Where Is STOUT Now?

Those of you who have followed this blog from its beginning know that one of its themes is perspective.  How it’s influenced, what it takes to change it and so on.  For the past few months, basically since my last post, we’ve spent much of our time reflecting on that.  And I put the blog on hold.  The turn north at Key West turned out to be a major milestone because it represented the last direction our trip would take … north … toward home and the closure of our Loop.  Then what?

Of course, we continued to cruise the ICW and have added to our experiences.  I’ll touch on some of those in future posts.  But while doing so, we made some decisions that affected how we’ve done this part of our trip.

The biggest decision we made is that we’re going to sell our home in Vermont and continue living as nomads for a time, while we are young enough and healthy enough to do so. Though our home has provided the treasured roots for our family, the kids are grown and establishing homes of their own. And the Captain and I have learned to live with fewer material needs and with more spontaneity. The house, with all of its associated costs and our tendency to nestle in there, has become contrary to that lifestyle. With heavy hearts balanced by our excitement over an untethered future, we decided to return home to prepare it for sale.

We’ll miss our backyard sanctuary

We’ll miss our backyard sanctuary



… and our beloved birds

… and our beloved birds

We were also watching the rainy weather in the north and high water levels that we correctly predicted would delay the opening of the Champlain Canal.  Knowing it would be difficult and probably very expensive to get back to Vermont to time the housing sale season properly, we started looking for a long-term slip farther south.

 What all this means is that we completed our Loop on April 28, 2019 at 1525 hours, when we officially crossed our wake in Virginia Beach, VA.

Wait, what? Why Virginia?

Well, many of you know we bought Stout on the West Coast and brought her to Vermont using a yacht transport service through the Panama Canal and relying on delivery captains on either end of the canal. The East Coast captain got her as far as Virginia Beach before weather and his own schedule impeded his ability to get her farther north. So on May 20, 2016, we took the helm for the first time at Long Bay Pointe Marina in Virginia Beach. We took two weeks off from work, flew to Virginia, moved aboard and with no prior experience with this complex vessel cruised her from Virginia Beach to Rouses Point, NY. That trip is the subject of its own future post, but I’ll share now a video from that first morning 3 years ago going under the same bridge from the opposite direction (which was under construction at the time).

In total our Great Loop consisted of 11 cruising months, 5,980 miles, 150 locks (give or take) and too many marinas, anchorages, bridges, crab pots, dolphins, herons, oysters, happy hours, laundromats, rented cars, friendly strangers, new friends and sunsets to count.  It is, indeed, the journey of a lifetime, and we feel truly blessed to have had this experience. 

Another graphic from our good friend PBW - The yellow dots show our journey from June 19, 2018 to April 28, 2019. The red line depicts our first trip north in May/June 2016.

Another graphic from our good friend PBW - The yellow dots show our journey from June 19, 2018 to April 28, 2019. The red line depicts our first trip north in May/June 2016.

So, what have we been doing since then …?  And what now?

Well, here’s the short version.  In early May of this year, we moved the boat from Virginia Beach to Cape Charles, leased a slip for 3 months, prepared Stout for short-term, in-water storage and caught a ride home with a family member and a plan to process the house for sale as quickly as possible.


View out into the Chesapeake from The Oyster Farm at King’s Creek Marina

View out into the Chesapeake from The Oyster Farm at King’s Creek Marina

We’d already done most of our grieving over the sale of the family home, and it was time to get busy. During the 2 months we were home we sorted through 35+ years of “stuff” and handed down, sold, donated or tossed mountains of items we no longer need.  Did we ever need them…?


We also had a large garage sale where our most significant sale seemed to be the house itself.  On the first morning of the 2-day sale we were approached by a family who for several years have been looking for their dream home in South Hero. The house is now under contract.  The possessions we chose to keep will be stored after the closing.

With that done we returned to Cape Charles and started making our way north to our next long-term stop in Casco Bay, Maine.  We will be spending future summers at the family cottage on Birch Island and will stay there after our home is sold until we start our trip south in the fall. 


Birch Island cottage, Casco Bay, Maine

Birch Island cottage, Casco Bay, Maine

New mooring for Stout in Casco Bay

New mooring for Stout in Casco Bay

New mooring location as seen from the Birch Island dock

New mooring location as seen from the Birch Island dock


We are not “cruising” on this segment of our journey, planning reasonable travel days and taking time to explore the stops along the way.  Rather, we are “passaging;” going as far as we can as fast as we can, taking into account wind and weather as always.  It has made for some long days during the recent extreme heat wave.  And this transitional time has had its frustrations.  But we are making progress toward our goal.

This is what a hot boat cat looks like after a day of passaging … Sorry Charlie!

This is what a hot boat cat looks like after a day of passaging … Sorry Charlie!

So, our perspective on the next few years has changed dramatically since we started our Loop a year ago.  We will continue to travel by water for a time, challenging ourselves in the process, living in the moment and living with less.   We will find new ways to keep the homefires burning using the logistical skills and maneuverability we’ve developed on this trip.  And we’ll continue to appreciate the beauty and diversity all around us and be grateful for the opportunity to do so.  A passage from a novel I’m currently reading sums it up rather nicely:

From  The Little Paris Bookshop , by Nina George (thanks Narda!)

From The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George (thanks Narda!)

I hope to be blogging more regularly as we move out of this transitional period.  There’s lots to catch up on from the last part of our Loop and more to add as we continue our travels.

Curious cygnets who paid us a visit recently in Milford, CT

Curious cygnets who paid us a visit recently in Milford, CT

Key West, FL to Hobe Sound, FL

Upon reaching the Keys, we found ourselves tied up again for stays longer than we’d planned.  In Key West we divided our time between 2 marinas, one within walking distance of Duval Street and the other on Stock Island which is a few miles out of town and has a slightly more refined reputation than our “downtown” stop.  We spent a total of 4 nights in 2 Key West marinas and were ready to move on.

In case you get lost in KW …

In case you get lost in KW …

For us the Key West part of the trip was more about taking our loop all the way around the southern tip of Florida than visiting Key West itself. Though I did want to spend some time exploring the Keys by water since I don’t expect we’ll cruise this way again.  The first marina was congested, a little gritty (at least we thought so) and very, very expensive.  Good news, though; the washers and dryers were free(!), and they were excellent machines in a wonderfully air conditioned room.  So after all the time spent in coin laundromats on this trip, we took advantage of good and blessedly chilly facilities and washed everything we could get our hands on.

Despite the laundry surprise, we felt like the pricing of everything greatly exceeded its value … and our budget.  But ya know, it’s Key West; what did we expect?  We did like being docked alongside the Harborwalk with its abundance of restaurants and watering holes, not to mention the people-watching opportunities.  It really does take ALL kinds.  We sampled a beer flight and hand-made pretzels at The Waterfront Brewery YUM!, enjoyed a cocktail and a sunset at Sunset Pier and spent one night bar-hopping because, ya know, it’s Key West. And although fun, enough was enough.  It was time to move on and give our wallets and our livers time to recover.

These pretzels are delivered warm. Can’t you just smell them?

These pretzels are delivered warm. Can’t you just smell them?

Sunset Pier

Sunset Pier

Bar hopping (the middle-aged version anyway)

Bar hopping (the middle-aged version anyway)

The next day, February 26, we reached the southernmost point on our journey, another trip milestone, and rounded the tip of Key West from west to east. From there we would be moving north for the remainder of our journey. The cruise from downtown Key West to Stock Island Marina was a short one. This particular marina is very popular among loopers because it offers a quieter, more resort-type experience than its downtown counterparts.  We were eager to leave downtown so we didn’t pay too much attention to the weather even though we knew the winds were blowing pretty seriously from the south.  It was a short but very bumpy ride.

Southernmost point of our Great Loop!

Southernmost point of our Great Loop!

Stock Island was a nice marina but still too expensive for us to fully enjoy it.  The pool was a nice touch, though, and offered relief from the tropical temperatures. What made it really worth the stop was the chance to see a former neighbor and friend who moved to Key West 14 years ago.  He operates a successful charter fishing business and took us to his favorite local hangout for dinner.  We still haven’t had any success fishing, so he was kind enough to let us ask him stupid questions, such as “How do you kill a fish with kindness?” or “Actually, how do you even catch a fish?” We had a great night and enjoyed catching up, though we were sorry to have missed his wife who was visiting family in the chilly northeast.

Our plan upon leaving Key West was to make our way through the middle and upper Keys pretty quickly.  However, once again we had a couple of important decisions to make that would impact our course and travel schedule - and I use the term “schedule” very loosely.  The first decision had been the subject of much indecision for a couple of months.  The Captain wanted to earn his open water SCUBA certification while in tropical waters but couldn’t decide whether to spend the money or not.  This wasn’t only a bucket-list item (and on that score alone I encouraged him to go for it).  Having the knowledge and proper equipment would better position him to deal with issues that could arise below the boat, such as clearing a fouled propeller should we run over one of the many crabpots we’ve worked so hard to avoid.  Because our boat is single-screw (only one engine), losing the ability to maneuver due to a fouled propeller could pose a significant safety risk.  And we’d probably have to hire a diver at high cost. There are other reasons to hire a diver as well, or even have the boat hauled, like cleaning organic material off the bottom or changing the anodes (I’ll spare you that explanation, but it’s important).  And none of those other options are cheap. So, the Captain found a good diving school in Marathon, and there we stayed for a week.

Seven-Mile Bridge (between Key West and Marathon)

Seven-Mile Bridge (between Key West and Marathon)

Well, Marathon isn’t cheap either, but interestingly enough one of the nicest marinas in the area was among the cheapest.  That’s because the property was initially developed in 2008, right when the economy started to go downhill. Development was halted until very recently, and the property is now undergoing major renovation. I expect prices to rise dramatically when the project is complete, but in the meantime, we and a handful of other loopers had the resort, with it’s gorgeous harbor and pool, almost to ourselves. The location also offered a front-row seat to wildlife and, of course, more sunset viewing.

Oh yes, and this happened too, but only for a moment …

Oh yes, and this happened too, but only for a moment …

This was a great place for me to hang out while the Captain did his online coursework followed by 2 days of diving.  Needless to say, he passed with flying colors and is now certified. And he’s been outfitted with exactly what he needs should he have to do some underwater troubleshooting.  Congratulations, Captain!

Now with our wallets really hurting … we had another decision to make.  To cruise from the lower Keys to the upper Keys, you can go the inside route through Florida Bay (on the Gulf side of Florida) or the outside route via the Hawk Channel (in the Atlantic).  The Florida Bay route is the most protected with lots of anchoring opportunities. That would really help with wallet recovery.  But the waters in Florida Bay are very, very shallow. Stout draws about 5’ and most loopers and looping “experts” agree that boats drawing more than 4.5’ are well advised to go the Hawk Channel route.  That was our original plan, but as we looked for places to anchor, the few options we found were too exposed for our liking.  So we did a little more research and decided we could cruise in Florida Bay, albeit very carefully.  And that’s what we did.  We monitored our tide charts and used a rising tide to get through the sections with “skinny water.” 

The Florida Bay route allowed us to spend 3 nights at anchor—in Tarpon Basin near Key Largo the first night, off Sands Key apx. 10 miles south of Miami the second night (a favorite) and in busy Lake Sylvia in Fort Lauderdale the third. All worked well and were cheap.

Miami skyline moving north from Sands Key anchorage

Miami skyline moving north from Sands Key anchorage

In transit from the second to the third anchorage, we experienced another cool little coincidence.  On March 11, 2019 we passed through Port Everglades and went right by the Yacht Express yacht freighter getting ready to unload the following morning.  Three years ago, almost to the day — March 12, 2016 – the Captain, his cousin and I boarded Stout to take possession of her for the first time on the East Coast after she had arrived in Port Everglades from Mexico via Yacht Express.  Yacht Express was the freighter that moved her from the West Coast to the East Coast through the Panama Canal shortly after we bought her on the West Coast.  And we cruised past the same freighter in the same place on the same date 3 years later.  We did not plan it that way.  Dozens of decisions we’ve made could have placed us anyplace else on this particular date.  But instead of questioning these little coincidences, we spent some time reminiscing.

And here’s the original footage …


We entered the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (“ICW”) in Miami earlier this week and immediately went from leisurely cruising on open water and around barrier islands to a much busier experience.  

Our Fort Lauderdale anchorage was much more urban and congested than our previous anchorages

Our Fort Lauderdale anchorage was much more urban and congested than our previous anchorages



Some call the section of the ICW between Miami and West Palm the concrete canyon or concrete jungle.  There are lots of bridges to plan around, huge yachts in the waterway and docked alongside it as well as crazy boat traffic that has no problem passing within a few feet at high speed and throwing a serious wake in your direction. This section also reflects an enormous amount of wealth.

We took 2 cruising days to go from Miami to North Palm Beach.  During that time we went under 37 bridges, 27 of which were drawbridges that either open on a predetermined schedule or on signal.  We did 20 of those on the second day with a strong north wind blowing directly on our bow for over 50 miles.  We were pooped, and it wasn’t even the weekend (we’d been warned to avoid the concrete canyon on the weekend at all costs).  So we tucked into another marina in North Palm Beach for a couple of nights.  We rested a bit, filled our water tanks, pumped out our holding tank and otherwise prepared ourselves for a few more cherished nights at anchor.

