July 14 - July 22
Chicago River * Barges * Tugs * Cranes * Locks * Illinois River * Joliet * Kankakee * Morris * Sand Beaches * Ottawa * Henry * Islands Back to Home Page
Day 17 - Friday, July 14
Today was the day we were starting on our journey down the river. Everyone had told us that the first day was the toughest. We had to go thru three locks on the narrow Chicago Sanitary Canal that was heavy with barge traffic. There is no place for a small pleasure boat to stop or dock until you get past Joliet.
By 7:00 a.m. we had filled our two water tanks and pumped out our holding tank. Then we were on our way. The first step was the lock next to Navy Pier that would let us into the Chicago River. We were a bit nervous since this was our first time going thru a lock. We radioed the Lockmaster and he said he would open the gates for us. Since it was early on a Monday, things were nice and slow and easy. On the weekends it must be a real zoo. When the signal light changed from red to green, a big foghorn gave one blast. That is the sign that we can proceed into the lock. Once inside we didn't really notice anything happening. The water level only changes about two feet. By the time we got thru, the other gate opened and we were out. How easy!
It turned out that we were riding down the river during morning rush hour. We went thru the towering buildings and under many bridges. Hundreds of people were out walking across the bridges on their way to work, or sitting at riverside cafes having their morning coffee. There was so much to see that traveling thru the city was great fun.
There were a lot of branches and other junk floating in the water that we hadont> to watch out for, but no waves whatsoever. On the edge of downtown our engine suddenly thunked and stopped. Dan found a 2x4 sheet of plywood stuck on the propellor. He removed it and we were on our way again.
We started following our path in a chartbook. There
were several places where
the river branched and we had to make sure we stayed
on the correct route.
And we began to see barges - lots of them. I had
heard about barges before
but I had always thought they were just a fading remnant
of the past. Well, I
was very wrong. They were everywhere along the
canal, hauling great loads of
coal, sand, cement, chemicals and other things.
The whole canal is designed
for them. It's just wide enough to let two barges
pass each other and have a
little bit of room on the side for a small pleasure boat,
too. Nerves of
steel come in handy.
The size of these barges is incredible up close. One barge is about 1500 tons. Most tugs push many of them at once. Normally they have about two across and three the long way. The most one tug can push is fifteen - three across and five long. The canal goes thru the heart of Chicago industry. I had no idea that so many men had to spend their days operating cranes and tying off ropes. It was a fascinating look at heavy industry that would be impossible to see from land, because every facility is fenced off for safety reasons.
The tugboat captains are amazing. They sit up high in the top floor of the tug at the back of all the barges. The big tugs were three stories high. Some of the tugs had elevator lifts that could make the captain's cabin move up and down so it would fit under low bridges. We've been told that there is so much weight in a barge that it takes a whole mile for a tugboat to bring it to a stop.
Going down the canal you are very close to the other people working on the river. We were still very uncertain about whether or not we were where we were supposed to be. One barge worker started yelling something at us that sounded like "Go left!". We weren't sure what he said or what he meant. A little further down, another dock worker started yelling something at us, too, but we couldn't make out anything that he was saying. We decided that maybe we should turn around and find out what they were trying to tell us. We made a U-turn and pulled near his dock. He came out near us with his dirty jeans and T-shirt, bandanna on his head and lighting a cigarette. We asked him what he was trying to tell us. He said he was yelling "Take me with you!" He apologized for making us stop, but we used the opportunity to ask him if we were heading in the right direction. He said we were, so we waved good-bye and continued on our way with a great deal more confidence. I soon realized that I had turned the pages in the chart book in the wrong direction (oops!) which explained why we were so confused even though we were going the right way. I now know that we are going down the mile markers, not up.
Just when we were getting used to negotiating past the barges, we came to a section of the canal that seemed to be a parking area for lots of barges. So now the narrow channel was even narrower. There were many places where you hoped and prayed there wouldn't be a barge coming in the other direction. Actually, everyone slid past each other amazingly well. The speeds are very slow, so that helps a lot. The tugs cruise at about the same speed that we do, about 5 knots. The power boats zip past both of us.
