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Joliet City Wall, Joliet, IL 7/22/2019
Spring Brook Marina, Seneca, IL 7/23/2019
Heritage Harbor Marina & Starved Rock Marina 7/24/2019
IVY Club, Peoria Heights, IL 7/25/2019
Logston Tug Service, Beardston, IL 7/26/2019
Grafton Harbor Marina, Grafton, IL 7/27-29/2019
A little bit about the Illinois Waterway, which includes the Chicago River, Chicago Sanitary and Ship Channel and the Illinois River. It is 327 miles long from Chicago to Grafton, IL. Grafton is where we officially started the Loop. It has 8 locks and more bridges than you can count, especially in the downtown area. Within a ten-mile stretch, there are 41 bridges. The first challenge on the Illinois is the third bridge, the Michigan Ave bridge. It’s the lowest, with a height clearance of 17’1” and it doesn’t open but twice a year for the spring and fall exodus of boats leaving and returning to Lake Michigan, so you must be able to make it under this bridge in order to do the Chicago River thru downtown Chicago. Our height, if we lower our nav light is 16’ 10”, period. I tried talking Tom in to the alternate route, the Calumet River, which has a bridge clearance of 19’7”, but he had his heart set on doing the Chicago River.
The second challenge for the Illinois Water way this year is the limited time slot to lock thru Lock 5, the Marseilles Lock and Lock 6, the Starved Rock Lock. They are working on both locks during the day, so not even commercial traffic is allowed during the day. They are locking commercial traffic towboats and barges from 6pm until 5am. They have allocated 5:30am for one south/north bound rec boat/pleasure craft lock thru. That’s it folks! You can come thru then or not.
The Illinois Locks are notorious for making rec boats/pleasure craft wait. They are in charge and they have made boats wait hours and hours to lock thru. Boaters have said the lock masters are terrible to rec boats. A fellow boater who finished The Loop a few years ago said, “skip the Illinois, it’s awful. Just ship your boat back to MN when you get to Chicago”.
Needless to say, we’ve had apprehension about the Illinois and have not been looking forward to it. We’ve had numerous discussions about these last 327 miles and in the end, we decided we are just going to ‘put our head down and plow through it’. Not exactly a Looper attitude, but the Illinois sounded like it was not going to be much fun.
Below is a day by day of our trip down the Illinois~
Day 1 – 2 Locks
We were ready to be on our way after the boys left. We knew we were going to have some wind when we left the marina for the short 5 mile jaunt up to Lock 1 – Chicago Harbor Lock, but I never imagined that it could be any worse than our crazy ride back Saturday from the Playpen when we had the front roll in with 30 mph winds and all the boats left at the same time creating 4 ft rollers inside Monroe Harbor BUT I was wrong. We got out into the harbor and we had 6 footers! It was a four-contact hold! We knew all we had to do was make it thru the lock and the waters would settle down. It didn’t help that on our way to the lock there was a Pan Pan on the VHF of a man over board. I thought it was a drill, but it was for real. Chicago Fire and Rescue, Coast Guard and the helicopter, plus numerous other rescue boats were in the area. We had to wait for the lock because all the rescue vessels had to lock back thru. Waiting in the waves wasn’t much fun, but we had no choice. (Wished we had a Seakeeper!) We locked thru with the Fire and Rescue boat and reached calmer waters.
Once thru the lock our next challenge was our height at bridge 3, Michigan Ave. Tom had talked to everyone he could think of to find out its actual clearance with all the rain and flooding. No one would commit to an actual height. The coined response from all was 17 ft. OK then, we got a couple inches and lets pray that everyone is right and that the canal authorities are managing the flood water and keeping it at at least 17 ft. Tom felt confident we could clear, but here’s what every 1st mate I know hates……”Hey Mudda, go out on the bow and watch as we get near the bridge and let me know if we are close”. My response, “SERIOUSLY?!?! So, if we’re close to hitting are you going to be able to back off??? Not likely. So, let’s just rip all the electronics off the hard top.” I relented and listened to the captain and all was just fine. We had about 1 ½ ft. clearance at that 17 ft bridge and the other 17 footers we encountered and I actually got use to standing on the bow estimating the clearance. Still didn’t like doing it though ☹
So, we made it through downtown and enjoyed seeing the big city all around us. Tom loved it! Then we cruised into industrial, barge, towboat alley pretty much all the way to Joliet. We got through the Fish Barrier- all electronics OFF, got super lucky with Lock 2 and got to lock with a full barge (no chemicals) and two other tugs. These are HUGE locks, 600 ft x 110 ft. The lock master was a peach (wasn’t expecting that at all) and told us we could lock thru and to take the floater farthest up on starboard. We cleared the lock and then had to call the series of five Joliet bridges since their clearance was only 16’6” and they all opened up for us like butter!