One bridge at a time …

One bridge at a time …

And that’s where we are now.  We’ve decided to slow down a little and enjoy a few shorter cruising days which means longer evenings at anchor.  Yesterday we cruised a mere 14 miles and are anchored in a lovely little cove in Hobe Sound, a bit south of Stuart, FL.  Cooler temperatures and breezes have arrived.

We’ll hoist the anchor shortly and continue our slow push north.

Only in Key West can you wake to the sound of feral roosters crowing and the Star Spangled Banner being broadcast in the streets

Only in Key West can you wake to the sound of feral roosters crowing and the Star Spangled Banner being broadcast in the streets

Punta Gorda, FL to Key West, FL

When I began writing this post, we were in the most remote and, for us, the most special place in all the miles we’ve traveled since starting our loop. And that’s saying something, because we’ve now traveled almost 4,500 miles and made many special stops along the way.

That place was an anchorage off Cape Sable Beach on the southwest corner of the Florida Peninsula. From there south, there’s nothing but the Keys. We cruised to Cape Sable from a river anchorage farther north in the Everglades and dropped the hook on the east side of the beach to make sure we were in the lee of the prevailing winds. We stayed 2 glorious nights waiting for the winds to subside so we could then make our long open-water reach to Key West.

A perfect little escape,  courtesy of Google Maps

A perfect little escape, courtesy of Google Maps

Other than a sailboat and sprinkling of fishermen, there was no one there.  And there was no sound other than the gusty winds, the surf hitting the beach around the point, some shore birds and raptors, dolphins occasionally surfacing and very large jumping fish we couldn’t identify. And we had zero cell coverage there, so none of the usual distractions. 

When we first got there, we settled the boat at anchor and then literally did nothing other than watch the blue-sky afternoon transition to a deep star-filled night.  We turned our chairs west at sunset and enjoyed a cocktail as the burning sun melted into the purple horizon.  And because there was no ambient light, we found ourselves under a blanket of stars.  That’s when we moved to the foredeck and laid on our backs to stargaze until it was time to sleep.  Fully in the moment, a very long uninterrupted moment.

After our second night at Cape Sable, which went very much like the first, diminishing winds were still predicted so off we went across 60-plus miles of open water to Key West. We bounced around for a good portion of the trip but Stout was happy and we were prepared. It was 89 degrees off shore with steady southeasterly winds. And it was another amazing open-water cruise. We started before the sun was fully up and tied up in Key West, hot and tired, 9 hours later.

Nothing but gorgeous blue-green water all around all day. Oh yeah, except for the crab pot obstacle courses that kept the Captain busy.

Nothing but gorgeous blue-green water all around all day. Oh yeah, except for the crab pot obstacle courses that kept the Captain busy.

Backing up a bit, I haven’t yet talked about the trip from Punta Gorda to the Everglades. So, I’ll do that now. From Punta Gorda we continued south toward Fort Myers, spending one more night on the hook before tying up again for a month.  Our original plan was to spend that night in Pelican Bay, an absolutely beautiful anchorage bordered on the west by Cayo Costa State Park and on the east by Punta Blanca Island.  Both are undeveloped, virtually in their natural state, and serve as bird sanctuaries.  A little like heaven to me.

The cruise to Pelican Bay was short, so we anchored with plenty of time to spare before dark.  We dropped the dinghy and had a great time exploring the shallow waters, including a trip through the so-called “Tunnel of Love.”  It’s a gap in the mangroves just wide enough and (barely) deep enough for our 9-foot dinghy.  The Captain carefully maneuvered us through, even paddling at times, while I was on high alert for ‘gators and snakes.  Fortunately, we didn’t come across any… But we did emerge from the tunnel into a small, mangrove-lined cove right on the back side of an utterly deserted Gulf beach.  Truly lovely and peaceful.  We spent some time walking the beach looking for shells and basically enjoying the peace and quiet before returning to the dinghy and retracing our steps to Stout.  That was definitely among my Top 10 ways to spend an afternoon.  Little did I know we’d encounter my No. 2 at Cape Sable (No. 1 will always be reserved for family).

Once we were back aboard Stout, the Captain became increasingly concerned that where we’d chosen to anchor was too shallow, and the tide was going out.  We’d had time to explore and still had a few daylight hours left, so we weighed anchor and moved a little farther south.  We ended up on the hook off Cabbage Key, the site of the inspiration for Jimmy Buffet’s Cheeseburger in Paradise.  We chose to forgo the cheeseburger and instead ate sandwiches as the sun went down.

In the morning we cruised past Pine Island, Captiva Island (a personal favorite) and up the Caloosahatchee River to Fort Myers.  In our loop planning we knew we’d need to find a winter “home,” a warm place to hold over until it made seasonal sense to think about starting the trip north.  On the recommendation of a fellow Vermont looper, we were fortunate to find a slip at the Edison Ford marina in Fort Myers.  We tied up there for a month.

View of the marina from Pinchers restaurant. You can see Stout on the left, the boat that’s bow in with a black bicycle cover on the upper deck

View of the marina from Pinchers restaurant. You can see Stout on the left, the boat that’s bow in with a black bicycle cover on the upper deck

The marina is right next door to the historic and lovely winter estates of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. https://www.edisonfordwinterestates.org

It’s a small and extremely well run marina and within walking distance of the downtown River District of Fort Myers.  The small size and tendency of transient boaters like ourselves to stay there for extended periods creates the atmosphere of a little neighborhood.  Among our neighbors were two other Vermont boats, believe it or not, as well as boats we’d encountered along the inland rivers. 

While there we hunkered down inside the cabin and watched movies during a late January cold spell, toured some of the surrounding areas by rented car, spent some time downtown, completed small maintenance projects, enjoyed a few dinners out and docktails with our fellow travelers and did lots of reading. The highlight, though, was a visit from our daughter and her boyfriend in early February.  They managed to get a few days off from work and flew in from Vermont to escape the cold, snowy north.  We took them on a cruise to Tween Waters Island Resort on Captiva Island and spent a couple of nights there with access to a pool, private beach and other resort amenities. Our daughter was sort of obsessed with fishing while aboard.  That is, until she caught one.  This poor little catfish, whom she’d caught and released once, swallowed the hook so release wasn’t possible a second time.  Her boyfriend, who just happens to be a sous chef, came to the rescue.  He not only filleted it (with my knives that were in desperate need of sharpening which he very politely yet firmly pointed out), but served us all an amazing catfish lunch on the cruise back to Fort Myers the following day.  We are definitely getting spoiled on this journey.

 

By the end of the month, we’d grown fond of Fort Myers but were antsy and ready to get going again.  Barring unforeseen events, that will be our last extended stay of our trip.

For many loopers, Fort Myers is a turning point.  They continue up the Caloosahatchee River and cut across to Florida’s east coast via Lake Okeechobee and turn north from there.  We considered that … but not for long.  The Everglades were in reach, and we knew this might be our only opportunity to see them from the water.   And how cool will it be to cruise around Key West before turning north for the first time since Georgian Bay?! 

The forecast at the time of our departure from Fort Myers included strong winds every day for a week. So we took our time getting to Cape Sable which, as I’ve already mentioned, was the launching off point for our open water cruise to Key West. We cruised first to Marco Island and hung out there for 4 nights - 2 at anchor and 2 in a marina - and then anchored for a night in the Ten Thousand Islands (Russell Pass anchorage) before making the run to Cape Sable.  Marco Island is nice but a little too high-brow for me.

While both Russell Pass and Cape Sable offer unique and lovely Everglades experiences, they were quite different.  In Russell Pass we were surrounded by mangroves and by wildlife we knew was there but didn’t see, except for the no-see-ums!  They were everywhere, particularly toward sunset, and if you weren’t behind a screen, you were going to get eaten!  Tiny bug, big biter.  At Cape Sable the wide open spaces and strong breezes kept the air moving and the bugs away.

There’s more I’d like to say about the Everglades, but it’s time to explore Key West.  Let’s see what kind of wildlife we find here …

Pensacola, FL to Punta Gorda, FL

Happy New Year from Stout!

 After staying tied up for 6 weeks in Tarpon Springs, FL, we are thrilled to be cruising again, heading south along the west coast of Florida. For most of the last 6 weeks, we were either home for the holidays or biding our time in Tarpon Springs for this reason or that, so there haven’t been many looping experiences to share. Now that we are moving again, I hope to return to more regular blogging.

Turtle Cove Marina - Stout’s home for 6 weeks

Turtle Cove Marina - Stout’s home for 6 weeks

Early morning view toward the Sponge Docks

Early morning view toward the Sponge Docks

Having said that, I do believe our experience before reaching Tarpon Springs is worth sharing.  I last posted just after Thanksgiving when we left Pensacola to head east along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) toward Carrabelle.  The GIWW ends near Carrabelle before it picks up again at Tarpon Springs, with open water in between.  Loopers with slow boats like ours have an important decision to make when getting ready to leave the Panhandle for Florida’s west coast – whether to make several daylight only hops along the Big Bend of Florida or do one overnight passage across the Gulf, a trip lasting more than 20 hours, most of which is out of sight of land and, at this time of year, in the dark.  We chose the latter for a couple of reasons.  First of all, we have become very comfortable with Stout’s seaworthiness. In reasonable weather, the boat can easily handle the Gulf waters. Also, the Big Bend presents challenges of its own – long, shallow inlets (perhaps too shallow at low tide) at Steinhatchee and Crystal River and a relatively unprotected anchorage at Cedar Key. Then, there’s the need for several good weather days in a row. After much consideration, we decided on an overnight passage and prepared accordingly.

We took the Tarpon Springs route - From Captain Alan Lloyd’s hugely helpful  Great Loop Navigation Notes

We took the Tarpon Springs route - From Captain Alan Lloyd’s hugely helpful Great Loop Navigation Notes

The trip from Pensacola to Carrabelle was all inland cruising and pretty uneventful.  We spent the first night on the hook in Baklava Bay.  We did a little fishing (unsuccessfully) watched the sunset and relaxed, with time to discuss the upcoming overnight passage.

Another sunset on the hook

Another sunset on the hook

The next day dawned overcast and gloomy, a fitting backdrop for our return to the hurricane-ravaged areas near Panama City.  The pictures tell the story – swamped boats and miles upon miles of broken trees lining the waterway.  

We felt very fortunate to find a marina with a slip for us with power, though it may have been the only transient slip available, and the marina offices were fully out of commission. They were grateful for our business and offered a very nice restaurant next door that, inexplicably, was untouched by the storm.  During the Captain’s conversation with the dockmaster, he learned that more than 150 boats were lost in the marina-owned storage area just across the river.

Remaining sections of Lighthouse Marina, Panama City, with restaurant in the background

Remaining sections of Lighthouse Marina, Panama City, with restaurant in the background

The following day was gloomy as well, and a storm taunted us as we worked our way through Mexico Beach, the hardest hit area, to Apalachicola.  A good section of the waterway there is quite narrow, and we spent several hours passing between damaged river banks that must have been quite lovely before the trees were split in half and scattered like toothpicks.  The not-too-distant thunder and occasional flashes of lightning served as an eerie reminder that Mother Nature could impose her will at any time.  How must that feel to the people living here facing the daily task of picking up the pieces and moving on?  Hard for a couple of northerners to imagine. 

My mood declined even further when I called the marina in Apalachicola to confirm our reservation.  A lovely woman named Thelma answered the phone, confirmed our spot and then explained that power may not be available given the water damage they’d sustained.  I told her we understood and were grateful simply for a place to tie up, power or no power.  Apparently, the 48’ yacht one day ahead of us had complained several times about the power situation and followed up with a phone call after their departure to rant about the absence of oysters in the restaurant.  Wait, what?!!  How could someone cruise past all the destruction and then complain about compromised service?  It boggles the mind.  We experienced a secure night in Apalachicola, with power, and enjoyed a super fresh seafood dinner in the restaurant.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to meet Thelma and express our appreciation in person.

Scipio Creek Marina, Apalachicola … looks pretty good from this angle

Scipio Creek Marina, Apalachicola … looks pretty good from this angle

From Apalachicola it was on to Carrabelle to wait for the next weather window that appeared to be opening the following day.   We made one more marina reservation then changed our minds when we got there.  With building winds from the west, a very small slip, questionable docks and no way to contact the dockmaster, we decided this location was a no go.  After a couple of grumbly minutes that go part and parcel with a trip of this nature, we settled on an anchorage off Carrabelle Beach.  The spot we chose was lovely.  However, the steady winds kept us rocking all night.  Tolerable, but bouncy enough to encourage an early departure the following day.

