Honey We Shrunk the Boat! After spending the last four years aboard our 48 ft. Krogen trawler, we have traveled over 12,000 miles exploring the waters of the Great Loop. To complete the loop we still have over 1200 miles of middle America rivers to travel before crossing our wake in Chattanooga, TN, our home port.
After wintering IT for another year on Lake Michigan, we have trailered our 18 foot Wellcraft, Idyll Out, to Grand Haven, MI. From here we will attempt to complete the Great Loop in our smaller but speedy little boat.
Day 1: Grand Haven, MI to Hammond, IN
In order to reach Chicago and the safety of the rivers, we have 120 miles of Lake Michigan to travel. The lake has been very inhospitable this year with seas of 6-10 foot on many days. For travel on this big lake in our little 18 footer, we need calm seas. After a two day wait in Grand Haven, a weather window appears. We seize this opportunity and pull out of the harbor at 7:30AM. Our little boat is loaded with backpacks, sleeping bags, tent, mosquito netting, a cooler of food, and cook stove.
Every spare space is filled with gear. We are escorted out of the harbor by two other looper boats, a perfect beginning to our trip.
Exiting the safety of the breakwater, we are both hesitant as to how this little boat will handle the big waters of Lake Michigan. The lake conditions are perfect with calm seas and a bright blue sky. Idyll Out is running great and we rapidly make our way towards Chicago. Traveling at 35 MPH, we are able to make much better time than if we were in IT cruising at 8 MPH. As the day heats up, our calm seas are replaced with up to 3 foot rollers. We hug the coastline in an attempt to find calmer waters. Our little boat handles the seas much better than we had anticipated. Still we are relieved when we finally reach the safety of Hammond five hours later and have Lake Michigan behind us.
This was our first big hurdle in the little boat.
We celebrate completing Lake Michigan with a great buffet dinner from the Horseshoe Casino which is next to the marina. There is rain in the forecast tonight so we opt for a motel room. The motels offer free shuttles to the casino and we take advantage of this for our transportation. It was a very good day!
Total Miles Traveled Today: 138
Total Trip Miles: 138
Day 2: Hammond, IN to Sugar Island Anchorage
The Chicago skyline stands tall and proud in the morning sun.
From Hammond we have twelve miles of open water before reaching the safety of the Chicago Harbor. Lake Michigan is rough today with 2-4 foot seas. We are not sure how our little boat will do and we keep open the possibility of a bailout option of the Calumet River which is just one mile away. We would prefer to travel through Chicago and decide to test the waters before making a decision. We take it slow and the little boat seems to handle the seas O.K. It looks like we can make it to Chicago.
After an hour of tough going, we reach the safety of the Chicago Breakwater. One more hurdle down! The Chicago Lock drops us three feet and we are now officially off Lake Michigan. Traveling through downtown Chicago is spectacular with the tall buildings lining both sides of the river.
We feel fortunate to experience this as we would not have been able to travel this route with Idyll Time. She would be too high to make it under most of the bridges and we would have been forced to take the alternate Calumet River route. After about 5 miles, our scenery changes drastically and we are now traveling through a very industrialized area with barges everywhere. We are now in the Sanitary Ship Canal. In places there is barely room to navigate around the barges tied to shore. In our little boat this is not a problem but it would be tough in IT.
The Calumet River joins the Sanitary Ship Canal just before our next hurdle, The Fish Barrier. In order to prevent the Asian Carp from invading the Great Lakes, there is now an underwater electric fence in this half mile section of the waterway.
We are not sure if we will be allowed to transit this barrier. According to Coast Guard rules, only boats over 20 foot can pass through this fence. We are 18 feet and hoping no one will notice. Our other option is to wait on another boat and have them tow us through.
There is a big neon sign at the Fish Barrier stating that you must call the Coast Guard on VHF 16 for permission to transit. We call several times and get no response. Finally, someone calls back and says “the Coast Guard can not hear you but to just follow the rules and go on through”. No one is around so we quickly head on through the barrier without any problems. It was a non event. Another big hurdle under our belt.
