Camp-cruisers, Coyotes, Islands, and Herons

by David Wilson

Yep, did it again. Took another short river voyage, to check out things on newest conversion of MonArk model 1860 jon boat for camp-cruising. Launching the boat at Bledsoe Creek State Park dock on Monday, Oct 11th, I motored slowly out of the creek and pointed Riverbird's bow upstream on the Cumberland River, CRM 248.5. The beauty of this river never ceases to amaze me. The emerald green of the water mixes well with the battleship gray of its bluffs and the changing colors of the trees at this time of year.

I began to record mile markers and times at Cunningham Island day beacon 250.3. Uncertainty about how the aluminum bow covering would affect boat handling at plaining speed required numerous trim adjustments. The rake of the bow covering was designed to compensate for the lift it generated by acting as an airfoil. Not enough rake could result in going airborne. Too much rake could force the bow down, creating more hull drag. Calculation of speed and gas mileage indicated to me that it must have been at about the right angle, since both parameters increased significantly over previous MonArk cabin configurations. Using an alarm clock with no second hand, and including a few stops to remove sticks and leaves from the engines lower unit, the average speed was 21 mph. Gas consumption averaged slightly over 7 mpg.

But enough of the mundane tech talk! I continued recording mile marker arrival times all the way upriver to Cotton Bar CRM 283, about 5 miles above the Hartsville highway bridge. River bars (islands) are different in many respects; size - this one is about one tenth of a mile long, amount of debris stacked up at the head, depths and debris of inside channel, length and depth of underwater portion at the foot, currents, etc ... on some Mississippi River islands there be bears!! Circling it slowly, I dodged floating logs and debris and crisscrossed the foot several times to find its location and depth. I decided to make anchor at the foot of the island, noting that huge tree stumps were just barely beneath the surface for some distance out.

The plan was to anchor far enough from both the island and mainland shore to allow the boat to swing 360 degrees without becoming entangled in overhanging tree limbs or submerged stumps. Knowing that the river at this location could fluctuate a couple of feet when the generators at upstream dams were turned on, and checking the bank mud line, I finally dropped anchor in about 5 feet of water, and let out about 30 feet of rode. With calm winds predicted, I thought this would hold it. About 30 minutes later, I noticed the current had picked up considerably, and was going upstream instead of downstream! I was in an eddy formed by the river current produced by generators at Center Hill Dam and/or Cordell Hull Dam. Sure enough, during the evening, the generators switched off, and slack water returned.

After closing all fuel tank vents, I heated up a can of chili on the propane camp stove for supper. The view from the cabin cot was spectacular, even without a full moon. I could look up and see stars and occasional aircraft lights, as well as looking aft to see the river stretching for a mile and a half, clear to the Old Lock Six wall. Night on the river brings many strange and unfamiliar sounds, and this night was no exception. Great Blue Herons were squawking and fussing over favorite perches for the night. Night herons and bullfrogs added to the mounting chorus of fish jumping after baitfish near the banks. The sounds from cars and trucks of working folks echoed for miles as they crossed the bridge downstream. As the night wore on, cows, mules and other livestock occasionally joined in, dogs began to bark, normally at first, but with a subtle difference later on.

About 10:30, I heard the first of many coyote howls. A pack was running along the river bank closest to the island and their sounds were very loud and distinct. Soon another pack further off joined in. The night became a howling madness! As more and more packs, now on both banks added their high pitched music, I would easily estimate more than a hundred animals. This continued for five or ten minutes it seemed. Soon after, I heard several shots from what sounded like a black powder musket or a shotgun from about a half mile away. Twice more that night the concert began and the shrill cries filled the air. I always have trouble going to sleep the first night of a boat trip, but these guys and worry about the anchor holding made it twice as hard.

