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 …