Sunday, September 23, 2012

Rollin’ on the Rivers – Mississippi, Ohio and Cumberland

September 6-9, 2012

These four days will not go into our memory book as our favorite part of the trip, but it wasn’t the worst, either.  (New Jersey still tops the list of candidates for that honor.) This is a challenging section of the Loop. It covers 218 miles on the Mississippi, 58 miles on the Ohio, and 32 miles on the Cumberland. In that 308-mile stretch, there are two places to get diesel (and one of those you need to call 24-hours in advance) and only one marina. The lack of marinas means some anchoring out is necessary, on rivers with few secure inlets, fast currents and LOTS of barge traffic.  Anchoring was made even more difficult this year because water levels are so low.  Many of the traditional Looper anchorages are inaccessible due to shallow water.  Once again, we were so happy with our fast trawler that allowed us to pick up speed – especially going downriver on the Mississippi – so that we only had to anchor out one night. That made for some pretty long days, but an easier trip than experienced by most of our fellow Loopers, going half our speed.  We were also luckier than many with comparatively light barge traffic and relatively short waits at locks. In other words, our trip on the rivers was probably about as pleasant as it’s going to get, but that’s not saying much.

The start of our trip on the Mississippi was very attractive, with high bluffs lining the Illinois side of the river just below Grafton.


This is where the Mississippi (left) and Illinois (right) meet.


Soon we came to Alton with its pretty bridge and the interesting juxtaposition of casino and grain elevators. Just past the bridge is the Mel Price Lock, one of only two locks we would have to go through on the Mississippi.

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The next lock was Chain of Rocks (you might be able to guess from the name why they needed to build a canal and lock to by-pass the river there.) It’s not often you get the benefit of large “road signs” like this on the waterways!


The Chain of Rocks canal rejoins the Mississippi just above St. Louis, and there is a lot of turbulence, strong current and very busy barge traffic for the next several miles.  As we planned for the Loop, I always wondered why St. Louis didn’t have any pleasure boat docking facilities.  Having experienced that part of the river, we now understand why.  It would be a very unpleasant place to dock!  They do have the Arch, though, and it looks pretty impressive as you pass by on the water.


We also saw a new highway bridge under construction in St. Louis.  They were building out from each side of the river.  It would be interesting to watch what happens when they reach the middle.


The only marina on the 218 miles of the Mississippi is the legendary Hoppie’s.  It really isn’t much of a marina, just a few barges linked together, with very minimal facilities. But it is the domain of Fern Hopkins, the matriarch of the river.  You can’t do the Loop without stopping at Hoppie’s, and you can’t stop at Hoppie’s without getting your daily briefing from Fern. Each day at around 4:00 p.m., she gathers the boaters under the awning on the fuel dock (where she chain-smokes under her own “No Smoking” sign), and gives you the latest update on river conditions, safe anchorages and how to coexist with the tow captains. Her knowledge of the rivers is extensive and her advice invaluable. We were there with Carl and Ricki from Quest.

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Unfortunately, the future of Hoppie’s is grim. Without proper surveys or notice, the Army Corps of Engineers installed a wing dam just downstream of Hoppie’s that is causing silt to choke the marina. They have already had to remove two of their barges, with a resulting loss of docking space. Several organizations (including America’s Great Loop Cruisers Association) and area politicians have gone to bat for Hoppie’s, arguing that this marina that was started by Hoppie’s father in 1934 is essential to recreational boating on the Mississippi. But it’s hard to get the Corps to un-do something they’ve already done. You have to wonder if Fern and Hoppie, both in their mid-70s, have that kind of fight left in them.  Having met Fern, I’d never bet against her!

We stayed at Hoppie’s for two days because of fairly severe storm forecasts both afternoons.  This one came through the first afternoon, and it was nasty for a while.  It was followed by a pretty sunset and very welcome cooler air.

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We enjoyed our stay there, and were surprised to discover that the small town up the hill, Kimmswick, Missouri, is quite the charming little village.  Lots of shops and a few restaurants.  Everything opens at 10:00 and closes at 3:00.  Luckily we had plenty of options on board to make dinner, because an evening meal is just not available in Kimmswick!  We ate at the Blue Owl twice, once for lunch and the next day for breakfast.  Wonderful place, and such nice people!  Our waitress drove us back to the marina after lunch because the storm was approaching.

