Saturday, September 15, 2012

Hammond, IN and on into Illinois

Hammond was a good stop for us. We had a great dock position with as easy an in and out as our little boat could want. We did go to the adjoining casino and looked around. I had a whole one dollar in quarters burning a hole in my pocket and I wanted to make a sizable fortune on some slot machine. Alas it was not to be. Casinos nor gambling have never been a big draw to me and I am hopelessly out of touch with the whole scene. You can’t just walk up to a machine and drop a coin into it. You have to buy a card with a money value on it and slip that into the thing. And of course the minimum to buy a card is $5. So much for that. We did go to the mega buffet and for a cool $38 for two we got some yummy chicken fried steaks that were made of rubber, inedible salmon and something that resembled meatballs. (I think they were made of some wood pulp product.) So for the same price of two movie tickets and a couple of sandwiches at Panera Bread we had our shore entertainment to last us a while.

On the positive side of things we did make contact with Ross and Laura of The Zone and they were still in Chicago anticipating hitting the river on Thursday. In an email exchange with Laura she stated as such and asked when we were going. I replied, “I think we’re leaving….mmmmmmm……THURSDAY ALSO!”  They’re good boating buddies.

Half the trick of a successful cruising is planning. According to some other loopers I have corresponded with it is basically a five day trip. Day one’s destination is a free wall in Joliet, IL. Day two it’s Heritage Harbor Marina in Ottawa, IL. Day three is a free wall in Peoria. Day four is some kind of tie-up-to-a-barge thing in Beardstown, then to a restaurant dock that will take an over-nighter in Hardin and on the last day we will high tail it to Port St. Charles in St. Charles, MO on the Mississippi. (It is at the point we will take a three week or so shore leave.) I had a lot of questions about cruising the Illinois River. I guess my biggest concern is the locks. There are only six of them on the river, most up north, but I am concerned about how to interact with the locks themselves and their accommodating pleasure craft in a very heavy commercial waterway. We can do the locks as we have already done 70+ of them so far. But the waterways that we have been in so far have been almost 100% pleasure craft waterways.

9/14/2012 The First Day on the Illinois Waterways

We pulled off of our dock in Hammond and headed north a very short distance to the protected harbor inlet into the Calumet SAG Canal, the first leg of the Illinois Waterway. (I am going to refer to all the waters of the system as “IW” from this point on. Quite frankly I don’t know when one river/canal starts or ends.) The Zone was meeting us there to share the experience with us and we were glad to see them again.
The Zone meeting us in the SAG harbor entrance.

And into the SAG we go.

This northern leg is very industrialized with many different bulk depots that use barge transportation extensively. Mounds of sand, grain, coal, rock, scrap iron and petroleum tanks lined the waterway on each side. There were several drawbridges that had to be raised to let us pass but I was surprised that the traffic on the waterway was almost nil. Oh, there was plenty of activity on the banks of barges being loaded and unloaded but it was all shoreside: nothing out on the water. (The heavy traffic was further down.)

One tug that we passed was called the Ronnie O. Selving. For some reason that name struck a chord with me. I knew I had heard that name before. Finally it came to me. About a month ago while we were in a marina with good wifi we were doodling around on the website for the History Channel. There was a single episode of a show about Lake Michigan towboat operators…“Lake Warriors” or something like that. I guess the network figured that this kind of show would be similar to the shows they have about ice road truckers and crab fishermen. We watched it and while you could tell that the dramatic elements were being enhanced in small ways, because of us being boaters on Lake Michigan we were entertained. The “star” of the show (if you can call him that) was a crusty old salt owner of a towboat company and his name is…wait for it…Ronnie O. Selving. I radioed the boat and Ronnie himself was at the helm and while of course exhibiting characteristic crustiness we had a brief conversation saying that we had seen the episode, enjoyed it and asked if any more episodes were in the works. He said that he wasn’t sure about that, but he thanked me for the props and we went on our ways, him upbound, us down.

Seven miles down we came to our first lock of the river called the O’Brien Lock. These IW river locks are much bigger than any lock that we have hence traversed. They are 600 feet long and 110 feet wide. The Zone and us entered on the upside and made ready for the huge drop of almost ONE WHOLE FOOT! I’m not kidding – 12 inches. Whew!

The next lock was 35.5 miles further on so we headed on down on what definitely looked like a river rather than a canal. There were pockets of humanity here and there on the river but we could hear the distinct sounds of civilization all around in the Chicago metroplex. Frankly, it was noisy. Mile after boring mile we cruised to the point that we started taking pictures of each other’s boats just for something to do. We actually got some good shots.




After a while we did meet up with the Chicago River, the iconic river that runs straight through the heart of downtown Chicago and eventually to this juncture. Turning south it narrowed a lot and there was now more moving barge traffic. Down near the end of the first straight leg we were coming up to the chief obstacle of all boaters, commercial and recreational. There is a broken down railroad lift bridge that is stuck at a vertical clearance of 19.1 feet. If you can’t clear that you can’t go any further and your Great Loop adventure was over. We were fine with our height of 18.5 feet but The Zone was concerned being at about a foot over that. Their ability to pass that bridge depended on the river pool depth would be low due to the Midwest drought and all of the pools (formed by the locks) would be drawn down to keep things going. Fortunately that was the case and he cleared the bridge with a foot to spare. The other challenge right at that moment was a tow boat was tied up to a line of barges on the right descending bank under throttle to keep the barges pinned against the bank. This created a ton of turbulence right in the exact spot under the short bridge. Two de-masted sail boats were leading the way and each of them were spun on their keels at almost ninety degree angles smack dab in the middle of this narrow channel. The Zone, which was third in line unfortunately was at idle speed to make a slow pass under the trestle and he got spun. We were last in line and kind of held back a touch and seeing what was happening the other three boats and knowing that we could make under the bridge and gave it some throttle and made it through with some spin but not as much as The Zone and the others.
19.1 feet clearance and The Zone had room to spare. That towboat on the right caused by problems.

The next feature was the electronic fish barrier that was constructed in the channel to keep the dreaded Asian Carp out of the Great Lakes. It is an electrified zone that is basically a barrier that deters all aquatic life from venturing north towards the lakes. And if they are not so deterred they get cooked by the electricity that is pouring into the water. 

Our first dockage was at a free wall in Joliet. The wall was in kind iffy condition but there was free electricity and all was secure. What was also great is that with us and other arriving boaters there was now a flotilla of eight looper crews. There was us, The Zone, Seabatical, Attitude Changer, Bama Belle, two sailboats, (Forget Me Knot and another boat, the name I do not remember) and Katmandu. We had a docktail party and got to know everyone well.

The next morning, Friday, we all peeled away from the wall at 8:30 am to go to the next draw bridge and the first of three locks for the day. (Katmandu stayed at Joliet for a bit and lagged behind the rest of us for the entire day.) So we had seven boats in what we called the Sooper Looper Flotilla. It was fun. 

Ross, Lisa and Darrell. Rafted together in a lock.

Seabatical ran point for the group as he had AIS on his radio and chartplotter and could identify tows coming at us before we could see them. Very handy. Going through the locks was fairly challenging as they are constructed for commercial barge traffic and all of their accommodations for pleasure craft was pretty much made up on the fly. Sometimes they had lines that they dropped for everyone to hang onto, sometimes there were floating bollards, and sometimes we had to raft on to each other. But we made it through.There were some pretty lengthy delays at each of the locks and it was 5:00 pm before we finally pulled into Heritage Harbor Marina at Ottawa IL for two nights.