Bottom Line:

  • Two days on the muddy river of Illinois. We have had rain, fog, ungodly heat and humidity. Tugs and bugs. And a lock. River is closed to commercial traffic, open to pleasure craft (PCs)
  • It is unbelievably hot
  • We seem to be getting a bit better at this
  • The river is wicked low. We have run aground. Twice. On purpose.
  • I’ve grouped two days into one because I have been failing miserably to keep up; it is

Start: Anchorage vic. South Henry Island, mm 193, 1021
End: Illinois Valley Yacht and Canoe Club (IVY), Joliet, IL, 1424
Total Distance: 22.9 nm
Time: 4:02
Average Speed: 5.7 kts
Number of locks: 0 (Thank goodness!)

Start: Illinois Valley Yacht and Canoe Club (IVY), Joliet, IL, 0650
End: Anchorage south of Quiver Island, Havana, IL, 1447
Total Distance: 42.5 nm
Time: 7:57
Average Speed: 5.5 kts
Number of locks: 1 (exciting!)
Temperature: 96 degrees. 108 degrees heat index. Jeezus it is hot!

I’ll get to the recap of the last two days on the Illinois River Big Muddy1 but I’d like to start today’s ramble with a short vignette.

We wonder if we are actually getting any better at this boating thing. Day to day we get up, head out, travel, tie up, explore, repeat. And we have daily drama (or ‘learning events’) that we have to figure out. And we ‘feel’ like we are getting better, but are we actually? Turns out, yes. Yesterday we headed into the Peoria Lock (more on the journey below) and we were the last in the lock and right up against the back door. Two lines were passed to us, Jan up front and AJ in the rear. I shut off the engines–a habit from the Trent and headed up with the poles. Doors close, water starts to leave and as the water level drops, water starts flowing in from the back door (it is not a perfect seal). It creates a wicked current and starts to blow us off the wall. And into the boat in front of us. This is eerily similar to our first lock on the Erie Canal When we got blown off the wall, Jan was almost pulled overboard and bruised, AJ was almost pulled overboard and we all barely kept the boat from ping-ponging in the lock. The trauma from that event caused us to lay up a day to lick out wounds.

This time we recognized what was happening. I took AJ’s line and held our back end as close to the wall as I could get, AJ hopped up in the captains chair and then gave instructions (i.e. ‘yelled’) to AJ. Turn on engines. Check. Put starboard engine in reverse. Check. More in reverse. Check. And adjust to keep us back from the boat in front of us. Worked. We didn’t get back to the wall, but we were steady state. We held on, door opened and when it was our turn, Jan released the front, AJ put boat in gear, I released the back line and SPRINTED to the helm and out we went. High fives all around and then that was it. We were on our way. No drama nor need for a day of recovery.

Now let me back up a day. When last we left you, we were sitting in an anchorage, vicinity mile marker 193. All alone behind Lower Henry Island. We wakey wakey at 7am and we are socked in with fog. The plan was to move to the Ivy (Illinois Valley Yacht club), which was 23 miles away–a relatively short day, so no issue with the delay. Lucky gets a walk, AJ gets some school, Jan and I get to enjoy our cup of coffee a bit longer.

When fog clears, we head out onto the river. Our radio is on channel 13. I bring this up because it was a big point of contention yesterday. We were behind a pack of pleasure craft (PCs), and we heard them hail the tugs on channel 16. The captain told the PC that “y’all need to be on channel 13; you are going to die if you are talking to us on channel 16.” None of us want to die. So I’m all over channel 13. And we get to hear the most interesting conversations between the tugs. Today we had two tows heading downriver (south) and one up. We were heading downriver. And listening to the captains maneuver their loads in tight channel was fascinating. And for an Army dude who is used to radio discipline and call signs, hearing one captain refer to everyone on the net as “Cuz” was hilarious.

So being on the right channel is good. Having AIS continues to be really good. We were heading towards the up bound tug, when he gave us a call about 30 minutes from our meeting and told us EXACTLY where we were going to meet and where he wanted us (his starboard, hug the reds just after the bridge). Which was outstanding.

We arrived at the IVY close to 3pm. We asked for our slip assignment and were told that we were parking under the blue awning. Which is new, but a very clear description of what we were seeing. And we were in to a small marina outside of Peoria. Not much in the local area, but it did have power and water, so Jan could clean off the mud from Lucky in the Anchorage.

