Life on the Mississippi

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Spent four days in Grafton, IL enjoying the Key West of the Midwest and getting a small coolant leak fixed.  I would have tackled it myself at home, but with 200 miles of Mississippi ahead I had a pro do the fix.  Scott from Bloch Marine did an absolutely bulletproof job and gave the engine a good once-over.  An interesting guy who gave us a lot of local knowledge about the river system.

These small towns and cities (at least some of them) are really doing a good job trying to attract the boating dollar, since they are pretty depressed otherwise.  The marinas in Grafton and Alton, where we’re staging for the next Mississippi leg, are magnificent — covered slips, private shower rooms, pools, restaurants on site.  Both towns also have nicely developed waterfront areas with parks, bike trails, etc.

Grafton is a funky old place full of bars, produce stands, artisan outlets and B&B’s.  No local provisions, however, so we did a Walmart-grocery run in the marina’s courtesy van to the metropolis of Jerseyville, IL.  Huge thunder and lightning storms blew through while we were there, so it was good to be tied up.

Alton is blue, blue collar, but trying hard.  Downtown is sort of fixed up and there are some good restaurants.  The waterfront is dominated by the giant Argosy casino.  Gambling took its normal course here — it was supposed to be a way to support the riverboats, then they decided the riverboats could just tie up for the gamblers, then it was okay if the casino’s just had a riverboat theme, now it’s “what the hell, they can do anything they want since they are the only things around here making money.”

This is the Land of Lincoln for sure, which I am really enjoying since I am reading David Herbert Donald’s great Lincoln biography as we move through.  I was reading about New Salem on the Sagamon River where Lincoln established himself as a young man, and looked at the chart, and by God, we were just passing the Sagamon River.  The final Lincoln-Douglas debate was here, and there’s a nice park, but it seems unfortuneately close to the casino.

Going out with the other Loopers tonight, as we form up our nightly support group getting ready for the big jump.  They all like John, and he is the honorary grandchild of the group.

Small world story — we were in a really good lunch/antiques store yesterday having a sandwich, when we both suddenly realized that the beautiful girl at one of the tables was very, very familiar.  It was Cristina Olsen, John’s fellow bass clarinetist from Wilton High School for three years, and now a student at nearby Principia College.  Had a nice chat, and she will Facebook John’s travels out to the Wilton Class of 2011 world.

Downtown Grafton. A dead ringer for Key West, right?

I doubt if I will every voluntarily stay at anyplace called “End of the Trail”. Great logo — dead cowboy on a dead horse.

Grafton — Lincoln is everywhere around here

Confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers on a rainy morning

Sandstone cliffs line this part of the Mighty Mississip

Alton — a bit grim from the marina side, but it gets better

Alton Historic District

Argosy Casino, Alton

Alton — Lincoln-Douglas Park

So, Abey, what say we go over to the casino when this is over? I dunno, Steve. What if a nation CAN stand divided against itself?

Alton Telegraph where Molly Cole worked as a cub reporter XX years ago.

Playing Solitaire in the Illinois River


I somehow assumed that the wilds of Canada would be the most isolated area on Memsahib’s voyage.  Bad assumption.

The southern part of the Illinois River is as quiet and free of boats as one could imagine.  Our first day out of Peoria (a vibrant city that was a great change of pace) we saw NO pleasure boats, one tug. The second day we got up to two boats and locked through with three coming into Grafton, where we are now.  (Grafton “The Key West of the Mid West” — a great slogan and decidedly untrue.)

Picked up a little cell service in Beardstown, but that was it, so pretty much incommunicado for 3 days and 120 miles. There is one stretch where the only two highway bridges are 50 miles apart, so to get to Grandma’s across the river you take the ferry, just like the olden days.

Again, lots of wildlife.  We saw four bald eagles the second day out and a pair yesterday.  Leaping carp continued to leap and poor John got to scrub the scales off the side of the boat for an hour this morning.  At Bar Island, our Day Two anchorage, we took the dinghy in through the mud to explore and found numerous signs of beaver activity on the trees.  I wonder how long those beavers worked at it before deciding they weren’t going to dam up the Illinois river?

The Illinois gets very wide as it reaches the confluence of the Mississippi here in Grafton, so no worries from the tows, and it is more scenic and interesting than the semi-industrialized parts north of Peoria.

Getting very cold at night and in the morning, so we are heading south as fast as we can.  But low water levels, weather, and the lack of marinas and anchorages on the Mississippi leg of the trip mean you have to pick your travel days carefully.

Peoria from the river.

