Sunday, July 28, 2013

Rolling down the rivers

We have survived the first four rivers of our journey, the Illinois, the Mississippi, the Ohio and the Cumberland. We are currently in Grand Rivers, Kentucky, the only town in the Land Between the Lakes, a national recreation area created by the federal government in the 1960s after they built the dam that created Lake Barkley.

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.

Hoppie's marina
Hoppies is a set of 4 river barges that have been lashed to each other, then tied to the western shore of the Mississippi River with huge dock lines. You tie up to them, bow into the current and sit there while the tow boats travel up and down the river. Fortunately, the owners of Hoppies, who have been running this going concern since the 1930s, have put industrial strength carpet on the sides of the barges. That plus your own boat fenders keep the wakes from the tows from damaging your boat, but it doesn't stop the rocking and rolling. Hoppies continues to exist because it is the only place on the Mississippi south of St. Louis where a pleasure boat can purchase marine diesel or marine gas.  Down Time is remarkably fuel efficient (3-4 mpg - don't shudder! for a boat that is great), so we didn't need fuel. But many boats literally could not make the trip down the Mississippi if Hoppies ceased to exist.

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 (
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.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Asian carp

Once we were through the 12 miles of hell we thought we were in for a nice, if occasionally industrial, trip down the Illinois River. But that was because we hadn't really understood the issue of the asian carp. We had heard about the asian carp problem, we had even seen the videos, but we didn't really get it until we experienced it for ourselves.

The so-called asian carp is a silver carp that was imported in the 1960s to clean commercial fishing ponds in Arkansas. Unfortunately, they escaped into the Mississippi River and have been making their way north ever since. By now they have made it all the way up the Illinois River. The States of Michigan and Ohio, hysterical that the carp will escape from the rivers and pollute the Great Lakes, even sued to force the federal government to try and stop the migration northward of these fish. The result of that suit is an electrified barrier in the Illinois River that, in theory, the carp can't/won't cross.

When this fish barrier was being installed three years ago, the Coast Guard closed this section of the Illinois River to all but steel hull boats, effectively banning all recreational boats while permitting the tug and barge traffic to continue.  This took place in the fall when the bulk of the Great Loopers were in Chicago trying to head south. For a while it looked like the only way they were going to get out of Chicago was to have their boats trucked around the fish barrier. While the distance wasn't far, there was only one company who would agree to do it and, as you might expect, they wanted a rapacious amount of money for their service. Finally, after pressure from every stranded boater's congressional delegation, the Coast Guard agreed that there wasn't any reason why fiberglass boats couldn't transit the fish barrier and the river was opened again to recreational traffic.

So what is the big deal? These damn fish are easily disturbed by the sounds of a boat's engine and when they get disturbed, they jump out of the water, as much as 8-10 feet out of the water. The kid/woman in this YouTube video seems to think being pelted by 3-6 pound fish is fun but, believe me, fun is the last word I'd use to describe it. 

We had four of these monsters land on the boat in just two days. Two landed in the dinghy where we just left them until they died, then we threw them overboard. But the other two landed on the back deck. When they hit the hard surface of the deck they flop around, beating themselves up and flinging blood, scales and other disgusting stuff all over the place. By the time Jim was able to grab the first one and throw it off the boat, then entire back deck was a gory mess. While he drove the boat, I got out the cleaning supplies and scrubbed down the entire back deck. I hadn't even stood up to return the cleaning supplies to their storage spot when the second carp came over the rail and started flopping around! It was maddening.

But it could have been worse. We were actually traveling with other boaters, George and Sandy on M/V Rosalee, through the Illinois River. They left a port light (window) open in their bedroom and a carp actually came through the screen on the port light and landed on their bed. They didn't know it until Sandy went below for something and found the mess. Based on how bad my back deck looked after just a few minutes of carp flopping, I can't imagine what their sleeping cabin must have looked like. Poor Sandy was looking for a laundromat to wash her bedding. I would probably have been looking for a dumpster!

The carp are supposed to be in the Mississippi River as well; fortunately, we haven't seen any yet. We only have two more days on the Mississippi before we turn up into the Ohio River. Let's hope our luck holds on that long.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

12 miles of hell

In the last post I promised to tell you about the 12 miles of hell. Boaters call it that because it is a skinny piece of water where the Cal-Sag and Chicago canals come together and it is also a fleeting area for the commercial tugs that work up and down the inland rivers. A fleeting area means it is where tugs drop off their barges and collect new barges for the trip back down river.

These are not small tugs I am talking about. These are tugs that run 24 hours a day, carry three crews, and push 6-12 50 foot barges in front of them. As you can see in the picture, they have a steering station that can be lowered as necessary for bridges, but generally runs up high so whoever is steering the boat can see over the barges to determine what is coming at them.

