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Chapter Eleven – The Tombigbee

 We locked through the Demopolis Lock.  As we turned and looked back, we saw the rocky waterfalls behind us and were awed by the impressive picture it made.

After Demopolis, we travelled with the current, so our pace picked up a bit.  We anchored at Barron’s Landing, then at Okatuppa Creek and hoped that we would see an alligator.

We left Okatuppa Creek very early on October 23rd.  The fog was particularly heavy and it gave us a very eerie feeling.  Spanish Moss hung from the trees, the insects made a cacophony of sound as we crept down the river.  We stopped at Bobby’s Fish Camp and radioed the Coffeeville Lock—our last one!  He said there would be a wait, so we wandered off to stretch our legs.  I went back to the boat to get something and heard the lockmaster calling Hetarae.  I answered and was told that the towboat didn’t mind if we locked through with him.  I sent Nick to get Dennis who was talking up at the restaurant, and he ran as fast as his legs could go.  He yelled at Dennis, who then ran down to the boat.  Meanwhile, I was listening for further instructions but only heard all the towboat operators discuss us.  They got a good chuckle out of our little drama and speculated whether or not we’d make it to the lock in time.

We chugged down the river as fast as we could go (about six knots an hour) and just as we were rounding the last bend in the river, the lock doors shut.  Ugh!

We ended up waiting for three hours, tied up to a barge.  What else could we do?

We were quite excited that the Coffeeville Lock was the last one but made complete fools of ourselves as we left it.  I guess we were getting too confident.  Anyway, we actually smashed into the door on our way out of the lock!  It was completely my fault—I wasn’t really paying attention—and my stick slipped, so we bounced onto the door.  No damage was done however.  We slunk out of there as quickly as we could.  Oh well…

Our destination was Lady’s Landing Marina that night, as there was nowhere to anchor.  It was only a forty-four mile day but the fog and the wait had us really behind schedule.  It was getting dark as we pulled in.

We secured the boat and were met by a big, black billy goat.  He was friendly enough and I gave him the rotting salad from the cooler.  Buster – the owner of the ‘marina’ was tall, grubby but friendly man who spat out huge wads of tobacco everywhere.  He told us that he hated his father-in-law because he “was a Yankee!”  So, we weren’t surprised later on when we saw how the two of them worked together.  They made quite a team, as they refueled a big trawler right next to us.  There was no gas dock.

We walked around the yard that was strewn with garbage, trailers and dogs.  Another boater commented to us that this place was a close to the movie Deliverance as we’d ever see.  But, one had to give these people credit for keeping this marina going.  They were very courteous and although poor as could be, they went out of their way to help every boater they could.

Buster told us that we were lucky to be at Lady’s Landing that night and not the next. We were one of four boats tied up.  He was expecting nineteen boats on Saturday!  The river was barely wide enough for the towboats to pass us so we couldn’t imagine how he would safely tie up nineteen.

The rest of the evening was spent on the dock talking to the other boaters.  The other three boats were skippered by husbands whose wives had left them somewhere along the river trip.  They hadn’t been able to stand things any longer.  One boater in particular, made our problems seem minuscule by comparison.

The man, his wife and the rest of the crew (five people altogether) were bringing her father’s boat down to Florida so that they could charter it.  The wife’s father had had a stroke previous to the trip and she thought the trip might be a nice way for him to recover.  Well, by the time they had reached Lady’s Landing, the son-in-law had been abandoned by everyone at various stages along the way except for the father (who was recovering and was not much help).  Their refrigeration and air-conditioning were broken and one of the gas tanks had a hole in it.  So, he was left getting this boat to Florida.  How did he ever get through the locks?

We left early the next morning because we had sixty miles to cover under threatening skies.  We scrubbed the boat from top to bottom as our feet had tracked in piles of fine sand from Lady’s Landing but before Hetarae was clean, she got rinsed in a downpour!  Quickly, we donned our wet weather gear, sent Nick down below, put up the awning and tried not to get soaked.  The wind came up and pushed sheets of rain at us.  We had difficulty seeing ten feet in front of us.  Lightning and thunder surrounded us.  As one bolt of lightning after another flashed around us, I asked Dennis what to do if the mast were struck.

He said, “Don’t touch anything metal!”

That was not very reassuring.