In the afternoon we passed thru some giant sand piles that made us feel like we were gliding thru the Sahara desert. Two giant cranes were moving the sand from one place to another. All I could do was think about how much fun DJ (my 2-year-old nephew) would have if he could have been one of those crane operators.
In the afternoon we also came to our next lock, Lockport. It's one of the big ones. It drops the boat 37 feet. There was one other pleasure boat waiting to go thru. It was docked on one of the huge concrete circles that sit out in the river on each side of the locks. We tried docking to one ourselves, but we couldn't get to it without hitting our boat. The concrete circles are about 20 feet wide and 10 feet high. They are surrounded by corrugated steel and a single ladder. They have two giant cleats on top. We learned later that these are for the big barges to dock on. We circled awhile and then the lockmaster said we could dock along the side of the river, another nice big concrete wall but at least this one was straight and not curved. We knew we had a long wait and it was very hot, so we started hauling buckets of water up onto our boat and pouring them over ourselves. (You're not allowed to get off of your boat in a lock area.) Next we decided to fill up our dinghy with water and make ourselves a little swimming pool on top of our boat. We used that little pool for the rest of the day to keep cool.
Eventually the light changed to green and the foghorn blasted and it was our turn to go into the lock with the other pleasure boat. They drove in first and we followed. The lockmaster told us to go up against the left wall and then he threw two ropes out to each boat. We were only a few feet away from the rail at the top of the wall, but the ropes he threw us were very, very long. Zion held onto the rope at the bow of the boat, and Dan held onto the rope at the stern. Slowly the water started going out of the lock and our boats started sinking down. Dan and Zion let out rope as we kept going down further and further. When we had to start craning our necks back to see the top of the wall (about halfway down), the wind started to blow hard. It was blowing the back of our boat away from the wall, and blowing the bow of the boat into the wall. I had to sit at the very front and use our boat pole to keep us from hitting the wall. Dan and Zion were hanging on with every ounce of power they had. I learned that the concrete walls of the lock were covered with a green slime that made the boat pole slip easily. Finally we reached the bottom and the gates opened. We threw our end of the ropes back in the water and motored out, knowing we would have one more lock to get thru before nightfall.
After Lockport lock we motored thru the city of Joliet. It is a very pretty city with an amazing number of bridges, almost as many as Chicago. It has lots of bridges because the river is very narrow thru town.
After Joliet we came to Brandon Road Lock. By now it was Friday evening and there were lots of other pleasure boats out waiting to get thru the lock. We met our previous lock-mates again. Although their boat was a lot faster than ours, we could always catch up to them while they had to sit and wait at each lock. We learned that they were a family returning home to Starved Rock after a short vacation. They were very nice and helpful, but they didn't have much experience with locks either. We were thinking about stopping at a lockside cafe for a cold drink, when all of the power boats waiting there pulled out. The lockmaster had just announced on the radio that the gate would be opening soon. We joined the group motoring around in circles until the horn blew and we could go in.
Brandon Road Lock was only 34 feet, not 37 feet like Lockport. We had some trepidation entering the lock because our previous experience had been so challenging. We had figured out that we should be on the opposite side of the lock to avoid the wind problem. The lockmaster must have figured out the same thing because he put everyone on the starboard wall this time. We had also figured out that we should slip the ropes thru our cleats to give us more leverage when hanging onto them. This time we went down easy. We hardly had to do any hanging on at all. What a difference! This lock stuff isn't so bad after all.
We were now in the Illinois river and we started looking for a place to anchor for the night. We came to a spot where the Kankakee, a smaller river without any barge traffic, joined the Illinois. We went up the Kankakee just a short way and found a good place to anchor near the shore. It was a deserted stretch of riverfront because there was a small nuclear power plant on the site. We also had several duck blinds to keep us company. Anchoring on the river was another new activity for us that took several tries. When we finally got it right, it was 9:00. We had spent fourteen hours on the river and we had made it to our destination. We slept well that night knowing that the toughest part of our river trip was over (or so everyone tells us)!
Days 18 & 19 - Saturday and Sunday, July 15 &
We spent the weekend anchored in the same spot to give ourselves a comfortable rest. Waterskiers, jetskis and pontoon boats were going by constantly during the day. Their wakes would make us rock three times, but it wasn't bad because they didn't keep going like the waves on Lake Michigan. During the night the boat was so steady it was like being on land.
