The Tenn-Tom From the Tennessee River to Florida
As fall approached I decided I wanted to make one more long trip before the frigid months of Southern Illinois set in. By chance a friend from my area whom had retired a year ago and moved to Destin, FL was coming up for a visit. I decided rather than him driving back to Florida with his wife (boring!) we would load up Therapy and I would take him home by water. Since I had already traveled the Tennessee River from end to end I decided to tow Therapy down to Pickwick Lake which is part of the Tennessee River and drop in at the State park . From that point the mouth of the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway (Tenn-Tom) is about an eight mile run along a scenic section of the lake. The plan was to follow the Tenn-Tom to its end at Mobile Bay (Mobile, AL) and there catch the Intarcoastal Waterway and continue on to Destin, FL. My friend has a home on the water in Destin right on the ICW. This would involve passage though twelve locks and since this was a round trip for me I would see twenty four lockages! As our departure date grew close everything looked great except one little problem - well actually two little problems - Isadore and Lilly. When making plans for trips in the past the weather wasn't a huge concern. Sure wind and rain could make it a little less enjoyable but storms and bad weather in the Midwest are usually measured in hours not days. And the twisting turning nature of rivers usually provides shelter from the wind and waves every few miles.
But now for the first time I had to think about hurricanes. Isdore was scheduled to come ashore a few days before we left and didn't look to be a problem. But another storm was brewing and looked to have potential as another hurricane. We watched the weather closely in the days leading up to our trip and it looked like we could probably make the run between the storms. So with an eye on the weather we set out to run to Destin. One other minor problem did crop up the night before we left. I was watching local weather forecast and in our area they were predicting cloudy conditions as a result of Isadore. They also made mention that the aftermath of the hurricane had dropped 6 to 8 inches of rain in Tennessee the day before. The sky was to be clear there by the time we departed BUT rivers all over the state were flooding. I logged on to the Internet and started checking river gauge reports along our route. In some places the water had been up more than 10 feet above normal pool but was it dropping everywhere. On the positive side the current would be high and actually help on our southward journey. My hope was with any luck it would recede by the time I returned so I wouldn't have to fight a more upward battle. But my biggest concern was that high water levels would sweep the shores clean of debris and dump it all in the waterway. I really hated to think of running 450 miles on the Tenn-Tom dodging logs!
We reached Pickwick State Park and slid Therapy off the trailer about 2:30 PM. The sun was shining; winds were light and the temperatures in the upper 70's - just perfect! We made our way up the Tennessee to the 215 mile marker where an unassuming channel delivers us onto the Tenn-Tom. As we snaked our way through the somewhat confusing channels we pass Grand Harbor Marina. It is a first class facility with new floating slips and high-rise lodging. There were buoys to mark the path so staying on course really wasn't a problem. After about six miles we reached the first "canal" section and all concerns of navigation are put to rest - your either going or coming.
This may be a good point to give a brief description of the Tennessee - Tombigbee Waterway. Rather than being the normal channelized river the Tenn-Tom is actually a series of waterways connected by canals. As rivers go this one is brand new. The Corps of Engineers began the project in 1972 and it opened for traffic in 1985. The goal was to shorten and improve the trip from the Midwest south. Until that point the Mississippi River was the only choice but its high current, hairpin turns and lack of services and anchorages make it a trying trip - especially for pleasure craft making the voyage to Florida. The Tenn-Tom not only makes it a much more pleasant run but shortens the length from Cairo, IL (confluence of Mississippi and Ohio Rivers) by about 250 miles. Since its opening many marinas have come to life along it shores and finding a nice place to anchor out is rarely a problem. It should also be pointed out that although the entire route from Pickwick Lake to Mobile Bay is often called the Tenn-Tom it is somewhat in error.
The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway runs from Pickwick to the junction of the Black Warrior River at Demopolis, AL. From that point south it is the "Lower Black Warrior - Tombigbee Waterway". In order to have river charts of the entire route a chart for each of these waterways need to be obtained from the Corps of Engineers. But Tenn-Tom is much easier to say than "Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and Lower Black Warrior - Tombigbee Waterway". As a result, it is used by most to describe the route and for the sake of brevity I will do the same.