Alabama, and drove to Tuscaloosa to lunch at Foster’s Landing. My son, Wescoat, was to drive us there then come to Orange Beach to pick us up. On Wednesday morning about 10:00 we waved goodbye and headed down the Black Warrior to Demopolis. It was an easy, laid-back day on the river of about 105 miles and one lock. We arrived at Demopolis Yacht Marina about 4 p.m. and checked into the motel.

Demopolis has an outstanding facility with motel and eating within easy walking distance. We decided to eat at a local Italian place, which was one-half mile away, but there is a restaurant on the premises which is very good. Early the next morning we departed on the Tombigbee for Lady’s Landing. The Black Warrior and the Tenn-Tom form the Tombigbee at Demopolis. This second day was about 190 miles, two locks, and one snake.

We arrived at Lady’s Landing about 4:30 p.m. and were greeted by Guy’s goats on the pier. Lady’s Landing is not large or fancy but the owners, Guy and Joyce are most accommodating. Joyce drove us into Jackson where we stayed at the Jackson Motel and ate at the Jackson Steakhouse. The next morning Joyce woke us up at 6:00 a.m.. We picked up a biscuit on the way to the landing and had to almost share it with the goats before departing for the beach.

Before casting off, Guy told us about reports of much drift in the Mobile River and recommended that at Mile 40, we take the Tensaw River. This would be pretty, as well as quicker and put us on the east side of Mobile Bay. So at Mile 40 just aft of a north bound tow, we turned to port and entered the Tensaw River.

Well the Tensaw is only used by locals and fishermen. Joan and I almost turned around when the depth got to 6 feet and narrowed. It was so pretty and peaceful though, that we kept going and finally saw a cabin, then civilization. For a few minutes, we had thought we were Louis and Clark.

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As the river widened and the banks began to be marshy instead of dense vegetation, we knew Mobile Bay was close. After two and one half days on the river, Mobile Bay is huge. This was the first time we unfolded charts as we cruised along the eastern shore.

Joan turned out to be an excellent navigator and the only bobble of the trip was we turned up Bon Secour River instead of Portage Creek. This was easily corrected and we returned to the correct route to Orange Beach and the Orange Beach Marina. With the expanse of bays and the unknown effect of the tides, we kept to the charted channel and found our way. We knew we had made it when we saw the Perdido Pass Bridge. We stayed at a condominium with piers within sight of Orange Beach Marina, another outstanding facility for boats.

Wescoat came down in the Suburban and we played in the gulf and salt water bays for two days. Because I was raised at Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina, there is nothing like the beach and salt water for me. Of course we ate all the seafood we could hold and thoroughly enjoyed Orange Beach. But all good things must come to an end, so we put the Whaler back on the trailer, flushed the motor, washed the boat and packed for the return trip home. 

I am sure that many people think three days and almost 400 miles in a 19-foot Boston Whaler with a 150 hp outboard motor is just going too far. But outboards are very reliable and with the many books and publications, it is a fun cruise. I learned that up-to-date charts of the salt waters are a must. Add hats, sunscreen, a little food, and an enjoyable first mate… and there just ain’t nothing like it.

We are so fortunate in the South to have so much of our nation’s rivers and lakes. All you have to have is the “want to.”