Five miles downriver, we arrive at our first big lock, The Lockport Lock and Dam. We have no wait and are soon lowered 40 feet and are on our way. The town of Joliet is our next stop. Here we tie up to the free wall provided by the town. We enjoy some great stuffed hamburgers at a local pub. We had planed to stop here for the evening but it is still early in the day so we decide to continue on. Two miles downriver, we reach the Brandon Road Lock to find that there is a barge here and we must wait about 30 minutes.
Once we are in the lock, the gates start to close and then suddenly reopen. Another boat has called the lock and soon they join us. It turns out to be another looper, Squivot. They see our looper flag and can’t believe we are doing the loop in this little boat. Outside the lock, we exchange boat cards before we shoot off down river. Our speed turns out to be all for not. We reach the Dresdin Lock, 15 miles away, to find that we have over an hour wait. By the time the lock doors finally open, Squivot has joined us and we lock through together once again.
Darkness is rapidly approaching and our anchorage is still a few miles away. We arrive to Sugar Island just as the moon comes up over the horizon. We carefully work our way behind the island and let out our little anchor. This is our first time anchoring in Idyll Out. The bugs are out so we quickly unpack our sleeping bags and mosquito netting. There is just enough room on each side of the center consol for a sleeping bag. Our mosquito nets hang from the bimini and provide us good protection from the bugs. It is quite cozy in our little boat.
Total Miles Traveled Today: 80.3
Total Trip Miles: 218.3
Day 3: Sugar Island to Ottawa, IL
Sleeping aboard the boat was not the most comfortable experience. There was barely room to turn over. A tent is much more spacious. The mosquito netting worked great and the bugs were not a problem. Before leaving this morning, Jeff brews some coffee using our backpacking stove. Our anchorage looks much different in the daylight. It is quite beautiful with the wooded banks and light mist upon the water.
We have an easy 25 mile trip to the town of Ottawa, IL where we again find a free town dock to tie up. We walk into town and find a wonderful local diner called the Beehive where we have breakfast.
In talking with the waitress, we learn that the LaSalle Courthouse across the street was the site of Drew Peterson’s trial for murdering his second wife. We wonder if his 3rd wife, Lacy, might be somewhere in the Illinois River.
Ottawa’s historic claim to fame is that the first Lincoln-Douglas debate took place here in the town square. There is now a large bronze statue of both men in the park commemorating this event.
After exploring the little town, we backtrack a few miles to Heritage Harbor Marina for fuel. This marina is a big supporter of the Great Loop Organization. The marina manager, Capt. Moe, quickly helps us tie up our boat. He gives us a briefing on the rivers to come. Afterwards he provides us a ride into town where we find a motel for the evening. We walk to a local Italian restaurant and enjoy a nice evening meal. During the night severe thunderstorms roll through the area. We are really thankful that we opted for a motel room instead of boat camping.
Total Miles Traveled Today: 25
Total Trip Miles: 243.3
Day 4: Ottawa to Havana
Captain Moe picks us up at the motel this morning and gives us a lift back to the boat. Idyll Out is wet from all the rain but otherwise in good shape. The forecast is for thunderstorms during the day but right now the weather is good so we head on out. Our first lock, Starved Lock and Dam, is only five miles downriver. After a 30 minute wait, we are locked through with another looper boat from Canada.
We have a pleasant trip down the river passing through the towns of Hennepin and Henry, IL. We make a stop for lunch in the town of Peoria, IL.
They too have free docks along the river for boaters. We treat ourselves to lunch at Joe’s Crab Shack before continuing on our way. The Peoria Lock is just a few miles away. Here we have our first and only bad experience with the lockmaster. When we arrive he tells us that it will be a two hour wait because he has to lock a barge upriver first. We certainly understand that and don’t mind waiting. It is really windy so we tie up at the end of the lock wall knowing that we will have to move before the barge comes out. The lockmaster immediately descends upon us yelling that we need to move right now!! It is still over an hour before the barge comes out so I don’t know why we have to move so quickly. Most lockmasters have told us to tie up. We don’t argue and quickly move. We listen as the lockmaster then calls another boater who is also waiting on the lock. He too is reprimanded for being in an area that appears to be off limits to us. Unlike us, they decide to argue back with the lockmaster. Of course this does no good. This guy seems to have a chip on his shoulder. After two hours we are finally locked through and again on our way. During our wait, there is a shift change at the lock and the surly lockmaster was replaced by a much nicer one.
