The Inland Rivers segment of the The Great Loop starts with the Chicago Lock and driving the boat right through the heart of the city. It’s a whole new way of cruising and a rigorous schedule with travel almost every day. Cold temps chase us, but we get to enjoy the fall colors along the upper rivers. Oh yeah – and just when we get in the swing of river cruising, a troubled starboard engine adds a ‘deja vu all over again’ wrinkle.
Click the Google Map button below to open the map in a separate window. There you can zoom in/out, and click on the icons to see pictures and more info on the various places along our route.
On to river cruising, something quite different from anything we had done before. Starting in Chicago we would be traveling down the Heartland’s major rivers: the Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Tombigbee. Some of them we go down with a nice push from the current, and some we were go up against the current. There are locks. Lots of locks. Big locks. There are tows (tugs plus their barge load). Lots of tows. Big tows. And we would be trading the stress of intensely watching the weather for the stress of intensely watching for logs, snags, and debris in our path.
Through downtown Chicago
Oct 4, 2022
The Chicago Lock marked the transition from Lake Michigan onto the Illinois River. When the doors opened, we were right in downtown and passing under the famous Lakeshore Drive. It was quite exciting to drive our own boat right through the heart of Chicago, something totally unique to doing The Great Loop. Surrounded by skyscrapers on both sides, we cruised underneath the many Chicago bridges full of rush hour commuters on foot to the background sounds of an awakening city on a weekday morning. This definitely goes on the list of Most Amazing Experiences on The Loop.
The Illinois River
Once past the last architectural wonder of Chicago, the view quickly turned industrial with the vestiges of the old railroad centers hinting at the glory days of Chicago as an epicenter of commerce. We started seeing more and more tugs maneuvering barges to be loaded with gravel, concrete and even mulch (my favorite, because it always smelled so good). The river was narrow through here, and it was an intense morning for Dave trying to anticipate all that was going on. This part of cruising down the rivers was a completely new experience even for him, and the close quarters at the start of the Illinois was a trial by fire. We were the lead boat of three Loopers, and I think the other two were very happy to have Dave as the point man. As the day progressed, the scenery was at times plain ugly and depressing, and we started wondering if this was what we had in store for the weeks ahead. (It was not, but we just had a moment there.)
We only covered about 40 miles that first day, but it took almost nine hours because of delays at locks and the one bridge we had to have raised. This is one of the things that makes the Inland Rivers leg of The Loop challenging: you never know what will happen at a lock. As ‘pleasure craft’ we are the lowest priority, as the locks were designed and are maintained and operated by the Army Corps of Engineers for economic/commercial support. We do get to use them for free courtesy of taxpayer dollars, so there’s that. But it means we have to wait for the tows, and each one can take 1-3 hours depending on how many barges they are pushing. We waited a little over an hour for the Lockport Lock at the end of our first day. By ‘waiting,’ I mean trying to stay in one place and not drift into your fellow boats or other things, which can be challenging depending on wind and current.
We stayed on the Joliet wall with our first night on the rivers. This is an infamous Looper stop because there have been a few cases over the years – most recently last year – where someone has untied boat lines in the middle of the night. Definitely a scary thought, so everyone was a little jittery. Two separate police cars stopped by that evening, and I think the town was really making an effort to make us feel safe. After all hands helping with an after-dark arrival of a few boats that had been delayed for hours at the lock, we had eight boats on the wall for an uneventful night.
Illinois River Locks — There are eight locks we would be going through on the Illinois River, all going down. Most had us use their lines rather than own, at bow and stern. A lock worker hands you the line, which you loop around a cleat and pay out as you lock down. The lines are kind of grimy from all the use, but more concerning was that they always seemed a bit short for the distance we would be descending. I had a mental image of dangling in mid air, one hand holding the knotted end of the line, the other holding the top boat railing. Fortunately, it never came to that.