Tug with the pilothouse in the raised position
In the 12 miles of hell you find multiple tugs maneuvering their barges in all directions. Some are docking against the walls of the canal, some are turning into basins in the side of the canal, some have already dropped off one load and are turning around in the canal to pick up another load. As you can see, the canal is only about two tugs wide which leaves a poor pleasure craft (tug terminology for recreational boaters) either sitting still waiting for them to move, or dodging between them from sitting spot to sitting spot.

Two tugs, no room

Even when they are not moving, just sitting next to their barges, there is not a lot of clearance between a tug and the canal wall.

We spent nearly 90 minutes getting through the fleeting area.  Just as we arrived three tugs were maneuvering at the entrance area, blocking the entire canal. We had to pull into an unused fleeting basin and wait for them to sort themselves out.  We knew about the three tugs, and how to hail them by name to find out what they wanted us to do, because Jim added an AIS (automatic identification system) receiver to our collection of toys last winter.

All commercial boats broadcast an AIS signal with their name, size, location and destination. The receiver picks that up and, with a wireless interface to an iPad, displays the information and the boat's location on a navigation chart on the iPad. The chart software also displays where we are. The AIS has a range of about five miles, so we get early warning of what is coming towards us. We can see what the river is like between us and the tug and know, if it narrows, that we need to slow down to stay in a wide area where the tug can safely pass. With the AIS display we know the oncoming boat's name and we are able to hail them and agree exactly how we are going to pass when we do meet each other. It takes a lot of the tension out of driving a pleasure craft down a commercial river.

We had funny interaction with one of the tugs yesterday. We were in a wide but twisty part of the river, so we couldn't see the tug but we knew he was there. We called him and agreed on the passing protocol, no problem. But when we came around the last corner and he could finally see us, he called and wanted to know how it was that we knew he was there. Jim and the tug captain had a nice conversation about pleasure craft AIS receivers.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


We had a wonderful four days in Chicago. We got to spend some more time with the Chicago grandkids, and I did some shopping and museum hopping. Ted Schwartz, who owns the same boat we do, was able to get us a slip in his marina in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago. We were one block from the lake shore jogging/bike trail, two blocks from the Lincoln Park zoo, and had a choice of three different bus routes to get downtown. To get to the buses, you had to walk across the park and this was the view of downtown you had from the park.

My other favorite view of the park was the recently renovated lily pond. I walked through here in the mornings to the sound of singing birds and bubbling waterfalls, a great way to start the day.

Chicago actually has one of the great skylines of America from the water. I admit to thinking that tourist "take a ride on the lake" boat tours are usually cheesy, but if you don't have your own boat or as friend with a boat in Chicago, I guess I'd recommend taking the lakefront water tour. The city view is just plain spectacular from the water.

Looking north

Looking south
We've had several folks ask how you get a boat from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. The answer is you go down the Illinois River. To get to the Illinois River you can go through one of two canals, the Cal Sag channel which starts in Calumet, or the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (CSSC) which runs right through the heart of the city. Look on the map and you'll see two green routes in the upper right hand corner. The northern most route is the CSSC.  The two canals join up in the middle of an area that recreational boaters call "twelve miles of hell." More about that in the next post.

We took the CSSC through Chicago. This is the view from the boat as we headed through downtown.

One of things we did while we were in Chicago this time was to take the architectural boat tour. With all the times we have been in Chicago, neither of us had taken this tour before. We learned lots on the tour, but two things really caught our attention. One is that the Chicago Tribune Building has stones from famous landmarks around the world embedded into its outside walls. The Great Wall of China, the Houses of Parliament, and Petra are just some of the stones. I can't tell you how many times I've walked past that building in the last 30 years without realizing those stones were there.

Stones embedded in the Trib building
The other thing the tour guide told us is that there is a zeppelin landing spot at the top of the Intercontinental Hotel. Many folks claim it is an urban myth, but the top of the hotel does have a very strange bright yellow onion dome.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Miscellaneous musings on Michigan

We've left Michigan behind, but I have to say it was quite a revelation. I've never spent any time in Michigan but I can certainly see myself going back again. We spent over a month slowly working our way down the western coast of Michigan, both because we were interested to see it and because the rivers south of Lake Michigan were flooded and, therefore, not open to recreational traffic.

