Lake Michigan & Illinois Waterway (Mackinaw City, MI, to Alton, IL) - 8/16-9/5/03:
Day 1, 8-16-03: Surprise, surprise! It's calm and foggy! The forecast has improved significantly with winds diminished and 1 to 3' seas. Shall we stay or go?? And if we go, what route do we take? The fog cleared pretty quickly, and I double-checked the weather forecast and talked to a few "locals." But most of them were experienced on Lake Huron, not so much Lake Michigan. So we decided to give it a try for about an hour. If the forecast was wrong, and the lake was too rough, we could try to get into Beaver Island where our friends on DeeLight were headed early this same day. Then there were a couple of alternate destinations along the north shore of Lake Michigan on the Upper Peninsula, but they were just "safe havens," not "marinas of choice." A reasonable destination if we could run at cruising speed for six hours, was Washington Island on the very northern tip of Door County, Wisconsin (124 miles). So I called one of two primary marinas at Washington Island. They claimed they couldn't accept a reservation, but recommended the Island Outpost Dock next door. The description in the Guide didn't look very appealing, but they said the other marina had a long, shallow approach where a Hatteras had recently run aground. So I called Island Outpost, and Jim, the proprietor, said water depth wasn't a problem at his dock, he had 50 amp power, a courtesy van, and the weather looked good. So we decided to venture forth into Lake Michigan.
It was 10:45 by the time we departed, so if all went well, we should be at destination on the west side of the lake, more than half-way to Green Bay (the town), by 4 pm (6 hours elapsed time, minus an hour gained when we cross from EDT to CDT), well before dark. It was a pretty day as we left the harbor and approached "Big Mack" (the mighty Mackinac Bridge); and it was awesome cruising under it. It was so big, it was hard to get a decent photo. To get the whole thing, we were too far away from it to see it very well. Plus the sun created a "bright haze" with a white bridge in front of a pale sky. So the impression was hard to capture. But the reality was impressive. On the radio, we could hear Coast Guard "securitay" warnings about a barge moored in the middle of the channel about a mile west of the bridge that was conducting diving operations. Though we were anxious to get "up on cruise," of course we respected the request for no wake for quite a distance. Unbelievably, a couple of other cruisers sped by with no hint of concern. The tow captain of the barge actually thanked us for our compliance.
About 12 noon, we were abeam White Shoal Light, which was a decision point about turning south to approach the marina on Beaver Island, or continuing straight west on our day long junket. Though the wind was more out of the north than the forecast west, it was only 5 to 10 knots, with seas less than 1'; gorgeous cruising, so we set the course and autopilot to keep heading west. About 12:40, we were abeam the G1 marker at Garden Island Shoal, just north of Beaver Island. I had a cell phone number for our friend Marv Market, but on a lark, I tried a VHF radio call to DeeLight. Much to my surprise, Marv answered immediately. They had arrived at the marina at Beaver Island earlier that morning, and had just returned to the boat from their first exploration of the island by bike, and heard my call. We had a nice chat, updated our mutual plans, and looked forward to the possibility of meeting at Sturgeon Bay in a couple weeks. As we passed Beaver Island, it struck me that from this point on to Chicago, we would be cruising with the shoreline on our starboard side for the first time in our entire voyage! Any time we had been in "open water" like the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean or Great Lakes Ontario, Erie, and Huron ( i.e. not counting when we were in a river, or the ICW, or a canal), the shoreline was always on our port side. Obvious, since like most people we were doing the Great Loop counter-clockwise; but kind of a remarkable realization.
At 12:55, we were abeam Lansing Shoal Light, 45 degrees 53.43 minutes North Latitude, 85 degrees 34.24 minutes West Longitude; the NORTHERN-MOST point of our entire Great Loop track. From there, we headed SW toward Washington Island, and Green Bay beyond. The calm weather is holding. All's well! At 1 :37 pm EDT, we were abeam the northern tip of Gull Island (brg 270, rng 4 nm), and at 2:40 pm CDT, we were rounding the red marker, R2, at St. Martin Island Shoal, to enter the Rock Island Passage between St. Martin Island to the north and Washington Island to the south. This is also where we straddled the state line between Michigan (the U.P.) and Wisconsin, as we curved around the west side of Washington Island, entering Green Bay (the Bay itself). The entrance to Detroit Harbor, which was the "small bay" where the Washington Island marinas were located, was best approached from the southwest. About 3:30, we eased past the first marina which I had called earlier. It became obvious why they couldn't accept our reservation. It appeared they really didn't have suitable dockage for a 50' boat, even though the Cruising Guide indicated otherwise. A radio call gained approach instructions to go by the ferry landing which was very active, and pull into the next dock which in fact was Island Outpost Dock. Jim was there to meet us, and direct us in to an easy docking, and settle in for the night. A very successful day, crossing Lake Michigan on Saturday, with only 80 miles to go to Green Bay (the town) in time to meet our Carver appointment Monday morning.