Two of the locks had floating bollards, large metal barrels recessed into the lock wall with a stovepipe-looking thing sticking out of the called a timberhead. You loop a single line around the timberhead and back to a cleat mid ship on boat. As the water level changes, the bollard moves with it and thus so do you without having to worry about paying out the line. Bollards do rarely get stuck for a variety of reasons, which can be dangerous if you’re not paying attention so you can drop the line or even cut it should the tension on it get too great. Which is why the line tender – in our case yours truly – should always be right there and have a sharp knife at the ready. I was never quite sure which was more risky – the bollard getting stuck, or me accidentally stabbing myself with the knife.
Looper Flotilla-style Locking — Day 2 was our longest day. We started as a group of eight boats at sunrise, and would go through three locks together; we call it a Looper Flotilla, although not ever boat is a Looper. This would be the standard for almost all the locks: talk with others in your marina or anchorage, pick a departure time, perhaps add a couple other boats at the first lock, and then travel together the rest of the day. Because the locks were designed for the big commercial tows, they could hold a lot of smaller boats in one locking and they wanted to do the pleasure craft as a group. This means, of course, that the day’s travel would only be as fast as the slowest boat, which was typically about 8 mph. There were the speedsters that wanted to charge out of the lock and race ahead, but almost always we would find them waiting at the next lock when the main group arrived. But 8 mph is actually about as fast as we wanted to go on the river anyway in order to enjoy the scenery and avoid debris and oncoming tows.
Brandon Lock was shortly after leaving Joliet, and we all drifted around for an hour there avoiding each other. At the Dresden Lock, we were told it would be a couple hours and 20 min later the lockmaster was calling us in with a lone waiting tug (no attached barges). This lock had a few floating bollards and they rafted the pleasure craft four deep off two of them, with the biggest two boats on the bollard. We were the second boat from the wall in our raft, with the inside boat being a large expensive cruiser with delivery crew (paid crew hired to move the boat south for the winter). As we were locking down, we noted the whole raft behind us drifting away from the wall. The line to the bollard had somehow come undone, and there was no one tending the line to notice. The lock workers and the delivery captain next to us are yelling to get on the bow thruster to push them back toward the wall as they scrambled unsuccessfully to toss a line back around the bollard. I’m not sure the other boats in the raft were even aware of what was happening. But the first boat finally managed to swing the raft back around and reattach a line to the bollard. But that could have been disastrous, a whole raft of boats bouncing off the walls and other boats in the lock — and why you always have someone watching the line.
Then there was the final Marseilles Lock. We all dropped anchor off to the side and settled in for a long wait as there were two tows ahead of us. It got shallow very quickly, as evidenced by the heron that was standing in the water about 50 ft from us. One boat ventured in just a little too far, and when he dropped his anchor it hit the water with a THUNK and the shank was visible above water. He must have dropped right on a shelf, as he was able to back up a bit to deeper water.
The tow we were waiting on required a double lock. If the barge is too big to get all of it in at a time, they put as many barges in as they can, disconnect them from the back half, lock through the first half and pull it forward, go back and do the rest and the tug. Once the doors open, they then have to hook the barge all back together. It can take 1.5 – 2+ hours. As the tow finally exited past us, it stirred up all the Asian carp and dozens of them were jumping all around us in his wake. It was a sight; unfortunately I wasn’t fast enough with the camera.
It was a race to get to the nearby marina in Ottawa IL before total darkness. We were all pretty tired from the sunup to sundown travel day even though we’d only moved 40 miles. We stayed an extra day to recover and get some life maintenance things done, such as laundry and a grocery run with the marina courtesy car.
