Tuesday, September 18, 2012

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.

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