This afternoon we have our first experience with the jumping carp. There is a dredge blocking most of the river so we slow down to pass going very close to shore. Suddenly there are large silver fish jumping all around us. It is bazaar to have these fish leap up to 10 feet in the air both in front and in back of us. One manages to land in the boat. Jeff quickly throws the smelly fish back. Once we are back in deeper water the fish disappear.
Our stop for the evening is the Tall Timbers Marina in Havana, IL. This makes a perfect stop for us as there is a campground next to the marina. We pull in after hours but the marina owner had given us the gate and bathroom code along with information on where to tie up.
We soon have our tent and camping gear set up next door.
After a quick walk around town, we turn in for the evening. Compared to boat camping, tent camping seems to be a luxury and we have a peaceful night.
Total Miles Traveled Today: 121
Total Trip Miles: 364.3
Day 5 and 6: Havana to Grafton, IL
The owner of the Tall Timbers Marina greets us this morning at 7:30 AM and helps us with fuel. Several other looper boats are here also. It seems word has gotten out on the looper net and everyone here has heard that we were coming down river in the little boat. We also now have several people on the looper email blog checking in with us daily and emailing us navigational information. They are either worried about us or think we are crazy (or both). The information we have received from the other loopers has been very helpful.
Our first lock of the day is The LaGrange Lock. We are surprised to see the looper boat, Windsong, here waiting on the lock. We last saw them in Grand Haven when we were wintering IT. Jeff had driven Jay to the local Walmart there to pick up dog food for their three dogs aboard. We enjoy catching up with them and also learn that there are four other loopers from Grand Haven just ahead. We should catch them later today.
The LaGrange Lock is our last on the Illinois River. Since it is only a six foot drop, the lockmaster tells us to just hang on to the side instead of tying up. Once out of the lock, we find the river very rough due to high winds. The winds and current are opposing each other and this creates
2-3 foot choppy seas. We begin to think we are back on Lake Michigan. The water is also now very muddy and there is lots of debris which we must constantly watch out for. To complicate matters, there are also wing dams underwater just outside of the channel. We make certain not to drift outside the buoys.
Just before arriving in Grafton, IL, we pass the four other looper boats that we had met in Grand Haven. The rough water makes for a long day and we are very happy to at last reach the marina. This is one of the nicest marinas we have seen on the rivers. It even has a pool and hot tub. There are about a dozen other loopers here.
The weather for tonight and tomorrow again calls for rain. Once again we are in luck and find a local Bed and Breakfast, Jenni J’s, just across the street and they happen to be offering a two night special for the price of one.
Total Miles Traveled Today: 119
Total Trip Miles: 483.3
Day 7: Grafton, IL to Browns Chute Anchorage
After a day’s rest, we are up early and again underway just before sunrise. We have a big day with the Mississippi River to travel. Just past Grafton, the Illinois joins the Upper Mississippi at mile 218.
We will travel this big river for the next 218 miles where we will exit onto the Ohio River. The Mississippi is 25 feet above normal and two feet below flood. The current is over 5 knots and there is a lot of debris floating down river. Luckily, we are traveling with the current. The enormous barges and tows keep us on our toes. At times we see barges that are six wide and 7 long. We are careful to always be on the inside of a turn when meeting a barge. Their prop wash creates five to six foot waves and could easily throw us onto the banks.
The Mel Price Lock and Dam is our 1st lock on the Mississippi. Here there are two chambers, one for small pleasure craft and one for the big guys. Just after this lock, boat traffic is diverted onto the 10 mile long Chain of Rocks Canal. This section of the Mississippi is not navigable due to rocks and rapids.
