People often ask us, when they hear what we are doing, what was our favorite part of the trip. I may not be able to answer that question (you like different areas for different reasons) but I can surely tell you which was my least favorite part - the Mississippi River. Many folks do what we are doing in a single year and some of them do it multiple times. I don't understand anyone who would voluntarily take a pleasure boat down the Mississippi more than once.
The good news about the Mississippi is that it has a heck of a current. We were getting a 4-5 knot push most of the way, giving us a cruising speed of 10-11 knots (11-12 MPH), about 40% faster than we normally travel. The bad news is that the Mississippi River is a commercial river with very little accommodation for recreational boating. When you leave St. Louis you have 221 miles to travel to get to the Ohio River. There is exactly one marina in that whole trip and calling it a marina is a kindness.
The other benefit of stopping at Hoppies is talking with Fern, the owner. Fern knows the state of the river all the way down to the Ohio and can recommend places to stop, locations where you don't want to meet a tow, and can provide advice on how to deal with tow boat wake, also known as wheel wash. Unfortunately, we had a too close encounter with wheel wash before we got to Hoppies and the rocking and rolling killed our camera, so we'll have iPhone only pictures until we have time to buy another point and shoot.
Once you leave Hoppies you are in for a couple of long days. The available anchorages on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers are spaced in such a way that we had to do back-to-back 10 hour days to get from one to the next. Our first night after leaving Hoppies we were able to tie up at the Kaskaskia Lock and Dam, just off the Mississippi. But the second night we just pulled over to the side of the Mississippi River, dropped our anchor, and hoped nothing bad happened in the night. It actually wasn't as dramatic as all that. The Army Corps of Engineers has built things called weir dams on the sides of the Mississippi. These channel the water into the center of the river, causing the water in the channel to run faster and act as a natural dredging operation. It keeps the shipping channel deep and needing less actual dredging. Unfortunately, when the water is high, as it still is on some areas on the Mississippi, these weir dams are below water and you can't see them. We were actually tucked up behind a weir dam when we anchored, which reduced the river current by almost half and pretty much assured that we weren't going to get hit by a tow during the night.
Our first day on the Mississippi we went through the Mel Price lock. This lock actually has two locking chambers. The "little" one is a mere 600' long and used primarily for locking through pleasure craft. The big chamber is 1,200 feet long and 110 feet wide, used to lock the tows through. As we pulled up to it, the lock master directed us to the big chamber side of the lock. We discovered why as we entered. There was a deer swimming in the lock chamber and the lock master was hoping we could scare it into going down to the departure end of the lock and leaving when the lock opened for us. This was the first time anyone has asked us to wrangle deer with our boat. Unfortunately, as the doors started to open (which creates a significant amount of turbulence), the deer swam past us and headed back into the lock chamber. I don't know if they ever figured out how to get her out of there. The lock master said they have deer in the lock a couple of times a month, but it was certainly a first for us.
St. Louis is a major tug/barge port and has a huge fleeting area. This means there are a lot of tugs and barges moving around, requiring great concentration from both of us, one driving the boat and the other keeping an eye on the AIS display to see what tugs/tows are moving, in which direction and at what rate of speed. Once you get through that, you need to monitor the tows coming up river to be sure you agree on how to pass them. The Mississippi River tows are massive. Tugs can be 60-100 feet or more long and the barges they push are each 195 feet long and 35 feet wide. The tow that threw us the problem wheel wash had 36 (4 across and 9 long) barges, being pushed by two tugs. Fifteen barges is a small tow on the Mississippi and 24-30 barges are common.
Each day we were on the Mississippi we got caught up in some kind of tow issue. Our second day we hit a narrow fleeting area at the same time as four tows, three headed up river towards us and one headed down river behind us. Two of the tows were just passing through and the other two were maneuvering to dock. The only thing we could do was duck into a space in front of some anchored barges and wait for them to sort themselves out. Finally, a tug passing through without any barges invited us to follow him and led us through the fleeting area without incident.
The next day was relatively tow free until we hit a big s-curve in the river. No fewer than 8 tows were coming up river towards us on the other end of the S. Although the river etiquette is that down-bound boats have the right of way, that doesn't include pleasure craft, at least not from a tow captain's perspective. Fortunately, there was a down-bound tow about two miles ahead of us as we entered this area. We called and asked if we could follow him through, because we knew the up-bound tows would slow down and get out of his way. He agreed and we had a fairly easy ride through an area that could have been fraught with wheel wash and tow dodging otherwise.
|Mississippi River beach|
One thing neither of us expected on the Mississippi River was sandy beaches. We saw quite a number of them but never saw a single person on them. From the water you can't tell if they are not accessible from the land, or if the river current, the barge traffic, and effluent the upstream cities dump into the river discourages the locals from using the river for swimming and other beach activities.
When we got to the junction of the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers, we turned up the Ohio for about 60 miles. Up the Ohio means the current was now against us, whereas it had been behind us on the Mississippi. Our speed dropped from 10-11 knots to barely 6 knots and that was after we increased our engine speed by 25%. Our 10 hour day on the Mississippi took us 110 miles. We only managed to travel 60 miles on the Ohio in 10 hours. Even so, we both agreed we much preferred the Ohio to the Mississippi. The Ohio is wide and deep to the shore in most places. Even though we passed a number of tows on the Ohio (it is the busiest commercial river in the U.S., even busier than the Mississippi), the river was plenty wide enough for us to escape any barge wake and wheel wash.
|Olmsted Lock and Dam|
On the Ohio we passed the largest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project ever. This is Olmsted Lock and Dam (www.lrl.usace.army.mil/Portals/64/docs/Ops/Navigation/Olmsted/Olmsted%20Trifold.pdf)
a new lock and dam operation that will replace two older dams on the Ohio. It boasts the world's largest water-based crane (sticking up on the right in the picture) and the world's largest land-based crane (the inverted U-shaped thing on the land in the left side of the pic). The big inverted U-shaped thing in the water in the middle of the picture is a catamaran barge that is used to take pre-cast concrete dam sections from the shore to where they will be installed in the river. This project was funded by Congress in 1988 (back when Congress actually did any thing other than fight for sound-bites) and will be completed in 2016.
We anchored at the junction of the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers. The next day we went up the Cumberland, a narrow, twisty river with not much barge traffic. Most of the tows we ran into on the Cumberland seemed to be transporting rocks. Because of the turns in the river, the barges aren't too big. Bigger tows use the Tennessee River rather than the Cumberland.
So here we are, at a resort and marina complex in Grand Rivers, KY, treating ourselves to a few travel-free days to recover from two weeks and 600 miles down the rivers. We've still got locks to go through and tows to pass, but I feel like surviving the Mississippi was a major, once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment. I'm glad it is over.