We were well aware that Island Outpost Dock had none of the amenities of a normal marina. But we had safe dockage, friendly people (Jim & Debbie, with their old Golden Retriever, Hunter), a very nice souvenir/ships' store, access to a decent restaurant at the marina next door within walking distance, and a COURTESY VAN to get to a convenience store a couple miles away. Diane soon learned that the courtesy van was a VERY large, old, VERY used, full-size van, with straight stick! Undaunted, she got the keys and climbed aboard. The second learning was a turning radius of about 100 feet, to get out of a parking place requiring an immediate 90 degree left turn. As she angled back and forth several times with engine roaring, a man in a shiny new Durango towing a runabout on a trailer, obviously waiting to back into a space next to "Diane's van" said cautiously, "Is she planning to bring that back tonight?" About a half hour later, she did return, parked the van in a wide area in front of the store, hopped out, and gave the keys back to Jim. The adventure ended with her admission that she had found the convenience store, but the parking "opportunity" was narrow, and on an incline, such that she got the van turned around and headed back without doing her shopping; apparently an amusing anecdote for the "locals" which they were still talking about when we left the next day.
But our big day wasn't over yet! While walking Billie Jo, we wandered around some small private docks adjacent to our Island Outpost Dock. Of course we'd been aware of the effect of low water in the Great Lakes (as much as 4' below "normal" whatever that meant). But it was obvious with these docks where most of the small boats were actually sitting on the bottom in a few inches of water, or floating on lines several feet off the dock, with weeds growing in what had been their slip.
We still had time for a dip in the water behind our boat on the Dock, with Billie Jo joining in. Then a nice dinner at the restaurant next door. And after dark, we were settling in for a little satellite TV before drifting into la-la land, when we were startled by some loud bangs outside that sounded like gunshots! We quickly discovered they were fireworks out in the bay, just beyond the harbor entrance. And it wasn't just a few little private "poofs." It was a full-fledged display, lasting more than 20 minutes; worthy of any decent sized town on the 4th of July. Very impressive, and of course we had to look into the source. Jim, Deb and Hunter, and a couple of local resident boaters were sitting at a picnic table at the base of our dock. They shared an interesting story about the owner of the ferry boats who had a daughter getting married. And they had the newest, rather large boat full of the wedding party out in the bay, watching their own fireworks display being launched from one of their barges. We had a ring-side seat when they came back into port, and watched the party disembark. Quite an ending to our big day!
Day 2, 8-16-03: It's partly cloudy on Green Bay for our 8:30 departure, with a north wind about 10 knots, and 1 to 2' following seas. We need fuel before reaching the town of Green Bay at the southern foot of the bay of Green Bay, so the next reasonable marina down the Door County shore is Yachtworks, Inc, at Sister Bay, Wisconsin. So by 9:30 we're at the fuel dock, with a very friendly and competent dock crew pumping diesel. Within a half hour, we're on our way again, and rounding Egg Harbor Point by 10:45. The appeal of Door County with "fall foliage" potential is evident as we pass the tree-lined bluffs, threading our way between the peninsula and off-shore islands. By 11:20, we're abeam the green marker, G7, at Sherwood Point Shoal, marking the entrance to the Sturgeon Bay Canal, and 12:35, at G1, the entrance to the long, winding Green Bay Harbor entrance channel.
With 80 miles traveled, we entered the mouth of the Fox River at 1:30, in the middle of downtown Green Bay, looking for the marina recommended by Carver. Unfortunately, on a Sunday afternoon, there was no response to several radio calls. As we eased our way up the river toward a couple bridges, we approached a large marina, but it didn't show the name we were looking for on the chart. Finally a response on our radio from another boater indicated that the marina name we were calling no longer was in business. I recalled passing a small marina near the mouth of the river that was identified on the chart as the Green Bay Yacht Club. So we did a 180, and headed back to see if we could raise any attention there. A very uncertain voice responded, and after explaining our situation, we learned that they couldn't accommodate us, but they thought maybe we were looking for a new marina called South Bay Marina, located on the south side of the river entrance. Sure enough, I had totally missed it (looking for the wrong name and location!). At last, we found a part-time dockhand who confirmed we were in the right place, and pointed us to a couple of new slips actually "belonging" to Carver. In a large converted warehouse, we could see signage for the local Carver dealership. Since the Carver factory in Pulaski, WI, was about 20 miles NW of this point, basically in the middle of a corn field, they had a contract with this dealer/marina to launch and service new boats.
So we rented a car and settled in for a week of maintenance and warranty work on Souvenir. Monday morning, Mike Osmanski, the Carver Service Rep, visited us, and went over our entire punch list. Then we connected with the local Cummins service center and arranged for some needed warranty work on the engines. Each day, we got better acquainted with the Green Bay area, of course including the newly renovated Lambeau Field (yes the town IS fanatical about their dear Packers!). We also made a trip to the Carver factory. Mike had set us up for a plant tour, and introduced us to Matt, our guide (who happened to be the Carver President's son doing a summer internship). Matt did a great job showing us around the impressive facilities. It appeared the 570 Voyager was the current hot production model, with four of them in the final assembly production line. Plus we also toured one of the new 59' Marquis models in final assembly. Apparently business is pretty good, as Carver just announced they're hiring back 200 employees that had been let go last year. Mike's management of our warranty projects during the week, and the plant tour served as very positive affirmation of our purchase of a Carver yacht. They take good care of their customers, and at the end of the week, we made another trip to Pulaski to buy lunch for Mike at a great local restaurant, as a token of our appreciation.