Early morning at Carrabelle Beach

Early morning at Carrabelle Beach

In the morning we were ready to get going.  The trick with this overnight crossing is not to leave too early on the day of departure, as doing so could set us up to arrive with the morning sun in our eyes.  That plus fatigue could make it difficult to navigate through the crab pots and up the shallow river at the end of the trip.  Most of the guidelines we’ve read recommend an early afternoon departure.  We made it to about 1030.  The Captain ran his checklist, I secured the interior and we weighed anchor with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

Here’s what a single crab pot looks like, about the size of a softball - they are usually laid out in strings and heavily clustered

Here’s what a single crab pot looks like, about the size of a softball - they are usually laid out in strings and heavily clustered

For context, here’s what we expected.

Many loopers look to “Eddy” first for crossing guidance.  Eddy Johnson is a former air force pilot and a loop veteran who voluntarily analyzes weather data from various sources and shares his opinion on comfortable crossing days through the looper forum.  He has a lot of credibility among loopers and is an appreciated resource for those of us trying to make our own decision.  We also checked our usual sources and found that they were generally in agreement.  We would have a very narrow crossing window on a moonless night with higher winds/waves on the front end diminishing a few hours into the crossing and resulting in calmer seas overnight and in the final hours.  That all seemed reasonable to us, so off we went.

East Pass, last sight of land for many miles

East Pass, last sight of land for many miles

I have to say that cruising out into the Gulf knowing we would lose sight of land at some point was pretty exciting.  Our route took us out through East Pass and into the Gulf. Soon we began to leave the shoreline behind.  To start we had 2’ to 3’ waves off our port rear quarter which resulted in something resembling following seas.  That kept us relatively comfortable but the auto-pilot and rudder were both working hard to maintain a course.  And they did so all night long.  In these early hours before sundown with auto-pilot engaged, the two of us spent the afternoon on the foredeck with the waves at our backs and the unobstructed sea in front of us.  It’s hard to describe the feeling of cruising aboard a stout vessel in open water with the person you love beside you and the sun warming your neck as it sets behind you.  Suffice it to say that you feel very much alive.

Nothing but water …

Nothing but water …

Right before the sun set, we found ourselves surrounded by a huge pod of dolphins, mothers and their young, all riding our bow wake or gliding through the water alongside us.  I know when recounting moments such as this it’s easy to get sentimental.  But this truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  We estimated there to be more than a hundred dolphins around the boat (though the video shows only those off the starboard bow).  And this was their territory, not ours.  We maintained our course and speed, took as many pictures as we could and mostly just appreciated being part of what was happening around us.  Not something you see every day.

And then the sun set.  At 1730.  It is winter after all, and the days are short. Despite all of our planning, we hadn’t given any thought to the Captain’s occasional struggle with motion sickness.  After all, we’d been nearly 3,000 miles with not even a hint of discomfort.  But when it got dark with no moon and he lost sight of the horizon, there it was.  I was oblivious.  Instead, I was paying attention to the wind which was getting stronger despite predictions that it would start subsiding around this time. Instead, it increased to a max of 18 knots just after sunset and stayed in that range for several hours causing me some concern.

Stunning; also the start of a long dark night

Stunning; also the start of a long dark night

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The Captain eventually drew my attention through the act of being quiet.  Very quiet.  When I asked, he told me what was going on and at my urging took respite on the daybed in the pilot house.  I took the helm.  We had planned to get through the night by alternating 2-hour shifts – 2 hours at the helm followed by 2 hours of sleep and so on.  My first shift just happened to start a little earlier than expected.  There wasn’t much for me to do.  The pilot house was dark and quiet.  We were still on auto-pilot, and my only responsibilities were to watch the course, radar and depth sounder and make sure I didn’t see anything on the water that might represent a hazard.  I took my job very seriously and “manned” the helm while the Captain took some time to acclimate to his surroundings.  Happily, the wind began to subside by 2030 and remained steady at 11 knots for the remainder of the trip.  Much more comfortable.  The Captain resumed control of the helm at 2200 hours, at which point I caught some shuteye.  At 0200 I wiggled myself awake and fixed us both a light meal.  I took over again at 0300 so the Captain could catch his needed winks, though I think he only dozed with one eye open.  I watched the instruments, jumped up and down and stretched to get the blood pumping and made a point of peering out into the darkness to stay alert.  Still, there was absolutely nothing on radar … no ships, no land, no junk in the water.  All good for purposes of navigation but really boring when on watch in the middle of a dark night.  The Captain woke up and took over permanently at 0500.  I made him some coffee and then crashed … hard.

 When I woke again at 0700, we were back within sight of land and beginning the approach to the Anclote River which would happily take us from the Gulf to Tarpon Springs.  The Captain had adjusted our speed to time our arrival without the sun in our eyes. We cruised to our slip at Turtle Cove Marina at mid-tide – we probably couldn’t have made our way in at low tide – and were grateful to have helpful hands to guide us into our slip.  We tied up, followed the dockhand like tired puppies as he led us to the office – to pay and to shower – and then returned to our vessel for a long nap in a secure location.  And what a great nap it was.

Anclote River entrance - we made it!

Anclote River entrance - we made it!

Tarpon Springs was an excellent place to leave Stout when we flew home for the holidays. We spent time in Vermont and Maine over a 3-week period and immersed ourselves in family and friends. While it was wonderful to catch up with our loved ones, Vermont was cold and gray and both of us had colds for the duration of our stay. After New Year’s we were ready to return to our floating home and warmer weather.

One final week in Tarpon Springs allowed us to take care of some necessary boat projects.  The hot sun is tough on varnished wood, and the toe rails around the foredeck were in dire need of attention.  Neither the Captain nor I have experience with this kind of work, so during our first week in Tarpon Springs we drove to Sarasota to seek guidance from Bill Turner at Teakdecking Systems. There we were given great advice and acquired the materials we needed for the job.

Thanks, Bill!

Thanks, Bill!

We were blessed with favorable weather and got busy with a heat gun, 2 coats of stain, 8 coats of topcoat and lots of sandpaper and elbow grease.  We finished last Saturday quite pleased with our work.  On Sunday, we were ready to cast off our lines and get cruising again. Finally!!

So far the GIWW on the west coast of Florida offers wonderful cruising.  We’ve spent 3 nights at anchor, first in Boca Ciega Bay in Gulfport, then off Otter Key in Sarasota followed by a night at Cape Haze. Then yesterday we made our way to Burnt Store Marina just south of Punta Gorda to spend a wonderful evening with friends.  We have slowly regained our cruising rhythm after 6 weeks in port.  South Florida awaits.

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Inland Rivers to Gulf Intracoastal Waterway – Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway to Pensacola, FL

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  We hope you all enjoyed good company and great feasting and had some time to reflect on the things for which you are most thankful. 

The Captain and I spent Thursday at a marina in Pensacola thinking of family and friends back home and feeling thankful but rather far away. We are not missing the freezing temperatures that hit the northeast this week, not even a little, but we do miss our families and appreciate that technology allows us to stay in touch. There’s not much technology can do about a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, however. The restaurant we chose tried but couldn’t come close to the usual family fare.

We have been very, very spoiled …

We have been very, very spoiled …

Nevertheless, we continue to celebrate our journey and have made a lot of progress in the past few weeks, though not necessarily in terms of distance traveled.  We left Bobby’s Fish Camp on November 2 pleased that we had only 2 more days of river travel ahead of us.  The lower Black Warrior-Tombigbee, which joins with the Alabama River a little below Bobby’s to become the Mobile River, was my favorite part of our entire inland river cruise, with the possible exception of one remote section of the Tennessee River.  As we worked our way south toward Mobile, we continued to meet a fair amount of tow traffic but saw little else other than a gradual transition from forested banks to marshland.  And yes, our first gator – a big one!

What this picture doesn’t show is the egret just outside the frame that is the subject of the gator’s intense interest

What this picture doesn’t show is the egret just outside the frame that is the subject of the gator’s intense interest

Because this section of the rivers offers no marinas and limited anchorages, we cruised until we found the right place to drop the hook, just before sunset.  The Captain pinpointed a beautiful anchorage in the Tensas River which we shared with 4 other boats and still had plenty of room to swing.  We didn’t really need a lot of room, though, because the anchor set well in the muddy bottom and a gentle current kept us exactly where we wanted to be.  It was a very peaceful night, and we both got a good night’s sleep.

Here’s a satellite map showing where we pulled off the main river to spend the night at anchor -  from Active Captain

Here’s a satellite map showing where we pulled off the main river to spend the night at anchor - from Active Captain

We woke to a beautiful morning, enjoyed a cup of coffee on the hook and then started the cruise that would take us off the rivers.  The day was bright and so were our moods, as we were more than ready to break free of the inland waterways and enter the Gulf of Mexico.  The riverbanks continued their transition to sandy shoreline and saltwater marsh, and at last we found ourselves in Mobile Bay.

The bustle of the bay was a bit of a wakeup call after many days of relative quiet, but we were too busy enjoying the moment to be terribly concerned.  As we caught our first glimpse of the busy harbor, we relived our entry into the river system in Chicago 7 weeks earlier and all that we had experienced since then.  And we shared a true sense of accomplishment recognizing the new perspective we’ve gained, what we’ve learned, the challenges we’ve overcome and how we’ve grown as a team.  And then we experienced one of those cool little coincidences that occasionally punctuate life events.

A little context. Coast Guard regulations require pleasure craft, like ours, to keep a formal ship’s log.  We bought a new log book at the start of our loop, and completing the log is an important beginning and end to every day’s travel.  We log the captain and crew, ports of departure and arrival, times of departure and arrival, weather conditions, barometric pressure, wave height – you get the picture.  We also log events, like when we lock in and out, and certain milestones.  So, as we entered Mobile Bay, a huge milestone, I made a log entry.  And then when I turned the page, I discovered that we’d reached the last page of the log book just as we exited the river system.  That meant we would start a new log book with the next and very different phase of our journey.  We thought that was pretty cool timing.

From there things became a little unpredictable, more so than usual.  We had preexisting plans to visit family and friends in Tucson for several days in the early part of November.  We had made arrangements to leave Stout at a marina in Mobile while we were away.  But when we got there that afternoon, we were surprised by the poor condition of the facilities and the apparent lack of any managerial oversight.  This particular marina had enjoyed a fine reputation in the past but experienced decline when it’s highly regarded owner passed away a few years ago. We certainly weren’t going to feel comfortable leaving our boat there while we were in Arizona, so we made some quick phone calls and decided to make our way to The Wharf marina at Orange Beach the next day.  That meant a Mobile Bay crossing on a very windy day, leading to a seasick little boat cat. Fortunately, he’s very resilient and recovered quickly, and the peace of mind we gained from having changed our plans was well worth it (not sure Charlie is in full agreement on that).

Charlie’s getting his sea legs

Charlie’s getting his sea legs

 

It was on that trip that we finally entered the Intracoastal Waterway after having dreamt about cruising it for years.  As if on cue, the moment we left the bay for the protected channel, 4 dolphins rode our bow wake as if to welcome us to calmer, warmer waters.  Since then they’ve become somewhat regular visitors, but for me that was definitely a loop highlight.

We pivoted yet again at The Wharf because we were lucky enough to find a great boatyard nearby that was willing to haul Stout and attend to some important maintenance issues while we were away.

Then off we went to Arizona.  The Captain, who is also a travel agent extraordinaire, found us a fantastic little casita in the Sonoran desert, which placed us within a few miles of the family and friends we were visiting.  To say we were a little disoriented by the 180-degree change in our surroundings is an understatement.  But we do so love the desert, so we traded our webbed fingers and toes for cowboy boots, dried out our bones and had a blast.  Most important of all, we enjoyed an annual gathering of family and friends and got to spend time with our daughter whom we hadn’t seen since June!

Then back to Orange Beach with nowhere to stay.  The Stout punch list took longer to complete than anticipated due to unseasonably cold and rainy weather, so we had more time to kill before we were able to move back aboard.  What to do?  “Well,” we said, “we can sit in a hotel room for a week. OR… New Orleans is only a 3-hour drive from here, so why not go there and continue the disorientation.”  So we did.  We took the scenic route by rented car and stayed in the French Quarter.  What a hoot!  It was exactly like I expected and nothing like it at all.  We loved the diversity – human, musical, culinary and otherwise. Two days later we were quite sated and ready to leave the wonderful chaos behind.  

Back again to Orange Beach, and Stout was spic and span and ready to travel in salt water. And we were ready to resume our journey and reengage in more reasonable behavior as to our personal finances.

All ready for salt water - new bottom paint, new anodes (magnesium for fresh water/zinc for salt water), new gasket for the pilot house window, fiberglass dings repaired and freshly washed and waxed hull

All ready for salt water - new bottom paint, new anodes (magnesium for fresh water/zinc for salt water), new gasket for the pilot house window, fiberglass dings repaired and freshly washed and waxed hull

Refurbished prop, too - the rivers apparently had taken their toll

Refurbished prop, too - the rivers apparently had taken their toll

Oh yes, and a transom cleared of soot stains and newly lettered

Oh yes, and a transom cleared of soot stains and newly lettered

We just spent 2 nights in Pensacola and this morning began making our way farther east along the Florida Panhandle.  We expect to make it as far as Carabelle early next week and then wait for a weather window to make the “jump” across the Gulf to Tarpon Springs.  Until then, we will be cruising, planning, preparing and reorienting ourselves to the simpler life to which we’ve become accustomed.