The rain kept up for most of the day, on and off.  We were soaked and miserable.  The inside of Hetarae fared little better than the outside as she had seemed to develop even more leaks.  Cushions were sopping and the boat smelled like a wet dog!

We finally limped into Big Lizard Creek—our anchorage for the night.  The rain had stopped and it had become very humid, hot and the bugs attacked us in full force.  I was very badly shaken from the storm.

Dennis tried to cheer me up by making my favourite supper—spaghetti, but I had started to cry.  I couldn’t seem to stop, so when he asked me if I wanted my supper, I just cried harder.  He looked very sad and asked me if I was alright.

I answered, “No. I don’t think I am.”

He went back down below and played cards with Nick, probably because he didn’t want Nick to get upset over me.  I stayed in the cockpit and looked at my surroundings.  We were parked in the middle of a bayou (euphemism for swamp), and old run down shack on stilts was nearby, shrubbery hung from trees.  It seemed as though we were in a jungle and I questioned what in the world we were doing.

After an hour or so, even I had to stop feeling sorry for myself, so I went down below and joined the card game.

To lighten the mood, we listened to a radio station from Mobile, Alabama.  During one of the songs, there was an interruption—a severe tornado warning had been issued.  We checked the chart and it was headed directly where we were anchored.  The announcer cautioned people in mobile homes to evacuate.  What were we to do?  We were all alone in a bayou.  Dennis jokingly suggested we throw out another anchor. Unfortunately, I had lost my sense of humour.

We waited and waited.  The wind picked up, the rain poured down and we sat huddled in the cabin trying to remain calm so we wouldn’t upset Nick.  Everything grew quiet and still for a few minutes and then the rain and wind started up again.  The tornado had passed us by.

We’d had enough excitement for one day and went to bed early.  I spent the entire night thinking about what we could do.  I had reached my limit and as I lay in my dank bunk, sweating and swatting mosquitoes, I vowed that I would not spend one more night on board the boat.  At dawn, I fitfully slept.

In the morning, we wound our way into Dead Lake Marina and tied up beside a houseboat.  We all showered and I started phoning the airlines.  I had really made up my mind.  Nick and I were going to leave.

Through my stream of tears, I made arrangements with Delta.  The woman on the phone was so kind to me, she made me cry even harder.  I remember thinking that surely the airline didn’t have instructions in their employee manuals when dealing with someone so distraught.  She wished me the best and hoped that whatever was troubling me would be solved soon.

I told Dennis that there was a flight to Buffalo at 7:30 the next day.  Nick and I would fly from Mobile to Atlanta, change planes and fly to Buffalo where my sister would pick us up.  She lived in Burlington, Ontario which was about an hour away.

I spent the rest of the day alternating between packing and crying.  Nick ran off and played with a couple of kids who were fishing in the rain.  They belonged to a very nice family who lived in a tent.  Although they were very poor, the four children were remarkably happy and well-spoken.  Their dad worked throughout the south as a pipe fitter, so they moved around a lot.  They had gone to seven different schools last year.  This year, they didn’t appear to be going at all.

During the evening, they invited Nick to their tent to watch television.  Dennis and I were astounded at their situation.  Their home, just a medium sized regular canvas tent, did not keep the rain out very well.  Their sleeping bags and mattresses were soaked.  In addition to this, the ants had gotten into the bedding.  Nick said there were hundreds of little tiny ants crawling around!  Needless to say, when he left the tent, I marched him over to the shower.  The things people put up with so cheerfully was beyond me.

We returned to the boat, finished packing and had our last game of cards.  Dennis would not leave the boat and was pretty shocked that we were actually leaving.  I kept telling him that we weren’t leaving him, we were leaving the trip.  I don’t think that made him feel much better.

He did say to me though, “I won’t ask you to stay because I know you won’t change your mind.”

He was right.  I couldn’t stay and only hoped that he would forgive me for ruining everything.  He wouldn’t come with us and didn’t know what he would do.  This was the hardest thing I had ever done—not the trip—but leaving.

After another bad night of tossing and turning, we got up at four o’clock.  I had arranged for a service to pick us up.

He was late and had gotten lost, but finally arrived.  We hugged each other fiercely and I got into the van.

Dennis said to Nick, “Give Daddy a hug because I don’t know when I’ll see you again.”

He did and then climbed in beside me.  We drove away, watching Dennis waving bravely to us.  He turned and walked back to the boat.  And that was the end of our trip.  Forever.

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