We tried river swimming and played games with the current. We would hang onto the end of a long rope and let the current pull us downstream, then we would pull ourselves back to the boat. We had a real good time. And I finally had a chance to start typing these notes. So now I'm back to where I started, and I'll say good-bye for now. We're having a challenging, adventurous and fun time together. Wish you were here! Day 20 - Monday, July 17 Morris, Illinois
This morning we lifted anchor and headed out of the Kankakee River back
into the main shipping channel on the Illinois.
It wasn't long before we came to Brandon Lock. There were no barges anywhere in sight and the Lockmaster said we could go right in. In fact, the Lockmaster seemed a little bored because he actually drove up on his golf cart and talked to us all of the while we were dropping down ... down ... down .... He wanted to know where we were going then he told us some interesting things about the locks. Most interesting was that Brandon lock and one other had been designed by a woman engineer in the 1930's. Women engineers are still pretty rare today, so I was surprised to hear about one getting such an important assignment so many years ago. I would like to find out more about her.
The Lockmaster also told us that he lived in the town of Morris that was eight miles ahead. We asked him to fill us in on where to find a grocery store there. We told him we also needed mosquito netting. He laughed and said he didn't know what store would carry it, but he had some in his attic. It was the netting he had brought home with him from 'Nam. It sounded like he would have given it to us if he had had it at hand. His story reminded me of my Dad's trunk that contained everything from his Navy days. Everything in there was fascinating, things laying idle that had once been vital parts of an everyday life so very different from life today. Morris had a beautiful dock and riverfront park. There was a twenty-foot wide straight-as-a-board canal running alongside the river. Zion thought it looked like a nice place to take a canoe trip. Alongside the I&M Canal was a bicycle/walking trail. At one time that trail was probably used by the men and animals that pulled the barges through the canal. In town there was a pretty brick plaza with lots of flowers and silhouette statues of a pioneer mother and her nine sons, ages one thru nineteen. A plaque told the story of how the mother had left her drunkard husband and brought her sons to Morris to get jobs digging the I&M Canal. Her sons all turned out to be prosperous members of the community. What a woman! I don't think I'll ever truly appreciate how tough women had to be in those days. We found the Morris Library which was much bigger and nicer than we expected in a town of this size. It even had a big patio with statues and flowers. They had at least ten internet sites and it was easy to get on. You just had to sign-up with the librarian and tell them if you were going to use it for e-mail or research (chat rooms and games were not allowed). We did our update, then left and went shopping. We actually found a great fabric store where we bought some bridal netting that works just fine for keeping out mosquitoes. At the grocery store we bought a gallon of fresh milk and a few other things. The milk was gone by the end of the day.
We spent the rest of the afternoon motoring down the river. We stopped at a small marina to get some water, but they were closed. A family came up to see our boat, and it turned out that the father was a local manager for Schneider Trucking. Small world, huh? About 6:00 we reached the next lock. There was a huge barge docked and waiting to go thru. Dan got on his radio to ask the Lockmaster if we would be able to get through the lock. The lockmaster said things were pretty busy (commercial vessels have priority over pleasure craft) with barges waiting on each side. Then, to our surprise, the captain of the tugboat on the waiting barge got on the radio and said we could tie up in his "notch" and go thru with him. The lockmaster agreed and let us come right up to a working dock at the side of the lock gates. He helped us tie off, and when he learned where we were from he started to have second thoughts about being so nice to Packer fans down in Bear country. He explained that we would have to wait awhile, because just the first half of a big barge was coming thru the lock toward us. When it came out, it would have to be pulled with cables out of the lock because its tugboat was still left of the other side. Then it would sit in the main channel, right outside the lock, blocking anything from entering from our direction. The water would have to be lowered and raised again to pick up the second half. After it all got hooked back together and out of the way, then we could slide in with the barge on our side and get thru.
