Bob and Dave's Excellent Adventure (cont'd)

I usually wait to be invited out on someone's boat but this time I just threw caution to the wind and straight out asked if I could go along. For all I knew, the boat might have already been full but to my huge surprise, Bob didn't even hesitate: "Sure" he said. But he did explain that we would soon find out just how small a 17-foot boat could be, especially for guys the size of Bob and me. So I got on the phone to clear my Monday schedule because the plan was to go up river on Sunday and come back on Monday.

It occurred to me that this would represent several firsts in my life. First such as: I've never taken any kind of trip in a small boat on the order of the trips that Ray Macke has written about.

(Editor's Note: See the numerous boating adventures of Ray Macke
in the WebLetters' Index of Articles under "Cabin Skiff")
And for me, it was difficult to read Ray's accounts without wanting to do something very similar. And I think Bob definitely felt the same way. I've also never been through a set of locks on a river before. I knew that that would be fun.

For as many years as I've been traveling the interstate between Nashville and Chattanooga, every time I've ever crossed Nickajack Lake, I always have wanted to go boating there. It's just SO beautiful. Just to tease me, the interstate highway people even put a rest area there so I could suffer even more deprivation when I stopped for a break.

I'd never seen the Tennessee River valley. I've always heard that it was just gorgeous and always wanted to see it for myself …. especially during the fall color change.

As it turned out, Dwayne the Skiiii Kiiiing Colton couldn't go. His flight back to his home in Oregon, was going to leave early enough that we couldn't be sure that we could get him back to Guntersville in time for him to make it. And the price to switch things around was prohibitive. In the end, Dwayne was there to see us off but couldn't justify going along with us. I actually felt remorse for him. I knew I'd have a fun time with Bob, but I really wanted Dwayne to be with us as well, but maybe next year.

As the little Sea Knight headed up river, Bob adjusted the trim to minimize fuel consumption. I guess it's because I'm so easily entertained but I've always been amazed at the difference trimming a boat made but Bob had installed trim tabs in addition to the Mariner's power trim. As we were talking he said that he had decided to go with the trim tabs after reading one of Ray Macke's articles describing their use for his Cabin Skiff, "Therapy." They really did give a lot of control over the running of the boat and all throughout the trip Bob was able to maximize our economy by simply keeping the boat trim and watching the fuel consumption on the GPS. For me, this was an introduction to an entirely new type of boating that I have still a lot to learn about …. all this electronic stuff, I mean. I've been living in the past.

Bob had said that the trip would take about 5 hours but for whatever reason, the time just seemed to fly by in spite of it being very relaxing. There was no shortage of beautiful scenery. Fairly low rolling mountains and long plateaus surround Lake Guntersville. Everything is heavily wooded and, of course, the leaves on the trees were just starting to change into their fall designer's collection. I was surprised at some things that, even though spending virtually all my life in this part of the country, I had just never stopped to think about. For example, I had heard in the past about how invasive the water milfoil had become. This is a water plant that grows in huge "islands" almost. It was initially introduced from Europe to America as a decorative aquarium plant back in the 50's. That was about the same time that these Tennessee Valley Authority lakes were being established. Before the TVA dammed up the rivers for hydroelectric power, the river was fairly fast flowing and milfoil was not a problem, as it needs slack water to thrive. As the reservoirs filled, water speed slowed and the milfoil got a foothold. It's been slowly working its way up stream ever since. Lake Guntersville has tons of milfoil but as we worked our way to Nickajack lake, we saw less and less of it although Nickajack does have some milfoil. I had just never realized just how MUCH milfoil there was.

Another surprise for me was just how shallow Lake Guntersville is in some places. Bob was careful to stay within the channel and in doing so you could see that there was more than enough depth - many times well over 100 feet deep. But once out of the channel, the bottom could come up really fast. The lake was shallow enough in some places that the Blue Herons could be seen walking around a good half mile from shore. The reason this was surprising to me was that with so many other lakes in Tennessee, the high surrounding hills and mountains mean that the bottom falls off very quickly once away from shore. In fact, on one trip to Center Hill Lake, we had beached the bow of our houseboat onto the shoreline. But when we took a depth reading at the stern of the boat, it read almost 30 ft. That's what I'm used to and I get to thinking in terms of boating wherever I want to but here on Lake Guntersville, I would have needed to be more vigilant until I got to know the lake.

And speaking of Blue Herons, they truly are beautiful birds. They are native to Alabama and Tennessee and I believe that they thrive in most of North America. They do add such a nice look to the lake. To me, I could just watch them going about their business all day. They love small fish but also will noodle around in the shallows for mussels, snails or whatever they can find that they like. We certainly don't get to see them in the big city. Occasionally, we would spot an Egret - a bird very similar to the Heron but a little smaller and usually white in color.

When we arrived at Nickajack dam, Bob got on the horn and called the lockmaster. To our surprise, the lock was already open and a Sundancer 44 had just entered and secured to one of the bollocks. We timed it right, as the lockmaster was just about to close the gates. So we came on in and secured across from the Sundancer. Bob related what Ray Macke had said that being in a lock like this on the lower end felt like being a cockroach in a bathtub. I had to laugh because this was the very first time I'd ever done this and I could see the comparison.

