Leaving from Alton Marina, we contact the lockmaster at 6:30 AM to determine when he thinks we will be able to lock through. The past few days they have taken groups of PC’s (pleasure craft) at 9 one day and 11 yesterday. We have two other motor vessels and two sailing vessels accompanying us but when he says he wants us there at 7:15 a mad scramble begins. Some of our friends race to get their dogs walked while others are just wiping the sleep from their eyes. This is way earlier than we had anticipated being taken but we are happy because it means our travel day will be impacted less by commercial traffic through St. Louis since it is early on a Sunday morning (we chose this day with that in mind).
We all exit the Alton Marina under the bridge that looks like a mini Sunshine Skyway and move toward the lock. When we get there, the lockmaster says that we will have to wait on a tug and barge which we can now see coming down the river. This is irritating because he had to have known that this guy was on his way and putting him through first will mean we have to wait, burning fuel for at least an hour before we can get through. The lockmaster comes over the radio, directing us to get on the wall outside the small lock, which isn’t being used due to piles of debris, where we will be out of the barge’s way as he approaches the lock.
Looking at how fast the water is running makes my stomach tie up in knots. I put on my PFD thinking that this can’t be safe. We are the first boat and Jerry gets us right to the wall and I am able to get a line on the bollard but the current is running so hard and fast that I can’t hold it and it is whipping our stern away from the wall which means the bow will be pushed into and scraped along the wall if we don’t reverse out and get away quickly (have we mentioned how much we HATE locks!?!?!?). I cast us loose which pushes the bow away and stern closer to the wall. I yell to Jerry to give it throttle FAST so we don’t scrape the dinghy and swim platform against the wall. Unfortunately, we now have two sailboats ahead of us who have also abandoned the idea of getting on the wall safely as well.
We are all being swept sideways towards the wall but thankfully each captain sorts himself out and we play dodge-boat trying to get back upriver and out of harm’s way. We are angry that a lock master would direct us into a situation that he had to know was unsafe. When the tug and barge get into the lock, we hear the tug captain remarking to the lock master how exceptionally strong the pull from the current against the lock wall is and this is from a guy that is piloting 8 barges long and 3 across and must weigh thousands of tons!
They lock him down and eventually come back for us. I am now gun-shy and scared to death to go into this lock but we do and as we hoped the current abates as we move further into the lock until we secure ourselves without incident.
Our group convoys out of the lock and through the next one without a problem and we round the riverbend to catch sight of downtown St. Louis and the Gateway to West Arch.
We rocket through the bridges and past the Arch and are almost immediately playing dodge-boat with commercial traffic. Some of these barges are 5 across and as much as 7 long. One boat pushing 35 fully loaded barges (called a fleet) is not to be messed with and we talk with them via VHF radio to make sure we are passing them on the side they prefer.
It isn’t a long day and we are tied up at Hoppies Marina (I use that word with tongue in cheek) which is 4 barges tied together along the side of the riverbank. Because they are floating, the barge-docks move as the river moves, which means they are quiet and calm until a pusher goes by. The incredible power that these guys exert is reflected in the mountains of water they leave for half a mile in their wakes. They don’t leave a V shaped wake the way displacement hull boats do. They throw a straight line of 4 foot water mountains behind them.
Hoppies Marina is now run by the third generation of family members who are following in their parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps. The grandfather, father and uncle were all river lamplighters. In the old days, there were kerosene-lit mile markers all up and down the river that the barge captains used to navigate and the Hopkins men used to travel to refill the kerosene in the lamps every other day, no matter what the weather was. Kerosene ceased to be used years ago and the mile markers are becoming obsolete now as well, with GPS noting the mile markers clearly on the chart plotters and paper charts as well.
We help the other two boats, we’ve been traveling with, tie up and we venture into town to check out Kimswick. It is an adorable little town but everything closes at 5 and doesn’t open again until Tuesday. So we share a fabulous dinner at the Blue Owl and head back to the boats. I love sleeping here. The passing barges provide a steady hum and keep the water stirred up enough that we are rocked to sleep and are subconsciously aware of the boat moving in gentle rhythms all night.
The next day is more of the same only the commercial traffic is even more dense. As we travel the Mississippi, we not only have barges voyaging up and down the river but we have fleets of barges anchored smack in the middle of the river with pushers going back and forth across the river, bringing more barges to add to the fleet. It is a little unnerving but we manage to stay out of everyone’s way and make it to the Kaskaskia River where we tie up along a lock wall for the night.
There is no power or water so we are glamping but that’s not a problem. Once we are all settled, we bring our chairs and appetizers out on the concrete wall and enjoy “locktails” together.
It is gorgeous as the sunsets and the almost-full moon casts her reflection across the darkening, calm waters.