Day 3, 8-23-03: Souvenir is "good to go" and it's time to get back on the voyage! It's partly cloudy and still warm (high 80s), now with a south wind at 10 knots, and 1 to 2' following seas, to head back up Green Bay to Sturgeon Bay. It's only a 42 mile day, so we made a lazy start just before noon. It took over an hour to get to the G1 marker at the north end of the Green Bay channel, then by 2:30, we're entering the Sturgeon Bay canal from the west. It's a Saturday, so there is a lot of weekend boat traffic, and slow going in the canal. Within a couple miles of the Michigan Avenue bascule bridge, I attempt several radio calls with no response. Then I see it starts to open on the hour at 3 pm. There are several boats passing through from both directions, and just as I arrive at the no wake marker before the bridge it starts to close at 3:05! I could make it through, but not with "no wake," and I would have been there by 3:06. Surely the bridge tender could see me, and hear me on the radio. No luck! And with the binoculars we could see they only open on the hour. There's a nice marina right there on our side of the bridge which I had called earlier, and they could have accommodated us. But then I learned our friends the Markets in DeeLight were docked at Sturgeon Bay Yacht Harbor on the east side of the bridge. So we had a 54 minute wait. I later learned from the "locals" that this bridge tender is well known for "exercising his authority" at the expense of boaters. The example was some local fishermen who came in at 3:00 in the morning and "just missed" the opening. They tied up their boat on the wall and WALKED HOME!
On our port side, there is a large, new development of waterfront townhomes/condos, with a nice stone wall and big cleats with no boats tied-up. Looks like it would be worth docking there during our wait. They actually had power pedestals along the wall, so it could be a convenient overnight location. But it looked very private. Anyway it served us well, and we lined up for the 4 pm opening well aware that it only lasted 5 minutes. A bit of a breeze had kicked up, and we saw DeeLight docked on an end-Tee, but there was no marina response on the radio for instructions. Two other smaller boats using the same bridge opening headed into the marina, but it looked like very tight quarters. We finally got the attention of a dockhand who pointed out an available slip, and made it in. Right next to the marina was the club-house of the Sturgeon Bay Yacht Club. Marv had learned about a special Hawaiian celebration, and made reservations for four. It was delightful, with a high energy hostess who "was the party!" The Markets were planning to leave their boat here for a couple weeks, while they did some traveling by land in Wisconsin. We were ready to move on, but the forecast for Sunday on Lake Michigan was west wind up to 30 knots, with 4 to 6' seas. Reminiscent of Oswego, we decided to stay put and made plans to tour Door County with Markets in their rental car. It was a delightful day-trip through all the bay/lake-side tourist towns along both shores. And we stopped for lunch at Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay. The main attraction was the live grass roof of the restaurant, where they were known to allow goats to feed during the day to keep the grass trimmed! Apparently they had Sunday off, so my photo shows grass sans/goats!
Day 4, 8-25-03: Next stop, Milwaukee, 124 miles south. The front had passed through and it was cloudy, hazy, hot, humid, light and variable wind, and seas with one foot swells from the south, with a light surface chop. After topping off the fuel tanks, we departed the harbor to finish crossing Door County on the Sturgeon Bay canal. Just beyond the next highway bridge and congestion of the inhabited shorelines, as I began to bring Souvenir up on plane, I noticed a small sign -- Speed Limit 5 mph!! So I settled back and motored to the east entrance to the canal past a Coast Guard station by 9:30; an hour and a half after leaving the slip. Much later I learned that when DeeLight left, the Coast Guard tracked him down and caused an incident in heavy seas out on the lake, with expressed intentions of boarding! After a couple of dangerous attempts, they backed off, indicating they had been observed exceeding 5 mph in the canal -- "Have a nice day!" Unbelievable! Sure glad we didn't encounter them.
The rest of the leg was uneventful as we passed Rawley Point Light, Sheboygan Point, and Port Washington, enroute to the Milwaukee Harbor entrance about 3:30. We had reservations at the Milwaukee Yacht Club, which was actually just one dock in the middle of a large county marina, McKinley. And we were aware of a neighbor boat from back home in Afton, MN, that had just arrived at McKinley Harbor the day before. It was Eagle I, a 63' Sunseeker with Bruce Paddock and his crew Dennis Amoth and Bruce Abrahamson (our 2nd Mate from our initial Practice Run from FL to MN in the spring of '02). We spotted the boat on the next dock as we approached the MYC dock. Unfortunately, they had left the boat immediately to go home. Then Bruce P and Dennis were going to ride their Harley's back and stay on the boat for the big Harley Davidson 100th Anniversary bash the next weekend. Of course we had to leave (willingly) before then as we couldn't get a reservation. The whole region had been booked for many months. Over 200,000 bikes were expected, and they were already starting to arrive while we were there. It was interesting to watch the "preparations" in the park, adjacent to the marina. Bruce really had "front row" accommodations on his boat.
We had reservations for Monday & Tuesday nights, but they wanted us to leave Wednesday, as official HD activities began on Thursday. And we had reservations in Chicago for Wednesday and Thursday leading to Labor Day weekend. However, Wednesday morning, the forecast for the Lake was north wind at 15 to 20 knots with 4 to 6' seas, and we prevailed on the kindness of the marina manager to let us stay an extra night. By late Wednesday, they had boats rafted up three deep at the fuel dock, waiting for us to leave first thing Thursday.
So we had plenty of time in Milwaukee. Tuesday, we made plans to visit Loren Osman, a first cousin of my father's whom we hadn't seen in many years. Diane had rented a car -- turns out the only thing they had available was a Chrysler Sebring convertible, which was kind of fun. After Billie Jo got used to "no top," she really loved sitting up in the back seat. So we drove up to the northern part of the city and found Loren for a nice visit and a lunch. He was retired as the "farm editor" of the Milwaukee Journal, and has always been interested in keeping in touch and learning about the family tree. He gave me some manuscript put together by another cousin in Illinois about my family heritage.