There are huge whirlpools of muddy water and large trees and debris litter the water. It is like a floating jungle. We even see a refrigerator floating downstream. Travel through this maze is extremely hectic. I am still amazed that we managed to get through this area without hitting something. St. Louis is not boater friendly and there are no docks or marinas where one could stop to visit the city.
Once past St. Louis, the Mississippi becomes much less congested. After 30 miles of travel we reach Hoppies which is a must stop for all boaters. Not only is this the last place to get fuel for the next 270 miles, but the owner, Fern, gives every boater a briefing as to what to expect while running this section of the river. There are no other marinas to stop at for the next 270 miles. Hoppies is nothing more than several barges tied along the river bank.
Fern has been looking after the boaters for over 40 years. I don’t know what everyone would do without her. We fill our tank to the brim for this long run. We are also carrying 20 extra gallons in red plastic cans. We will need it for this next stretch. Fern spends some time with us going over anchorages and places to stop along the river.
It is still very early so we decide to continue on. We are anxious to get the Mississippi behind us.
The river is very wide and swift. Because of the wing dams just under the surface, we see huge whirlpools in the channel. These dams were installed on the river to divert the flow of water downstream. The whirlpools they cause are as large as our boat and look like underwater tornadoes. We would like to get a picture of them but don’t dare stop near one. We are finding the river much easier to run in our small boat. With our speed and agility, we have no problems passing the barges and missing debris. In our trawler this would be tough. We do have to constantly watch for the channel buoys. Because the river is so high right now, many of these buoys are dragged under water. They periodically pop up before the current takes them under again. It is a wild and surprisingly desolate river with no houses, docks, or boat ramps anywhere along the banks. This is not a boater friendly area.
Fern had suggested that we might be able to find fuel about 11 miles up the Kaskaskia River in a little town called Evansville, IL. Even though we should have enough fuel for the entire run, we decided that the extra fuel would be a good safety reserve. To reach Evansville we must travel through the Kaskaskia Lock. This side trip is very pretty and we enjoy the reprieve of being off the Mississippi. Once reaching Evansville, we are disappointed to find that they have quit selling fuel. We were also hoping to pitch our tent at the marina for the evening but due to the high river levels there is no dry place suitable for camping. Now we have traveled an extra 25 miles and wasted some of our much needed fuel and time.
Back on the Mississippi, we continue to scan the banks for possible camp sites or anchorages on our way south. Due to the high water levels, there are none and the day is getting long. Rain is forecast overnight and we really need to set up our tent for protection. Running out of daylight, we finally settle on an anchorage called Brown’s Chute. We are again disappointed to find the current very swift behind the island. We finally find a small side arm where we can hide from the current. We tie our little boat to a tree which has fallen into the water. The river banks are too muddy to set up a tent so it looks like we will be boat camping for the evening. We pull the boat cover up over the bimini to make a boat tent as added protection from the possible rain. We are really tired and don’t bother cooking. Peanut butter sandwiches are the main course for dinner.
Total Miles Traveled Today: 219
Total Trip Miles: 702.3
Day 8 and 9: Browns Chute to Grand Rivers, KY
It was a rough night on the boat. The winds picked up and our boat cover started flapping in the early morning. Jeff finally decided to remove it as he was afraid it was going to be blown off. Just afterwards, the rain started. It is only 5:00 AM but we go ahead and pack up our gear to keep it dry. It is cold and windy. We don’t even go to the trouble of making coffee. Boat camping is not the greatest. As soon as it is light enough, we continue on our way down the Mississippi.
We soon reach Cairo, IL which is the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. We are very happy to be leaving the Mississippi behind us. Now we have to fight upstream on the Ohio for the next 60 miles. We find the Ohio not much better than the Mississippi. It is cold, windy, and rainy. The river is rough today and there is lots of barge traffic coming and going. Our fuel tank is almost on empty. We need to find a place where we can stop and add our extra 20 gallons but there is none. There are no docks or marinas to be found. Finally out of desperation, we pull behind a working barge terminal and find a low work platform that we can tie to.
