Rollin’ Down the Rivers

We’ve been rollin’ down the Rivers (Illinois and a tiny bit of the big Miss) for a little over a week. After Joliet, we Stopped in a marina in Ottawa IL for 2 nites and found the sculpture memorial for the “Radium Girls–America’s Shining Women” (an interesting read about early corporate America’s greed and disregard for its employees) and the Tangled Roots Brew Pub.

Next stop at the “Wall “in Henry IL also included a history lesson. The wall is part of the first lock and dam on the Illinois River.  Commissioned in 1870, it’s no longer functioning in that capacity, but was a great overnight stay with new owners that are very helpful and personable. Rafts of pelicans and a flock of Pekin ducks entertained us and Zeke at dusk and early morning.

After the next night’s anchor out behind Lower Henry Island, we went on to Peoria where we tied up for a night at a free downtown city dock w/ electric service. Good food ((Blue Duck Barbecue) and craft beer (Rhodells) and live outdoor music in the evening near the dock to boot! Peoria was a very dog-friendly town…. it was a cool blustery day and Rhodells even invited us to sit inside their establishment w/ Zeke!

Free Peoria city dock

Later, after studying maps and taking into account the extremely low water levels in the Illinois River, we realized we’d have no more marina options available until we reached the Mississippi and that we’d be anchoring out 3-4 nights to get there. Anchoring out entails finding a safe (out-of-the-navigation-channel) location to drop anchor and spend the night w/o electric, restroom, shower, fuel, pumpout, wifi, etc services.   So…. We backtracked 6 miles to the Illinois Valley Yacht Club (IVY)  to get a pump out and replenish our drinking water supply, and get a shower. It was a great overnight stop and as the Club has a dining room and full bar, I enjoyed a good brandy old-fashioned (first in many months) on the precise day Tony Evers designated as “Wisconsin Brandy OF Day”!

Moonrise at the IVY Club

After leaving IVY, we had fine anchorages at Quiver Island and Valley City (basically just a wide spot in the river behind a RR bridge w/ 4 other boats). The third night we were able to tie up at Mel’s Dockside Restaurant w/ two other Looper boats (no services for an overnight stay) but an easy on/off the boat to get Zeke to shore for duty and play. (Anchoring out involves 2-3 dinghy rides to shore for Zeke and lots of gray, fine mud/silt accumulating on our boat deck, dinghy and shoes). Often Zeke is instructed to swim back to the boat to clean him off a bit! Another bonus to staying at Mel’s was the extraordinary catfish fillets and fritters we enjoyed!

The lower Illinois River was surprisingly scenic with fewer barges, limestone cliff backdrops and several interesting older man-made structures that have become part of the landscape.

Tonight I’m writing this from the Alton Marina on the Mississippi where we’ve been since Sunday afternoon and will be until Friday morning.  We’re staying a few extra days to catch up on some  boat maintenance and avoid being caught up in an onslaught of Looper boats (20+) traveling downriver with no marina and few anchorage options for the next 3-5 days due to dredging operations and lower water levels. Because of Covid and the lock closures on the Illinois River last year, the number of”Loopers” is probably twice or more what it’s been in previous years.  We enjoy the company of traveling with a few boats, but not an armada! (In the Nebo photo below each Looper boat is represented by looper flag emblem and boat name.) Many are enroute to a Great Loop Rendezvous event in mid-October on the Tennessee River or doing side river trips on the Cumberland or Tennessee River to visit Chattanooga, Nashville, Knoxville, etc. so that should spread things out a bit also.  We are fully  fueled now and ready to spend Friday thru Monday anchored out on the muddy Mississippi and Ohio Rivers until reaching Paducah next Tuesday.

Mississippi and Illinois Rivers confluence near Grafton
Alton Marina minus the 8 looper boats that left today.
Alton IL Marina

A Day of Contrasts

We enjoyed our evening under the Chicago skyline lights spending time with our son Brian and grandson Oliver. Had a nice dinner on S Michigan Ave and they came back to the boat to chat more and help us take down our stay sail mast so we’d fit under the city bridges. So good to see them! 

Friday morning we had a 3-mile trip north to the lock separating Lake Michigan from the Chicago River. The lock was easy-peasy even for a novice like me. And then…15 minutes that I’ll remember forever! We traveled through the skyscrapers and hustle and bustle of the morning city and Riverwalk all by ourselves on. Not another moving boat in sight! Caught a few pics and then saw family members on the Clark Street bridge who came to wave and capture our experience…pretty awesome!

