Part 1 recap: We traveled down the Illinois River, discovering along the way that our starboard engine had a problem and so were limited in how fast we could go. We left off in Alton, IL, right before joining the Mississippi River.
In Part 2, we navigate the Loop segments of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers with their heavy barge traffic and currents, then turn onto the Tennessee River. We take a short side trip up the Cumberland before returning to the Loop and the Tennessee River.
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.
Kaskaskia lock wall – Oct 13
Little Diversion Canal anchorage, MO – Oct 14
Alton was Mile Marker 0 on the Illinois River and where it joined the Mighty Mississippi River of legend and lore, where the locks are bigger to accommodate the even bigger tows/barges that travel the Mississippi. We had been moved up from the farm team and now we would be playing in the major leagues.
At the very first lock just after leaving the marina soon after dawn, we encountered our one and only problem with a stuck bollard. Fortunately, it was when we had locked down about ¾ of the way and we had to just drop the line for the last couple feet and Dave controlled the boat with the engines. All was fine, but it was a little scary and another reminder to not grow complacent.
A Note On Locks By now I had grown pretty adept at snagging the bollard pin as we approach. It helped that we had made a Looper Loop: a big loop at one end of the line that has been run through a 3’ section of stiff rubber tubing. This made it easy for me to lean over the boat rail holding the rubber section with one hand and drop the loop over the metal piece on the bollard sticking up. Makes it easier to remove also, in the reverse of putting it on and once again with just one hand.
Sitting there on deck tending the line while we lock up or down, I enjoy listening to the bollards ‘sing.’ A richly high pitched slide through a few notes, each bollard in a lock has a slightly different tone as it moves vertically on its rail. Add a rhythmic clanging in the background like a bell as the hollow metal bollard bounced in a horizontal plane against the enclosure. With 4-10 bollards in each lock, it can be a symphony. When it abates, I know the lock doors are about to open.
It was after exiting the second lock of the day (Chain of Rocks) that the record low water levels on the Mississippi became quite obvious. We never knew there were so many sand beaches lining the Mississippi – because normally there aren’t. And it isn’t sand, but rather a fine silt. Passing by the famous St. Louis Arch looked nothing like all the tourist brochure pictures because the empty exposed shoreline beneath it dominated the view. But it was a Great Loop milestone nonetheless, and made us feel like we were really making progress down the rivers when it came into view around a bend.
Downloaded from the St. Louis Arch Webcam (thanks to my sister). We are the second boat, following our buddy boat Inconceivable. It’s usually a better view with the water right at the base of the arch. Here the boats are behind the platform railing. Note the cars on the sand.
Even with record low water levels the Mississippi packed a powerful current, giving us a 2+ mph push and great fuel efficiency. This was quite welcome, as we still had the decreased capacity on our starboard engine and a very long first day on the Miss River to get to our stop at the Kaskaskia Lock wall. We weren’t actually going through this lock, the lockmaster just lets you tie up to the outside of the cement wall. It’s more like an anchorage, as you can’t go anywhere other than the wall itself, no power or water, but you’re tied to something.
We did hear from a boatyard near Mobile Bay (way at the end of the river system) that they could ‘possibly’ take us in November to look at the engine. So we spent a couple hours looking at maps, itineraries, marinas and anchorages along the way, and coming up with Plans A through G for the various ways it could all play out. We would have to do the entire river system with the gimpy engine, but the thought of a fixed engine was energizing.
From Kaskaskia, the scenery was consistent as we made our way along the 65+ miles to our anchorage at Little Diversion Canal: high bluffs with a smattering of fall color and exposed silt beaches below from the low water levels, occasional industrial areas, mostly quarries with barges off to the side being loaded with gravel amid clouds of dust, remnants of abandoned barge docking and loading areas, boat ramps ending well above the waterline. Noticeably absent were towns; for a waterway with such a central role in both past and current commerce through the heartland of America, we would have thought there would be more towns, even if struggling, like we saw on the Illinois River. Rather, the stretch of the Mississippi we traveled on over three days was pretty much all ‘working’ with no time for things like towns or homes or communities. Perhaps the river is too fickle, with droughts that make it unable to support a town long term, and floods that can sweep them away overnight.
The last hour as we approached the anchorage, we suddenly faced an onslaught of tows coming at us one right after the other. The radio was alive with chatter between them and we caught snippets about ‘they’re shutting down the river.’ It felt like a game of Frogger — and we were the frog. Apparently a tow had run aground upriver from us in the ever shallower water, and all these tows were rushing to get positioned before they shut down the river to get dredging equipment in to get it unstuck. We felt fortunate to be on the unaffected side of this. We got tucked up in our anchorage, rafted with Inconceivable, and watched the parade from safety out of the channel.
