A cruising buddy on Au Contraire sent us a text wondering if we were all right. They hadn’t seen a blog in a while. We’re fine. Life got in the way.
|A quiet anchorage in the North Channel. In Robison's Bay we saw a moonless night, no light pollution and stars from horizon to horizon. Some were reflected in the still water making for a most memorable experience.|
We were in Canada’s picturesque North Channel, as far from home as the Great Loop trip would take us when we learned that Jerry’s Mom had broken her wrist. There were no airports or even rental car agencies, and we were out of the country!
Other family members rallied to her aide while we raced at trawler speed (twice the speed of walking – that’s all we got), putting in 10-hour days, clearing customs and arriving at Petoskey, Michigan. We stashed Tanuki and rented cars and booked planes for the trek from upper Michigan to central Florida.
Returning 10 days later, we were reunited with pals on SoulShine and began a game of dodge-the-weather on Lake Michigan. The locals call her “Lake Witch-again”. (That’s the PG version). The four of us studied weather apps and decided which port we wanted to be forced to relax in next.
|A gift left by a resident in one of the Michigan ports we stopped in. We cooked it all up and had a feast with SoulShine and Adagio. Being forced to relax wasn't all bad.|
There’s a rule of thumb that says Loopers should be through Chicago by Labor Day. Between the unplanned side trip to Florida and the uncooperative weather on Lake Michigan, we worried that we wouldn’t get to the Windy City before the Lake got really testy. That would have forced us to winterize Tanuki and leave her in Michigan.
Weather windows opened and soon after Labor Day, we arrived to the gleaming city of Chicago at the bottom of Lake Michigan. The city itself is beautiful. The new river walkway and pedestrian friendly atmosphere and parks were delightful.
|The Architectural Tour was a great way to see the city.|
|The most unique wading pool we'd ever seen.|
|Our view from the DuSable marina|
Chicago Deep Dish Pizza was disappointing. Three Looper couples went out to one of the very best Chicago style pizza joints (according to the locals). At the end of the evening there was some pizza left. No one wanted to take it home! And Loopers love leftovers!
We were constantly running into Loopers, some of whom had already cruised the next leg of our trip: the rivers.
“How did you like the rivers?” I’d ask hopefully.
The most common reply included a wrinkled nose and the quiet admission, “It wasn’t my favorite.”
Once we got into the rivers, I could see why.
Remember the movie, The Wizard of Oz? In it Dorothy and Toto are hurled into a beautiful, colorful world where everyone is nice (except the Wicked Witch and her creepy flying monkeys). The vivid colors, generosity and friendliness expressed during the Lollipop Guild scene mirrored our experience on the Great Loop.
Near the end of the movie, Dorothy mutters, “there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…” When she wakes, the bright colors and whimsy are gone. The film ends, as it began, in stark black and white. The section of the Great Loop between Chicago and Paducah, KY is various shades of grey.
Compared to the scenic rivers and canals we’d been in, these rivers and canals were industrial and barely inhabited. The veins and arteries that run through America’s heartland are clogged with barges and tows and lined with loading and unloading facilities, cement plants, the occasional strip mined mountain, and coal-powered factories and power plants.
In Canada’s river and canal system, we met many cheerful workers as we traversed their well-kept locks. We conversed with them, passed them gifts of cookies, and always exchanged smiles. They seemed genuinely happy to see us.
In the post-Chicago locks we almost never saw any workers. Here military craft have first priority, followed by commercial passenger vessels, commercial tows, commercial fishing vessels, and finally pleasure craft (PCs), or as the lockmasters think of us, “gnats”.
Our boats are small, travel in packs and “buzz” their radio channels and phone lines trying to find out the best time for passage. The lockmasters find PCs truly annoying. It was so different from the love-fest that was Canada’s Trent Severn Waterway and New York’s Canal System.
In Canada, the locks are run by the Parks Department. Many of the locks were proudly decorated with flower and vegetable gardens, hoping to win the annual “best garden” award. The lock walls were welcoming places where, for a small fee, boaters could tie up and spend the night and walk into town.
The Army Corps of Engineers run the lock system in America’s heartland. Tying up at night is discouraged, and if you do tie up, it’s almost impossible to get off your boat. If you could get off your boat, you wouldn’t find a cute downtown.
Canada and New York’s lakes, canals and rivers were lined with parks, campgrounds, summer cabins and recreational areas. People swim, boat and enjoy these waterways.
America’s heartland waterways occasionally had parks and summer places, but most were used to load and unload barges. Amazingly, the Gateway to the West, St. Louis, MO didn’t have a single marina!
|Of course we went in it! Amazing views.|
Gone were the bright flower gardens and cheerful squeals of children splashing in clear-as-gin water. The heartland’s rivers and canals encroached like a gloomy day. The muddy waters carried limbs and sometimes, whole trees. We played dodge-a-log and dodge-a-barge for many drab, grey miles.
The Illinois and Mississippi rivers were filled with dull-colored barges laced together with rope the diameter of your forearm. Tows with names like Bill Hill and Miss Mary moved and rearranged full and empty barges. Just out of Chicago, in the Cal-Sag, tows were pushing, two, four and six barges.
We had traveled through the Cal-Sag and most of the Illinois River arriving at Heritage Harbor in Ottawa, IL where the dockmaster, Jeremy, told us the 6-pack tows we’d been seeing were “snack-sized”. When we got to the Mississippi the tows would be pushing 7x7 configurations – that’s 49 barges! And we, little gnats that we are, would have to avoid being crushed by them!