Santa’s sleigh and Christmas carols in downtown Pensacola. Disorienting, indeed.

Santa’s sleigh and Christmas carols in downtown Pensacola. Disorienting, indeed.


Inland Rivers (Mississippi River to Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway)

After a rather lengthy hiatus, I’m returning to the blog.  Since my last post we have traveled just over 700 river miles and have completed all the “big” rivers – Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee - as well as the Tennessee-Tombigbee (“Tenn-Tom”) Waterway.  A very loyal subscriber sent us the great graphic below which illustrates our progress.

Thanks again, PBW!

We are now on the very peaceful Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway making our way to Mobile Bay and the transition to salt water, tides and points south.  As I began to write this, we were tied to the dock at Bobby’s Fish Camp in rural southern Alabama.  Bobby’s is an iconic location among loopers.  It boasts one of the oldest restaurants in Alabama and a 150’ dock that’s the only game in town other than a few anchorages that we find are either a little too small for us or too exposed to tow traffic.  Our first night there and the following morning, we had the whole place to ourselves, and it was delightful.

More boats arrived mid-day, and we ended up tied to the dock with 2 other boats tied to us (rafting), 3 boats rafted in front of us and another boat behind us.  Because there were 7 boats here that night, our hosts opened the otherwise-closed restaurant for us and served what is generally considered to be the best fried catfish, hush puppies and cole slaw in the region.  We concur.

We ended up staying for 3 days due to strong storms that pushed through yesterday, so I finally had some time to focus on the blog. I sat there on a stormy day literally surrounded by boats and tried to figure out how to describe the last several weeks.  I had a really hard time writing my last post and an even harder time rereading it.  Too much of it focused on detail and logistics and not enough on our experience.  I noticed, too, that the tone reflected a degree of stress though we weren’t necessarily aware of it at the time.  I have gained some perspective on that in hindsight.

Once your loop takes you into the inland river system, a few things happen.  First, it's fall and the days start getting shorter so your daily planning needs to ensure that you reach your destination before nightfall.  The number of river miles you can travel in a day can vary greatly due to the strength of the current and whether you are moving with or against it. For example, cruising downstream on the Mississippi River getting pushed by a 2- to 3-knot current, we were able to travel 110 river miles in one day – our greatest distance yet.

On the other hand, when we entered the Ohio River the very next day and began cruising upstream against the current, our average cruising speed of 9.5 knots immediately dropped to 5 knots.  We made it only 54 river miles that day.  About half the distance!

One small turn to port, around the corner from the Mississippi to the Ohio, and an abrupt loss of 4.5 to 6 knots of forward speed

One small turn to port, around the corner from the Mississippi to the Ohio, and an abrupt loss of 4.5 to 6 knots of forward speed

Next, finding good marinas becomes even more challenging, not only because those that can accommodate larger boats are fewer and farther between but also the number of loopers moving south and funneling into the rivers increases the (mostly but not always) friendly competition for resources.  Anchorages are also more challenging because in a river you are dealing with current, sometimes a strong one, and debris, not to mention passing tows which traverse the rivers 24/7.  Just a couple of weeks ago, an anchored sailboat (which had its anchor light on) was hit by a tow in the middle of the night - the boat was damaged; thankfully, no one was hurt.  Not something anyone ever wants to happen but certainly a risk that comes with this kind of journey.

And even the best laid plans can be halted by fog.

Photo taken by another looper

Photo taken by another looper

Interestingly enough, our enjoyment of the rivers has increased as we’ve moved south, and in ascending order.  The Illinois was the least appealing.  We found any beauty overshadowed by industry and pollution.  Oh yeah, and Asian Carp. The river’s relatively narrow with lots of tow traffic as I’ve described in an earlier post.  So navigation can be quite stressful. And the locks are notoriously unpredictable which gets back to the planning challenge.

Next, the Mississippi. The Mississippi locks also added an element of uncertainty, but there were only two of them.  The biggest issue we had with this river was the swift current, lots of floating debris large enough to be hazardous and the sparsity of marina/anchorage locations and distance between them.  But it’s a nice wide river with lots of room to maneuver and for me, at least, it evoked some sentiment due to its place in US history and literature.

See what I mean?

See what I mean?

The Ohio, while still quite industrial, began to offer more glimpses of the natural environment, and our passage on it was blessedly short with no real locks to contend with.  That’s because a new lock that just opened (and is still under construction after 30 years and $3 billion!) has replaced two old locks that frustrated prior loopers to no end.  The big issues with the Ohio were the current, which the Captain fought all day and which meant slow, tedious progress.  On the bright side, our long pull upstream landed us at the Paducah municipal dock, a very secure mooring in a cool little city where we got off the boat to enjoy a delightful steak and wine experience at historic Doe’s. Check it out! http://www.doeseatplace.com/index.html We also treated ourselves to a a night at the Riverside Holiday Inn with a real bed, a real shower and an escape from the incessant heat and humidity! This was our first night off the boat since leaving Vermont in June.

Paducah is protected from changing river levels by a high wall that seals off the city when necessary. The images that follow are a few of the many paintings that line the city-side of the wall and share the city’s history. They’re huge and really beautifully done.

Paducah is protected from changing river levels by a high wall that seals off the city when necessary. The images that follow are a few of the many paintings that line the city-side of the wall and share the city’s history. They’re huge and really beautifully done.

As we were finishing up on the Ohio, we had a decision to make as there are two possible routes south.  One route follows the Tennessee River.  It is shorter in terms of river miles, but boaters must pass through the Kentucky Lock, a lock that is known to have no patience or love for pleasure boats.  The cruise itself may be a more direct and shorter route, but chances are you are going to be held up at the lock, sometimes for hours and for no apparent reason, or so we’ve been told.  The second route is the meandering Cumberland River which ends at Barkley Lock, a more friendly place that opens to beautiful Lake Barkley.  We chose the latter and were locked right through with no wait.  

I enjoyed the Cumberland River because it marked our return to a narrower waterway where we could see both riverbanks, and I could hear birdsong over the engine. We were still going against the current, but it wasn’t as strong, and the narrower waterway meant smaller tows to contend with. I found it to be a lovely fall day and a leisurely cruise. The Captain, however, was distracted by an out-of-the blue problem with one of our stabilizers – still to be addressed – and the tedium of an endless cruise in the “ditch.”

The “ditch” led us to Green Turtle Bay Marina which is where we picked up the Tennessee River.  The following graphic from Captain John’s website provides a good illustration of the transition from the Cumberland to the Tennessee River, and shows how the two run in parallel for quite a while.

We followed the Cumberland River through Barkley Lock and stayed at Green Turtle Bay in Lake Barkley just below the Kentucky Lock and Dam (which we avoided). From there we passed through the tiny Barkley Canal, into Kentucky Lake and then headed south on the Tennessee River

We followed the Cumberland River through Barkley Lock and stayed at Green Turtle Bay in Lake Barkley just below the Kentucky Lock and Dam (which we avoided). From there we passed through the tiny Barkley Canal, into Kentucky Lake and then headed south on the Tennessee River

The Land Between the Lakes is a huge recreational area between the two rivers that apparently has abundant wildlife.  We passed by in the fog and rain. But it was lovely, nevertheless.

Most of our cruise alongside the Land Between the Lakes looked like this, but that was okay because it provided relief from the heat and was scenic in a different way

Most of our cruise alongside the Land Between the Lakes looked like this, but that was okay because it provided relief from the heat and was scenic in a different way

For the first couple of days on the Tennessee River we cruised in the rain.  Overnight, the weather changed from the hot, humid cycle we’ve experienced almost since leaving Vermont to fall with morning temps in the 40s.  Good thing I packed our quilt!  Cloudy days followed the rainy ones, and we tucked into small marinas on the way down the river.

In Paris Landing State Park Marina (Buchanan, TN) on a cold rainy morning, we lost our shore power cable splitter in the water due to a collection of errors on our part, a very expensive loss. And who appeared but our guardian angel, Ray, offering an extra long boat hook and other useful resources which allowed us to recover our loss. Remember Houlegan from the Big Chute Railway in Canada? Turns out they’re our guardian angels …

In Paris Landing State Park Marina (Buchanan, TN) on a cold rainy morning, we lost our shore power cable splitter in the water due to a collection of errors on our part, a very expensive loss. And who appeared but our guardian angel, Ray, offering an extra long boat hook and other useful resources which allowed us to recover our loss. Remember Houlegan from the Big Chute Railway in Canada? Turns out they’re our guardian angels …

I do like Tennessee, rain or shine.  We passed through beautiful natural sections with abundant wildlife. We spotted foxes, coyotes, deer, tons of great blue herons and great egrets, more eagles, hawks, turtles and lots of smaller birds I couldn’t identify by sight or by song. Of course, we were still navigating around tows and some riverbanks littered with industry, but they were well-balanced by the natural environment that is still intact.  

We also passed through small riverfront communities. The river architecture in this area is quite different from what we see in New England, with most homes built on stilts due to changing river levels.

Reaching the Tenn-Tom Waterway was another major milestone.  We spent our first night at a marina right on the Mississippi/Tennessee border.  After tying up and making arrangements to borrow the courtesy car, we found a great little bar/restaurant and spent some time talking to the locals. Apparently, we have accents.  Dessert for me that evening was sitting in the cockpit listening to the crickets and squawking herons – there were lots of those around.  That’s more like it.

The Tenn-Tom starts at beautiful Pickwick Lake with the big rivers firmly in the rearview mirror. It’s divided into 3 sections. The first 25-mile stretch is the “Divide Cut” and is entirely man-made.  This section really does look like a ditch, and it’s only real appeal is the engineering involved.  A lot of time and money was devoted to this section of the waterway. And there’s just enough room to squeak by the tows.

From there it’s on to the “Canal Section” where some effort was made to straighten the waterway by digging canals to eliminate switchbacks. And finally, “The River” section, so named because it follows the old Tombigbee River with all of its twists and turns. Both sections basically consist of dams and pools to maintain a navigable depth, so there’s lots of locking.  After the locks of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, these were a pleasure – no lines, no waiting.  And more natural beauty and southern hospitality. 

We are now on the Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway, the most remote of all the inland rivers, and will follow it to Mobile, Alabama.

Black Warrior-Tombigbee, a little south of Bobby’s Fish Camp

Black Warrior-Tombigbee, a little south of Bobby’s Fish Camp

We completed our final lock(!) this morning and have one more river anchorage tonight (our first in salt water with tides to consider). Next stop, Mobile Bay. We expect to be there tomorrow.

Because we just finished our last lock for the foreseeable future, I have to sum up the experience. By our count, we have completed 128 locks since the start of our trip in June. The inland river locks are different than those in Canada where we each grab a line, one at the bow and the other at the stern. In the rivers the boat is secured by a midship line tied to a “floating bollard” which floats up and down as the lock chamber fills and empties. The Captain and I make a very good team and find them to be a breeze, but I thought a couple of pictures might be of interest to those who’ve never seen a floating bollard.


Our fenders, fender covers and lines are dirty and worn in places reflecting what we’ve put them through, but they’ve served their purpose well. In the words of another looper “We’ve cleaned the lock walls with our balls.”

So, I know this is another post heavier on detail than perspective, but that’s because we’ve traveled 700 miles since my last post.  And much of that time has necessarily been spent on planning and logistics rather than in the moment.  Which is probably why this is generally regarded as the least interesting part of the loop.

But I do have a big dose of perspective to share as I wrap up.  We spent a week in Demopolis, Alabama, because we arrived there earlier than expected, and our insurance policy places restrictions on traveling further south during hurricane season.  Under our policy, hurricane season ends November 1 and we arrived in Demopolis the last week in October.  One thing we’ve learned on this trip is that we don’t like to stay in one place for very long unless we have something to do.  We live in a small space that can start to close in when sharing it 24/7.  And we’re happiest while traveling anyway. 

 So, we rented a car in Demopolis and drove along the Florida panhandle to aid our future decision-making. We knew we’d see some hurricane damage but definitely weren’t prepared for the extent of the destruction. Panama City was absolutely torn apart. I don’t even know where one would start in terms of recovery. But people were sorting through debris, making piles, patting each other on the shoulder and doing what they could to make room for the utilities and clean-up crews. Blue tarps served as roofs everywhere. GEICO, Verizon and others filled parking lots with disaster recovery teams. And of course, the churches mobilized to make sure bottled water, meals and laundry services were available to whomever needed them. There are clearly many displaced people who need such support.

I was hesitant to take pictures at first feeling it might be disrespectful to do so, but we ultimately decided that it’s important to understand what happened there. Pictures cannot even begin to capture the devastation, but I am sharing a few.

The Captain and I took all of this in while driving the coastline to make sure we could make safe passage in our pleasure craft as we continue our journey south.  It was both humbling and sobering and even a little embarrassing.  And it drove home the point that while for us this trip is a trip of a lifetime, what really matters is that our family, our friends, our communities, ourselves and the survivors of this latest hurricane are all safe, and we give thanks for that daily.  Literally.