Day 5, 8-28-03: It's Thursday, and the weather forecast still wasn't pretty: warm (80+), wind SE 15 to 20 knots increasing to 25, 2 to 4' seas increasing to 3 to 5', with thunderstorms in the PM. BUT, contrary to our "comfort zone" we had to leave, and try to make our Chicago reservations 96 miles down the shore. There were alternate stop possibilities along the way, but going into Labor Day weekend, accommodations were at risk. We left the slip at 7:15 to catch the McKinley fuel dock that opened early. An hour later, Diane had the rental car returned and we were ready to go. The channel from the marina to the main Milwaukee Harbor entrance, curved along the stone breaker wall, and we had been warned when we came in to "stay in the middle." We had, with no problem, but it was shallow. Slowly, about 100 yards from the fuel dock, right in the middle (where I thought I had gone before), we dinged the starboard prop on a rock -- killed the engine! I re-started it, and kept going with fingers crossed. Outside the harbor, turning into the headwind in deep water, I cautiously moved the throttles forward. No apparent unusual vibrations. But we'll definitely have to check the prop when we can.
After a couple hours running, waves were clearly beginning to exceed 3', and I started calling the list of marinas in Racine (just 29 miles from Milwaukee). Everything was booked, but Reef Point Marina, operated by SkipperBud, took pity on us, and said they'd find a spot for one night. It was a beautiful, new facility, and initially they put us on and end-Tee. But soon after we got plugged in, they asked us to move up to their "celebration" dock (I think that meant for dealer show boats). It was on the head pier directly in front of the office building, store, showers, restaurant, pool; actually a great location. Later, a big Viking came in with reservations on the end-Tee where we started. Meanwhile, I had been on the wait list for three marinas for the Labor Day weekend (Fri-Mon), and as we were finding safe haven in Racine, one of them came through! Now we were set for Chicago. We had a wonderful dinner at the second floor restaurant, out on the deck overlooking our boat (and Billie Jo!). We even had TV (note our satellite dish locked on, barely aimed over the building). It was unplanned, but a very nice safe haven.
The next day was Friday, and we awoke to a pretty stiff breeze through the marina -- oh-oh! Checked the weather, and a north wind was expected with 2 to 4' seas. Again, we prevailed on a very cooperative marina manager to let us stay another night, and reconfirmed that we should make it to Burnham Park Harbor in Chicago mid-afternoon Saturday. I also spent some time on the phone researching the water level on the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal. We had been aware of the "inoperable railroad swing bridge" called the Lemont bridge at mile 300.6 which created the limiting factor of our entire voyage with a vertical clearance of 19' 1"at "normal pool." My measured height of Souvenir to the top of the radar array (with the anchor light mast removed) was 19' 4". So we came all this way, knowing we could have a 3" problem, and there was no other route option to get from Lake Michigan back to the Mississippi River. After talking to the lockmasters of the O'Brien and Lockport Locks (before and after the bridge), the result of my research was that the operating policy of the waterway was to maintain "normal pool minus two feet" -- i.e. the clearance at that bridge, IF the level was in compliance, SHOULD BE 21' 1". WHEW!! The rationale for the policy was not for my benefit. They said it was to keep water out of the neighbors' basements. Hooray for good community relations!
Another opportunity for the day was for me to recruit a replacement crew member to take Souvenir back down to Florida after we reached the Mississippi. My First Mate had requested that she be relieved at Alton, IL, after we had completed our Great Loop (her stated commitment). She has no desire to "do the Tenn-Tom" a third time. So I called Dan Aspinwall, a boating friend from our home port marina in MN. He was one who had told me, "If you ever need help with part of your trip, let me know." So I did, and he agreed. The plan became: Dan would drive my car from MN down to Alton on or about 9/7, so Diane and Billie Jo could drive home. Then he and I would continue on the boat down to the "Top of the Tenn-Tom" at Aqua Yacht Harbor, Iuka, Mississippi -- a good place to leave the boat for a month or so till the hurricane season ends and I can take it on down to Florida for the winter. Thank you, Danno!
And then we witnessed a bit of a strange sight. A fully rigged Sheriff's rescue boat typically occupied the dock behind us at this marina. A crew in uniforms had taken it out, and later we saw it coming back, disabled and rafted to the side of an identical Coast Guard boat. "Stuff" happens to everybody in this boating game! We were glad we had decided, and were able to stay put for the day.
Day 6, 8-30-03: It was time for another try at making it to Chicago. It was partly cloudy, wind NE at 15 to 20 knots, 2 to 4' seas; which was a bit more than we are comfortable with, and no better than the previous day. BUT, our safe haven marina staff was VERY anxious for us to leave as early as possible. An 84' Broward from Chicago with a reservation for our spot had come in the night before, which they temporarily tied up at the fuel dock, and it was Saturday of Labor Day weekend! Plus the forecast was for diminishing wind and seas during the day, so we headed out a little after 8 am. Sure enough, the 2 to 4' waves from the NE were right on, so as we headed down the shoreline that curved to the SE, we had the "discomfort" of a beam sea. To minimize the discomfort, we adopted a sailing strategy of "tacking" into a quarter headwind, then to a quarter following sea. Thus we "stair-stepped" down the shore past Waukegan about 10:30, arriving offshore downtown Chicago about 12:30.