Then came our biggest challenge for the whole River system: the starboard engine was not maintaining oil pressure. This was fortunately not a catastrophic drop like what happened almost exactly a year ago on the port engine — but it was a bit of deja vu — and we were able to continue on using just the port engine for the day. Good thing we have a spare. We really didn’t have any options, as there are very few marinas anywhere along the river much less boatyards. Over the next few days, Dave did all he could – which is actually a lot — but nothing worked. Ultimately he determined we could use the engine as long as we kept the RPMs low, which meant we had become a slow trawler. In reality, we really weren’t planning on going any faster than that anyway, and there are lots of slow trawlers on the Loop. But it would have come in handy to have just that couple extra knots of capability when passing tows or trying to get somewhere before dark. And there’s just something about not having a thing that was promised that just sticks in your craw.
As far north as we were, the cold weather was right behind us and we had no choice but to keep going south. But we traveled with a gray cloud of worry hanging over us until we could get to a major boatyard all the way in the Gulf. and embarked on an effort to find a place that could take us down there in a month, knowing from past experience how difficult it can be to find an available mechanic. It’s not quite the same as dropping your car off at the dealer for service.
So onward we continued. The route became much more scenic with fall colors and natural beauty. We stayed in a yacht club in Peoria that welcomes Loopers with open arms. The next two nights were at lovely anchorages (Bath Chute and Willow Island) where we acquired two new skills. The first was deploying both a bow and stern anchor to keep us from swinging in the narrow area. It actually went pretty well, but it did make for twice the muddy mess for me to clean up when we weighed anchor(s) in the morning.
The second new skill was all Dave’s: getting Roxy to shore at anchorages. These were remote little inlets and water levels were low, making the banks muddy, steep, overgrown, or a combination of those. He developed quite a technique of pushing off and laying on the inflatable part of the dinghy to kick his feet in the water in an attempt to get the mud off. Made me laugh every time.
Grafton appeared to be a big summer destination town, with lots of inns and guest houses. Now that we were well into fall, most were unoccupied and the town had that post-peak season feel with the collection of Loopers at the marina the seeming hot spot. But they were into Halloween, and we saw some very clever decorating.
The fall colors were in full display on the bluffs during the short trip from Grafton to Alton. Mother Nature had carved out her own ‘wingdams’ over the millenia, and the white cliffs undulating out rom the hillside were interspersed with some of the best fall colors we had seen.
Alton marked the end of the Illinois River and was just an overnight for us, but we did walk to the area off town near the marina. It looked like another struggling riverfront town, past its glory days of industry. But there were bright spots of character. It, too, seemed to be in that weird time of the year past the summer peak season and before all the holiday hoopla, and being there on a Wednesday meant not much was open.
When we leave Alton and pass through the nearby Melvin Price Lock, we will be on the Mighty Mississippi River, then the Ohio. Both of these are going to make the Illinois look like a training run, and now the training wheels come off. The tows will be bigger and more frequent, the currents stronger, the locks bigger. The distances traveled each day will be longer with fewer towns. We’ve been checking the engine oil pressure and temperature reading every 15 min, it’s been rock stable, yet there is still the worry that something will give and we will lose the engine altogether. But this is part of the adventure of doing The Loop – getting over the speed bumps. In this case, both a literal and a metaphorical speed bump.
So we continue on at a slow roll down the rivers toward Mobile. On the bright side, we will be saving a ton of money in fuel efficiency. Our new motto: slow and steady and enjoying the scenery.
Pops’ Stats Corner*
- No of Days: 9
- Travel Days: 7
- Miles Traveled: 346.4 (301.2 nm)
- Locks: 9
- Anchorages: 2
- New States Visited: 0
Cumulative Great Loop
- Started March 17, 2022 in St. Augustine, FL
- Travel Days: 97
- Miles Traveled: 3627.4 sm (3154 nm)
- Locks: 125
- Anchorages: 10
- States Visited: 14
- Provinces Visited: 2
*Pops is what the family affectionately called Dave’s dad. He had a mind for sports statistics, earning him the nickname Numbers from the coaches of several Stillwater teams with whom he worked. This regular section of the blog is in his honor, because it’s the kind of thing he would love.