We didn't mind the wait because we had ringside seats for watching the locks at work. And we were very excited about the opportunity to tie onto one of those big barges and go thru the lock with it. We figured out what the captain meant by his "notch". His front row of barges was three wide, but his second and third rows were only two wide. The lockmaster had told us that the lock was designed to hold nine barges - three wide times three long. Each one is 1500 tons for a total of 27 million pounds in a 3x3. When the captain pushed his barges into the lock, he would then disengage his tug from the back and motor in to take the spot in the "notch" behind the third barge in the front row. Then he was going to let us come in behind him and the barge workers would throw us some lines to hitch onto. We would be like an ant riding on an elephant's back. It was going to be fun!
Unfortunately, the sun started to set before the second half of the first barge got through. It was kind of eerie watching the barge workers slowly rising up out of the dark nothingness on the other side of the lock gate. We were starting to worry about how we would find a good anchoring spot on the other side of the lock once we got thru if it would be nighttime by then. Plus, we knew that there were still lots of barges waiting to get thru on both sides. Motoring thru darkness with big barges all around did not sound like our brand of fun. Well, we didn't have to worry for long. The Lockmaster took good care of us. He came over and said we could just stay tied up where we were all night. We would be safe and out of the way there, and he would leave a note for the next shift that we wanted to head thru in the morning. He asked us what time we wanted to go, and Dan said at sun-up. He asked us if we meant at 5:00, and we said "no". Six o'clock was the sun-up we were talking about. So we went to bed without getting our trip thru a lock tied to a barge, but we were safe and comfortable and had a good night's rest.
Day 21 - Tuesday, July 18 Bulls' Run Island
We were all up bright and early and got thru the lock with no problem.
The morning Lockmaster even gave the kids' some mental math problems about
how many gallons of water it took to fill up the lock, but it was a little
early for their gears to be working smoothly. Math before breakfast
Later that morning we passed by Bulls' Run Island which had nice sand beaches. We hadn't moored our boat on a sand beach yet, so we wanted to give it a try. Plus, the kids were anxious to go swimming. It took a few tries, but when we got the boat anchored and tied up to some island trees, everything was perfect. You could climb down the ladder into water that was waist deep. The bow of the boat was near the shore and you could hand things down to people below. The kids had a great time swimming. Zion stayed in the water all day. Tricia spent some time identifying trees, rocks, shells, fossils and a yellow tiger swallowtail butterfly. There were a couple other boats anchored along the beach. Our neighbor was a huge houseboat. The top of the boat was a patio/sundeck with tables and chairs, and a slide that went off the back into the water. Two families from Chicago were renting it for the week. They said it had TV, a VCR and all the comforts of home. It looked like a great way to spend a vacation. The beach was so perfect that we decided to stay there all day and night. It was too good to leave.
Day 22 - Wednesday, July 19 Starved Rock State Park
After having lazed away the previous day, it was time to get some miles behind us. Dan doesn't want to spend too much time on the Illinois River because it floods easily.
We soon came to the big town of Ottawa. We had some data to upload, so we stopped to use the library. We probably would have stopped anyway just because the riverfront was so nice and inviting. There was a big dock that said you could stay tied up for two days. The whole edge of the river on both sides was a pleasant park called RiverWalk. A wooden paddleboat sign said "Welcome to Ottawa - the Friendly City". The local rescue squad was down by the river doing some practice runs and they told us how to get to the library. We found another one-story brick library with lots of internet sites. Here it cost 1$ to use them if you didn't have a library card. We thought the price was fair and we uploaded our data without a hitch. Their lobby was filled with old books that they were selling for 25 cents each, so we let Tricia stock up on some new titles. Zion even found a book he was interested in reading. (It's about UAO's - unidentified aerial/aquatic objects.) Tricia is anxious to start studying French again, so we stopped at a bookstore to see what we could find. She was disappointed that they didn't have anything. We'll have to look around St. Louis for something when we get there.