The Language of Tows There is a unique language and nomenclature on the rivers that is specific to the tows. For starters, they go by the name ‘tows’ even though it’s a tug pushing barges rather than actually having them in tow, which makes no sense. They call us pleasure craft, PCs, or we even heard a lockmaster and tow captain referring to us as ‘little fellas.’
You have to communicate with them frequently to inquire which side they would like you to pass them as you meet or overtake them. When traveling in a group like we did, the lead boat would do the communicating so not everyone would be calling them. Sometimes they would hail us first and ask us to hold back so they could get around a tight turn.
They don’t use right or left, port or starboard. It’s all about the ones and twos. You’ll hear ‘I’ll see you on the one,’ or ‘come on around on the two whistle.’ This harkens back to the days before radio, when the commercial vessels would use their steam whistle to communicate their course and intent to avoid collisions. ‘One whistle’ or ‘on the one’ means a boat is going to turn to the right, while ‘two whistles’ means they are going to veer left. It’s like when two people meet in a hallway and both try to move in the same direction at the same time, and then both in the other direction, with the resulting double step awkwardness and apologies. Tows don’t do two steps and awkwardness and apologies, they just collide. But if one person in the hall had signaled which direction they were going to move, then the other person could adjust their course and neither even breaks their stride.
How to remember if one whistle means to go right or left is the challenge and a perpetual source of discussion and angst on forums, Facebook pages and at docktails, especially at the start of fall when Loopers are starting down the river system. What we noticed, though, is that as we got further along the rivers, even Loopers started using one and two whistles when talking about passing each other, or maneuvering into a lock. Any tow captains listening must have been chuckling.
Olmstead lock anchorage, KY – Oct 15
Paducah, KY – Oct 16
Departing our anchorage the next morning, one of the first things we noticed was how many tows were ‘parked’ along the banks heading up the Mississippi. Apparently the river further north was still closed, so all the tows had to wait. How does a tow park? They just gently nose the lead barge up onto a shallow are or against a bank at an angle just off parallel to the shore and leave the engines running to keep them there. So basically only the bow of the first barge is aground, and the tug and everything else is floating. When they are ready to leave, they just back up and pull everything back into the deeper water of the channel. The good news for us is that there was very little actual moving traffic as we continued downriver.
The push of the Mississippi continued helping us make good time, and we turned off the Mississippi to head up the Ohio. Where these two meet is the very high traffic barge ‘fleeting area’ of Cairo, IL and we had to make a left turn across traffic. A very helpful tow captain instructed us on where to turn to get between him and the tow he was behind, and we made as much of a dash as we could with Inconceivable right on our tail. Turning up the Ohio we now were going against the current and our speed immediately dropped from 9 knots to 5.5. Without the ability to increase our starboard engine power, it was a slog into heavy commercial traffic all afternoon.
With the turn, we were now in Kentucky. The lower Ohio River was equally affected by the drought, and the low water levels were obvious. Perhaps because it was such a big fleeting area with a high density of barges, but we saw so many high and dry barges and tugs on either bank that it had the feel of a post-climate apocalypse movie. It was quite eerie.
Arriving at Olmsted Lock, we decided to call it a day and anchored right before the lock. Inconceivable had guests aboard for the week, and since they could move faster they decided to lock through and continue on to Paducah. We dinghied over to the big sandy beach (that is not normally there) and Roxy got to run around and roll in the sand. Three other Loopers joined us a little later at the anchorage, and our reward for stopping there was a beautiful sunset.
All four boats headed straight into the lock from the anchorage the next morning to start the short trip to Paducah. Upon exiting, the river current was much less but even more noticeable was the water levels being normal, with lush tree-lined banks, no sand/silt beaches, and an absence of beached barges. This is because they can control the water or ‘pool’ level between locks by how much water they release over the dam.
Paducah was one of our favorite stops. It’s a ‘walled city’ because after river flooding in 1937 wiped out the town, they built a 14’ flood wall that extends over 12 miles around the city. Then they painted beautiful murals depicted the town’s history on the cement panels. Their other claim to fame is the National Quilt Museum that shows how quilts can be an art form. It’s not big, but they change out the quilts frequently from the thousand they have so it’s different every few weeks. The town also has big Halloween/Fall festivities every Saturday in October. We arrived on a Sunday afternoon so only saw all the decorations, once again the Masters of Bad Timing.
