Our overnight stay at the City Dock in Peoria marked the beginning of two very long Illinois River cruising days.
The following morning we would start our trek to Grafton Harbor at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, the next milestone.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.