It was partly cloudy the next morning and the weather report said to expect showers with possible thunder storms that evening. When I heard the first bird sing, it was time to rise and shine. Breakfast of two oatmeal packets in boiling water, and two cups of hot coffee brought me fully awake. After stowing the sleeping gear and cot away and a doing a little housekeeping, it was time to leave this beautiful spot and head back downriver. Motoring slowly to Old Lock Six, about 500 feet past it along the right descending bank I stopped engine and anchored the boat. Ten feet from the bow was the simple 2 foot wide by 16 feet long bank walkway/dock built in the early 1990's by yours truly. When our family owned the camp, I was always amazed each late spring to see the walkway appear again, as the water level returned to normal. To see it now, after the 200 year flooding of Spring 2010, was truly amazing. When I build a boat dock, you'll never need another one! While anchored there, I used the boat horn twice to try and alert anyone in the cabin or at the house next door, to no avail. Soon after, I left this hallowed place and motored onward.

When the boat reached plaining speed, I quickly noticed the chill in the wind blowing through the open cabin door. The door works much like that of a sailboat, with two tapered overlapping sections, and a small locking section at the top. First I tried only the solid bottom half section. It didn't seem to slow the wind flow at all, so I added the window section. This was near perfect, but still too much air entering the 5 inch high gap at the top. I added this problem to my "things to correct quickly" list, since winter is around the corner in Tennessee. Other items on the list included the cot, which stretched too far under my weight that night and caused the edge of the boat's middle seat to gouge uncomfortably. Another item was the anchor light. The panel toggle switches have lights in them, which stay on as long as that circuit is active, and after checking the lights heat output I knew it was drawing more electricity than the anchor light itself, and the anchor light stays on all night! I chose to use only one boat battery, with plenty of starting power and also a lot of reserve capacity. The panel toggle switches are great unless they are required to be on continuously when the boat motor is off and not charging.

Motoring downriver at trawler speed is a great way to travel. You miss nothing as you move along, your wake is minimal, and the constant sound does not startle river life as you pass through their domain. The next night's destination was a small cove behind the large sized Cunningham Island CRM 250.7. An Osprey flew over the cove as I pulled in. This time the anchoring was no problem at all, and I dropped it in about 11 feet of water and let out 50 feet of rode. The bottom here was soft mud, and the anchor raising next morning took some doing to pry it from the suction grip of the mud. The boat could probably have ridden out a tornado in this cove!

The cove was very active with fish chasing schools of small shad, and with an over abundance of the "big bird" Great Blue Herons. I really wish I had brought my fishing pole to this place! As predicted, rain showers moved in, and I needed to drop the aft tarp over the motors and check its water tightness. A small trickle of water was draining into the boat at the bottom corners, but not enough to merit the fix-it list. I deliberately did not use the tarps at the bow, just to see how much water would accumulate at the transom low point. In a light rain, the window section of the front door is not really necessary, due to the cabin roof overhang and the aluminum bow cover. The showers were of the light variety, and sponging up the water at the transom was no problem. However, when a small storm moved through, with attention-getting lightning, and strong gusts of wind, I positioned myself on the wood floor between the seats and kept away from any metal, just in case! No leaks were detected at the side windows, which slide fore and aft to open and close. The port and starboard bow windows are completely removable, but must be in place when raining. I noticed plenty of air flow through the open front door and side windows when the boat is in motion, and saw no need to remove these windows.

After supper, housecleaning, and setting up the sleeping cot, I checked the marine radio weather channel again. Then I found a local radio station for music and news on the AM-FM portable I always carry on overnight trips. There was no need to use the mosquito netting tonight. The Velcro had held it in place perfectly the night before. Later on, all was quiet on the boat, but noisy as @x/-!!z outside the boat. The herons in this cove were not just fussing they were fighting over perches for the night. After listening for a while, I am convinced a recording of the sounds and a video of which bird was making it and why would reveal a heron's dirty word language! These birds appear to be large, bumbling, and maybe stupid, but I don't think so. They seemed to be making angry passes close to the boat, realizing it was an intruder, and trying to chase me out of there!

The next morning I motored slowly the eleven miles back to the boat ramp. Two bass fisherman and one commercial fisherman were at work doing what they love, just as I was this day.

Dave Wilson

        -- Riverbird at Bledsoe Creek Dock

        -- Indestructible walkway/dock

        -- Colors in the Cunningham Island cove

        -- Fair Headland ... downbound approach to Gallatin Steam Plant

        -- Riverbird aft view