Once we exited the lock we were on Nickajack. The Sundancer had left first and we took a little to time to stop at a little city park to stretch our legs (and use the little boys' room). By this time, it was early afternoon; the sun had warmed everything up into the mid 70's and was shining brightly. You could not have asked for a better day to make this trip. It was truly amazing. Also, I had thought that the scenery was beautiful between Lake Guntersville State Park and Nickajack dam. But the really gorgeous part of the trip was still to come.

As I stated earlier, I had always dreamed of exploring this lake. It's just that beautiful. Now I would have the chance to see the lake from a perspective different from the interstate. As we passed under the interstate bridge, we entered what is known as the Tennessee River Valley. The valley walls close in, the river is considerably narrower and snakes around much more than Lake Guntersville and the scenery is much more rugged and breathtaking. The shoreline is dotted with beautiful, stately homes punctuated by a few raggedy old trailer homes. Ha ha, you gotta love Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia! The disparity between rich folks and rednecks is greater nowhere else. I have to admit that I've always had a certain burr under my saddle about folks that, because they have the money, they grab up what I could never afford to own. So I think it's perfect that they have to wait for Ma & Pa Kettle to pass away before they get every last bit of it and then in the meantime, they've gotta sit there with that old broken down mobile home next door like a big blight on the riverfront. I'm sorry, but I just find that really amusing. I chuckled all the rest of the way to Chattanooga.

I had heard ahead of time that the Tennessee River Valley was one of the most beautiful waterways in the world. I was not disappointed. Every bend in the river revealed yet another scenic vista. Bob had said something about a large brick building along the water closer to Chattanooga that he had seen the previous year. He and Ray Macke had talked about it and were curious as to what it was. So when we got to the big brick building, I snapped a photo of it and here it is:
This is the campus of Baylor School. This is not to be confused with Baylor University in Waco, Texas. It's a small prep school that's been on the banks of the Tennessee River since 1915. The building we have a photo of here is called "Riverfront Hall" and the smaller building to the left is "Academic Hall." Some of the buildings on campus are approaching 100 years old, so the newer buildings have been built in a way to reflect the same or similar architecture. From what we could see from the river, it's a beautiful place.

As we passed Baylor School, we got our first view of Lookout Mountain on this trip. From the top of this mountain, of course, you can see all of downtown Chattanooga. This is the site of the famous "Battle Above the Clouds" fought during the Civil War. It was a silly fight with fog covering the mountainside and the opposing forces popping away at each other blindly. No one really got hurt. The Union forces could not take the mountaintop but the Confederates could not be allowed to stay as the Union had lost Missionary Ridge and would have been cutoff if the Confederates were allowed to remain. So they were forced to retreat and give it up. Now I'm relating this from memory. I used to be really interested in the Civil War but some one that's more up on it might set me straight.

In one of his articles, Ray Macke talked about Chattanooga's charm. He was exactly right. Chattanooga has a gorgeous waterfront that pegs the ole quaint meter. As we pulled up to the dock to tie off for the evening, we moored in behind the Sundancer 44 that we had locked through with at Nickajack dam. We were pretty hungry but Bob wanted to rig the top and side curtains on the boat before we left. It's hard not to be a little apprehensive in any town where you're in unfamiliar surroundings. Even though the top had no way of locking, it did make us feel a little better knowing that it was up. The folks in the Sundancer said hello and we talked a little. They invited us over for a beer but we politely declined, as we were so hungry that we might have passed out at any moment. Bob wanted to go on to a restaurant that he had apparently gone to the previous year. But we decided we might take the folks in the Sundancer up on their offer when we got back from dinner. One thing about boating up and down rivers such as this, strangers truly are friends you haven't met yet.

We had dinner at the Big River Grill. It's a chain of microbreweries throughout the South. I personally really like dark strong tasting beers and their dark beers were very good. I know I could've gone for fancier food but at that particular moment in time, I simply went for the cheeseburger and fries and WOW, it was excellent!

Chattanooga has a downtown loop from the riverfront all the way out to the famous Chattanooga Choo Choo. This loop is covered by all electric, zero emissions buses and the fare is totally free. They run approximately every 5 minutes. So Bob and I hopped on and rode up to the Choo Choo. I'd been there many times but it was a first for Bob. Of course, the old Glen Miller song put Chattanooga on the map but the city of Chattanooga has really embraced the song and brought it to real life. The song was written by the team of Mack Gordon and Harry Warren while traveling on the Southern Railway's "Birmingham Special" train. The Chattanooga Choo Choo is now what used to be Chattanooga's old Terminal Station. Rail service was suspended in the early 70's and the station was slated for demolition. But the city didn't want to lose their "legacy" so easily. It's now a 30 acre resort complex that includes the Choo Choo Holiday Inn where motel guests can stay in a restored railway car. There are other railway cars and trains on permanent display. For a really different dining experience, restaurant goers can have "Dinner in the Diner" which involves having your meal in a restored dining car. Cool, huh?!