Grateful

Grateful

Inland Rivers (Illinois and Mississippi Rivers) - Peoria, IL to Modoc, IL

Our overnight stay at the City Dock in Peoria marked the beginning of two very long Illinois River cruising days.

This is us at Oktoberfest in Peoria, taking a rare shot of Jagermeister in honor of our daughter (private family joke - sorry)

This is us at Oktoberfest in Peoria, taking a rare shot of Jagermeister in honor of our daughter (private family joke - sorry)

The following morning we would start our trek to Grafton Harbor at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, the next milestone.

The little blue dot marks Grafton Harbor

The little blue dot marks Grafton Harbor

To get there we needed to travel more than 150 miles in two days. And each day’s cruise would take us through another Illinois River lock, meaning that forward motion could be impeded significantly by a long, unexpected delay. And on day one, it started to look that way.

At the Peoria City Dock we were well-positioned for the Peoria Lock first thing in the morning. Following the pattern we’d established, we got up at the crack of dawn to, hopefully, get through the lock early, and … circled for two hours. So, once again we focused on getting comfortable where we found ourselves, enjoyed a couple of cups of coffee together, watched a pair of eagles and waited for further instructions.  

Despite our attempts to live fully in the moment, it was not a stress-free wait because we needed to get to Beardstown, our next overnight stop 70 miles downstream.  70 miles is a long way to go in a 7 – 7 ½ knot boat while daylight hours are diminishing, but we knew we had time assuming we could get through the lock reasonably. While waiting we met up with other loopers with whom we would travel for the next few days – Sea Trolley, Dream Quest and Prime Meridien.  Because we are the slowest boat, once through the lock we suggested they pass us, and we all made the long pull to Beardstown more or less together, each of us pushing our boats a little harder than usual to make sure we arrived and were tied off before dark. The River continued to be lots of industry, lots of tows and barges and surprisingly, lots more eagles.

Tiny tow working on the riverbank

Tiny tow working on the riverbank

Oh yes, and lots of carp.

I had never heard anything about Asian Carp until we started planning this trip, and based on what little I’d heard I thought it was all a bit exaggerated.  For those who don’t know, Asian Carp are an invasive species of fish that have infiltrated the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers and are able to leap out of the water to significant heights when frightened, sometimes injuring boaters. Really.

https://undark.org/article/asian-carp-chicago-illinois-lake-michigan/

In fact, several days earlier we passed over electric barriers installed in a section of the River the sole purpose of which is to keep these fish downstream from Lake Michigan.

Well, the Captain and I initially thought this to be a little bit of hooey, that is until we found the first dead carp in the dinghy we were towing.  We tossed him overboard, rigor mortis and all, poor guy, cleaned up the dinghy and laughed it off.  On the day we cruised from Peoria to Beardstown, we stopped laughing.  While underway, we heard an unusual sound (which we would soon come to recognize), checked the usual spots on the boat and finding nothing out of sorts, cruised on.  It wasn’t until a couple of hours later that I had a reason to check the starboard side deck and found the source of the noise we’d heard earlier.  One of these carp had lept high enough to make it into the stern of our boat and then proceeded to thrash and bleed as he made his way from the stern all the way down the side deck to the set of stairs leading up to our bow.  These are big, strong fish.  The guy on our deck was at least 18 inches long.  I stepped into my girlie role (which I haven’t inhabited for a while) and asked the Captain to remove it from the boat for me, which he did, reluctantly.  Then I began the clean-up process. Not fun.  

When carp fly …

When carp fly …

And here is how the locals handle things, party barges providing a platform for carp archery. We really saw this! (I apologize for the video quality, but the boat’s movement and location of the sun made filming a little difficult.)

We made it to Beardstown at the end of a very long day, happy to be there. The Beardstown stop is one of the more unusual on our trip so far, and there have been a few. Other than one anchorage 40 miles north, Logston Tug Service in Beardstown is the only option on this section of the River for a boat that draws as much water as ours.

Logston Tug is exactly what it’s name says it is, a tug service.

Logston Tug is exactly what it’s name says it is, a tug service.

This company very graciously allows pleasure boats to tie up to its tugs and docks for the night with the understanding that we may need to move in the middle of the night if specific tugs are needed for service calls. Being the slowest boat in the “flotilla,” we arrived last and tied off to the outermost of two tugs tied to the dock. A young member of the crew helped us tie off. When I told him we were aware we might have to move, he said that wouldn’t be a problem. “The only problem you could have,” he added, “is if a tow comes around the bend and under that bridge upstream and misses the turn. That happened a year or so ago. The people made it off the boat just before it was hit.” He told us that in earnest. I looked at the bridge and bend upriver and told myself that if it was our time, it was our time. I could have done without that bit of local knowledge, however.

As it turns out, that was not a restful night. We were tied off well and trusted our lines, but we were moored without power so the Captain was on high alert. We were awakened around 0230 when one of the tugs left the dock - none of us had to move. The Captain’d been concerned about the batteries even while sleeping and, once awake, decided to go up to the pilot house to take a look at the battery control monitor. I knew things weren’t good when I heard him start the generator. He really didn’t sleep for the rest of the night - I dozed, fitfully. He woke me up at up at 0500, asked me to call the lock to get a status report and we cast off our lines. We were told that if we could get to the lock within 30 minutes, the lockmaster would squeeze us in between two tows, one upstream and the other downstream. We knew 30 minutes was a reach given the distance but left anyway, using spotlights to spot channel buoys since it wasn’t daylight yet. I called the lock master again to let him know we were underway and was told then, with his apologies, that the upstream tow had started moving into the lock so we’d have to wait until he had locked through. So, we slowed down, texted our friends in Beardstown to tell them not to hurry, took a look around to understand where we were and circled for 90 minutes, long enough for our better-rested friends to join us. We all locked through at 0825, not terrible. 80 miles to go to Grafton Harbor.

The best way to describe the next travel day is that we were driven by our motivation to be done with the Illinois River. Two more carp hitched a ride.

The first of our carp passengers lept aboard exactly as his predecessor had the day before, except the Captain used our fishing net to get him off the deck before he thrashed himself to death. Not an easy thing to do. He still left a huge mess behind, and I swabbed the decks underway … again. Here’s what happened with the second one, and this involves a moment of true confession. We’d been cruising for a few hours, and I said to the Captain (I’ll probably burn in Hell for this), “I know this is an awful thing to say, but given the number of carp we’ve pulled off our boat, I’d kinda like to see one jump into one of the boats ahead of us” (sorry Sea Trolley and Dream Quest!). Literally one second later we heard Kathunk! And I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me!!!” And yes, a carp had jumped aboard on our starboard side stern quarter and was thrashing around. Before he could make his way down the starboard side deck and foul it again, I grabbed our brush handle and timidly poked at him to see if I could push him through the stern scupper. As soon as I poked him, he started thrashing. Seriously, these are super strong fish. I waited for him to settle again and decided I’d had enough. I gently but forcefully (yeah, I know) pushed him through the scupper, not sure I could do it and not sure he would fit. But he did, and off he went leaving a minimal mess requiring my attention.

For context, the carp have to leap up and over the deck railing to make it onto the deck - quite a feat. The stern scupper is the the small opening at the bottom (after it had been cleaned).

For context, the carp have to leap up and over the deck railing to make it onto the deck - quite a feat. The stern scupper is the the small opening at the bottom (after it had been cleaned).

I meekly returned to the pilot house where the Captain and I looked at each other and said, “now that’s karma, and not the good kind.” I won’t be venturing forth thoughts like that again.

After a 12-hour day, we pulled into Grafton Harbor marina and heaved a huge sigh of relief. We were done with the Illinois River. Both of us slept great that night. On the trip from Beardstown to Grafton, the Captain had found a good battery source, negotiated for quick delivery to Grafton Harbor and purchased 12 new 6-volt batteries. We arrived on Monday and were told to expect delivery on Thursday. Over the next couple of days we got to know the folks in Grafton Harbor (these are great people with a very well run marina), did laundry, provisioned, cleaned the boat (especially the decks to remove any remaining carp residue) and filled our water and fuel tanks. Time well spent.

Charlie had no problem staying put for a week

Charlie had no problem staying put for a week

We had a nice slip on the T end of a covered dock.

We had a nice slip on the T end of a covered dock.

Our view of the Oyster Bar where we almost became regulars

Our view of the Oyster Bar where we almost became regulars

We enjoyed a different version of this sunset every night for a week.  Note the height of the pilings. That’s how high the river can rise …

We enjoyed a different version of this sunset every night for a week. Note the height of the pilings. That’s how high the river can rise …

No batteries arrived on Thursday, and by Friday afternoon we understood they had been loaded onto the wrong truck and wouldn’t make it to the St. Louis depot until late Friday. Since everything is closed on the weekend, that meant we couldn’t expect delivery until Monday. Sigh. We loved Grafton Harbor but on this journey a week is a long time to stay in one place, so the Captain formulated Plan B.

Plan B involved renting a pickup truck. On Saturday we picked up a Ford F-250 for the price of a smaller truck. Perfect. The very persistent Captain then did some research and determined that our batteries were sitting in the lot of a common carrier in Fenton, MO, an hour away from Grafton. No one answered the phone, and Google showed the facility to be closed on Saturday. “No problem,” said the Captain, “let’s go anyway. What else are we going to do?” Now, I am usually the glass half-full girl, but in this instance about 5 miles south of Fenton, I suggested that the Captain be prepared to find a closed facility. Well, we passed the no trespassing sign and entered the carrier’s parking lot and came across a couple of drivers eating their lunch with a dispatch employee taking a smoke break on the other side of the lot. We pulled over to talk to them, told them our situation and before we knew it we had two or three people doing whatever they could to find our batteries. And they didi! We completed a little paperwork, drove around the back and they got out the forklift to load 800 lbs. of batteries onto our pickup truck. We drove away feeling grateful once again.

We spent Saturday afternoon taking 800 lbs. of batteries off the boat and loading 800 lbs. of new batteries onto the boat, just the two of us. The Captain took the brunt of it, of course, did the necessary and completed the install.

Hot and cramped in the engine room

Hot and cramped in the engine room

We left Grafton Harbor feeling like we’d become a part of the family. Not to mention our relief to have the battery issue behind us. While we were sorry to leave, we were ready to start moving south again. Next stop, Hoppies.

Dinner at the winery with other loopers

Dinner at the winery with other loopers

Winery view of the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers

Winery view of the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers

Just one more sunrise …

Just one more sunrise …

The cruise to Hoppies on Tuesday was a long one. After a week at Grafton Harbor, we threw off our lines at 0645, officially leaving the Illinois River behind (hallelujah!) and entering the mighty Mississippi. We would pass through only two locks on the Mississippi River portion of our journey, both of them on Tuesday and both of them busy and unpredictable. We needed an early start to assure we could clear both locks, travel a total of 63 miles and make Hoppies before dark. On our way to the Mel Price Lock, the first, we learned by radio that there had been an overnight accident and the lock would not be open to any traffic until 0900 at the earliest. So we began making large ovals (upstream, downstream and back up again) and making calculations (so many statute miles equals so many nautical miles, and our speed with this current is x, and the number of daylight hours left is y). And I started making calls to assess our options should it become necessary to turn back. After almost 5 hours of circling (well, ovalling rather) we received a hopeful radio communication literally moments before we pulled the plug and returned upstream to Grafton. We finally locked through at 1220. One more lock to go.

Our delay at the Mel Price Lock actually turned out to be fortuitous. While we were “ovalling,” we learned that the River in St. Louis Harbor was closed from 1000 to 1400 that day as the Coast Guard was laying cable. Two hours was just about how long it would take us to cruise from the Mel Price Lock to the Chain of Rocks Lock, just upstream from St. Louis Harbor. In fact we arrived at the second lock at 1420 just in time to lock through, with no wait. How about that?! From there we entered the Harbor and “enjoyed” a turbulent and sometimes challenging cruise through the Harbor and down to Hoppies. It made for a very long but quite successful day. As I’ve said before, it helps to have a great Captain.

We spent our first night on the Mississippi at Hoppies, a small marina formed by a couple of old barges tied to the river bank. That’s it. On this segment of the loop, there are very few overnight options. The current is moving downstream at 3-4 knots and carrying lots of debris, including some actual tree trunks.

There goes one now

There goes one now

Safe anchorages are scarce and marinas, scarcer, and quite a few of us are seeking the same resources as we make our way south.  Careful attention and advance planning are vital.

Hoppie and his wife Fern are in their 80s and legendary among loopers.  For decades they have offered a secure overnight stop accompanied by a daily briefing to assist river travelers with our planning. We did not have the chance to meet them, as their daughter and son-in-law are handling the physical aspects of the marina this year. Nevertheless, we were grateful to give our lines over to such practiced hands, as the swift current and constant flow of debris make the approach to Hoppie’s and subsequent departure quite tricky.