We depart early the next morning with a soft mist rising from the water. When the weather is cold, we really make more of an effort to eat well, doing much more cooking than we do when it is warm. This morning, breakfast of banana pancakes with fresh strawberry topping is eaten under way and is a pleasant way to start the day.
This section of the Mississippi is mostly wide and pretty calm unless you are passing barges. There is a hint of fall in the trees along the bank and thankfully we have had a rebound in temperatures. We are able to be in shorts and t-shirts again for the first time in months and we use the warmer temperatures to clean the boat – sweeping floors and cleaning the strata-glass and other housekeeping items for which it has been just too cold recently. Working while we are underway makes the day pass quickly and we spy Little River Diversion which is our goal for anchoring tonight.
First Forty is in the lead today and they do recon as it looks like the mouth of the creek is choked with large debris. They inch in, move up the creek and drop the hook near the bridge with us and Moon Dance (who has been running mostly on one engine today due to a failing engine water pump) following along behind. We navigate the logs and branches to cleaner water and all drop two anchors as this is a narrow little river. We relax into an Indian Summer afternoon and listen to the wood peckers and robins call to each other. There are turtles on the shore basking in the sun and it is so nice to be warm without a million layers of clothing on! We have our Octoberfest dinner of Bratwurst, sauerkraut, salad and spaetzli and call it a night.
We get an early start as we will have a long day to get to Paducah, KY the next day. It’s interesting to note that the barges never stop but run 24/7. We are starting to be able to understand most of what they say but if you weren’t born in Mississippi or Alabama it takes a while to train your ear. You might hear something like this:
“Is is da Crimson Rose. Yeh, will be movin on sout tru da bridge naw. Iffn yeh wanna cumonbye, take me on da two whistles and steh unner da Ilnois span.”
Translation: The Crimson Rose is moving south through the bridge and if I want to pass I should stay on his left side under the span of the bridge that is on the Illinois side of the river. Mostly we just look at each other and ask, “What the %#*&# did he just say!?!?!” But we are getting better at it.
Photo Credit: Gary McMichael
We cruise for a few hours before we turn from the Mississippi onto the Ohio river and the water changes from muddy brown to the green river color that we are used to. The number of barges anchored in the middle of the river is just astonishing and I note an important life lesson from the experience. Looking far ahead of us is overwhelming, we can’t see which barges are under way, which are anchored or how many of them we need to interface with to avoid trading paint. But as we move slowly and steadily forward, our way becomes clear and we proceed along the path that we planned with increasing confidence.
We luck out with all the locks we should have had to navigate being flooded so we get to cruise right on by them without stopping and we do the happy dance!!! NO locks today!!!!
We pull into the dock at Paducah and marvel at the pylons which are 53 feet high. The dock man tells us that just a few weeks ago the water was at 51 feet and almost came into the walls around the city! And none of this seems to faze these people, they seem to just take it in stride but they do have a wall along the river that can be sealed off if the water rises too much.
We find an excellent Italian restaurant and the eight of us enjoy dinner and stories of each other’s experiences before strolling back to the boats. It was a long day of cruising (97 miles in 9.25 hours) and we are all happy to be fed and tuck into bed early.
We head out early the next day, headed for Green Turtle Bay. It is drizzly and gray and we travel from the Ohio to the much smaller Cumberland River. Fall has started to sprinkle flecks of orange and gold along the way. The water is way down on this river and the roots of trees have been swept bare along the river banks. It is a wonder that most of them are still standing and haven’t been swept into the water.
Arriving at Green Turtle is like homecoming! There must be at least 15 or more Looper boats here. Some we have met in past travels, others we have seen on the Meets App that shows where Loopers are on a map of the Great Loop and others we have heard about in “docktail” conversations. We arrive at 4 PM and are immediately invited to docktails aboard Endless Loop, a GORGEOUS Endeavor Power Cat.
And here is the highlight of the day. We finally meet Mia, whose story I have heard since we left the Keys. This family of 6 is now living, homeschooling and traveling on a 33’ boat – one dad, one mom and 4 daughters, one of whom, Mia, has a severe congenital heart defect and needs a feeding tube plus over 40 medications a day. Mia is amazing, bubbly and outgoing, this 7 year-old passes out boat cards and swipes everyone’s pop-tops for the Ronald McDonald house in which her family lived for almost an entire year of her life while she was hospitalized.
This is an amazing story and I will leave the link here for you if you are interested in learning more about this family that is living life NOW on their second trip around the Loop!
We will stay here through Sunday, enjoying friends and doing some maintenance and will head for Nashville, TN on Monday where I hope to rendez-vous with my highschool roommate, Kathy Haines. This is the last photo I have of us together as 17 year olds, playing for parent’s weekend at Chatham Hall! Hope to add a newer version next week!