Luckily for us, it is early Sunday morning and no one is around. I don’t think they would allow us here otherwise. It takes about 30 minutes to add our fuel to the tank. Just as we finish, someone spots us and starts heading our way. We quickly untie and leave.
The Ohio River continues to be very busy with lots of barge traffic. This river is 981 miles long and starts in Pittsburgh, PA. It is one of the major shipping waterways of the United States. 20 miles upriver, we pass a new lock which is under construction. This lock is to be completed next year and will replace two older locks just upstream. It looks as if they have a lot of work to do still if it is to be completed on schedule. Lock 53 is completely underwater due to the high water levels. We are able to bypass this lock by staying in the main channel and cruise right over the dam itself. We reach lock 52 several miles away and here we have a 2 hour wait while several barges are locked through.
Upon reaching Paducah, we have a choice of two routes. We can join the Tennessee River here or we can continue on the Ohio for 10 more miles to the Cumberland River. The Cumberland then joins the TN River at the Land Between the Lakes area. Although the TN River route is shorter, it would mean locking through the Kentucky Lock. This lock is known for long delays due to high barge traffic. Several boaters have waited up to 10 hours at this lock. We opt to take the longer Cumberland River route. It is a relief to finally get off the Ohio River. The Cumberland twists and turns around many bends and is much more relaxing than either the Ohio or Mississippi. We travel this river for 33 miles before reaching the Barkley Lock which dumps us into Barkley Lake. Our home for the evening, Green Turtle Bay, is just one mile away.
We again find lots of looper at this stop. It seems everyone here has also heard that we were coming. They all are amazed that we are in such a small boat. The town of Grand Rivers, KY is just a short walk away from the marina. We find a nice motel here and decompress for the next two nights. It is a relief to have the big rivers behind us. The remaining trip should be much more scenic and enjoyable. You can not come to Grand Rivers without stopping for dinner at Patti’s. Their claim to fame is a 2” pork chop which Jeff is very excited about. The dinner is really good and we end up eating here twice while in Grand Rivers.
Total Miles Traveled Today: 114
Total Trip Miles: 816.3
Day 10: Grand Rivers, KY to Birdsong, TN
It is in the low 50’s when we leave Grand Rivers for the Barkley Canal. This ½ mile long canal connects us to Kentucky Lake (TN River). Another looper whom we met last year in Oswego, NY is anchored just five miles away in Pisgah Bay.
We are also surprised to find another looper, Dragon Fly, anchored in the same bay. We last saw this little solar powered canal boat in Little Current, Ontario. After a brief chat with them, we continue on our way.
We have an easy day on the water to Birdsong Marina. We wanted to stop here and see the fresh water pearl farm and museum. It is located two miles off the main channel but it is well buoyed. The weather is nice and we had intended to tent camp here however the owner of the marina made us an offer we could not refuse. For $25 more we can stay in a nice heated cottage with a nice soft bed, hot showers, coffee maker, and satellite TV. This was an easy decision. He even provides a courtesy car and we enjoy a good dinner at the Catfish House in nearby Camden, TN.
Total Miles Traveled Today: 82.8
Total Trip Miles: 899.1
Day 11: Birdsong, TN to Joe Wheeler, AL
It is another cool 50 degree morning when we pull away from the marina. The fog is extremely thick making it difficult follow the two mile channel leading us back to the river. Once in the river, we find the fog just as bad. In places the visibility is less than 100 yards. With no radar on this little boat, we are forced to go at idle speed for the first hour. The fog finally lifts and we have a beautiful fall day on the river. The leafs on the trees are just starting to change color. After traveling over 12,000 miles of waterways, we can say there is no prettier river than the Tennessee. The river continues to wind and twist through the hardwood covered hills that make the Tennessee valley. As we come around a bend, we see a small blue hulled tug just ahead. This is Blue Yonder, a fellow looper whom we last saw in the North Channel, Ontario this summer. We slow and chat with them before continuing on.