Steaks on the barbie, Bar Island

Eagle watching Memsahib. We have an eagle on the back the boat and hope one doesn’t come courting.

Ferry from East Bejesus to West Bejesus

Willow Island Anchorage -- the anchorages are really "chutes" in back of small islands where the tows can't get you.

Willow Island Anchorage — the anchorages are really “chutes” in back of small islands where the tows can’t get you.

Morning mist, Willow Island

Captain Cool

John in cold moring attire — socks on his hands since we didn’t bring gloves

Playing in Peoria

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Three days in Peoria to refresh and restore for the trip to the Mississippi, since Peoria is a real city with all the requisite services.  Those included a Game Stop video game store since Badlands 2 released yesterday and John HAD to have it.  Most boats plan their itinerary around weather and tides, but to that we add video game releases.  No problem, John is a great and patient crew.

Rented a car from Enterprise, which I can’t recommend highly enough to boaters and vacationers, since their pick up and delivery service really makes things easy, and you get a lot of time with the local driver to get the lay of the land.  In addition to Gamestop we did Lowes for hardware, and a beautiful supermarket called Schnucks for food (I don’t know how two guys can spend $181 — perhaps it has to do with the fact that Illinois liquor laws allow booze to be sold much like Cheerios and Campbell’s Soup.)

We are staying at the very nice Illinois  Valley Yacht and Canoe Club, which is partially closed for the season, but a good, friendly facility nevertheless.  They were delighted to trade burgees for Guilford Yacht Club’s, since the Connecticut representation in the bar is a little sparse.

The Illinois River is very scenic once you get out of the oil refineries, gravel dumps and power plants of suburban Chicago.  But still pretty much trees to the right, trees to the left, water in between.  What makes it interesting — and scary — are the “tows,” extremely powerful tugs pushing 8 to 10 barges each up and down the river.  They are so long that passing one of them on a bend is tough, so we all monitor the radio very carefully and in any questionable situation call them up.  The range of answers  is reflective of humanity — some are really chatty, some are really crabby, all are really concerned about your safety and theirs.  The locks are different, too –  600 footers to handle the tows.  Not as many of them as the rest of the trip, since we’re in pretty flat country.

Lots of wildlife on the river — cranes, foxes, deer, and the crazy Asian carp.  Because Memsahib is low and slow we seem to scare them up and had two leap onto  the boat leaving blood and scales on the railings.  Jumped off before I could get a picture, but I am posting one from the net so you can get an idea of what it’s like going through a school.

Had one of those “why we’re doing this” moments the other night.  We were anchored in a beautiful, safe spot behind an island just off the river, but you could still see the tows through the trees.  They have huge searchlights on the tows that look eerily like eyes and navigation lights on the barges.  As the river mist came up, they looked like the dinosaur ancestors of today’s leviathans hunting up and down the river.

One saw our anchor light and swept 100,000 candlepower over Memsahib.  “Hey, what’s that, get a light on him.”  “Some kind of funny-looking Looper boat parked out back of Lower Henry, Cap.”  “Okay.”

Lockmaster John

Illinois River

Peru, IL. Just says little Huck Finn town, does’t it?

Tow with barges — this one was 845 feet long!

Towboat with Cap’n saying “What the hell is that thing doing out here?”

Thousands of cranes on an island in Peoria Lake

Carp — we don’t get this many, but sometimes 3 or 4. They are invasive and very tough on the native species

Lower Henry Island Anchorage

Illinois Valley Yacht Club — not too shabby

Into the Rivers

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As you could see from the previous post, we are starting down the rivers of the Midwest.

And the first of them was spectacular — the Chicago River running through the heart of the city.  Nearly as imposing as the East River because you are surrounded by towers on all sides.

I had often watched pleasure boats going through the river before I knew there was a Loop, and thought it would be a great trip. I don’t know what the resident Chicagoans think because they seemed oblivious to the river and it’s traffic.  Heads down, late for work at 9 on a Thursday morning.   We went through the Chicago lock with seven other Loopers, and it was nice to have some support on the radio watching for traffic.

John took all these great pictures since I was trying to enjoy the sights while terrified of fire boats, water taxis, low bridges and the approaching locks.

Out of Lake Michigan, heading into the River

View coming out of the lock — ZOWEE!

View north going into the river

View south heading into the river

The bridges are LOW and we went under more than 40 of them in 5-mile stretch

The river is lined with walkways, restaurants and fountains — but very few people

Still a classic — the Wrigley Building

Tribune Tower — I once had a meeting with Stan Cook in the castle-looking part at the top. His office was a dead ringer for Lord Crawley’s in Downton Abbey.