The day was clear enough though, that nearly 40 miles out of Chicago, I noticed what I thought were a couple of sail boats ahead. There had been a number of them enjoying the stiff breeze. A few minutes later it struck me -- we were actually seeing the Sears tower and probably the John Hancock building over the horizon! Sure enough, the entire city skyline gradually emerged. None of my charts showed very detailed water depths off-shore, so I faithfully followed the markers intended for ships and maintained plenty of water depth. I'm sure we could have safely cut in closer, but there was no need for unnecessary risk. We passed the break-waters protecting the Navy Pier and entrance to the Chicago River, and angled in toward our destination marina directly in front of the newly rebuilt Soldiers' Field, past the planetarium. What a sight, approaching the city! Certainly second only to our New York Harbor experience about two months earlier. By 12:45, we were docked in slip E-48, and finally settled in for the rest of the holiday weekend. Little did we realize at that point, it was going to be a total wash-out weather-wise! Note the Sears Tower directly above Billie Jo in the photo.
On this leg, we surely missed having our grandkids along. And we didn't have nearly as many opportunities to visit various people as we had when they were with us from Norfolk to NY, and through Lakes Ontario, Erie & St. Claire. However we did have a nice visit with cousin Loren in Milwaukee, and in Chicago we connected with a high school friend of our son's, Debbie Yones. We had also befriended her parents in those days, and her dad had since retired from 3M. She was living alone in an apartment on the lakefront just north of the Navy Pier. She offered to pick us up at the marina, show us her place, then walk to a restaurant in her neighborhood for dinner. She had just taken on a pet responsibility. It was a very cute, very tiny, white puppy named Jelly Bean, and Deb obviously loved her new companion! It was a delightful visit.
Then it started raining, and didn't let up the rest of the weekend. Chicago was just on the north edge of a huge system. So up in Milwaukee, and in Minnesota, we heard it was gorgeous. But to the south, like Indianapolis, they got 6 to 8 inches of rain! And of course, all that water had to run into the canals and rivers ahead on our course. So I spent some of the time confined to the boat, doing more research on the water levels in the canals, especially under that Lemont bridge. The lockmasters I had talked with earlier reconfirmed their "policy" to operate at normal pool minus two feet. And they said with all this rain they had been directed to open their dams to increase flow from 2500 gallons per minute to 10,000 gpm. So in theory, they were maintaining policy. BUT in practice there were no guarantees I would have 21' of clearance when I got to Lemont bridge on Tuesday. They did refer me to the "Sanitary District" office in Chicago, as their authority for policy and directives. Surprisingly, they did have a cooperative person on duty 24 hours, even on the holiday weekend. After several calls, I caught him during a quiet period when he could do some digging in his manuals, because he really couldn't answer my concerns any more than the lockmasters had. He was actually quite interested in our voyage, and said my questions were helping him learn some things he should probably know anyway. However, after a good effort, he really reached the same basic conclusion: "You should be OK, but when you get there let me know how it works out." At least I had done everything I could in the homework department.
The rest of the weekend, we were pretty much trapped on the boat. It seemed so strange, being in such a "great location" (downtown Chicago), but with the weather, we might as well have been in Peoria! Being on the lake side of the main highway, and between Soldiers' Field and the water, apparently cabs had trouble finding their way through traffic to the marina. And we were told rental car companies weren't reliable, even if they did agree to "deliver." And a city bus stop was a long block away near the Aquarium, but it was up a lot of steps in the rain, and the schedule wasn't very regular. Finally, nearly all of the local boaters and marina staff had given up on the weekend and left! So there we were, on our boat, "isolated" in the middle of Chicago.
Day 6, 9-2-03: It quit raining!! BUT, we have low clouds with a NE wind, 15-20 knots, and 4-6' seas -- that would still be beam seas on track from Chicago down to the entrance of the CalSag Waterway at Calumet Harbor (at the southern tip of Lake Michigan, very near the Illinois/Indiana state line). Definitely rougher than we're comfortable with; and normally reason enough to stay put -- you know, we're retired; don't have to go anywhere!!! Yahbut, we've had enough of Chicago and Lake Michigan. We're ready to take on the Illinois Waterway, which we're under the impression will not be the highlight of our voyage! It's "get it over with" time! If it's rougher than forecast, we can always come back into the same slip -- there's no one around to know if we're staying or leaving! We have a reservation at Spring Brook Marina in Seneca, IL; only about 90 miles, but I've been told to allow up to 12 hours because of all the barges, bridges, and locks. And it's only about 15 miles of open water on the lake, so we decided to get an early start and depart at 7:25 am.
The waves are about as forecast, so we do the "tacking" approach again, stair-stepping our way past the ship channel markers and arrive in protected waters of Calumet Harbor an hour later. It wasn't fun, but we made it. The Great Lakes are all behind us! At the first draw-bridge, we pass with no delay, but we're advised that two bridges beyond at 106th Street they have construction going on, and require one hour notice to lift. So we call and give notice, and pass under a high bridge that carries the Chicago Skyway (which we've traversed many time by car over the years). It's a very unscenic, heavy industrial area, with the canal making sharp turns through lots of barges. But the actual moving traffic seems to be minimal -- not cranked up yet after Labor Day, I guess. When we arrive at the bridge with construction, we see there is actually a large, mobile crane on the bridge, and a crew truck with one man walking up on the very top girder. Only a half hour has passed since our request to open, but the crew is jumping into the truck, and the crane begins to move off the bridge. Amazingly, to open for us, the whole operation has to move back on the approach; then the bridge begins to open, and we're cleared through well before an hour has passed. They must have had a break coming anyway.