After the city excitement, there were lots of industrial sights and smells, RR bridges that had to lift for us and a few locks before arriving at a “free” city wall tie up with electric service in Joliet late in the day.  The wall was rougher than I imagined, but we managed a decent landing and tie up before noticing a small boat in front of us struggling to do so.

We both jumped off the boat and onto the wall to see if we could help the 2 older men complete their tie up. That’s when I saw that one of the men had fallen overboard and was clinging to a rope coming off the front of their boat. He had no life jacket on and was not really attempting to climb out. His boat partner was not responding to the man in the water at all.  Ned jumped on the boat and went to offer his hand and assist and I sought help from folks on adjacent boats as the guy in the water was not responsive to Ned other than saying he couldn’t use his right arm.

  A younger couple on another boat tied to the wall came immediately with a large U-float jacket but the guy in the water would not put it on. The younger woman jumped in and helped get it under his left arm. She then pushed him up from below as her husband pulled on the guys shirt and belt to hoist  and roll him into his boat. He seemed to be in shock and was not responsive to any questions. And still, his boat partner did not seem to grasp the gravity of the situation.  We had called 911 and several police and ambulance came to take both of them to the local hospital.  The person who had fallen in looked to be in very serious condition.

So it went from being a spectacular start to our day to nearly witnessing a man drown. If we had not gone to help them tie up their small boat, who knows when the boat partner would have called for help or been alarmed enough to raise our attention? As it is, we have no idea how long he was in the water. If the woman had not jumped into the water when she did to support him with the u-float and found the strength to push him up enough so that he could be lifted into the boat, who knows how much longer he would have been able to hold onto the bow line?

Later we learned that the 2 men did not really know one another. The boat owner has some physical, mental and communication issues caused by strokes and had picked up the man who fell into the water earlier that day near Chicago to help him follow a portion of the Loop Route. The guy who fell in the water fractured his right arm and did not return to the boat. The boat owner is continuing the trip on his own for now.  Between the tugs/tows/barges, very low water conditions, locks and other pleasure boats on the Rivers, communicating is key in several situations daily.  We hope he stays safe…

All in a Day’s Work

I’ll get to the main topic in a minute, but first an update on our location… We crossed the Lake from Frankfort to Algoma on Thurs 9/2 and then made a succession of stops at Kewaunee, Manitowoc, Port Washington and Racine. The marinas were fine, but mostly filled with commercial and sport fishing boats rather than sailboats and leisure craft. We missed the smaller, more picturesque and convenient towns on the north western MI shoreline (Northport, Charlevoix, Leland, Frankfort, etc). Grocery stores thus far in WI have been miles away near I-43 or on the far outskirts of towns.

Maritime Museum in Manitowoc
Downtown Milwaukee
Windpoint Lighthouse near Shoops Park Golf course in Racine

We stayed 4 nights in Racine and rented a car to make visiting family and restocking supplies easier. My 93-yr old mom, my aunt, Megan and family and Madison friends visited us at the boat and it was great fun. Today we headed to Winthrop Harbor IL and our next destination is Belmont Harbor (adjacent to Lincoln Park north of the Chicago loop) where we’ll take down our mast and bimini to get under all 22 bridges going thru downtown Chicago enroute to Joliet IL (via the Illinois River) on Thursday.

I am feeling somewhat ambivalent about saying farewell to the Great Lakes (until next year). The vistas, shoreline scenery, sunrises and sunsets, and multitude of destination options have been spectacular. But the need to be constantly aware of the wind/weather/waves and make daily decisions regarding “go or no go”, and dealing with Zeke’s anxiety on rough seas has been stressful.

Some have compared our travels to a 4-month “road trip” but it is definitely not comparable with respect to heeding weather warnings, having confidence in (but constantly monitoring and listening to) your boat’s mechanical performance or with respect to “drive time”.

We start the day heating water for our pour-over coffee and listening to NOAA marine forecast, checking several marine weather websites, making a decision whether to move on or stay put and checking fluids, clamps, belts, etc before turning on the engine. While enroute, we lift up floor boards and look at spots where we’ve fixed leaks, repaired or replaced hoses, check various engine parts and the stuffing box with an infrared temperature gun and make sure the bilges aren’t accumulating water every 30 minutes or so. AAA can come to your rescue if you pull over on the roadside, but safe pullover spots out in 400 feet of water in Lake Michigan or Superior may be miles away. We do use “auto-pilot” at times but one of us is always at the steering wheel watching for other boats, fishing buoys and off-shore shoals.