We stayed at Hoppies with 6 other boats and were very lucky to get a spot since as the only game in town it’s often booked solid. We continue to be the slow boat in the flotilla and the last to arrive. After tying up, we all arranged our own cocktails, gathered around for the briefing and spent some time afterwards either catching up with boaters we’d already met or getting to know folks we were meeting for the first time. Our conversations lasted until the mosquitoes came out in force and generally revolved around logistics - how fast are you running with this current? how far are you running tomorrow? what have you heard about the blah blah blah anchorage? how long was your wait at the locks?, any mechanical issues? and so on. Such information sharing is helpful to all of us, but even while talking, I made a point to look at where we were and thought to myself, “I can’t believe at this moment we are actually tied off on the banks of the Mississippi River. How cool is that?” Meanwhile, the River flowed past and tested our lines and fenders.

That’s how you cast off in a strong current.

From Hoppies we made a relatively short cruise to our next secure spot, a lock wall in Modoc, IL. This lock is in a small river just off the Mississippi, and while we were able to tie up there for the night, we didn’t need to lock through. Instead, we spent a sunny evening pretty much in the middle of nowhere tied off with no power (which we can do now with our new batteries!) with two other looper boats spread out along the lock wall. It was hot and humid, but very peaceful. For the past two weeks or so we’ve either been in busy ports or cruising our way down the busy rivers. I don’t think we’ve had such peace and quiet since we left Canada, and I enjoyed the moment immensely.

IMG_1997.jpg

I would like to end this post with a little treat. Recently, my Mom asked whether we ever get bored while cruising. In all honesty, some days are longer than others, but there is almost always something to do. Here is how the Captain chose to keep us entertained one particularly long day.

I dare you not to smile.

Lake Michigan to Inland Rivers – Michigan City, IN to Peoria, IL

After much anticipation, here we are again in a river system yet it’s another completely new experience.  This morning we woke up at the City Dock in Peoria, Illinois after partaking in an unexpected Oktoberfest last night. Yesterday we woke securely tied to a crumbling lock wall, the oldest lock in the Illinois River abandoned shortly after it was built.  Marinas are now few and far between and packed with other loopers.  So we are having to pursue other options – city walls, anchorages or in the case of Henry Harbor, abandoned lock walls with rebar loops instead of cleats or pilings to tie to.  Our guidebook listed Henry Harbor as “not recommended” for overnight mooring. But we were secure, in a peaceful spot, giving our business to a good person working hard to earn it and we couldn’t have been happier.  There’s that perspective again, the reason we are looping.

Crumbling lock walls and rebar loops

Crumbling lock walls and rebar loops

Doggone, it’s peaceful though, that is until a large tow passes by

Doggone, it’s peaceful though, that is until a large tow passes by

When I last blogged we were making our way to Chicago.  We spent two days south of Chicago at a small marina in Jackson Park.  We chose it because of its proximity to the Museum of Science and Industry and hoped the park would provide good bike riding opportunities.  Biking didn’t really pan out – too congested and unfamiliar.  But the Museum was a great way to spend the day.  The highlight was our tour of U-505, a real German U-boat captured by the US Navy during World War II. It’s a great story. Here’s a link if you’re interested.

https://www.msichicago.org/explore/whats-here/exhibits/u-505-submarine/

View of the Museum from Lake Michigan

View of the Museum from Lake Michigan

The real U-505

The real U-505

Original letter signed by crew member swearing to secrecy, the breach of which was punishable by death

Original letter signed by crew member swearing to secrecy, the breach of which was punishable by death

From Jackson Park it was a short jump to DuSable Marina in Chicago.  Because of its location right in downtown Chicago, DuSable is one of the most expensive marinas we’ve visited yet.  But for a couple of nights, it was worth it.  Our slip offered a priceless view of the skyline from the north and abundant people-watching opportunities , and there was no shortage of people of every type imaginable.

Our first evening in Chicago we took the Shoreline Sightseeing Architecture River Cruise.  Now, neither the Captain nor I are generally “tour” people.  As a pair of introverts (in the words of a close friend), we are quite happy doing our own thing.  This particular cruise allowed us to survey the river before making the trip on our own boat two days later. We were also able to see Chicago from a unique point of view.  It did not disappoint.  We had a great time and walked away with a different perspective on the city as well as some context for the next couple of days.

During the next 36 hours, we took a long walk to the end of the Navy Pier, did some provisioning using an excellent online shopping/delivery service and engaged in some pretty typical Chicago activities —namely, Chicago pizza, Chicago hot dogs and some serious Chicago steak at Gibson’s, our first real steakhouse in months.  And then it was time to move on, though truth be told the calories we’d consumed caused us to move more slowly than usual.  Yup, time to leave.

Early Monday morning, things changed. We’d been warned that locking on the inland rivers is not the same as locking in Canada. Delays, sometimes extremely long delays, are commonplace. So we got up before sunrise to prepare to cast off and head for the Chicago Harbor lock just as soon as there was enough daylight. We knew things were going to be different so we were experiencing what I would call “early morning anticipatory stress.” Translated - we were not on our game.

The first unexpected thing to happen involved an electrical issue that could have stopped us in our tracks. In true form, the Captain (after freaking out a little – after all, we hadn’t even had coffee yet) very deliberately isolated the problem and determined that we could go forward without a safety risk. I very deliberately made coffee.

We got to the lock within 10 minutes of casting off and almost felt giddy when we learned there was no wait and no other boat traffic.  Particularly since, according to Wikipedia, this is the second busiest lock in the nation for recreational use and the fourth busiest for commercial traffic.  

Early morning cruise to the lock

Early morning cruise to the lock

Well, with all of our locking experience up to this point, you’d think we could grab a couple of lines tied to the lock wall, settle the vessel and complete a lock that accomplishes a mere 2- to 5-foot drop.  Not so PC (Pre-Coffee – it was still brewing).  The lines tied to the wall were unusually short, likely due to the short drop in elevation.  Handling lines on the boat is my job, and in all of my mental preparation (PC) I wasn’t prepared for short lines.  Our bow bumped against the lock wall (not a good thing) while I was retrieving the bow line for the Captain, and by the time I ran back to the stern to grab my own line, the boat had drifted away from the wall enough to make grabbing a short line very difficult.  I could go into more detail here for the handful of people who might be interested, but suffice it to say it was not a happy start to a long day on a new river. 

Once through the lock I quickly filled our coffee cups just in time to pass under the Lake Shore Drive bridge, the first of many bridges on the relatively short Chicago River.  And Wow.  Even though we had done the tour, cruising through downtown Chicago on our own boat, early in the morning, admiring buildings and other landmarks we’d learned about on our river cruise was in a word, spectacular.  I wish it had lasted longer because it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it was enough.

And then we entered the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.  The name says it all.  Again, without going into too much detail (I hope), this canal was opened around 1900 to actually reverse the flow of the Chicago River so the sewage from the city flowed downstream instead of upstream into Lake Michigan, where the city gets its drinking water.  It’s 28 miles of sanitation and industry, and it looks and smells like it. Strangely enough, this is also where we encountered our first bald eagles on the trip.  Hard to believe we cruised the pristine Georgian Bay and North Channel with no eagle sightings but saw two shortly after entering the Sanitary Canal.  Says something about the resilience of wildlife perhaps…

First of many eagle sightings

First of many eagle sightings

It’s also where we started seeing tows which were to become more and more a part of our daily experience for the foreseeable future. We’d heard a lot about tows.  Well, now we know what that means.  This is a true working river system, and many of the goods moved up and down the rivers are moved in barges.  For anyone who may not know, barges like the ones we are seeing are flat-bottomed ships that must be towed or pushed by towboats because they are not self-propelled.  And frankly and in my own humble opinion, the tow captains own the river, and they should.  They are pushing mountains of deadweight up or downstream and through the locks.  And along come pleasure craft, like ourselves, wishing to pass them as we leisurely make our way around the loop. 

This is a tow we photographed while still in Lake Michigan, one example of what we would later encounter in the much narrower rivers

This is a tow we photographed while still in Lake Michigan, one example of what we would later encounter in the much narrower rivers

That morning after cruising for about 25 miles, we encountered our first real challenge (other than trying to get through a simple lock Pre-Coffee).  There is a 5-mile section of the river that is very busy with working barge traffic.  We had already met a couple of tows on the river and learned that tow captains are great to deal with over VHF.  They want to know where we are and understand that we are looking for instructions as to when/if to pass and on which side, etc.  Well, in a very narrow section we met two tows going in opposite directions who decided to make a little window for us so we could get through without being totally in their way.  Oh yeah, and without BEING CRUSHED.  With good radio communication, we all agreed on the plan And then our engine (our only engine) stalled.  Okay, that’s never happened before.  45 seconds of coffee fueled panic, and the engine was back on line.  The Captain humbly radioed an apology to the tow captains, admitting the stall, and received a couple of knowing chuckles in reply.  The downstream tow impeded his own progress to let us pass, and we received well wishes for safe travel as we pulled away downstream with all of that traffic behind us. These guys were professionals and gentlemen.

These guys are really big, and the river, pretty small …

These guys are really big, and the river, pretty small …

A look back upon a very tight squeeze

A look back upon a very tight squeeze

From that point on we learned how to navigate the many tows we encountered using good communication and following instructions received.  By day’s end we made it to the free wall in Joliet and tied up.  We laid low and watched as 1, 3, 6, 8 other loopers tied to the wall in front and in back of us.  At this time of year all of the loopers who have been happily floating around Georgian Bay and cruising down the east and west sides of Lake Michigan enter the river system which basically acts like a big funnel, so we were starting to bump into loopers more frequently, some we’d already met and others we were meeting for the first time.  We politely declined the offer of docktails that evening and knew there was going to be a rush for the first of three locks to be traversed the next morning, which was a short way south of our mooring.  We made our own plans to cast off early and set our alarm for 0515.

At 0545 next day the sun was rising, and as we prepared to leave, we noticed several other boats doing the same thing. We have enjoyed the many loopers we’ve met along the way but for various reasons, including our slow rate of travel, we are not inclined to cruise in groups like others do. So we said good morning and safe travels and watched them set off before throwing off our own lines almost 90 minutes later.

Looper flotilla heading south from Joliet wall

Looper flotilla heading south from Joliet wall

When ready to leave, we called the lock downriver, Brandon Road Lock, to request instructions.  We were told to be ready to lock through in 20 minutes, so we planned our departure accordingly.  Consistent with what we’ve now learned is common practice, we circled for over an hour before locking through.  Two more locks to go before reaching Heritage Harbor Marina, our stop for the night. 

We cruised happily for about 15 miles, still negotiating tow traffic but going at our own pace. As we approached the Dresden Lock, we began to plan for contingencies.  Let me explain.  In Canada, the locks are pretty small and primarily handle recreational traffic.  The waterways and their traffic are closely monitored.  If you approach a lock and have to wait, there’s a wall you can tie up to and wait your turn.  Logical, orderly and manageable.  That is not the case on a working river.  On the Illinois River, commercial traffic gets priority (again, as it should), and there are no lock walls for mooring. Recreational boaters need to find a way to wait things out, which is not always easy if there is current and/or wind.

So back to Dresden. We rounded the bend, got out the binoculars and saw 1, 3, 6, 8 other boats – all the loopers who’d left Joliet before us – anchored and waiting for the lock. That wasn’t a good sign. They’d clearly been waiting for several hours. Meanwhile, we made our pokey way downstream and caught up. And just as we arrived, after a couple of small circles in the channel, we were given the signal to lock through, all 9 of us. Somehow, Stout ended up in front of the lock. We locked down, transited out and then radioed the other boats to suggest they pass when convenient, given that we are the slowest boat. For the next several miles, we were part of the looper flotilla, and all of them passed and eventually cruised out of sight. We got some good pics in the meantime.

The final lock of the day was the Marseilles Lock.  Now, this beast is notorious for long waits.  We were sort of prepared but hoping for the best, particularly since our marina stop was just past the lock and it had already been a long day.  We heard some radio traffic as we approached and were able to monitor things somewhat using our instruments.  We’d inferred that the looper flotilla had locked through ahead of us.  However, on approach we again saw 1, 3, 6, 8 looper boats, with another one behind us, all waiting for the lock.  They weren’t anchored this time but were able to hold their positions because currents and winds were calm.  And again, moments after we arrived, the entire group received permission to lock through.  Our luck in timing made for some interesting conversation later on in the marina bar.  Think, tortoise and the hare.  It was all good-natured, and we met some more good people.  

We stayed at Heritage Harbor for 2 days as we prepared to return to the river and figure out a plan for the first 240 miles south.  The marina provided a courtesy car which allowed us to refill our propane tank and do some provisioning.  Jeremy, the harbormaster at Heritage Harbor, provided a complimentary overview of points south that was extremely helpful – he does this for all the loopers.  What we learned, though, is that the marinas on our wish list were likely out of the question due to low water levels.  And for the next several hundred miles, things we’ve started to take for granted, like provisioning, laundry services, water, etc., are going to be harder to come by.

Leaving a marina full of loopers

Leaving a marina full of loopers

So after both of us suffered a somewhat sleepless night, we adjusted our expectations and went into planning mode.  We decided to embrace the next part of this adventure by planning our itinerary day-by-day and being prepared to anchor or tie up securely when- and however necessary at day’s end.  The goal is to get as far as we can each day so we can put the Illinois River behind us.  The first couple of nights have gone well, so we are optimistic.