One of the better modern buildings

These guys were running around everywhere. Passengers wave,obviously being water people










John Saves Memsahib’s Voyage!!

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Memsahib was sitting in a lock on the Illinois River yesterday with the 50-ton doors getting ready to open when the lockmaster called out — “Say, I think I’ve got you boys a little too close to those doors — cut loose and back off” only to find we had no reverse.  We found a couple prop turns somewhere and got out of the way, but for the next 50 miles sometimes we had forward, sometimes we had reverse, and for a while this morning we had neither.  So we limped into to the best service place on the river — Spring Brook Marine — and they fiddled and tested until they finally had no alternative theory but that something funky was wrapped around the shaft.

So John braved the Leaping Carp, toxic mud and leeches and went overboard, to find an XL size, nylon North Face jacket had wrapped itself completely around the prop.  When we were going good it would simply wrap itself tight around the shaft, but when we’d stop it would soak up water and foul the prop, making it seem that we were only partially in gear.

John had to cut it off a piece at a time with razor blades, but he is fine now other than the fact that his left little toe has fallen off and he has a third (green) eye.

Chicago Interlude

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Molly flew  out and we spent a week being Chicago tourists after a tough crossing of Lake Michigan.  Weather was closing in, so we left South Haven and jammed across in every kind of weather — fog, calms, wind from every direction — for 11 long hours.  Funny thing happened in the fog — I had big boats covered through my fancy new AIS system which shows them on the chart plotter, and on a Thursday there were virtually no small boats out in the middle of the lake.  But I thought to be on the safe side, I would take  look at the radar, only to realize I’d forgotten how to turn the damned thing on!  Two months of almost-perfect weather will spoil you.

Anyway, since Actmedia and Gannett both had big Chicago operations and it is the hub of the food-marketing world, I would guess I’ve been  to Chicago on business 50 times.  And based on our trip, I would come back as a tourist 50 more times.

I don’t think Chicago makes it onto many Northeasterners’ vacation list with Boston, Orlando or Washington, DC.  But it is a cheap plane ride and a  fanatstic destination.  The attractions are all clustered right downtown, and Lili, I hesitate to say it, I think they are equal in interest and quality to New York.  New York has Bigness and Broadway, but it doesn’t have the world class Shedd Aquarium or Museum of Science and Industry.  The public transportation system is tough for a foreigner to deal with, but there are always the totally overpriced cabs.

We did it all — Shedd, Adler Planetarium, Sears Tower (sold by Eddie Lampert and now the Some Third Rate Real Estate Company Tower), Science Museum, Chicago Steakhouse (the Fireshouse in the South Loop — thank God Molly is working), deep dish pizza (Lou Malnati’s), Chinatown.

I won’t bore you with pictures of sights that are getting transparent from having their picture taken, because the real photo op was the marina itself — Burnham Harbor just north of McCormick Place, across the street from Soldier Field and a four iron from the museums. Just sitting in the cockpit was awesome. Bears played Sunday and it was a madhouse — boats don’t have tailgates, so I don’t even know what to call it.

Chicago coming out of the mist about 12 miles out

Me after 11 hours — is that Mount Gay on the horizon?

Burnham Harbor

Burnham from Sears Tower

Soldier Field on Game Day

Sunset from Memsahib

Burnham Night View

Man Hugging Fish at Shedd Aquarium (looks suspiciously like former Chicago Community Organizer)

Chicago FrontLine Reunion – A Small but Select Group


Look who motorcycled down to Memsahib!

Cotter — You missed the party!

How the Other Half Lives — South Haven, MI

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This  litte port, like Charlevoix, I’d put on the Looper’s can’t miss list:  a new municipal marina, four places to buy espresso drinks in a two-block radius, restaurants galore (including Su Casa, a very good Mexican place we tried, and Clementine’s, a tablecloth place with lines out the door).  Also a grocery, UPS store and hardware.

And a bakery  (Golder Brown).  Bakeries are becoming the test of a Memsahib- friendly town.   A bakery seems to signal three things 1) people who care about fresh food 2) a town with enough tourists wandering around  to support the other good Looper things (cappucino, bookstores, places that grind their own sausage) 3) a breakfast that I don’t have to make.