We saw our first official sign of midsummer on the way back to the boat. Some people were selling fresh sweet corn out of the back of their pick-up. It was the extra-sweet early bicolor corn. We got six ears for $1 and cooked them on the boat for lunch. They were delicious! We motored for the rest of the afternoon until we came to the next lock. This one was only 11 feet - a baby compared to what we had been thru before so we weren't expecting any challenges. Boy, were we wrong. The lockmaster told us to tie up in a small area near the mouth of the lock to wait. It looked easy as could be, but as we were pulling up some nasty currents got ahold of us. Zion had jumped onto the dock as usual to tie us up, when the boat suddenly twisted around and started heading bow first into the dock. Dan tried to back-up but that put too much pressure on the rope that Zion hadn't had time to tie up yet and he had to let it go before he fell in. Then Zion had his hands full keeping the boat from ramming into the dock. He did an excellent job of protecting the boat while keeping himself safe in a very tough situation. He's becoming an excellent First Mate. After that we went out and tried again, almost hitting the U.S. Army dredging barge that was on the other side of the docking area. We eventually got the boat docked and heaved a sigh of relief. There is one nasty gash high on the bow of the port hull, but it's only about two inches. We feel lucky that it wasn't any worse. It just gives Dan one more spot to cover with his epoxy filler. Anyway, actually going thru the lock when it was our turn was a breeze. Dan even let Tricia hang onto the back line and lower us down. She did very well. In the evening we anchored on a big bend in the river outside of the shipping channel near Hennepin. It was a very calm and gentle spot. The boat was as still as if we were on land, except for when a big barge would go by and send some wake. But that never lasted for long.
Day 23 - Thursday, July 20 Henry & Peoria
We started the day looking for a small town to do laundry in. It wasn't long before we came to Henry. They had a very small aluminum dock floating in the water. There was a senior couple fishing on it. We slowed down and asked if we could dock there and if the town had a laundry. They said yes to those questions then asked us if we wanted the two big catfish that they had caught that morning. We said we would take them after we finished our laundry. We showed them around our boat, then Tricia stayed with them to get some fishing lessons while we went to the laundromat. In the process of asking directions for us, they found a man who waited for us to dock so he could drive us to the laundromat. After we finished and got back to the dock another man came up and said he would drive us to a place where they might sell the blank video tape we were looking for. We had to decline his generous offer because it was time to get motoring again, but Henry sure gets our vote for being the friendliest place on the planet.
Downtown Henry was a lot like the other Illinois River towns that we
had passed thru during the last few days. They all had pretty park
squares in the middle of downtown. Each one had some kind of veterans'
memorial. One had a statue of a civil war soldier and the names of
all the local men who had died in the war inscribed on its base.
It was so old that most of the names were worn down so you couldn't even
read them anymore. Each park square also had some kind of large gazebo
or bandstand. I couldn't stop myself from humming "Marion the Librarian"
while walking thru town. I know it wasn't Iowa, but they sure seemed
like the towns that Prof. Hill would have visited. We even passed by the
great river city of Peru. The name Peru was written in ten-foot high
red letters on the side of the feed mill that was along the edge
of the river. Both the feed mill and the other buildings along
the river looked like they had seen grander days. Most of the town
had long since moved up above the steep banks. Now I may be wrong,
but I'm pretty sure that the great river city of Peru was the place where
Marion the Librarian's mother had come from.
This note for our friends in Brillion: every town also had something else that Brillion also has - lots of Geigers! One town had a Geiger Law Office, another town had GEIGER in stonework at the top of one of the old storefronts. I knew they were prolific in Brillion, but across two states is very impressive!
As we continued down the river, I found myself with two catfish that I needed to clean and fix for lunch. They were given to us alive and we put them in a bucket of water. By the time I got to them, they were dead (thank goodness). I put on some leather gloves and went after them with my kitchen knives on a cutting board on the floor of the cockpit. My knives weren't anywhere near sharp enough to filet them, and I couldn't hold onto them well enough to use a pliers to pull back their skin like I had been instructed to do. But I was able to cut off their heads, remove their guts and spray fish blood all over the cockpit. I put them in boiling water and when they were done I pulled the meat off of the bones. That was easy! Dan and I each had a plateful of catfish with lemon and butter buds. It was delicious! Zion took one bite and spit it out over the back of the boat. Tricia declined the whole opportunity.
Later in the afternoon we went through Peoria without stopping. First came the commercial district. We could see the Mark Twain Hotel. Along the riverfront was a beautiful boardwalk with restaurants. Next came the industrial district with the huge Caterpillar complex.