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That evening a man traveling by kayak camped at Hoppie’s.  Craig talked to him and learned that he is a photographer/adventurer based in England who is doing something he calls “Source to Sea.” He plans to kayak the longest river on every continent from its bubbling source to the point where it reaches the ocean. He has already completed the Amazon and this year is doing the Missouri/Mississippi. Once again we were reminded that our Loop is a modest adventure compared to what some people undertake! (


The second day (after breakfast at the Blue Owl), we walked around the town and visited some of the shops.  I bought three books for $1.00 (total!) at the visitor’s center.  Craig walked into the combo town hall/jail and arranged for the mayor to give us a private tour of the Anheuser estate (of St. Louis beer fame), located just above Hoppie’s.


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The next morning we got an early start on what would be our longest day to date – 176 miles. We started with a gorgeous sunrise that promised a good weather day.


We traveled 11 hours that day.  Fortunately there are no locks on that section of the river, so there were no delays.  We did pass or overtake 18 barges, mostly in the first three hours.  There is also a lot of turbulence in the river. It isn’t always a smooth ride.


However, we were pleasantly surprised to find that for most of our trip the Mississippi was fairly scenic and not really very muddy at all. There were lots of attractive sandy beaches, a lot of them probably created by the wing dams.  We enjoyed seeing bald eagles on every one of the big rivers – the Illinois, the Mississippi, the Ohio and the Cumberland.

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Craig called ahead to the only other fuel stop on the river, not for fuel, but to made arrangements to get the dogs off the boat for a walk. It was a Saturday and the fuel dock was closed, but the manager left a key on the dock for us so we could get out the locked gate and up the ramp to shore. It was a short, rough dock and the current was strong, but we managed to tie up, find the key and take the dogs for a much appreciated walk.

We had planned to stop at an anchorage at Mile Zero, right before the Ohio River comes in.  But we were making good time, and we still had a few hours of daylight, so we continued on up the Ohio for about 18 miles.

This is the point at which the two rivers meet.  There is a strong current there, with the two big rivers coming together. For the next 58 miles on the Ohio, we would be traveling upstream, against the current. It felt kind of strange to be back on our “home river” again, but not heading for home.


The Ohio River near Cairo, Illinois seems to be a staging area for barges.  There were an unbelievable number of both active and empty barges working or anchored in the river.  Looking upstream it was hard to see a clear path through them all, but we got through with no problem.

That night, after traveling 176 miles, we anchored between two mooring cells just downstream of the still-under-construction Olmstead Lock. We felt secure there because the lock construction gave us great protection from any downstream barges. It was a short dinghy ride to shore with the dogs, but very muddy on the banks. After just one night there, both boats were a muddy mess! Added to the hundreds of bugs that we collected along the rivers, we didn’t look our best at that point!

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The next day we went through the two Ohio locks with Quest and a 70’ Hatteras with a very rude owner whom we had the misfortune to meet for the first time at Hoppie’s. The type who seems to think all the world is his crew. The locks were awful old rusty things, and it’s not hard to understand why they are being replaced by the new Olmstead lock. We waited an hour for the first lock, but felt fortunate to get through the second lock with less than an hour wait, especially since there were several commercial tows ahead of us, lined up and waiting.. One of the lock chambers was closed for repairs and we heard later that some tows are waiting two or three days to lock through.

While we were waiting at the lock we said our last good-byes to Quest, as they would be crossing their wake and heading for home up the Ohio River when we split off at the Cumberland. Ricki and Carl were among the very first Loopers we met last spring, even before the Rendezvous in Norfolk, when we were both docked in York River Yacht Haven in Virginia. Congratulations to yet another pair of Gold Loopers!  It’s beginning to feel like most of the people we cruised with for much of the trip have been finishing their journeys over the past several weeks.


Our trip up the Cumberland was uneventful, maybe even a little boring.  It’s a smaller river than the ones we had been traveling, and was mostly quiet.  A lot of quarries with a few working tugs, and a lot of trees.


Thirty miles in, we came to the Barkley Dam, one of the newest and tallest locks on the Loop – 57 feet. We got right in without a wait and enjoyed watching the many night-herons perched on the lock walls.