We found a place on the Joliet City Wall for the night and got settled in. Tom was a bit concerned about security. He’d read that the City Wall could get a little nasty at night with crime, but all was good. We had Day 1 knocked out 😊
The Electric Fish Barriers are the US Army Corps of Engineer's effort to keep the Asian Carp out of the Great Lakes system. This non-native species first escaped into the Mississippi River and have made their way up into the Illinois River. The Chicago Sanitary and Shipping canal is the only water connection from the Illinois River to Lake Michigan.
Day 2 – 2 Locks
Best described as uneventful. I like those kind of travel days. We had two more locks, we had an early start so we could get thru another bridge in Joliet that closed down for morning rush hour and the day flew by. The lock masters were awesome and we cleared both locks with less that a 20 minute wait at both. Again, we weren’t expecting that.
We arrived at the Spring Brook Marina to a cheery lad on the gas dock, Zach. What a great guy. He pumped us out and directed us to our slip. He had been working at the marina since he was in his teens and was now a salesman for the dealership located at the marina. They had a courtesy truck they let us use and we headed to town to eat lunch, get groceries and do laundry. Later we toured a Prestige 450S (that was fun!), grilled out for dinner and turned in very early so we could be up by 3am, pull out of the slip by 4am and get to Lock 5, the Marseilles lock, 7 miles away by 5am as per requested by the lockmaster when we called him.
Neither of us are fond of traveling in the dark in unfamiliar territory, but we had no choice if we wanted to get thru the lock at the allotted time.
Day 3 – 1 Lock
After a sleepless night, we rose at 3am. It was dark and foggy. I prepped the boat for a port side bollard, as per the lockmasters request, we had our electronics up and running in night mode, wiped the dew off the windows and isen glass about a dozen times, had our auxiliary high powered light ready to go if necessary and headed out into the dark, foggy, barge filled night.
Keep in mind, the barges have been locking thru all night and are everywhere on the channel.
Once we got out of the marina and into the channel, we were able to access exactly what was going on. Our electronics do a good job of showing all the AIS vessels but when there are so many AIS vessels, it’s just a mass of little black triangles everywhere on your radar and chart plotter.
Needless to say, it was an unnerving experience making our way thru the dark, fog and maze of barges the seven miles to the lock. It was still dark when we got to the lock. We cleared the lock by 6am, headed to Heritage Harbor and I went back to bed! (Sorry, I have no photos of that "unique" experience! I was a little rattled!) After my little morning nap, we decided to head further on down the river, closer to the next lock and the 5:30am lock time. Neither of us wanted to get up at 3am and deal with the dark, barges and possibly fog again. A transient that arrived shortly after us and slipped right behind us confirmed our decision to move closer to the lock. He, his wife and grandson experienced the same middle of the night travel that we did with a few more miles tacked on and agreed that with all the barge traffic moving at night, it would be better to be closer to the lock. So, at 4pm, we headed to the Starved Rock Marina, 2 miles from the Starved Rock Lock. We stayed on the gas dock. Another early night in preparation for an early departure. Fingers crossed that we have more daylight and no fog.
Day 4 – 1 Lock
Our night on the gas dock, on the channel, at Starved Rock Marina was quiet and peaceful. We departed for the Starved Rock Lock at 5:10am and even had a little daylight. When we reached the lock, a big tow was just finishing a northbound lockage and the lock was ready for us in short order. Once inside the lockmaster was eager to chat. He wrapped our bollard for us and stood and talked with us our entire lockage. He noticed we were Loopers and said that one day he too was going to do the Loop. He gave us the update on the last two locks. He said that both would still have their wickets down and we’d be able to sail right by. It was a pleasure talking with him and neither Tom nor I could believe that we were experiencing the Starved Rock Lock. We had heard so many horror stories about this lock in particular. That they’d make you wait for hours and did like pleasure boaters. That couldn’t have been further from our experience. In fact, the entire Illinois River and lock system were like that…. enjoyable!
