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.)

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