Because of the Choo Choo's becoming synonymous with trains, the National Model Railroad Association made Chattanooga their home. Upstairs of the Choo Choo is one of the world's largest model railroads. All in HO scale, it has scaled down versions of downtown Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge and parts of north Georgia and Eastern Tennessee. At the time of its completion it was the world's largest model railroad but I believe it has now been surpassed by others. But it's still GIGANTIC …and a must-see for anyone into trains.

It was dark when we got to the Choo Choo so we simply didn't get the photos we would have like to have gotten. Also, it was Sunday evening and virtually everything had closed. So we caught the electric bus back to Ross's Landing where the Sea Knight was moored.

As we walked down to the little Sea Knight, the folks in the Sundancer were out on the dock enjoying the warm evening. They reinvited us for the beer and this time we accepted. Turns out these folks were from Wisconsin and they were traveling the Great Circle in the Sundancer. They introduced themselves, Tim and Jan Kraus, and we visited for quite a while. They really admired the work that Bob had done on the Sea Knight, at first believing it actually to be a restored classic. I wasn't quite sure they believed us when we told them that Bob had built it all new. Of course, they were an absolute wealth of information about the Great Circle and very enthusiastic about making the trip. I really enjoyed listening to them talk about it. Wow, that's something I'd like to do someday. I had to admit that hearing them talk of their adventures so far sure pulled at my wanderlust heart strings. And the Sundancer itself was a beautiful boat. It looked VERY comfortable and luxurious. In a moment of weakness, I could have easily bummed a ride with them at that point in time.... I had taken a photo of their boat when we went through the lock at Nickajack dam and offered to email Tim a copy. He said sure and then said: "Let me give you a boat card." He handed me a business card but on one side it had a photo of his boat and on the other, it had Jan's and his names along with mailing and email addresses. I thought this was a very good idea that we boat builder types could do for the next Gathering. I don't know why none of us had thought of that.

Later that evening, Bob and I both ran out of steam and had to hit the sack. Another first, I'd never spent the night on a boat that small. Its bobbing around in the water lulled me to sleep so fast I couldn't believe it …or maybe it was the beer. I don't know, but I slept very well and woke up Monday morning feeling very refreshed and ready to head back.

Of course, the return trip was a repeat of Sunday except for one HUGE difference. The weather had really changed. The temperature had dropped by at least 30 degrees and the wind had kicked up and whipped the water into quite a froth. The little Sea Knight pounded its way back to Nickajack dam and didn't really get any relief until we actually settled down off of plane to enter the lock. This time through the lock we were going from upriver to downriver. So we would be dropping instead of raising. Those Blue Herons I spoke of before really like to hang around the lock and dam and as the water level fell, we saw why. The gates to the lock were built with beams that formed shelves. As the water would rise, fish would find shelter in the gates and then when the water fell, the fish would get stranded on those shelves. The Blue Herons would zoom in and get a quick and easy meal. Yup, you gotta admire the entrepreneurial spirit.

Because of the colder temps, we did not remove the top and side curtains that Bob had put up the night before. It was amazing. As we made our way downriver, you could see a number of intrepid bass fishermen in their open boats trying to catch fish and convince themselves they were having fun. We had to laugh. We were so comfortable inside the cover that we were in our t-shirts. The side curtains made for an excellent solar heater.

Along the way home, we passed what looked to be a nuclear power plant. But I'd never heard of their being a nuke place around here. When we looked on the river chart, we found the spot but the chart showed it as being private property. That's all it said. That kinda spelled intrigue. So I promised to research this a little further when I got home. Sure enough, I was able to identify it as the Bellefonte Alabama Nuclear Plant. It was a TVA project back in the 80's. The TVA spent some 6 billion greenbacks on it only to shut it down before completion when there had not yet been enough progress in the area to use all the power. Now some 20 years later, the TVA has approached the government for new construction permits and is planning on putting the plant online within the next few years.

The final stage of our trip had us covering the distance to Lake Guntersville State Park in some really serious chop. The wind had really kicked up in the afternoon and Lake Guntersville was like a small ocean. A couple of the waves caught the bow and slammed the boat pretty darn hard with water washing over the deck. The little Sea Knight shrugged it off as though to say: "Is that all you've got?" What a great design and kudos to Bob for building a really excellent little boat. Inside the boat and under the cover, we both stayed dry as could be.

Once we got back to the dock, Bob and I said our goodbyes and I headed for home. I always get a little lonely on the way home. A great weekend had ended and now I had to go back to life. But I have to say that it really whetted my appetite for next year. So I'll see everybody then.

UPDATE: Thanksgiving weekend, Miss Connie and I drove down to Chattanooga to visit some friends and catch up. When we crossed Nickajack on the interstate, the place where I had always promised myself that I would one day go boating, my dream of one day boating here was replaced with pleasant thoughts of our river trip. I had gotten to do it finally and now I'm looking forward to doing it again. This has to be one of the finest boating places anywhere.