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In Your Words

In My Own Words: Barging Down The River
By Martha Bier
May 3, 2007, 22:40

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River Barge River Explorer anchored at Nashville, Tenn, before departure. Martha Bier Photo
We have all heard about cruising the high seas on the luxurious ships and about the trips on the rivers of Europe.  I would like to share with you a unique river excursion that my husband and I took right here in the U.S.  We cruised by river barge from Nashville to St. Louis aboard the R/B River Explorer.   This vessel is owned by Riverbarge Excursion Lines of New Orleans. 

Our journey began in Nashville, where we found our barge moored on the Cumberland River in the heart of downtown.  We were able to check in at noon.  As this vessel has a smaller passenger compliment, the person who helps with your luggage immediately takes it to your stateroom.  Since we were not allowed access to our cabin until 3 p.m., we were offered a light lunch and then a shuttle to take us to nearby Nashville attractions.  In fact, as we were right downtown, we were across the street from the famous Wild Horse Saloon and next to the Riverfront Park that includes old Ft. Nashboro, dating from the 1700s.

Once back on the barge, we still had time to explore it before we were allowed to go to our cabin.  The vessel is actually three vessels in one:  there are two barges and a tow (tug) boat.  The forward barge, the DeSoto, contains the public rooms on two decks.  This includes the Galley (dining room), the Purser’s Lobby (a great gathering place), the Guest Pilot House, the Crevasse Bar, the library/card room, and the Sprague show room.  The Sky Deck, which is open on both barges, tops off the vessel with lounge chairs, jogging oval, exercise room, two whirlpools, another bar, and access to the Pilot House.


The second barge is the LaSalle, with its two lower decks being comprised of 98 cabins, or staterooms.  I use the term stateroom here, as this is a good time to explain the background of this term.  Riverboats name their cabins for each of the states, in the order they joined the Union, ergo….staterooms.  Each stateroom on the R/B River Explorer is 200 square feet and has plenty of closet and storage space, TV, VCR, mini-fridge and a private bathroom, with bathtub.  The cabins on the lower deck have picture windows, while the upper deck cabins also have very small balconies.


Once settled in our stateroom, it was time for supper.  (Note that on the river, “lunch” is called “dinner” and “dinner” is called “supper.”)  All mealtimes onboard were very relaxed.  Breakfast and dinner were buffets.  Supper was served, with a choice of several entrees.  All meals were casual and have open seating, meaning you could eat between certain hours and sit anywhere you liked.  Casual also means that you can wear shorts to supper!  It was interesting to meet people from all over the U.S.  Among the 161 passengers on board, 35 states were represented.  Aside from mealtime, food is always available by “raiding the fridge”, checking out the “endless” cookie jar, or helping yourself to complimentary beverages, including soft drinks and cappuccino.


After dinner there was entertainment in the Sprague—a band from Nashville that played Golden Oldies and requests.  They were quite entertaining and the audience joined right in and sang along.


On day two, the barge was scheduled to leave Nashville at 6 a.m., so we were out on the Sky Deck to witness the event.  The whistle blew and away we went, down the river—in reverse!  The sun was just coming up and it was very pleasant.  We watched the railroad bridge swing open for us and we continued down river for a couple of miles until we came to a widening in the river, so that we could turn around.  A small towboat came out to assist us.  What a maneuver!  The river was just wide enough for the 730-foot barge.


Once we were moving forward, we went down one deck to the bow of the vessel.  This is where the Guest Pilot House is located.  This is our favorite place on the barge.  The large picture windows let you enjoy the river in air- conditioned comfort.  There are charts of the river, live radar and the Captain’s radio is on so we could hear him talking to bridge masters and other river vessels.  At mid-morning we had to take a break from river watching to attend an introductory seminar and safety lecture.  After the general introductions, the subject of safety was discussed.  The barges act as their own lifeboats; if there is a problem on one barge, passengers are directed to the other.  Life jackets are stored on each barge on the Sky Deck for easy access.


Right on time, noon, we approached Cheatham Lock and Dam.  We had a front-row view of the lock access and heard the Captain talking to his assistants at the fore and aft of the barge, as well as the Lock Master.  Our vessel filled the lock, with only feet to spare, all around.  After a 25-foot drop, we continued down river once more.  After dinner, we went to the Pilot House, located atop the LaSalle barge, one flight up from the Sky Deck.  The Pilot House is accessible to guests most of the time.  The Captain welcomed us in and once he learned that we were boaters, explained all of his navigation and piloting equipment and procedures.  The most important thing that we noted was his need to anticipate what was waiting for him down river.  His steering is done with two throttles that tell him in degrees how far he is turning.  He told us to come back any time.


In the afternoon, we attended a lecture from a man who had written a guidebook about the Cumberland River.  He talked about some of his experiences on the river and gave us some landmarks to watch for.  We then returned to the Guest Pilot House to watch our approach to Clarksville, TN.  We pulled up to our mooring at 3 p.m. and watched the mates secure the barge to shore. It was done with a shackle system, which proved to be quite efficient.  The mooring spot was at a city park, with a small museum of local history.