The Mighty Mississippi promised gigantic obstacles, very few safe harbors, and happily the fastest 200 miles of the whole Loop. The current at our stern greatly increased our speed. We were able to make 110 miles in about 10 hours! When we were “racing” through the North Channel, those same 10-hour days yielded only about 65 miles.
We heeded Jeremy’s advice and left marinas in swarms of 4 to 12 PCs. A single person was designated to contact the lockmaster and relay the information to the others in the swarm. When the lonely, cantankerous lockmaster allowed us into his domain, we bowed deeply in humble appreciation for being granted passage.
There were horror stories of Loopers waiting 7 and 9 hours for passage through a single lock, causing them to navigate the Mississippi and her never-ceasing barge traffic and floating trees in pitch darkness.
|The Blue Owl is famous for their "Levee-high" apple pie. Yum!|
Almost every time we arrived at a lock, it was open and the green light was on. Tanuki waited a total of 2 hours and 45 minutes for locks from Chicago to the Tennessee River. And the 2-hour wait was at anchor, rafted up with Oar Knot. We haven’t met any cruisers who’ve come close to our record.
We also caught a huge break on the Mississippi River. A lock on the north end of the river was knocked out of commission for several days when a run-away barge damaged it. Because this link in the lock chain was broken, most of the monster barges were anchored just outside the channel waiting for the lock to be restored. Our trip down the Mississippi included a vigorous game of dodge-a-log, but not many rounds of dodge-a-barge.
Then came a new game: Dodge-a-towline. Remember, towlines are as thick as your forearm. If one hit our propeller blades, it would cause some crazy expensive repairs.
After leaving Kaskaskia, we saw about three of these floating monstrosities; one of them directly in front of us. Jerry stopped the props and we went to the rear of the boat hoping to see it float harmlessly away. We waited long minutes and still no towline!
He returned to the helm and cautiously started the port engine. It was fine. He put it back into idle and tested the starboard engine. No problem. We looked at each other, shrugged, and put both engines into gear.
Ninety miles later (this was our 110 mile day), I was deploying the anchor at Boston Bar, joining Miss Utah. “Jerry, get the boat hook,” I shouted. The towline had floated free of the eyehook on the bow of the boat. It had safely ridden those 90 miles with us!
We hauled the towline onto the boat and took trophy pictures of it in Paducah. Not only had we survived the Mississippi, we had a souvenir and a pretty good story. We didn’t want the other story. That went to a boat that we saw at Green Turtle Bay & Resort. They caught a towline in their props, a hefty repair bill, and had to move off their boat during the repairs.
When we left the Mississippi, we traveled up the Ohio River. The current that helped us speed down the Mississippi and Illinois rivers was now pressing on our bow, holding us back as we inched up the Ohio river to Paducah, KY.
We rafted up to Miss Utah on the overbooked Paducah Municipal Marina and walked into town for The National Quilt Museum, moonshine tastings, public artwork, museums and restaurants. The next night the marina was still overbooked, but we had a place on the wall and Oar Knot rafted up to us.
|A modern quilt - the colors and stitching, texture and talent were hard to convey in photos|
|The backside of the 1936 quilt below - these are feed sacks!|
|The front of the 1936 quilt|
|A display in the moonshine distillery we visited - and tasted, but only bought a tee-shirt.|
The scenery improved as we slowly traveled up the Cumberland River to Lake Barkley, then through a canal to cross the Land Between the Lakes to Kentucky Lake and the Tennessee River. Finally! Cruising the way it should be!
There was a great gathering of Loopers at the Clifton Marina where we got to present our "Trawler Trash" comedy routine to our first audience.
The waitress took this picture from inside the dinghy on Tanuki's fly bridge.
There were more lake houses and people playing in the waterways, sharing them with a fewer factories, power plants and only snack-sized tows. The Lollipop Guild colors started to come back.
The lockmasters still had to be handled with kid gloves, but even they got more accommodating.
The color was spreading to the scenery too. Summer’s chlorophyll started her tantalizing striptease to reveal Fall’s reds and golds. It was just a hint. Colors so shy they don’t show well in photos. But the color was there. A sea of muted pastels undulating over the gumdrop mountains of the Tennessee river. The scenery rivaled the North Channel.
We locked up and slowly cruised up river into the mountains. We took in Rock City, Ruby Falls and Chattanooga’s aquarium wearing blue jeans and hoodies.
Most recently, we’ve been coming down the Tennessee, regaining the speed we lost when we went up to Chattanooga. We’re on our way to the final leg of the river portion of the Great Loop.
The Tenn-Tom and Tombigbee Canal promise lots of anchoring opportunities, a few quaint towns and finally Mobile, AL and back to the Gulf of Mexico.
When we get back to the sunny Gulf of Mexico, Tanuki will bathe in the Caribbean colored salt water of the Redneck Rivera. She will frolic free of the creepy clutches of the wicked lockmasters, bouncing jubilantly in the boundless briny bay called the Gulf of Mexico. We’ll be in waters we know well, stopping where we have friends and family. We’ll be home!
And you know, there’s no place like home.
PS: to get a better feel for how big a barge is, click here.
PPS: Another cruiser friend on Rubia sent us this picture with the subject line “Tanuki photo bomb”. We were in Lewes, DE when the vlogger caught Tanuki in the background.