Today (20 Sep, Wed) we got up bright and early and puttered out before 7 am. One looper boat beat us out by 30 minutes and another looper was 5 minutes ahead of us, so it appears we are screwed for the Peoria Lock, 10 miles ahead of us. There is a tug (named “City of Peoria”) pushing 9 barges at a whopping 7 knots and he is ahead of us by a half mile when we leave the marina. And pulling away, so any fast (and everything outside a canoe from the Illinois Valley Yacht and Canoe Club is indeed faster than us) will get to the lock first and get through before we make it there. We, resigned to our fate, putter along. Two other looper boats appear as if magic from the Peoria town dock, pull in front of us, pass the barge and are off. We putter along.

I call the lock on my phone and he told us to hang five miles back at a railroad bridge and wait until the barge was clear. We learned that lesson a couple of days ago–we press on. We approach the lock and actually catch the barge who has to slow to wait for the lock to ready for their entrance. I call the lock on the radio when I hear they are loading the other PC into the lock. We are still 10 minutes out, but we have nothing to lose. My rootypoot antenna won’t reach the lock, but the barge picks up our transmission and tells the lock that we (a PC) are on the way and the lock agrees to hold for us. So in we go, last boat in the lock!

Rest of the day goes same as yesterday. We lots of wildlife. Bald Eagles, Cranes, pelicans, geese, hawks. And carp bang into our boat once an hour to remind us that they own the river. We see very few barges. The river is extremely low down here. We can look at the land on either side of the channel and see that there the water is five feet or more down from normal. Our Skipper Bob books talks about anchorages and those that have depth of 5-6 feet in normal pool are dry or close enough to dry to be useless. Which s causing us some stress on where we are going to stay. Our goal for the day is Tall Timber Marina in Havana, IL. We talked to the harbor master and he said that his entry channel was narrow but he thought it had three feet. We would see.

By the time we arrived in Havana, the temperature was 98 degrees with a het index of 106. Sun was baking us. The wind was directly in our face and felt like a heat gun pointed at our face. We were cranky and wanted some shore power and some air conditioning. The entrance to the channel was blocked by a tow with 6 barges in front of her. The captain was swapping out crew members. I called him and asked him how long he would be there and he said 30 minutes or so. I asked if we could come along side and try to get in the marina; no problem, was his reply. He offered to move his stern out into the channel to give us some more room. Not necessary. So we puttered around his starboard side and saw two staked 20’ apart in a muddy channel entering the marina. We moved up, parallel to the shore and ran aground a good 30 feet short. Back up. Get off the silt. The tug captain, who apparently had little else to do but watch us flail around on his starboard side told us we could snug up close to his barges and get a more perpendicular run at it–he opinion was that we could make it. We declined; we would wait until he left. Which he soon did. We made a second run at the entrance, got close, but again, depth gauge went to 1 foot (on a three foot draft boat), we nudged the bottom gently, backed up and went to find another anchorage.

Trying to beat the heat

Just north (upriver) of Havana is a coal plant and normally has 10-12 feet of water. Today it had 5-6 feet, and we headed up past the coal plant to anchor. Two drawbacks to this particular place. First is that if a barge arrives and they load coal, you are getting dusted. Literally. And second is that if a barge arrives and is loading coal, you may be blocked from exiting. But given the lack of barges on the route AND the shallow depth by the coal yard, we were pretty sure we were good to go. So we dropped anchor. And baked.

Rest of the night was normal. Swim (yes, in muddy, coal water), make dinner, fire up generator and get some AC. Netflix. Turn off generator/AC and go to bed while there is still some cool air. Heat wave is with us for next 4-5 days so we are getting up early tomorrow to beat the heat.

Update on the river: There is a notice to mariners that shows that the Illinois river is closed between MM 77 and 78 because of shallow depth. But it looks like pleasure craft can go through. One great looper boat went through two days ago and saw 8’ the entire way, which is good news. The queue at the last lock before the closure is backed up with barges waiting to go through. We will see in the next day or two if we make it through…

Next stop? Breardstown, IL!

1: The big muddy seems to best describe the Illinois river. Every day we spend hours cleaning off the boat from the mud; we take showers after we swim to get the dirt out of our hair and when we walk on the shore, we sink halfway up to our knees in mud. Big Muddy.