Next is the Mississippi River, and that is another story entirely …

Lake Michigan - Traverse City, MI to Hammond, IN

Yesterday we got our first good look at Chicago across the lake, yet another milestone.  Lake Michigan is a seductive and fickle host, and while we’ve enjoyed our time visiting many of its eastern ports, we are now more than ready to reenter the river system.

A hot and hazy day’s view of Chicago

A hot and hazy day’s view of Chicago

It’s been a couple of weeks since things have been settled enough for blogging, so I’ll back up to where we left off, Traverse City.

We arrived in Traverse City on the 26th of August and stayed for 4 nights as planned. This was a longer stay than usual, as we had the rare and welcome opportunity to catch up with family.  Cousins Bill and Kelly were returning to their home in Tucson, AZ, after a summer vacation in Vermont and planned a route that took them right through Traverse City.  We had a great time catching up, enjoying the downtown and having a few cocktails on the boat.  I have to admit to periodic homesickness, so we really appreciated their visit.

A motley crew, to say the least

A motley crew, to say the least

Window shopping - no one can wear a hat quite like Kelly can

Window shopping - no one can wear a hat quite like Kelly can

The extra days in Traverse City allowed us to do more exploring.  We took our first serious bike ride which actually highlighted one aspect of the Captain’s and my relationship very well.  

I said,

“Let’s take advantage of these great bike trails and go for a ride.”

Captain’s response,

“OK.  I see there’s a bike and ride program here.  So let’s ride 17 miles so we can take the bus back.”  

17 miles wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but that’s what we did.  We rode from Traverse City to Sutton Bay on a fantastic, well-maintained trail that took us safely through the city and then through woods, farmland, fields, a small vineyard and more.  It was a fantastic way to spend an overcast day.  

Traverse City is also where the weather pattern changed.  We were glad to be secured in a protected port because some pretty severe thunderstorms ushered in the change.  Our first night there we were awakened by thunder and lightning and rain coming in through the hatch.  When the Captain got up to close hatches and doors, he saw that the heavy rain was blowing sideways and for a few minutes the wind sounded like an oncoming train.  We later learned that a few tornadoes had touched down in other towns not too far away.  We also rode past debris and some toppled trees on the bike trail the next day. We felt very fortunate to have missed the worst of it.

After a few stormy days in Traverse City, we enjoyed a beautiful cruise to our next stop – Leland. Now, I need to talk about butterflies for a minute. I know, what?! Well, I’ve always loved butterflies, and when we started cruising south on Lake Michigan, I began to notice monarchs here and there. Not on land, but a couple of miles offshore. There were enough of them to make me realize that we must be in a migratory path. I know a bit about butterfly migration and have always been intrigued by the fact that a small and delicate creature like a butterfly is able to make such a journey. But it’s something else entirely to be several miles offshore on a huge body of water and see them flying by. And yes, at our pokey speed of 7 knots they were passing us, much to the Captain’s chagrin. I became a bit obsessed (Captain’s word) with getting a couple of good photos to share. Here are a few, on the water and on land resting and refueling.

We spent only one night in Leland, as more weather was on the way and we wanted to get farther south before tucking in again.  But it definitely was a stop not to be missed.  To get there we cruised by Sleeping Bear Dunes which is a protected natural area bordered by huge sand dunes overlooking the lake.  I took lots of photos when we passed but later realized I had forgotten to reinsert my camera’s memory card after uploading photos the night before.  Bummer. I’ve included a link to the National Park Service description if you are interested in seeing pictures and learning more about this unique natural area. I would have loved to have spent some serious time there, but that’s another trip for another time.

 https://www.nps.gov/slbe/learn/nature/index.htm

Leland Harbor turned out to be one of the most beautiful harbors we’ve seen in Michigan. Long sandy beaches and gorgeous blue-green water made us feel like we were in the Caribbean. The marina is right next to Historic Fishtown, a collection of 19th-century fishing shanties at the mouth of the Leland River that have been repurposed as cool little shops and eateries.  It has an historic yet hip vibe, and we spent a lazy summer afternoon looking around and treating ourselves to a meal of fresh whitefish probably caught that morning.  Again, we stayed only one night so our touring was limited to the harbor and Fishtown.

The next 5 days and 4 ports were all about taking advantage of weather windows (or so we thought) to move south without getting bounced around too much by the wind and waves. What we’ve learned about Lake Michigan weather forecasts is that 2 foot waves and 8-10 knot winds often translates to 5-6 foot waves and winds in excess of 18 knots.  So we had to make judgment calls based upon the best available information and then commit.  On several occasions this meant 5 or 6 hours of constant up and down motion. The boat did what she’s supposed to do. We held on and found the conditions rather tiring after several hours. Nevertheless, we got where we needed to go and have become increasingly secure in our choice of vessel. The force of the wind and waves is very hard to capture on video, but here’s an attempt to share the experience.

After Leland we tied up in Frankfort, Manistee, Pentwater and Grand Haven, in that order.  We didn’t love Frankfort and stayed at a marina that charged way more than it was worth, so we were happy to move on to Manistee. We tied to the city wall in Manistee, another nice, historic town with potential for exploration.  We were lucky to get a slip there because more than half of the city docks were destroyed last April when a storm created a seiche event (a massive fluctuation in water levels similar to a tsunami).  Apparently, it’s going to take them another year to fully restore the facilities.  

We hoped to stay longer but predictions of strong winds in the coming days continued to drive us south in search of a secure port.  We monitored the weather closely and decided to make a long run to Grand Haven.  We understood this to be a good place to tuck in.  About halfway into the cruise a thunderstorm we’d been tracking to our south appeared to change direction and head straight for us.  So we made a call and reset our course for the town marina in Pentwater. The storm never materialized, but it was still the right call.  

People we’ve met along the way seem to like Pentwater a lot, but again we were only there long enough to grab a bite to eat and make arrangements to travel to Grand Haven the next day.  More winds, more waves, more holding on, and then Grand Haven.  However, we didn’t find it so grand.  It’s probably a lovely town, but we never saw any of it.  Our slip was close to the mouth of the inlet, and there was a strong west wind and surge that caused us to rock in our slip … constantly.  We adjusted fenders and put out more lines, but still rocked …  a lot … for almost 36 hours.  We didn’t feel comfortable leaving the boat under those conditions. But we did have a front row seat when a massive ship inched her way by us on her way into the harbor and then back out again after another thunderstorm.

  

Our reprieve came in the form of a change in wind direction.  A north wind meant we could travel to our next port, South Haven, on following seas.  What a difference.  Having the wind behind us meant that while the boat worked harder, we were much more comfortable and even picked up another 1/2 knot in speed.

South Haven turned out to be a nice place to … once again … wait out the weather.  We are finding that we start to get restless if we are in port for more than a couple of days, so we had to find some things to do.  We took another long bike ride, this time on the beautiful Kal-Haven Trail.  


We also went to the farmer’s market and came home with fruit, veggies and a new boat cat.  It’s a long story, too long for this already lengthy post, but we now have a new crew member, Charlie.

Awww

Awww

Charlie is a young shelter cat who’s very affectionate and is doing well on the boat so far.  It’s going to take him some time to fully adapt, of course, but it appears that he’s going to be quite comfortable in his new home.

Charlie

Charlie

By our last night in South Haven, there were at least a dozen other Looper boats waiting there with us.  Enough for a rousing evening of docktails where much of the conversation centered around leaving lovely Lake Michigan behind.  But despite the longed-for forecast, the lake wasn’t done with us yet.  We woke to a flat calm morning … and thick fog.  

A collective “sigh” could be heard

A collective “sigh” could be heard

The Captain and I had lowered our mast again the day before in preparation for the low Chicago bridge, so we had no radar to guide us through the fog.  We made the decision to wait things out and watched the other boats leave one after another into the soup. By 1030, which is a rather late start, we decided to head out, the last to leave. Even though the fog was lifting on land, that was not the case out on the lake. The Captain instituted our first formal watch, with one of us on the bow and another at the helm, ready to signal if necessary. We did this for a couple of hours, at which time the fog lifted, and we experienced an unusual flat-calm cruise to Michigan City in Indiana.

Into the mist

Into the mist

Ghost ship in the distance

Ghost ship in the distance

One night in Michigan City and another in Hammond, Indiana, and we are ready to head to Chicago. We will be there for the next four days. From there, we will reenter the river system and continue our journey south, with a whole new host of challenges awaiting us.

Lake Michigan - Beaver Island, MI to Traverse City, MI

It rained yesterday morning, which is significant because in the 10 weeks we’ve been traveling we’ve had maybe 5 days of rain, yesterday included.  The rain is needed here, so this is a good thing.  Perfect blogging weather, too!

The morning's view from our salon

The morning's view from our salon

Now that we are on Lake Michigan, our cruising pattern has changed.  First and foremost, our travel days are now dictated by the weather.  We have developed a very healthy respect for this huge body of water after a couple of interesting passages.  The first was our bumpy ride to Beaver Island which I described in my last post.  The second was our trip from Petoskey to Boyne City.  I’ll get to that in a minute.

We are members of an online Loopers forum, and the daily digest has included many opinions, some passionate, about whether the east side of Lake Michigan or the west side is the better route to Chicago.  We chose the east side, understanding that the prevailing winds come from the west and south which can lead to rougher “seas” on the east side of the lake.

I found this map online, and it gives a rough illustration of our stops on northern Lake Michigan so far - Harbor Springs, Petoskey, Boyne City (not shown, but east of Charlevoix on Lake Charlevoix), Charlevoix and Traverse City

I found this map online, and it gives a rough illustration of our stops on northern Lake Michigan so far - Harbor Springs, Petoskey, Boyne City (not shown, but east of Charlevoix on Lake Charlevoix), Charlevoix and Traverse City

The morning we left Beaver Island we cruised to Harbor Springs in Little Traverse Bay.  Harbor Springs is a resort community with a pristine harbor that is the deepest in the Great Lakes.  The water is a beautiful, clear green with a sandy floor, and you can literally see the bottom more than 30 feet down.  

We got a great slip at the Harbor Springs Municipal Marina and decided to settle in for a change.  We stayed there for 3 nights.  The town center was within easy walking distance and consisted of upscale shops (a little too upscale for our budget) and a variety of restaurants, cafes and bakeries.  We spent most of our time on the boat doing some chores, reviewing weather predictions, planning out our future slip reservations and relaxing.  The docks there are wide and comfortable and there's a lot of activity in the bay, great for people-watching, so we preferred the boat to the town.  We ultimately decided that this is a summer community where people dress to go out on their Hinckleys (luxury yachts that cost beaucoup dollars) and be seen.  We had front row seats, so we made sure to see them, feeling a little underdressed in our t-shirts and shorts.

Evening view of the docks from our cockpit

Evening view of the docks from our cockpit

View across the harbor

View across the harbor

We also watched SeaQuest go out for an overnight cruise and then return the next morning.  The father/father-in-law of SeaQuest's owners is the founder of Amway.

We met some great people on the docks, including a young family sailing with their 4-year old twins - so cute!  They sail extensively in this region and, of course, shared some local knowledge.  Based on their recommendation, we updated our plans to include a trip to Boyne City, a place we would have missed otherwise.

Taking the twins to their next destination - a nice family and a beautiful sailboat (wish I'd gotten a better picture)

Taking the twins to their next destination - a nice family and a beautiful sailboat (wish I'd gotten a better picture)

From Harbor Springs we took a very short cruise around the bay - less than an hour - and tied up in Petoskey at the Municipal Marina.  On the way we passed a beach framed by high sand dunes, not something I expected to see on Lake Michigan.

Web photo of Little Traverse Bay.  Harbor Springs is tucked in behind the peninsula upper right; Petoskey is upper middle left. The beach is middle bottom.  And yes, the water really is this color. From Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council website (https://www.watershedcouncil.org/)

Web photo of Little Traverse Bay.  Harbor Springs is tucked in behind the peninsula upper right; Petoskey is upper middle left. The beach is middle bottom.  And yes, the water really is this color.
From Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council website (https://www.watershedcouncil.org/)

Our view of the beach and dunes

Our view of the beach and dunes

Petoskey was a wonderful surprise and a place where we got off the boat and spent some time exploring.  We wanted to see some sights and had errands to run, so we rented another tiny car.  The morning began with a diner breakfast followed by a visit to the Oden State Fish Hatchery.  With wide walking trails through the woods, clear trout ponds and conservationists on site, it was a great way to spend a couple of morning hours.  And it was really good to smell some earth again.   

When we left the fish hatchery, we decided to put off our errands and drive around a little more.  Before we knew it, we were on our way back to the Mackinac Bridge.  We'd been under it so why not drive over it, too.  From there we kept going and ended up in Sault Ste Marie so we could visit the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and get a glimpse of Lake Superior while in the area.  We arrived at the Soo Locks which is a huge, heavily traveled commercial waterway connecting Lake Huron and Lake Superior.  We got there after driving for an hour, looked at each other and said "Yup, another lock" and turned around.