The River Boat River Explorer enters Cheatham Lock on the Cumberland River. Martha Bier Photo
That night there was entertainment on shore.  A bluegrass band played with the barge as a backdrop.  It was a fun evening, with the local beauty queen emceeing the event…she was dressed in jeans, T-shirt and rhinestone tiara!  The next morning, day three, started with a motor coach trip to Collinsville, TN.  The destination was a living history museum, similar to Cracker Country.  That afternoon we pulled away from Clarksville and headed down river.  Aside from the ice cream social, we sat on the Sky Deck and watched the river all afternoon.  This is SO relaxing!  Soon the river began to widen, with many islands and tributaries.  We passed 1000-foot smoke stacks at the Cumberland Power Plant and Dover, KY, where a civil war battle took place.  Just before dark we passed the bridge at “Devil’s Elbow,” watching our Captain navigate the area well.  Since we were moving at night for the first time, it was hard to tear ourselves away to go and listen to the banjo player!


After mooring for the night at a Federal Mooring Buoy in Lake Barkley, we began day four by continuing up river to the Barkley Lock and Dam.  Once again, our vessel just fit the length of the lock.  This time we dropped some 55 feet before exiting the lock.  After that, the river narrowed.  We had another river lecture from our expert and a film relating the history of Paducah was shown.  After some high-jinx on the river (who anchors to fish in the middle of a working river?) we entered the Ohio River at Smithfield, KY, where people came out to wave us on.  There we saw a way station that had housed famous people from Lafayette to Clara Barton.  Once on the Ohio River, it was a short trip to Paducah, KY.  We had a couple of hours to begin our exploration of Paducah, with passes to visit several museums, including the Museum of the American Quilters’ Society.  Downtown Paducah has been restored and there were many interesting buildings.  Along the floodwall there were beautiful murals depicting Paducah’s history.  After dinner we returned to shore for a performance by the Paducah Jazz Ensemble.


Day five started with a few hours to continue our Paducah visit.  While we were still there, we had the opportunity to tour the Miss Nari, our towboat.  We learned the history of this craft, as well as some interesting facts about towboats in general.  We toured the first level that included the crew’s mess, galley and engine room.  The Chief Engineer explained the towboat’s mechanics, as well as boasted of its unique propellers.  Once we left Paducah, we were again heading down the Ohio River.  This river had a completely different “feel” than the Cumberland.  There was heavier traffic, with many barges going past us.  The water was high, so we were able to navigate right over two dams and not have to use the locks.  Right before supper we reached the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers at Cairo, IL.  We turned onto the Mississippi River and enjoyed a special BBQ dinner on the Sky Deck.  Later, forgoing the passenger talent show, we returned to the Guest Pilot House.  As it got dark, we witnessed nighttime navigation.  A giant searchlight found the marker buoys.  Then the light would follow the shoreline.  Barge traffic was heavy and we had to slow to a near stop to allow towboats pushing up to 30 barges each to pass.  After being mesmerized by all of this, we tore ourselves away to get some sleep.


When we woke up on day six, we found that we were already moored in Cape Girardeau, MO.  There was plenty of time to take the motor coach tour of the city, including several stops.  Again, there was a quaint downtown for exploration.  Cape Girardeau is an interesting place and is the only inland “cape” in the U.S.  There is a lot of history there, including being the birthplace of Rush Limbaugh.  We were back on board in time for dinner and left soon thereafter.  The afternoon and evening were spent cruising up the Mississippi River.


That evening, the entertainment was a jazz ensemble.  As they played, we pulled out of the main channel and stopped at a temporary mooring on the Illinois side of the river.  When the band finished playing, they disembarked at this remote spot.  Their vehicles were waiting for them…in the dark…in the middle of nowhere!  We watched the barge pull away from the rocks and continue upriver.  It was a darker night and we noted the concern of the Captain as he searched for marker buoys.


The River Boat River Explorer goes through the Eads Bridge in St. Louis, Mo. Photo courtesy of RiverBarge Excursion Lines
On day seven we continued upriver and watched our approach to St. Louis.  We first spotted the Arch when we were 15 miles down river.  Barge traffic was light so we arrived at the Arch, where we moored ahead of schedule.  The mooring process along the river is interesting to watch.  The “lucky” deck hand gets to go down an aluminum ladder into the river—hopefully only a few steps from shore.  Some shores have large rocks; some were concrete ramps.  Lines from the vessel are thrown to the barge hand, who has to drag them to the shackles.


After dinner we went to the Gateway Arch.  What a marvel of engineering!  The entrance is below ground.  We got our tickets to take the tram to the top of the arch.  While we waited our turn, we had the opportunity to see the Museum of Western Expansion.  It has wonderful exhibits depicting the explorers and settlers west of the Mississippi.  The trip up the arch was interesting.  In small cars that hold five people, we rode up 630 feet to the top of the arch.  Through small windows we could see the city and river below.  The Arch sits in a beautiful park along the riverfront.  The buildings of downtown St. Louis provide a great background.


On our last evening onboard we were treated to a wonderful concert by a local popular pianist.  After the show we went up to the Sky Deck to watch the flood lights light up the Arch.


On day eight, we were up early and said our “goodbyes” to the barge, its crew and fellow passengers.  On our way to the airport we were given a motor coach tour of St. Louis, including its magnificent Cathedral with an interior completely covered in mosaic tiles.


We had spent a full week on “River Time,” not keeping schedules, just enjoying our vessel and its surroundings.  There were no worries as everything was included in the price, from soft drinks (and the endless cookie jar!), to tours, to tips for the all–American crew.   Before we left the barge we were told that we were now “Barge Mates” and a part of the family.  We can’t wait for our next reunion!


Bier is planning another river excursion in July.  For information, contact her at (813) 634-8163 or TravelwithMartha@aol.com. “In Your Words” is an occasional series of stories submitted by readers.


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