On the VHF radio, we hear another pleasure craft, named "Cherish", request passage through the bridge behind us. Soon they call us to request a "two whistle" passage around us. It's a 48' Bayliner, which we chat with and learn is from Rhode Island on the Great Loop. By 9:35, we're entering the O'Brien Lock with Cherish after a short wait. The vertical drop is only one foot, but this lock acts as the gate between the Illinois Waterway/canal system and Lake Michigan, so they can actually control the direction of flow; in essence reversing the flow away from the Lake, toward the Illinois River, and ultimately the Mississippi River. The same thing occurs on the Chicago River further north in downtown Chicago, which reverses the flow into the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal, which we will join in about 25 miles. We had to take the CalSag route because of low bridges on the downtown end of the Chicago River. Interesting engineering feat! By 10:05, we're out of the O'Brien Lock, and on our way under all kinds of bridges (several of them Interstate highways in south Chicago we've used many times) to join up with the Ship Canal.
Finally, about 12 noon, we arrive at the much anticipated, inoperable Lemont RR bridge. Easy does it! First Mate climbs up on the wet bar and sticks her head out the open sun roof to get a good angle on our clearance. She could reach up and touch the bottom of the bridge, but we made it -- as planned -- with about two feet to spare; those lock masters had adjusted the flow of the water sufficiently to pass all that run-off from the heavy rain, and maintain "normal pool minus two feet," allowing us pretty close to 21' of clearance (doesn't look like it, does it?). WHEW!!
This photo also shows the canal width pretty well. For quite a few miles, this is the way it looks. So, imagine, meeting or passing a tow-with-barges (two wide). I've seen pictures by other boaters, but till you're there, it's hard to appreciate the challenge. The double-parked barges are almost continuous (alternating randomly from one side to the other), and a passing tow with barges literally scrapes the wall on the opposite side. So, pleasure craft must find a space between the parked barges, to wait while a meeting tow passes. And occasionally, the gap between the parked barges is just long enough to get past a tow moving in the same direction. The good news is, tow captains for the most part are very courteous and cooperative. Sure makes for a long day though!
The next challenge came an hour later at the Lockport Lock (mile marker 291, with a drop of 35'). As Cherish and we approached, a "double-cut" tow had just left its first cut of barges in the lock and backed-out. We were advised it would be a two to three hour wait. After some moaning and groaning, the lockmaster offered to ask the tow captain for permission for us to join him IN THE LOCK! He said OK! With all our dozens of lockage experiences, we had never done that before. So after they had locked down his first cut, and he had moved into the lock and declared "Secure," we were directed to move into the two open "notches" on either side of the tow. We went on his port side, and Cherish on the starboard. Then there was a young couple in a 25' day cruiser they put in behind us. The gates closed, and I definitely got a touch of claustrophobia as the lock-hand gave Diane the lines (they had no floating bollards), and said "Hang on tight when he starts moving out!" We got really well acquainted with the Ralph Plagge!
Of course there was no turbulence descending in the lock, but after they opened the front gates, Ralph Plagge started maneuvering up to his first cut of barges to tie up again. We heard, and felt the rumble of those big diesels right next to us. He obviously took it as easy as he could, knowing our precarious position. But that's still a lot of inertia to get moving, plus he had to "wiggle" (nautical term!) a little from side to side to get lined up with the first cut on the wall that was at a bit of an angle to the wall in the lock. It was plenty of turbulence! And I was busy on the throttles and bow-thruster holding our position, because Diane couldn't possibly hold it with one line 35' down in the lock. We managed OK, but I heard the lock-master on the radio warning Cherish on the other side that he was getting too close to the tow. And the day cruiser behind us was bobbing around and swinging like pendulum in their small space. We all had lots of fenders out, and I don't think they ever bumped anything but the wall itself. Finally, 2 1/2 hours after we had arrived at the lock, Ralph Plagge was reconnected, and we were told we could ease out of the lock and around him. Clearly it would have been 3 1/2 hours if he hadn't let us go with him. I don't know why it took so long. Chalk up another new adventure!
Just another 5 miles, and we arrive at the Brandon Lock (mile marker 286, with a drop of 34'), and fortunately have no wait, but we're beginning to see why we were advised to plan on 12 hours to Spring Brook (one more lock and another 34 miles). It's 4:30, and it could be another 3 or more hours. There are two possible marinas before the next lock. We arrive at Three Rivers marina entrance about 5 pm. On the radio, they say they can accommodate us, and we should just follow the docks on in. But the docks are real rickety little old sticks of wood, and as soon as we leave the channel, the depth drops to 5'! Doesn't look good. Meanwhile, up at the next bend, Cherish is moving into the fuel dock at Harborside Marina. Unfortunately, we had talked to them earlier, and they closed down and left at 4:30. But the two of us managed to maneuver into the L-shaped fuel dock, stern-to-stern, tie up, and hook up to shore power by 6 pm. Home again (for the night)! We had a nice dinner at the Harborside Restaurant with Bill & Nancy Polleys from "Cherish" and hit the sack. It seemed like a big day, even though we had only covered 68 miles, and fell short of the objective to get to Spring Brook.