On the way back we exited the highway right after the bridge and found a coastal route that took us right alongside Sturgeon Bay down into Little Traverse Bay.  What a great ride.  It was a very windy day, and the wind was whipping up the waves.  We took our tiny car off the beaten path (as we often do) and entered the Wilderness State Park following roads that required a recreational pass.  We didn't have one but kept going anyway.

The road eventually dead-ended in a small parking area, so we gave our tiny car a rest and followed the trail.  The trail passed through some conifers, opened up into the low dunes, crossed over them and ended at the cobbled shoreline.  We spent a few minutes combing the beach for the elusive Petoskey stone (see link), which eluded us, and instead collected an assortment of beach stones that we took with us as a reminder of this beautiful and wild place.  http://www.petoskeychamber.com/find-petoskey-stones

From there we turned onto scenic M-119 which would take us through the Tunnel of Trees and back to Petoskey.  The Tunnel of Trees is a narrow, shoulderless road lined by hardwoods and evergreens that have been allowed to grow right up to the edge of the road and form a canopy in some places.  It's a favorite local attraction running 20 miles along a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, including through the tiny township of Good Hart.  By tiny I mean a small general store, a miniature art gallery and a sweet gift shop staffed by a lovely 20-year old named Mary.  We chatted with her for a bit and picked up a couple more mementos.  A perfect end to a very nice day.    

Tunnel of Trees - it reminded us of the Mountain Road in Smugglers Notch, only flat

Tunnel of Trees - it reminded us of the Mountain Road in Smugglers Notch, only flat

We kept the car for an extra day so we could actually complete our errands.  We also kept our eyes on the weather.  Winds were predicted to be 10-15 knots on our planned day of departure, so we decided to add another day to our Petoskey stay and continued to explore on foot once we'd returned the car.  It's a walkable city with beautiful Victorian architecture and great shops and restaurants in what is known as the historic Gaslight Village.  I wish I had taken more pictures, particularly of some of the small Victorian homes we passed, but I chose not to carry my camera when we walked.  Most of the pictures I took focused on the marina and adjoining park.  Here are a few.

The night before we left Petoskey (and again the next morning), we checked our weather sites - 3 of them - and agreed that the conditions looked good for an early morning cruise to our next destination in Lake Charlevoix.  Winds of 10-12 knots and 2 foot waves were forecast.  Good to go.  We watched the sunset and got a good night's sleep.  

The rather ominous sunset should have given us pause...

The rather ominous sunset should have given us pause...

The Petoskey Municipal Marina sits behind a breakwater that runs south to north providing protection from Lake Michigan to the west.  The day before we left, our original departure date, we watched waves pound against and over the breakwater, stirred up by the strong west wind. By the next morning, things had calmed considerably.  We cast off our lines and headed out past the breakwater and past several fishing boats.  A good sign.  After a little while we commented that there was still a significant swell that must have been the residual impact of the prior day's high winds.  Still okay.  Before long we were starting to see waves consistently at five feet and occasionally higher, and our instruments were measuring 20 knot winds.  As we did on the way to Beaver Island, we secured the interior, closed all of our hatches and braced ourselves for another uncomfortable ride.  Our weather sources were quite wrong.  Thank goodness Stout is a seaworthy vessel in the hands of a good captain.

After 3 very windy hours on Lake Michigan, we reached the entry to Lake Charlevoix.  Our next port, Boyne City, was at the eastern end of Lake Charlevoix, a protected lake.  I thought we had farther to go so was quite relieved to see that we had reached the light marking the entry into the Pine River Channel.  The Channel leads from Lake Michigan to Round Lake (a very small lake) and then into Lake Charlevoix.  It is spanned by a drawbridge that opens every half hour, so we circled in Lake Michigan for a while and then started our approach with a couple minutes to spare.  The Channel is relatively short, wider at the mouth and narrower near the bridge so we knew there would be a need to do some maneuvering while waiting for the bridge to open. What we hadn't anticipated was the impact of the wind and swells on the Channel currents. Maneuverability became increasingly difficult with another boat behind us.  I think it's safe to say that this was the most stressful moment of our trip so far, and the bridge was raised just in time for us to get our anxious selves and white knuckles to the relative calm of the lake.  We've spoken with several people since then who've had the same experience there and listened in on a few concerned VHF calls from boaters in the channel to the bridge.  This experience made an impression on the Captain in particular.

From the drawbridge looking west toward Lake Michigan - looks pretty calm but looks can be deceiving

From the drawbridge looking west toward Lake Michigan - looks pretty calm but looks can be deceiving

Reflecting on a difficult passage

Reflecting on a difficult passage

It took us an hour to get to Boyne City and about that long to settle back down following the morning's events.  We stayed at the F. Grant Moore Municipal Marina and loved it.  This is one of the smaller marinas we've visited, and it's very well kept.  The grounds are well cared for and include beautiful gardens maintained by the local garden club.  We watched the Assistant Harbormaster sweep every slip clean of spiders and their webs which is a huge(!) help to boaters.  We've not seen this done anywhere else.  During our stay we had the good fortune of talking with Dean on Jubilee.  He's very knowledgeable about Great Lakes cruising and his resume includes delivery captain in the Philippines and Singapore.  We exchanged stories, and he took some time to introduce us to the best weather site we've come across yet and told us it's the most accurate he's used.  https://www.glerl.noaa.gov/res/glcfs/.  What a gift.  It's already become our go to weather resource.

Zach and Rachel from Cafe Sante in Boyne City.  Their approach to bartending made us feel like we were back at the Guild Tavern.  Thanks guys for a great happy hour - we needed it!

Zach and Rachel from Cafe Sante in Boyne City.  Their approach to bartending made us feel like we were back at the Guild Tavern.  Thanks guys for a great happy hour - we needed it!

After Boyne City we spent one night in Charlevoix, another cool little Michigan town with a busy marina full of Loopers.  We weren't there long enough to have much to share.  Except that the next day offered a good weather window so there was much talk about folks getting up and out in time to hit the 0700 drawbridge opening.  We made it a point to get there at 0630. The way out through the Channel was much quieter than the way in.  And from there it was smooth sailing to Traverse City in Grand Traverse Bay, our current port.

The Canadian portion of our trip was all about the cruising.  The Lake Michigan piece will be all about the weather and the ports, at least until we enter the river system south of Chicago, 

 

 

Georgian Bay to Lake Michigan - Thessalon, ON to Beaver Island, MI

After two lovely months in Canada, we reentered the US on August 10.  And we did so via FaceTime on an iPad in the middle of Lake Huron.  Times really have changed.  

We followed the procedures for NEXUS pre-screened travelers and called a Customs agent to report our intent to cross the border within the next few hours.  He directed us to the ROAM app, which we downloaded, completed our profiles and hit “Submit.”  The system generated an immediate electronic processing confirmation, and within a few minutes a videochat request came through on our iPad.  A very courteous Customs officer chatted with the Captain for less than a minute, asked to see me (I just waved to the camera and said hello) and then promptly approved our entry.  It was so efficient that there was no need for us to fly our yellow quarantine flag or report to anyone when we landed at Drummond Island, our port of entry.  We simply cruised to our slip, tied up and toasted the fact that we were back in our home country. 

Our low-key reentry into the US, approaching Drummond Island

Our low-key reentry into the US, approaching Drummond Island

We’ve spent the last few days in the northern end of Lake Michigan.  More on that in a minute.  First, I need to spend a few more minutes reflecting on our Canada visit.

I don’t know what we expected when we entered the Richelieu River on June 18 and crossed into Canada, but I’m quite sure neither of us expected to experience such beauty and warmth.  The scenery changed constantly with each mile, as we traveled through farmland replaced by marshland, three canal systems loaded with history, small quiet villages, large bustling towns, a couple of cities, one with a canal passing right through it, beautiful lakes with large cottage populations, small meandering channels, isolated anchorages, gunkholes with enough nooks and crannies to get lost in, granite islands, bays large enough to feel like oceans, lots of lighthouses and marinas large and small.  And that’s just two months’ worth.

An enthusiastic subscriber suggested that I share our progress to-date - great idea PBW!  Our location can also be viewed in real time by clicking on Where is Stout Now? on the blog site.

An enthusiastic subscriber suggested that I share our progress to-date - great idea PBW!  Our location can also be viewed in real time by clicking on Where is Stout Now? on the blog site.

The one constant, however, has been the warmth – and I’m not only talking about the high temperatures and almost constant sunshine.  Yes, it’s been hot... and humid.  And we’ve only had a handful of rainy days.  But the warmth has really come from the people.  All the people we met in Canada were hospitable, helpful, interested in our journey and always eager to share information about their favorite spots which has led us in new directions.  They’ve brought us chowder and coffee, loaned us their vehicles, grabbed our lines when docking, invited us for breakfast and cocktails, and spent minutes and hours talking with us about our journey and theirs simply because we happened to be in the same place at the same time. They have enriched our days, and we hope we have added something to theirs.  We feel like we've finally met our Canadian neighbors.

Having said all that, it's good to be back in the US.  Our first stop was Drummond Island Yacht Haven.  We spent some time getting situated and had lots of laundry to do.  Getting situated included going someplace for our welcome to the US toast.  The marina rented out vehicles for a reasonable price, so we rented the only one available, a 1988 GMC Sierra Classic Suburban.

It looked something like this

It looked something like this

This car was an old beast with an immaculate interior including a faux wood dash and console.  It reminded me of cars we had as kids.  So we journeyed back in time and did a little joyriding on the way to dinner.  From what we could tell, Drummond Island is pretty rural with lots of campers and "jeepers."  We later learned that the Island boasts the largest “closed loop” trail system in Michigan, offering more than 100 miles of off-road vehicle trail riding opportunities.  Indeed, we passed more four-wheelers than cars, many completely covered with mud, and almost all of the little eateries and drinkeries we passed, and there weren’t that many, had huge signs out saying Welcome Jeepers.  That explains why I found the Laundromat to be so busy.  We were lucky to get there early enough to do what we needed to do.

While at Drummond, we also accepted an invitation from fellow loopers on Hoolegan (remember them from the Big Chute?!) and enjoyed getting to know them better over drinks and hors d’oevres on their back deck.  We were also formally introduced to their boat cat Shipmate, better known as Kitty.  We’ve been toying with the idea of our own boat cat for a while…

From the tranquility of Drummond we cruised to the craziness of Mackinac (pronounced Mackinaw) Island. 

Ferries shuttle tourists to the island in droves

Ferries shuttle tourists to the island in droves

Despite warnings about a very bouncy harbor, including from the marina itself in the form of a disclaimer, we elected to stay at the City Marina for a couple of nights.  The constant ferry traffic did keep things bouncing, but we returned our dinghy to the top deck – we’d been towing it for a while - and secured our lines and fenders and had no problems.

Mackinac had been described to us as the land of horse***t and fudge.  I kid you not.  The horse reference comes from the fact that motor vehicles are banned on the island, except for some emergency vehicles.  Taxis are horse-drawn, and of course there are many horse-drawn tours available for a price.  Because our marina slip offered a view of the ferry terminals, I was also able to watch as provisions from the mainland were loaded onto horse-drawn carts for delivery to island businesses.  These are real working draft horses, and they are impressive.  They look very well taken care of and I have to hope that they are, though I didn’t engage anyone in that particular conversation.  The locals tending the horses and leading the tours all had the same sort of mid-summer, let’s make some money and get this over with look about them, so a question about horse-care probably wouldn’t be that well received.  There were tourists everywhere, hence the fudge.  And yes, we bought some.  It was really good. 

The island itself is beautiful ... the waterfront, the land, the structures, the flowers...  

We decided to get off the boat and biked the 8-mile trail around the island.  Yes, I said biked, as in bicycle.  It’s been a while since either of us has ridden, but it was immensely enjoyable.  The island is surrounded by crystal clear water and pebble beaches, and we stopped at the halfway point to dip our feet in the water.  I’m finding that it’s very hard to capture images of the pristine water.  A more experienced photographer could do it for sure.  Even so I’m including a couple of pictures I took from that stop.  The cairn is like the structures you see all along the trail.  The stones you see are under water. 

I also have to mention the Pink Pony.  We spent an evening there listening to live music while enjoying a few cocktails.  I now have a Pink Pony hat, a Pink Pony t-shirt and a Pink Pony wine glass.  Enough said. 

Weird, I know, but for some reason I loved this place

Weird, I know, but for some reason I loved this place

A couple of days on Mackinac and we were ready for more solitude.  We decided to cruise to Beaver Island next based on recommendations we’d received from folks we'd met along the way.  Instead of getting up in the morning and throwing off the lines, our preferred cruising method, we decided to have brunch at the Grand Hotel first.  We knew we probably wouldn’t pass this way again for a while, if ever, and apparently it is a "must-do."  So we hailed some horses and went out for brunch.  The horses were grounding, like they always are.  The setting was beautiful and historic.  The brunch was mediocre as we’d expected.  

This is the way things are done here - slow, steady and horse-pungent