Sunday, October 31, 2010

Signs of the Times

Morning fog at our anchorage  on Dry Creek
Friday night, returning from the Looper Rendezvouz along the Tennessee River, we anchored out (as we had on our way upriver) at the mouth of Dry Creek.  During the night, Bill got up to check the anchor.  Our boat was wrapped in a thick blanket of fog.  But looking straight up, he could see a clear sky and a thick sprinkling of stars, blazing in a velvet black sky.

We say that this trip around the Great Loop is like an "endless summer," as we follow the warm weather south.  But lately we can't deny the signs of autumn. During the day it can be warm--up into the 80s.  At night, though, the temperature drops to the high 30s. The collision of cold air and (comparatively) warm water makes for pea-soup fog that lingers till mid-morning.

I spent some time yesterday poring over guidebooks, planning our trip down the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (aka the "Tenn-Tom").  The trip will take us from Pickwick Lake (picture the place where the northwest corner of Alabama shoulders up against the northeast corner of Mississippi) south to Mobile, on the Gulf Coast--a distance of about 450 miles. The waterway wanders a bit, from Mississippi into Alabama, back to Mississippi, then Alabama again.

It's supposed to be beautiful, but there are a couple stretches with no marinas and no "official anchorages.  So SlowBoat could be in for a couple of long days.

The experts who gave a presentation about this route at the Looper Rendezvous warned us to expect delays because of the morning fog at this time of year--no sprinting away from the dock at 7 AM.  The trip will take us through 12 big locks, and we'll have to be on the lookout for big towboats, coming through.

We've got cooties!
Another sign of autumn: migratory birds on the river.  Yesterday morning we spotted a thick dark line that resolved, as we approached, into a raft of American coots, hundreds of them, paddling nervously towards the shallows.  

A little later we spotted a bird that seemed familiar in shape and behavior: riding low in the water, slender bill tilted up, diving repeatedly.  But instead of the familiar black-and-white checkerboard back and white throat, this bird was subdued in color. Was it (exciting thought) a West Coast species of loon, off the beaten trak? Was it just a cormorant?  

We checked our field guide, and it was a familiar friend, the common loon. We'd forgotten that loons swap out their distinctive summer breeding plumage for less conspicuous feathers in winter.

No frost yet--we're still harvesting fresh basil and oregano from our rooftop garden--but the trees along the water are getting a bit brighter in color each day.  At Joe Wheeler State Park, taking a break from the Looper convention, we went for a walk in the woods, kicking dry leaves as we went.  I enjoyed spotting unfamiliar shapes in the colorful carpet on the forest floor--the mitten-shaped leaves of sassafras and the narrow, oval, serrated leaves of chinkapin oak, nestled on a base layer of loblolly pine needles.
Grand Harbor: They had me at "Transients Welcome"

Last night, we docked for a second time at Grand Harbor Marina, near Iuka, Mississippi--just a few miles away, a crooked side channel off Pickwick Lake leads to the start of the Tenn Tom.  

It was a Saturday night, and the marina has "courtesy cars" that boaters can use, so we hailed another couple we'd met at the Looper Rendevous and organized a dinner expedition.  

A local couple who had strolled by to see the crazy canal boat docked in "their" marina suggested a nice steakhouse not too far away, with live music.  An actual night out!

We nearly breezed past the restaurant in the dark.  Not too much neon, antiques displayed in the windows facing the front porch decorated with rocking chairs.  Looks good.

We got to the front door and peered in.  The men in the party took a step back, looked at each other, then looked at the women in our party and grinned sheepishly.  

Standing by the hostess station was a young woman, blonde, pretty, wearing a Dallas-Cowboys-Cheerleaders kind of outfit.  Or maybe it was a Hooters waitress costume, but with more sparkles.  You get the picture. The outfit left us no doubts she was extremely well toned.

Meanwhile, standing by the bar was an older man with a black do-rag and aggressively buff biceps, displayed to advantage by his sleeveless leather Harley Davidson vest and black leather armbands. He was chatting amiably with a younger man in a gaudy red-white-and-blue Nascar jacket.

Maybe this wasn't quite the restaurant we were looking for, after all?

We hovered. We hemmed.  

I thought, "Hey, it's good to meet different kinds of people, right?"  And pushed through the door.

"Welcome," said Harley man (who turned out to be the restaurant owner).  "Happy Halloween!"

It was just like the loons, on the lake.   We'd misread a sign of the times.  

(P.S. Reminder: more photos on Facebook at SlowBoatCruise)

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