We spent the night anchored in the river again. This time we went behind Turkey Island. The island kept us protected from the wakes of the barges and our boat was as still as could be all night long. The kids were ready for an independent adventure so they took the dinghy to Turkey Island. Zion gave Tricia a chance to be the captain of the vessel. They loaded up oars, foghorn, flashlight, anchor and identification books and headed off. They made it to the island quickly and stepped off into thick, black ooze. A survey of the locale revealed hordes of mosquitoes and poison ivy that was so vigorous it was covering the sides of trees. They came back and spent the next hour cleaning the muck off of their shoes, clothes and boat.
Day 24 - Friday, July 21
The farther we head down the river the more desolate it gets.
There aren't any small towns around every corner anymore. In fact,
there aren't any more towns at all. From our books and charts, Dan
knows that our last chance to get gas is at the RiverEdge Marina in Rowlings
Landing. After that, it's a hundred miles to the next gas stop.
We finally spot RiverEdge. It's a building on top of stilts surrounded by miles and miles of green. We look and look, but can't see any dock. Some speedboaters come by and tell us that if we need gas we'd better get it now. They tell us that the dock is in a little inlet that goes around to the side of the building. The inlet led to a rusty old working barge that had two large tanks mounted on top. One of the tanks had "GAS" handpainted in big letters on it, the other tank said "DEISEL". Between the two tanks was an old gas pump that was missing its faceplate. Apparently the counters on the gas pump still worked, but the numbers that show you the price per gallon had fallen out. The whole scene made Zion and I remember the riverside nightspot in the movie "Porky's". While we were getting gas, we visited the building on sticks. We had to walk over a ten-inch wide plank to get from the gas barge to the shore. It turned out that the building was a very nice, and apparently very popular, bar and restaurant. The Mad Hoss band was setting up for an evening show since it was Friday night. The restaurant had a special on frog legs and whole catfish. Tempting, but we didn't stay.
We got back on the river and kept going until we anchored for the night behind another island, Grape Towland Island (we have no idea what that means, but we could see grapevines on the shore). Another peaceful night.
Day 25 - Saturday, July 22 Middle of Nowhere
Our plan today was to cruise until we found a nice sand beach to anchor on. We would take it easy all afternoon and let the kids swim. Well, it didn't take long to find the pretty sand beach. This one had white, shiny things laying all over the sand. We set one anchor, then tied a rope to Zion's life jacket and let him swim to shore to tie that line around the tree. Well, as Zion was climbing out of the water we heard "Yuck, yuck, yuck". The beautiful sand stopped at the water's edge and turned into muck. The shiny, white objects on the sand were clam shells scoured by the sand and water. We decided that clam shells on a beach must be a sign of mucky swimming water because clams like soft bottoms to burrown themselves into. We pulled Zion back to the boat and took off, looking for a better beach.
We never found one. Instead we decided to try to get to a state park near St. Louis by the end of the day.
The traffic on the river is light enough here that Dan has started giving Tricia and Zion lessons on steering the boat and reading the river charts. Today we have each been taking one-hour shifts as pilot. It's been very fun and relaxing.
Tricia has been very busy the last few days writing a choose-your-own- adventure story. I think it's her longest literary work yet! She won't let any of us see it until she is done.
We've been fooling with the sun oven over the last few days. We set it up on the boat and Dan keeps it oriented to the sun by turning it every hour or so. It's easy to get it up to 150 degrees, and with care and bright sun it gets to 250. Our first test was brownies from a mix. That didn't work. We ended up with chocolate syrup. We did manage to make a little pizza, though, that the kids liked. We baked it a very long time at a very low temp until it was dry enough to eat. Next we tried white rice, and that worked great. One day we did baked potatoes, and yesterday we did brown rice with veggies. Today we're trying chili with cornbread on top. I'm finding that it's a lot like a crock pot. It's good for cooking things a long time at a low temperature.
We ended the day by setting a new record - 74 miles down the river in one day. The current was strong and we made good time. But we didn't make it to the state park. We anchored behind Twelve Mile Island, which is twelve miles from the end of the Illinois River and five miles from the state park. It was a very unusual anchoring spot. The river was very deep, even up to the bank and the bank was very steep. If there hadn't been so many dead trees lying along the water's edge we could have pulled right up to the bank like a dock and stepped right off. We were anchored only about 15 feet from shore and the water was 18 feet deep.