A major cold front came through and Dave had to put space heaters in exposed compartments on the boat for the overnight hard freeze. We also did a lot of rocking and bouncing as the winds picked up and slapped the hull broadside at the dock. We need to get south!
Grand Rivers, KY – Oct 18
Normally there are two ways to get to Grand Rivers from Paducah. We had to take the Tennessee River to the high commercial traffic Kentucky Lock because the alternative lock was closed for maintenance. We set out at dawn on a very cold morning. Two other Loopers that left with us arrived at the lock about 30 min ahead of us and entered the lock 15 minutes later. Then something amazing happened: the lockmaster saw that we were coming and held the lock for us! When they said they would wait, Dave shut down the starboard engine so he could pick up a little more speed by running on just the fully-capable port engine for the short distance. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were! Not sure the other two boats were thrilled to have to wait, but it was only about 15 minutes. As we left the lock, we passed a 15 barge tow waiting on the other side, which meant it would have been about a 3 hour wait if we had missed the lock. I would have sent that lockmaster a batch of brownies in gratitude for waiting for us if I could.
Green Turtle Bay Marina in Grand Rivers is a large marina and Looper haven. At the junction of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, it marks the end of the ‘big rivers’ and is a great place to take a respite or jump off to a side trip up the Cumberland River to Nashville. We were here just one night, then returned for a longer stay after we did the Cumberland.
Side trip on the Cumberland River
Cadiz, KY -- Oct 19
Clarksville, TN -- Oct 20-22
Dover Island anchorage, TN -- Oct 23
Grand Rivers, KY -- Oct 24-25
Although we were eager to get to Mobile Bay to get the boat engine fixed, we had to balance that with not getting there too soon because it was still hurricane season and Mobile Bay is a member of the Hurricane of the Month Club. So we decided to go ahead and take a week to cruise up the Cumberland to Nashville. It was a very pretty trip, with fall colors at their peak even if a little muted because of the long-standing drought. It was going to be cold the first two nights, which meant we couldn’t anchor out because we wouldn’t have heat (we prefer not to run the generator while we sleep for lots of reasons). The first night was at a KOA campground that also had a marina. Was a little weird walking among campers and thinking how just a couple seasons ago that could have been us. Who knew, right?
The second stop was Clarksville, TN. On the way there, we had a call from the dockmaster at the marina near Nashville we had reserved. The Corps of Engineers had been lowering the water levels on the Cumberland to send it down to the lower Mississippi and help out the commercial traffic, and a Looper in the marina and now was trapped because they had lowered it more overnight and couldn’t get out. He thought we would be okay with our 3.5’ draft, but ‘thought’ was not reassuring. Ultimately we decided that it wasn’t worth the risk, and instead we stayed in Clarksville an extra day and dinghied the mile to the town docks twice to enjoy all it had to offer. It was nice to have some downtime, and I even got a haircut finally!
We looked forward to anchoring at Dover Island on the way back because it had a large population of armadillos. But did a single one put in an appearance that day? Nope! Quite disappointing. But we did have of the most spectacular sunsets we’ve seen on the Loop, so we count that as a win.
Back at Green Turtle Bay Marina, we used the time to prep for the rest of the rivers segment. We also did the gotta-do Patti’s 1880 Settlement for dinner one night. It’s a great story about a family that started with a six-room motel after losing everything in the 1972 Sylmar earthquake in California and developed it into this huge restaurant complex with shops and activities. They were already totally decked out for their big Xmas extravaganza, while I was still anticipating Halloween.
From Green Turtle Bay, we are now back on The Loop with the masses. The last third will be all the way to Mobile Bay along the Tennessee and Tombigbee Rivers. There will be some long days, several anchorages, and or course more locks. The starboard engine is holding up well, with oil pressure rock stable as long as we keep it below about 1700 rpms. The days are noticeably shorter, and we will be doing some sunrise to near sunset travel legs. We miss Inconceivable, as they have had to slow their roll like many due to insurance requirements about how far south they can be before hurricane season is over while we’ve stepped up our itinerary in order to get to the boatyard. But we’ll be loop-frogging with a new cadre of Loopers, and catching up with some we met months ago.
We’ll see y’all on the one.
Pops’ Stats Corner*
- No of Days: 13
- Travel Days: 9
- Miles Traveled: 474.1 ( 412.3 nm)
- Anchorages: 4
- Locks: 4
- New States Visited: 3
- Armadillos seen: 0
Cumulative Great Loop
- Started March 17, 2022 in St. Augustine, FL
- Travel Days: 98
- Miles Traveled: 4099.1 ( 3564.2 nm)
- Anchorages: 14
- Locks: 129
- States Visited: 17
- 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.