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Even though we knew that this is the lock that creates Lake Barkley, it was still surprising when those big lock gates opened, and – poof! – after days of rivers, there was a big beautiful lake stretched out in front of us. It was a little disorienting, like stepping out of the mist and finding yourself in Brigadoon!


Just around the first bend we came to the lovely and welcoming Green Turtle Bay marina, where like most Loopers, we would treat ourselves to a week of “vacation” – our reward after the big rivers.


Next, rest and recuperation at Green Turtle Bay on Lake Barkley, Kentucky.

(Real-time update:  On September 23, we are in Clifton, Tennessee, on the Tennessee River.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Note to email subscribers

Just a heads up to any of you who may receive blog updates automatically by email. The complete posting titled “Good-bye Chicago, Hello Illinois Waterway” did not go out via email as a result of an error on my part.  That post is available for viewing on the blog site ( and in fact may show up on the bottom of the most recently emailed post, “Illinois River.”

Sorry for the mix-up!

Illinois River

August 29 – September 5, 2012

Many prior Loopers we have spoken with describe the Illinois River as one of their least favorite parts of the trip. Maybe we are biased Illini, but we found this part of our journey to be surprisingly pleasant, fairly picturesque, and with the myriad birds and the jumping carp, pretty entertaining.

We left Harborside Marina at 8:00 a.m. and almost immediately passed the entrance of the Kankakee River, where the Illinois River begins. The junction is also the site of the Dresden Nuclear Power Plant, one of the oldest in the country.  Next we went through the Dresden lock, where the green duckweed left an artistic pattern on the lock walls as the water went in and out.

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The big concern on the Illinois river this year is water levels.  With the continuing drought, river levels are lower than usual, and while the main channels are fine, many of the typical Looper marinas and anchorages have insufficient water for many boats. Our scheduled stop for the next night was a prime example.  The Starved Rock Marina told us they had room for both Marc’s Ark and us, but one of us would have to stay on the fuel dock due to low water.  With our faster speed, we said we would hurry on ahead to check the situation so we would have time to consider an alternative if necessary. It turned out that we were fine on the fuel dock and Marc’s Ark, drawing a bit less than we do, had no problem getting into a regular slip. We were rocked a bit by passing barges, but overall, it was fine.  We enjoyed another beautiful sunset.


Early the next morning, we passed through the Starved Rock lock, just below Starved Rock State Park, where Craig and I spent many happy times in our younger days. Once we were there with our great dog Woody when he was just a pup (a big, strong pup!). Woody came charging down one of the canyon walls and crashed right into Craig behind his knees, knocking him flat on his back. Clipping!  Funny, the things you remember about a place.


We went through Starved Rock lock with Marc’s Ark and a Coast Guard vessel that was resetting navigational buoys on the river.

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We passed through Peoria, stopping to load up on diesel at the Illinois Valley Yacht Club, one of the last places to get fuel before the Mississippi River and the only one in the area with enough water in the harbor for a boat like ours.


The Peoria lock was interesting. It is a “wicket” lock, which means if the river is high enough, boats can pass over low “wickets’ in the water, bypassing the regular lock.  Because the water is currently very low, we went through the regular lock.  But since we were the only boat, and the drop is only 8 feet, the lockmaster suggested we just float in the lock rather than tying up.  That was a first for us, but very easy.

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With a few exceptions like the area around Peoria, most of the scenery along the Illinois River was rural and peaceful. We passed a man and his dog traveling by canoe.

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So many of the trees at the river’s edge have dramatically exposed roots, the result of year after year of flood then drought then flood again.  


We continued to be amazed by the numbers and varieties of birds we saw: blue herons, great egrets, eagles (both young and mature), ospreys, kingfishers, hawks, vultures, red-headed woodpeckers, cave swallows and more.

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Most incredible were the white pelicans we encountered by the thousands. They were migrating through the area, and were fascinating to watch, especially floating in the thermal updrafts.

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We also finally saw the famous jumping Asian Carp.  We found that they were most numerous near the shoreline, and would jump furiously when our boat wake reached the shore and disturbed them.

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Our closest encounter with the carp was when one jumped on our swim platform and slid off the other side.  But Marc’s Ark had one in their dinghy, and Muriel June had two jump into their cockpit.

