Big Briar Creek was the ideal anchorage to catch up on rest and boat work. The morning dawned peacefully and the world seemed in harmony. We had hoped to get back on the river early, but between the idyllic surroundings and that “just one more cup of coffee,” attitude, we weighed anchor at noon. The late start was something of a disappointment, but the alligator that eased by during that next cup of coffee seemed to be a harbinger of great times and fantastic wildlife spotting ahead.
But life and travel are not always what they seem.
We were below the first lock at Coffeeville, and were in tidal waters which necessitated using two anchors in most spots to avoid being drawn into shallows by the current. As evening approached we realized that we would not reach Coffeeville by dark and decided to slip into Bates Lake for the night.
Bates Lake is a serene spot with a fishing village feel. I don’t know if most of the folks who live here do so year-round, or if these are vacation getaways; I only know that everyone was friendly. The passage into the lake is silted in with a soft mud and needs dredging. We entered at nearly high tide and though we barely slipped over the muddy, shallow shelf, we didn’t bump the bottom.
The quandary would come the following day when the tide was low. But, being smart and invincible, I just knew that it would work itself out. Tides, however, have their own pace and their own schedule and the tide was, of course, dead low in the morning. Being resourceful, we decided to make it a play-day there in the lake. Cody learned to drive the dinghy and we spent our time exploring and fishing.
By three o’clock in the afternoon we were anxious to get back on the river and log some miles for the day. Since we hadn’t even bumped bottom the day before, we thought that we could slip out prior to the high tide, and besides, if we were to get stuck, a rising tide floats all boats. Or so the saying goes.
We left and slowly motored to the sill separating Bates Lake from the Mobile River. A retired Corps of Engineers captain was guiding us via VHF radio through the cut, but soon we could tell that we were churning mud as the depth-sounder beeped its alarm. Deeper and deeper into the mud we wedged as the water became shallower and shallower. Finally, Bob gunned the motor and we plowed straight through to the safe, deep water of the Mobile River.
We checked the exhaust from the motor to ensure that engine intake valve for the raw water cooling system was not plugged with mud while we dragged bottom. Happily, clear water flowed out the stern, just like always. We kept a close eye on the temperature gauge for the next several hours.
A few miles upriver, I went below to check on something and noticed that the air conditioner was not on, nor was the generator. After flipping a few switches, it was quickly apparent that the generator was not going to work. A large amount of mud had sucked into the intake valve as we left Bates Lake. This meant no air conditioning. This is Alabama. It is June. It is hot and the nights are still and filled with mosquitos. We were on mile 70 of a 500 mile cruise.
Thirty-seven miles out of Bates Lake, the sun began to set. There were no practical anchorages off-river, and we had never dropped the hook directly in the river. There are several reasons for this: shallow depths, unknown snags on the bottom, poor holding ground, but mostly the danger from tows which travel 24 hours a day pushing 2 to 9 heavily laden barges. On this evening we had no choice so we anchored just south of Powell Landing where a tow was working both sides of the river shuffling barges of coal to and from the local power plant. We radioed the tow and asked if we would be in the way, nestled between a red nun navigational buoy and the landing further upstream that he was working from. He offered to help with the generator or with anything else that we might need. We declined his offer, but it was comforting to know that someone was concerned and was letting passing tows know that we were anchored so close to the channel.
After making sure that the anchors were secure, and preparing dinner for Cody, Bob and I climbed into the engine room and cleaned mud out of the strainers attached to the intake valves to the main engine, the generator and the air conditioners. The bilge was covered with the sticky ooze and we sponged, flushed, and sponged and flushed again to ensure that all hoses were clear.
After several hours of work, sitting contorted in a hot engine room, Bob switched the fail-safe circuit breaker on the generator, pressed the start toggle switch and the generator grumbled, then chugged. The raw water intake was working and clear water came sputtering and gushing through the exhaust as if there had never been a problem. It was a wondrous moment of relief to know that we had not killed the generator.
The air conditioners were not that simple, and after checking several potential solutions, we went to bed, too tired to care if it was hot.