Michigan has beautiful, mostly uncrowded beaches. As a Southern California native and a frequent South Florida visitor, I am used to beaches where there is barely enough room to put down a beach towel without invading you neighbor's personal space. The Michigan beaches have beautiful, soft sand and the coastal communities work to keep them clean and attractive. I watched city employees groom the sand on the beaches in the early morning in more than one town. What does "grooming the sand" mean you ask? They have special little tractors specifically built for sand management that churn through the top couple in inches, remove any large rocks, trash, etc., and smooth out the top of the sand.

Every beach has clean restrooms, good parking and, usually, a concessionaire that rents umbrellas, beach chairs, water toys, and sells ice cream. Small picnic pavilions with grills are dotted along the beaches.  Beach volleyball courts are common. Many beaches also have campgrounds associated with them for RVs. They have special areas marked off for folks who want to bring their pets (usually but not always dogs) to the beach. Instead of a big sign with a whole set of don't instructions, the governments in Michigan have worked to find ways to compatibly accommodate all of the various interests of the folks who use their beaches.

Each little town along the water has its own character. There are certainly chain tourist shops that you see in every town, but there are also many local, one shop operations in each town. Everyone knows that you have to make the bulk of the year's money during the three months between Memorial Day and Labor Day so you don't get any of the tourist resentment you sometimes experience in resort areas with longer seasons. I don't think we met a single grumpy, unhappy person during the entire month we spent in Michigan.

Below are some of the Michigan pictures that didn't make it into the earlier blog posts. This is the only other Down Time boat we've ever run into. It was a fishing charter boat in Grand Haven. While we were there the fishermen were catching big salmon. Salmon is not native to Lake Michigan. According to our friend Ted Schwartz (an Endeavor Trawlercat 36 owner from Chicago), the salmon was introduced in the 1960s to address a problem with alewifes, an invasive species of fish that killed off many of the native Great Lakes fish in Lake Michigan.

This was the dockmaster's John Deere Gator in St. Joe. We enjoyed the fact that it was tricked out with a life ring, just in case someone fell in.
Marina Gator

Finally, this is Jim posing with a paper-mache menagerie we found walking to breakfast in Grand Haven. We took a town trolley tour while we were there, but no one could explain what the critters were used for. Parade float decorations maybe?

We're done with Michigan and on to Illinois, but if you are looking for a beachy, small towns getaway, give Michigan a thought, especially if you have an RV.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Happy Fourth of July

We have washed up in St. Joseph, Michigan, a smallish resort town in southwestern Michigan. By boat we are only 52 miles from Chicago, almost due west across Lake Michigan. Of course, nothing is easy in boating. You can't just head west and arrive in Chicago. You have to pick a weather window so Lake Michigan won't kick your butt. When we arrived in St. Joe the weather was not cooperating. The forecast looked bad for days to come, so we decided to rent a car and visit Jim's daughter and grandkids at their lake house in Monticello, IN, only 100 miles from here.  As soon as we picked up the car, the weather changed. Oh well.

After we got back from Monticello, we were treated to a full day of rain, which brought us to July 3. We could have left then for Michigan City, IN, but that would have had us arriving in Chicago on Thursday, July 4. If you've been reading along with this trip, you know that we generally don't like moving the boat on weekends. And we really don't like the combination of weekends, holidays, and large cities with lots and lots of watercraft of all sizes and descriptions.  So we decided to sit here through the holiday and start moving again at the start of next week.

This picture gives you some idea of why we don't like to travel on weekends. This was a not particularly nice weekend day in the entrance channel at St. Joseph, Michigan.

St. Joe weekend boaters
Just to spice things up a bit, I broke my hand last weekend. Going down a set of steps, I missed one. I threw out my hand to stabilize myself and ended up hitting something hard with the side of my hand. I broke the 5th (small finger) metacarpal (the bone between your knuckle and your wrist) in my left hand, and, yes, I am left-handed. I am entombed in a removable cast from two inches below my wrist all the way through to the tips of my last two fingers. Fortunately, I throw docking lines with my right hand, so the broken hand hasn't gotten in the way of boating. Eating, writing, etc., those are the challenging tasks.

My removable hand cast

I've only broken two bones in my life and both happened while we were on the boat in small towns where we knew no one. In both cases I got really lucky with the local medical options. With this last incident we were in South Haven, MI. There was a local cab service (not as common as you might think) to take us to the urgent care clinic run by the local hospital (also not all that common in these small towns). Turns out that this hospital is the regional center for orthopedic issues. Even better, when the nurse practitioner at the urgent care clinic wanted to send me to an orthopedic surgeon to evaluate the break (at 5:45 PM), it was the ortho doc's night to work until 7:00 PM. The whole process, from call the cab to return home in a cast took less than 3 hours.

Enjoy your barbecues and fireworks. When next you hear from us, we'll be through Chicago and headed to the Mississippi River.