But food and shoppes are never enough, and South Haven also has the very excellent Great Lakes Maritime Museum ,with a well-preserved fishing tug (I found out they don’t call them boats), a recreation of a war of 1812 sloop, and a very well done Coast Guard exhibit.  Also, the requisite War of 1812 exhibit (that’s three this trip).  Really ugly in these parts — mostly raiding back and forth across the lakes in retribution for previous raids.  The War of 1812 was a mess like most wars and I’ve been hit with a lot of it on the trip.  It is surrounded by the glow of the successful  war at sea and the birth of the U.S. Navy.  But it was a waste and disaster in terms of life and property loss on land and should have never been fought.  It was the Iraq/Afganistan of 200 years ago and nothing much seems to have been learned from it.

Spent some time with another great diesel engine on the fishing tug — a Kahlenberg semi-diesel.  They start with gas to warm the cylinders, then run on the equivalent of heating oil.  The thing is, the fishermen started them on Monday, and shut them off on Friday, running continuously in between.  That’s not odd for these old, simple diesels — I just read a story about a Gardner diesel in a Scottish fishing boat being converted to a yacht that was started in Scotland, and turned off next in Panama.  Some of us spend our declining years fascinated by old cocktail waitresses. I am more inclined to old diesel engines.

South Haven Marina — Almost Empty Post Labor Day

South Haven Shoppes

Great Lakes Maritime Museum

Great Lakes Fish Tug



Mistake in Muskegon

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I wanted so badly for Muskegon to exceed the extraordinarily low expectectations of my fellow cruisers.  Even the Port Captain of the Great Lakes Cruisers Club  for Muskegon (on his boat in Ludington) seemed to wince when I mentioned our plans.

But Muskegon was the right distance, I had a great brochure on all the cool new stuff downtown, we were going to stay at the municipal marina right in town  and cruisers should help cities that have had a tough time.  Visions of bakeries, exotic cuisine and fresh farmers market provisions danced in our heads.

Then we arrived at the half-deserted marina surrounded by chain link and barbed wire.  A deserted factory looms over it.  The really nice dock people explained that lockdown is at 8 pm — nobody in, nobody out without a key.  Downtown was deserted on a Sunday, and I couldn’t even see any closed cool new places.  The farmers were masquerading as heavily armed police.  We rode our bikes for miles to find a diner.

The saving grace for me is that downtown is also the home of the LST 393 Musuem — a real, restored World War II Landing Ship Tank.  Good old 393 made 30 trips to Omaha beach on D-Day and fought in 75 actions delivering 75,000 men and 3,000 vehicles to war.

I spent a lot of time in the engine room with the two V-12 Detroit diesels — 6.5 inch bore, 18-inch stroke.  All the parts were the same as Memsahib’s little tractor diesel.  I thought “There are the injectors, there’s the fuel pump, there’s the starting compressor” — I was an ignition key away from arriving  at Key West in an LST!!

Anyway — Muskegon has a lot going for it — a new bike trail, a new downtown park right on the water, a great location.  Just not ready for Looper prime time yet.

View from Marina, Muskegon

Landiing Ship Tank 393

Door for the tanks

As promised

Stuck in Michigan

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Blog Notes:  The About the Voyage page has been filled in.  There is also a page with a map that automatically shows where we are.

Stuck three days in Ludington, MI due to extremely high winds.  I am just not used to this — sunny, warm and 30 knots.  In New England 30 knots means gray, cold and raining.  I guess these extremes between high and low pressure areas are what spawn the tornadoes.

Ludington is not a bad place to be stuck.  Nice municipal marina, downtown that’s still alive with restaurants and a great gourmet grocery (Best Choice).  Had two excellent meals — Luciano’s (red sauce Italian, but really good red sauce Italian) and barbecue take-out from “Bones and Butts” started by  a Kentucky guy who thought Michigan people weren’t getting enough ribs.  Luciano came out to see the tourists — about 70 years old, chefs coat, chefs clogs and pajama bottoms with what appeared to be little kangaroos on them.  Hey — it’s hot back there with the raviola and veal parmigiana!

But the big deal in Ludington is the Badger — a 451-foot coal fired ferry that crosses to Wisconsin once a day and an overnight trip.  A wonderful sight, in continuous service since 1952 — almost as long as I’ve been in continuous service.

Some nut case is trying to close the Badger down because of the coal.  This cannot be.  This is our heritage, this is important for people to remember — every nine-year old that gets to SLEEP at NIGHT on a HUGE SHIP will be a better person because of it.

And the Badger is chock full of long-distance trucks saving going though Chicago burning $5 diesel and getting the drivers their sleep requirement.

The Great Badger

Badger coming up the tiny channel — hundreds of people come out to watch every night at 7

Badger full of trucks

Badger backs into the dock on a anchor because there isn’t enough room to turn around — that ain’t easy!!