Day 7, 9-3-03: Cherish leaves a little before the Harborside Dockmaster shows up at 8:00 (he had his credit card number), and we pay up. But diesel fuel is $2.12, so we decide to move on, and fill up at Spring Brook where they have a Carver dealer. There is no wind and some fog, and just before we're ready to crank engines, here comes Ralph Plagge (our "close" friend, the tow with 15 barges) sliding by. The Dresden Lock is only two miles down river, so we kick it up in hopes of getting through the lock with Cherish before they get committed to Ralph Plagge. But as we pass him, he advises that he's going to "beach it" and wait for the fog to lift, so no problem getting through the lock and on our way to Spring Brook a little after 9 am.
It's a nice big marina, and a woman in the office building responds to calls on the radio, but there's no one at the fuel dock. We wait for a Grand Banks to depart, pull in and tie up. In the office, we're told Diane can have a marina van to go to a nearby grocery store, and there was a dock-hand on the way with the "diesel tank trailer," and the service manager would be down to review my requests. We got the fuel flowing when I asked about the price -- $2.59!!!!!!!! And I had passed up $1.899 in Chicago and $2.12 at Harborside! But I really didn't want to risk going any further, because it was at least 150 miles to the next possibility (turned out to be 230!). After all the engine work at Green Bay, I needed the starboard engine idle speed adjusted (so it didn't kill at a bad time), and there was a new minor transmission fluid leak! So the service manager promptly sent down a mechanic who showed me how to adjust the idle speed, and quickly found a loose hose clamp. Two hours later, we're ready to go again!
It's 12 noon, and we're in and out of the Marseilles Lock (mm 245; drop 19') in a half hour, and by 2 pm we're another 14 miles down the Illinois and out of the Starved Rock Lock (mm 231; drop 19'). Another 52 miles looks like a reasonable stopping point at Hamm's Holiday Harbor, but that probably means another night on the Illinois after that, with a fuel stop at Beardstown to maintain a 1/4 tank reserve to Alton on the Mississippi. So a radio call confirms Dick Hamm can accommodate us, and by 4:30 we're approaching his harbor. His instructions sound a little confusing, as he warns of a couple "private markers" to lead us off the river channel between the barges to his entrance, "...and stay clear of the rocks on your port side!" Wow! It's down below 5' (with our 4.5' draft)! Dick swears we should be OK; "...stay close to the stern of the two tows tied up at the back of the double-deck paddle-wheeler." What ?!? I am barely moving here, and I see two men, one with a handheld radio on the upper deck of the old (and I mean OLD, beat up paddle-wheeler). And I can't tell where to go once I get in the harbor past the paddle-wheeler. There's another rusty OLD tow, half sunk in the water dead ahead. Dick waves, apparently meaning come on in around the front of the paddle-wheeler. There was no evidence my props ever touched bottom, but they had to be skimming awfully close. I'd put them in gear for second, then try to coast a few feet. In over 6,000 miles, I had never seen a marina like this! As I crawled around the front of the paddle-wheeler, between it and the rusty tub, the rest of the marina appeared on the right, and the depth increased to 7'. Had we made it? But we weren't done yet. I could see Dick running down the second dock over, but I had to get around the end of the first dock. The encouraging thing was a big Carver 570 was sitting on the end. I guess if he could get there I could; but I had to get between him and the trees on the far bank. No problem. We made it to the end-Tee of the second dock. But I felt like I was docking the QE2 on a raft. What a dump! We were surrounded by pontoon boats, and couple of dinky sailboats, and the oddest collection of vessels I'd ever seen. I wanted to take a picture, but never did figure out how to capture the "ambiance." You just had to be there!
So anyway, Dick Hamm was the kind of guy who seemed like an old friend after 5 minutes. He helped us get tied up and plugged in, and offered to take us to a great riverfront restaurant in town (Rome, IL). It WAS good. He stayed and had a beer, but then said he had to go home for dinner. An hour later he came back with his 2 year old grandson; a really cute red-headed kid, named Gunnar (but he said he was The Hulk!). As we drove back into the marina, we came by a large service/office building that must have been "decent" once upon a time. And it even had what looked like a boat dealer showroom. But it's better days were long gone. It was full of old junk boats, with windows broken, and doors hanging open on a hinge or two. And talk about "fixer-uppers" sitting around the yard!
And then I learned Dick could have pumped diesel from a truck for $1.69. I didn't need any! And it looked like it would be quite a project. No thank you. He was an old tow boat pilot (at least the two at the entrance had been recently painted), with "glamorous" stories of hauling gravel and rocks up and down the Illinois from Chicago. Then there was the story of the paddle-wheeler. It had been the one parked on the Mississippi in St. Louis at the Arch. In the flood of '93 it broke loose and crashed into a bridge down river. Dick went down and salvaged it!! That sounded like a trip home! Of course he pushed it with his tow boat, but couldn't see around it. So he tied one barge between the tow and the paddle-wheeler to give him a little angle view, but had to have someone on the front of the paddle-wheeler guiding him! His attitude? "I might fix it up some day!" No pressure here! His biggest concern was getting everything winterized so he could head to Florida for the winter. He also advised that they should be able to take care of me (fuel and overnight) down at Beardstown at Logsdon Tow Service. OK, that's a plan! Really nice guy. But what an experience.