After a brief stop at Pickwick State Park for fuel, we soon reach the junction of the Tennessee and Tenn Tom Waterways. This junction technically completes the loop for us as we have traveled the remaining 200 miles from here to Chattanooga many times, (We still consider arriving back home to Chattanooga as our loop completion). We have two more locks today, Wilson Lock and Joe Wheeler Lock. The Wilson Lock is the largest on the loop.
Just past the Joe Wheeler lock is our home for the evening, Joe Wheeler State Park. We have been here many times as this is the site of the Great Loop Rendezvous each fall. In several weeks it will be completely full with looper vessels of all types. There are already a few looper boats here early. We enjoy a nice room in the lodge for the evening.
Total Miles Traveled Today: 175
Total Trip Miles: 1074.1
Day 12: Joe Wheeler, AL to Goose Pond, AL
Today is another beautiful day on the river. We have bright blue skies and little wind. Our 50 mile run to Guntersville takes us through a scenic section of the river with high cliffs rising on both sides of the banks. We are soon to the Guntersville Lock. We radio the lock master on Channel 13 and get no response. After several more tries we switch to Channel 16 and 12 with no luck. We then try calling the phone number listed in our guide book. This number is no longer in service. There is a cord along the lock wall for smaller boats to pull when they need lockage. We find this cord is not in working order. Jeff is getting frustrated and begins blowing our boat horn. Still no response. What do we do? We start trying all VHF channels. After about 10 minutes the lock finally answers us on channel 14. Evidently this is their working channel. None of the previous locks have used this channel and it is not the one listed in our chart or guide books. We are just thankful to finally have reached someone and be able to get through the lock.
As the day heats up, the winds increase. Luckily we have a tail wind today and can zip right over the waves at over 30 mph. It does make for a rough ride though. Our little boat has preformed really well on this trip. It is fast, maneuverable, and handles the seas very well. Tonight’s stop is Goose Pond Marina. We follow the small boat channel to the marina where we fill with fuel before heading to our campsite. What a pleasant surprise. The one mile channel leading us to the campground is lined with lily pads.
Here we find a beautiful primitive tent site with our own little boat dock.
You could not ask for a more peaceful spot to spend our last evening. After setting up our tent, we walk two miles to the park’s restaurant for dinner.
Like our campsite, we are again amazed. We have one of the best meals on the entire trip. A wonderful way to end another great day.
Total Miles Traveled Today: 102
Total Trip Miles: 1176.1
Day 14: Goose Pond, AL to Chattanooga, TN
We are slow to leave our campsite this morning, wanting to enjoy this great spot for as long as possible. We brew some coffee on our camping stove and fill our thermos for today’s trip home.
Unlike yesterday, today we have a very strong headwind out of the north. While in the narrow confines of the river, this does not trouble us. Some of the wider open stretches are really rough. We have gusts of up to 30 mph. We are like a horse going to the barn and are anxious to get home.
We enjoy our travel through downtown Chattanooga.
Trying not to be prejudice, the downtown riverfront is still impressive with the TN Aquarium sitting proudly along the river. Chattanooga’s riverfront can compete with the best.
Just past here is our last lock, Chickamauga Lock. We were expecting long delays here as the lock is being rebuilt but are pleasantly surprised to get locked through quickly.
Things change once we get through the lock. The gusty winds are funneling down this wide section of Chickamauga Lake. We have 2-3 foot waves on our nose. Added to this are several large boats hurrying downstream to catch the lock opening. It is our roughest ride of the entire trip. We slow to a crawl so as not to get swamped. Once around the bend, the lake settles down and Idyll Out is soon tied alongside our home dock. We have finally completed the Great Loop!
Total Miles Traveled Today: 108
Total Trip Miles: 1284.1
Great Loop Statistics: Jan. 7th 2007 to Oct. 1st. 2010
Total Miles Traveled: 12,912
Total Boats: 2
Total Locks 123
Total States Visited: 23
Total Countries: 2