Finally, we usually travel only 4-5 hours per day, which means we’re almost always at our destination by 2pm. This gives us several hours to walk and explore new towns nearly every day. It’s a rare day when my Fitbit registers less than 12-13,000 steps! Whether we have a late afternoon brew on the boat or at a new brew pub, or whether we eat out or dine in, we are enjoying the trip, meeting new people and learning something about the boat, our surroundings or ourselves every day.

The next portion of our journey, “the Rivers” -Chicago, Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, TomBigbee, etc) may have fewer weather issues and destination choices, but we suspect the enjoyment and learning experiences will continue!

MI ports on Lake Michigan

St Ignace Marina was a great stop w/ good access to restaurants, swimming for Zeke & friendly staff. Best Whitefish tacos! The long ride under the Mackinac bridge and over to Beaver Island was a little bumpy for us, but Zeke had quite a difficult time. We stayed away from the freighters, but even from a distance their wakes rocked us hard several times as the moved at full speed thru the open water east of Mackinac Island.

Beaver Island is a throwback in time with a few quaint shops, local bars (Beachcombers and Shamrock) and lots of local history, some involving a Mormon settlement on the island. It was pleasant enough, but much of the open shoreline near the marina was cordoned off from riffraff like us. But we did manage to find a hidden spot where Zeke could swim with the ducks!

Some very curious ducks

Northport, near the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula in Grand Traverse Bay was our next destination on Thursday, Aug 26. We thoroughly enjoyed the town and the marina, which was great as we were grounded for 4 nights due to weather. One storm was so intense it tore our flexible solar panels off our bimini. Luckily, the didn’t blow over the seawall and we were able to recover them with minimal damage! While there we met a number of loopers, several couples “practicing” for their 2022 loop, and we saw some interesting boats, including this tug docked behind us on the seawall!

It’s a Lord Nelson 37, made in Seattle WA
Named “Theodore Bayre” with a life-size stuffed bear (note the profile) that sits in the Captain’s chair when the boat is at rest.

Finally, on Monday, Aug 30 we were able to head to Leland and although we again had quite a choppy ride we enjoyed the change in scenery! The nearby beach was beautiful, but the huge crashing waves intimidated Zeke. Had dinner on the boat (chix, wild rice and salad) and enjoyed the sunset as the strong westerly winds died down.

Started out early for Frankfort MI this morning (Aug 31) with north winds pushing us in a southeasterly direction past Sleeping Bear Dunes and North and South Manitou Islands. Would’ve loved to anchor out at S Manitou, but no pets are allowed on the islands. Passed Pt. Betsie lighthouse on the way into Frankfort and saw many monarchs migrating across the open water today. Found good food and beer at Stormcloud Brewing Co…. Nice logo too! We’ll wait here for favorable winds to cross the big lake to Wisconsin, maybe Thursday…

At the Detour

Tonight on Sunday, Aug 22 we find ourselves at the DeTour MI Harbor Marina in the Village of DeTour…not an inapropriate name for a stop at this point in our lives.           

As most of you know “we made Whitefish Bay” last Thursday. We came across the open water from Grand Marais MI under fair skies and nearly calm seas, unlike the sailors on the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Whitefish Pt State docks are a very primitive harbor of refuge, but the beaches, water clarity and swimming were stunning.         

Whitefish Point upon approach

We crossed the Bay Friday morning and started flirting with the big boats on our way to the Soo locks.  Sad to be leaving such a beautiful lake behind, but relieved that the large expanses of 300+ foot deep water with no refuge or other boats in sight for hours is done.  We locked thru the Canadian side and docked at the George Kemp marina in downtown Sault Ste Marie for 2 nights.  Rode bikes to a great walley fish fry the first night while Zeke escaped his crate and entertained other boaters and marina staff in our absence. Spent part of Saturday ridding the boat of Lake Superior sand (inside) and spiders and spider poop (outside).  Yes, it’s visible and it stains!

The G Kemp Marina is within the historical district of SSM MI.

Left the Soo and traveled “downbound” on St. Mary’s River to its confluence with Lake Huron and the Village of DeTour.  Nice marina with good access to the beautiful Cheneaux Islands on Monday, where we spent our anniversary anchored out in Government Bay.  Then on to St. Ignace early Monday on the north side of the Mackinac Bridge to take advantage of another beautiful day with friendly seas and plan our journey south on Lake Michigan.