Day 8, 9-4-03: It's a beautiful morning in Hamm's Holiday Harbor "paradise." And my first concern is getting turned around, and out of there! By 9 am, we were back on the river, and glad to have Hamm's in our history. By 10:30, we're through the Peoria Lock (mm158; drop 8'), and on our way to Beardstown. We should be there by 2:00; too early to stop, but too far to go all the way to Alton. So I spend some time on the cell phone, first learning that Logsdon Tow Service not only quit selling diesel, but the only tie-up is on the river side of a barge, with no access to power. There's a small marina just north of Beardstown that lists diesel in the cruising guide. But a phone call finally answered by a woman who knows nothing about their dock or the fuel situation. She has to find Grandpa to see what he thinks. Two callbacks; no grandpa. So I get the name of the local diesel fuel truck supplier, and catch him on his rounds of the local farmers and ferry boats. He'd be glad to meet us somewhere, but when I get to the "dock" recommended by Logsdon, there is no dock. And I should have taken a picture of "grandpa's" fuel dock. Sure enough, it was a small rusty barge with a tank on it, and in black paint, handwritten "diesel." But it was off the main river in "puddle" smaller than our boat; and the barge actually looked like it was sitting on the bottom. We struck out in Beardstown!
Our next hope in the Cruising Guide was Mel's Illinois River Dock at Hardin, IL (mile marker 21), 70 miles downriver; and there was still one more lock before we'd get there. That means arrival at 7:30 pm, IF we're lucky! And Mel has no fuel, but says no problem getting a truck first thing in the morning. We have no choice! But at least it is a feasible contingency plan.
We did have a wait at Lagrange Lock (mm 80; drop 6'), but got through by 4:30, and finally did arrive at Mel's as dusk was settling in at 7:30. He was there to help, and confirm that the fuel truck would be there. It was a solid dock, with good water depth. We had to do without shore power, but I found a water hose that reached way up the bank, so we could fill our tank. And we had a fantastic meal at Mel's restaurant, before turning in. There was a highway bridge just above Mel's dock that fortunately had 24' clearance closed; because it was under construction and temporarily out of commission. There was a long back-up of tows and barges on both sides of the bridge, with four empty tows "moored" just below the bridge. All night long, tows pushed barges under the bridge from one to another. The next morning, we saw one of the crews putting around in a dinghy fishing; collecting overtime! I'll bet there was a controller of the barge company sitting in his office somewhere tearing his hair out!
Day 9, 9-5-03: After some early morning fog cleared, it was a gorgeous day to finish The Loop! Mostly sunny, and 21 miles to the mouth of the Illinois River at the Mississippi at Grafton, IL! We were only going to Alton (36 miles total), so we had plenty of time to wait for the fuel truck Mel had ordered the day before. Meanwhile, we met another Looper who had tied up at Mel's dock behind us; David on "Godspeed." Another David showed up in the FS fuel truck and began pumping. I purposely hadn't inquired about the fuel price. After paying $2.599 at Spring Brook, I kinda didn't care, if you know what I mean. When I finally asked, David looked a little tentative, then said $1.38 (like I might think that was high!). Timing is everything, once again! At least I was able to take 360 gallons of "cheap fuel." When I told the other David on "Godspeed," he decided to top off his tanks as well. So Mel's Dock was a good stop after all.
Finally, about 10:25 am, we departed, and arrived at the junction marker of the Illinois (mile 0) and Mississippi (mile 218) exactly at 12 noon. My dearly beloved First Mate had found a couple roses in Hardin, IL, to celebrate our achievement. Our Great Loop was officially closed! 6,341 miles in 10 months and 30 days since we left our Home Port in Afton, MN, on 10-7-02. It was also 12 noon on 10-14-02 when we went past this point on the Mississippi on our way to Florida on Stage 1. She took a picture of me at the helm, with the junction marker showing dead ahead. Really hard to believe it's "over" so to speak! I felt like those athletes who win something and say, "This will take awhile to sink in." What an incredible experience. And as of this moment, it's all a memory!
After all the months and miles of "pioneering" new waters, it seemed strange to be back in familiar territory again. So, from here on down to Destin, it will be the third time traveling the waters. The 15 remaining miles to Alton were beautiful. And soon we were tying up on Dock I end-Tee. The highway bridge is a pretty sight, and we were even positioned just right so our satellite TV dish could lock-in through the "V" of the bridge cables. All was well!
It was a little like "coming home." As mentioned earlier, Diane had served notice that she wanted to go home (literally) from here. And it worked out great that our friend, Dan Aspinwall drove my car down, so she and Billie Jo could do that. He arrived early the next day (Saturday, 9/6), and we decided to connect with a couple old friends who lived nearby in the St. Louis area. It was Harriet Morgan and Kathryn, whom we had known during many years of vacationing together at Sanibel Island in Florida when we owned neighboring time-share condos. We wanted to take them on a short day-cruise, so Diane picked up something from the Golden Arches, and we headed back up the Mississippi for about 10 miles to the "Our Lady of the River" shrine. It was a beautiful day and a good time. And Dan (second from left in photo below) had his normal "hard time" fitting in with the current neighbor house-boaters! That evening we did "Fast Eddie's" with Danno -- cheap hamburgers and LOUD noise!! Then Sunday, we all took it easy with trip preparations, so we could get an early start Monday morning.
Thus endeth Stage 10; the last of our Great Loop. Next story and photos on Post-Loop Cruises....