Our next destination was Tall Timbers Marina in Havana, Illinois.  We were so lucky to get in there.  Less than a week earlier and again just a week later, Tall Timbers didn’t have enough water for most Looper boats.  But Blue Heron and Marc’s Ark were able to get into this secure harbor and stay for four days while we waited out the remains of Hurricane Isaac. (Which turned out to be a lot of rain but no wind, thank goodness.) Our two boats docked nose-to-nose.


Tall Timbers is a small, charming marina with pretty landscaping and great facilities.  Wonderful shower suites, plus these cute port-a-potties on the docks to save the walk uphill!

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And the marina office-ship’s store-restaurant is named Blue Heron.  How great is that!


In honor of Isaac, the restaurant/bar served “Hurricane beer,” dyed pink with red food coloring and served with a little umbrella.  Festive, but kind of weird.


The locals invited us to join their weekend tradition of passing the gin pot.  They make a concoction of gin, Sprite, lots of ice, lemons and limes, put it all in a pot and pass it around. Yet another thing you’d probably never do if you weren't Looping! (Or in college.)

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It was a good place to hang out for a few days and wait for the weather to improve. Craig and Marc spent some time in our engine room.

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During breaks from the rain, Craig and Joey relaxed on the bow, as they like to do.


And Bailey watched them from around the corner, as she likes to do.


When we left Havana, we headed for Grafton, where the Illinois River meets the Mississippi.  Along the way, we passed under the Norfolk Southern Railway Bridge (N39 degrees 42.48 and W90 degrees 38.64), the western-most point on the Great Loop. From now on, we’re heading back east.


At the LaGrange lock, the resident lock dog came to check out Joey and Bailey. He ducked under the railings and hung his toes over the lock wall and made me a little crazy, but I guess he’s done this before.  I gave him a cookie.


Grafton Marina is located at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers and is another popular Looper stop, with great facilities and a friendly atmosphere. They bill themselves “Key West to the Midwest.”

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A few hours after we arrived, we greeted Marc’s Ark as they pulled into the marina and crossed their wake, completing the Loop after a little more than a year after leaving Grafton in August, 2011.  Congratulations, Marc and Michele, on earning your gold flag!

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The next day we borrowed the marina courtesy car and drove into Alton, Illinois.  It was a pretty drive along the river, and Alton is an interesting town with some beautiful old homes and neighborhoods.  You get the sense that, like many river towns, it is past its prime but still retains vestiges of its glory days. This was a child’s playhouse in the yard of one of the old Victorian homes.


Alton is also solidly Midwestern – a huge grain elevator with an American flag.


They also have a pretty wall mural typical of so many river towns.


We ate lunch at a place called Fast Eddie’s, said to be the biggest beer retailer in the State of Illinois. The food is super cheap – a 1/2 pound burger is 99 cents, as is a homemade bratwurst.  Peel-and-eat shrimp are 29 cents a piece. You must be 21 years old to enter the restaurant and there is a stated 20 minute wait for all food orders. It’s all calculated to get you to order beer and more beer.  As it was the middle of the day and we had work to do back at the boats, we beat the system by ordering soft drinks, except for Michele, who took one for the team and had a beer.  Maybe two!

That night we had our last of many fun dinners with Marc and Michelle before saying good-bye to them in the morning as they headed north up the Mississippi for their home in Galena. We will miss them!


The next day we went up the hill for lunch at the Aerie Winery.  We were warned by the marina staff that they may not be serving food.  It turned out they served delicious food (great flatbread pizzas), but none of their own wine, only California wines.  A little unusual for a winery, but maybe all for the best.  And the views of the rivers were spectacular.

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That afternoon, several other Looper boats arrived, so we had quite a gang that evening – Muriel June, Quest, Queen Kathleen, Windsong, and Carl and Glenda on Gold Leaf, which crossed its wake in Grafton, too. We also met two boats home-ported in Grafton that will be starting the Loop in just a few weeks.


After another gorgeous sunset, we prepared to set off down the Mississippi the next morning.  I’d like to come back to Grafton sometime, to see the hundreds of eagles that gather there in the winter.

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Yes, we’d have to say we thoroughly enjoyed our travels on the Illinois River.

Next, the mighty – and mighty challenging – Mississippi.