After leaving Chicago and Lake Michigan the next sequence for the Great Loop is the inland rivers. We were not necessarily looking forward to this section of the Loop because we have been receiving many notices of lock delays and closures on the route. We had been hearing reports of Loopers having to wait a day or more to lock through due to repairs, dredging or the backlog of commercial traffic. It is necessary to traverse more locks on all of the inland rivers on the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Locking by itself is not an issue, but due to the amount of commercial traffic i.e. tugs with barges it makes for a slow pace. Commercial vessels have priority in all of the locks on the rivers. Their barges are mostly filled with large bulk items such as coal or rock. River traffic sometimes reminds me of driving through traffic jams on I-95!
The route of the various rivers starts with the Illinois River, Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee and the Tenn-Tom Waterway. All of that finishes in Mobile, Al. Steve and I have done the Tenn-Tom to Chattanooga route, but had no idea what to expect with the upper rivers. We were not sure that we were going to enjoy this part of the journey.
The Loop is full of surprises and we found that we actually have liked traveling on the rivers. We don’t have to worry about wind, waves, tides and there is just some current to deal with as you travel, but does not affect your docking. Plus, we have anchored out and found interesting places to stop along the way.
Steve is used to communicating with the tows and locks so that piece we had down pat.
Earlier in the trip we had done a lot of locks on the Erie Canal. These all involved pleasure boats. These locks are larger, but are also old and cranky. As we traveled we would hear of lock closures due to maintenance or a log that was jammed in the mechanisms. In fact, some locks were closed for days. What that would do is back up all the tugs and barges. One time there were 55 tugs waiting to lock through in an area. What the lockmaster does is group a large number of pleasure craft together and have only one locking a day for them. The wait may be 8 hours or more!
Currently, I am hearing of some boats stuck behind us for several days as the rains from the last hurricane have prevented the lock from working. Fortunately for us, we were in a “groove” with very little wait. The most we had to wait was two hours. We had one day where we pushed through a series of locks into the evening. The lockmaster was trying to get our group through before dark, but by the time we exited the lock, it was dark!
We were heading to Peducah, KY and the Loopers that were at the dock were all waiting for us. We rafted to other boats and we were all in by 9 pm! Not something we would want to do very often!
These locks also are different than others we have done in that they have floating bollards. These actually are our favorite as we connect our boat to a “pin” on the lock wall. This pin or bollard moves up or down with the water. Other locks we have been in use ropes to hold the boat to the wall and this creates more work and movement. Since the lockmaster is grouping as many boats as possible in a lock we often have boats rafted to each other. Most of this trip we will be in a lock where we going down, which is easier, too.
As we have gone along the rivers we have seen that the water levels are very low. This has been a concern when entering the marinas along the rivers. Our friends have a 52 ft. Hatteras with a 5’7” draft and were unable to enter their channels many times. Because of that we found many nice anchorages that we enjoyed.
The other interesting thing is that we have spent the night tied up to barges and lockwalls because there are no anchorages in those areas. The most famous stop is a place called Hoppies before entering the Ohio River. It is literally barges made into docks with power and fuel. All Loopers stop there and get a briefing from Fern, who is an 80 year old “river queen”. She goes over the upcoming route and anchorages. She is truly a Looper Legend and a character that you would never forget. One interesting aspect of the stop at Hoppies is that there is actually a small town to walk to with restaurants.
One called Blue Owl in Kimmswick. It was featured on the Food Network. Of course, we all ate there. Their claim to fame is their amazing desserts. The pies are huge!!
There are not many towns along the rivers that we can stop in. For example, we go right by St. Louis, but there are no marinas so everyone gets a picture taken as they pass by the arch. We stopped in Grafton, IL, as they were billed as the “Key West of the Midwest”. I would say, “not really”, but it was fun. The other stop was Alton, IL which we enjoyed. At both of these stops we enjoyed the company of lots of Loopers.
We are seeing more marinas that have boats under cover, which is a pretty nice thing. The good news is that it keeps the boat cleaner, the bad news is that the TV and WiFi may not work as good. Naturally, we are too wide and tall to be under cover. Houseboats are more prevalent and they are really nice ones, too.
One funny thing that occurred as we were traveling we would see fish start jumping behind our boat. I tried to capture them with my camera, but they eluded me until one literally jumped on the swim platform of out boat! These are Asian Carp, an invasive species that started appearing in the Ohio River. They are overtaking the ecology of the rivers, particularly in Kentucky and Lake Brantley. It reminded me of the Lionfish off the coast of Florida. We have been told that the fish is not a bottom feeder like a normal carp and is quite good to eat, albeit boney. We have passed on fishing for them!