We traveled 65 miles to the IVY Club Marina in Peoria Heights, IL. We pulled in and immediately met Tim and Ron, the harbormaster and asst harbormaster, both incredibly accommodating and kind. The marina has been flooded out the entire summer. They’ve done clean up numerous times. You could tell, the two of them were just, plain worn out. We tied up to the seawall below the restaurant and pool after fueling up. It was a great stop. We did some routing, maintenance, laundry, took a dip in the pool and had dinner in the restaurant. Nice stop on the Illinois.
Day 5 – 1 Lock
We got a later start. We didn’t leave until 9am. It was a beautiful day on the water. We traveled 80 miles. We could tell the water was getting higher each mile and bridges that we would normally clear had to open for us. As per usual, lots and lots of barges.
We were initially only going to travel 48 miles but then saw that there was a barge in Beardstown, IL that you could tie up at for the night, so we continued on another 32 miles. We were both curious about the Logston Tug Service (barge tie up). We called and they said they had room for us. We prepped for starboard. Two fellas (Jeff & Luke) were on the barge waiting to grab our lines. There were four towboats, two at each end of the barge and one working on a load just down from us. We became fast friends with the guys on the barge and chatted it up with them for quite a while and they then agreed to give us a tour of one of the towboats. It was so cool. It was awesome getting into the pilot house and seeing the vantage point of a tow captain. The engine room was amazing as well.
Jeff, one of the tow captains told us all about the Tug service. Essentially, they get the barges filled with corn or soybeans, all 15 barges and then stage them on the side of the river for the larger towboats to pick up. He was so informative. He told us that one barge holds 350 acres of corn or 1000 acres of soybeans. The barges running the rivers are an amazing, finely tuned system.
They recommended we have dinner at the Mexican restaurant in town and gave us a little history lesson on Abraham Lincoln and the "Almanac Trial". Lincoln, a lawyer at the time, successfully defended a guilty man based on the daylight available at the time of the crime. Years later, it was discovered that the man did commit the crime on Feb 29, (Leap Year) and the witnesses to the crime were able to see the defendant. Interesting story. We had a great meal and hit the hay early. Tom wanted to be on the water by 6am headed for Grafton. Someone is just a little excited about crossing our wake….
Remembert the Asain Carp Electric Barrier??? Well on this side of the barrier the carp are a jumping. Boat motors rile the up and they fly up out of the water. When we got to IVY Club, we found one in the back of the dinghy! Tim at the IVY Club told us the record asian carp on the Illinois is 91 lbs!
Day 6 – 2 Locks
We woke at 4am to towboats working right next to us moving barges and setting up tows for the day. I rolled over but Tom was up for the day. I knew he was anxious to get on the water. I was too, but not that early. I heard the coffee maker dripping and I could hear him wiping down glass and prepping to go. I held him off until 6am before I untied and we exited the barge as the sun was rising.
The river was flat and we had no wind. It was a beautiful day on the Illinois cruising to Grafton and the excitement of crossing our wake continued to build as we got closer and closer.
As we proceeded down river, it became more and more evident that the river was way up. Bridges that we could normally easily clear had to be lifted. One railroad bridge, in normal pool, had clearance of 33 ft. When we called the bridge tender for the height, he said it was just barely 18 ft and he’d lift for us. All but two bridges ended up having to be lifted for us.
Barge traffic was steady and definitely more enjoyable during the day than at night 😉
We pulled in to Grafton Harbor Marina at 1pm, officially crossing our Loop wake. We are now GOLD LOOPERS!!! It’s an INCREDIBLE feeling knowing that we have officially completed the Loop, but we both agreed when we started that it’s not over until we pull back into Slip 125 on the 100 Boom in Wabasha, MN.
We are going to stay in Grafton a couple of days, regroup and evaluate the Mississippi. With all the rain and flooding she is still running pretty high. Under normal conditions we’d be going against a 1-2 kt current. With the flooding, it could run 3-4 kt. plus debris and deadheads may be a factor.
We’ll keep you in the loop as we return up river!
Tom & Sue Slightam
Read along as we circumnavigate the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada on the Great Loop on our boat BELLA, a Cruiser 460 Express.