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From Lake Michigan to the Gulf and then some... By Ecuador RPCV Rick Rhodes
From Lake Michigan to the Gulf and then some... By Ecuador RPCV Rick Rhodes
Editor's note: While recovering from malaria in the Peace Corps, recuperating from shoulder surgery and dealing with a totaled vehicle... cruising guide author Rick Rhodes decided to take to the waters once again. Claiborne Young had suggested to him that someone "ought to do the last cruising guide gap" in the Great Circle Route---covering a nearly 800-mile section from Lake Michigan to Kentucky Lake.
Following are some of Rick's notes from last year, for his Cruising Guide from Lake Michigan to Kentucky Lake.
From Lake Michigan to the Gulf
and then some...
By Rick Rhodes
Greetings fellow sailors and boaters! The remembered and truncated highlights of my last 3-month cruise, encompassing 2,100 miles...
I had in the back of my head a boat that I thought would be ideal for such work... the 24 foot, 7 inch Nimble Nomad. It's trailerable, has a pilot house steering station, an outboard motor, a displacement hull, shallow draft (i.e., beachable) and it's very sturdy.
I saw the trawler-like Nomad ten years ago at the Washington, DC Boat show. At that time the boat had just come out on the market and there were no used ones. So last September I bought a ten-year old Nomad from that same broker in Annapolis that I put through the hoops when I considered one ten years prior. In mid-September I did a few minor upgrades like installing mid-ship cleats for the many forthcoming locks. In late September, Cliff the broker, trailered the boat and I to our starting point on the Calumet River in Chicago.
As usual, I was scrounging around for unpaid crew. This boat was rather small and three people would likely be too crowded. The logistics of exchanging crew members could get cumbersome and bog down the entire trip. I figured I needed only ONE really competent crew member, especially in the early stages of the trip. And I was darn glad to have one. Fred Lierley... an ex-Navy bosun mate, a Nebraska farmer, and an older fellow Peace Corps Volunteer from Ecuador...WAS GREAT. Like many older PCVs in Ecuador, Fred and I both departed early. When the "caca" hit the fan, and it did a few times, Fred was always calm but worked hard to solve the problem. What I missed most about Fred was his everlasting optimism. After "the event" had passed, Fred had an earnest way of saying something like, "Well that wasn't all SO bad." Thanks, Fred.
...has been called a "pocket trawler," and "coastal cruiser" among other names. It is a funny looking green thing with a displacement hull. Empty, it weighs 4,600 pounds and fits on a tandem axle trailer. It carries an outboard motor, between 10 and 50HP. The 50HP Honda four-strokes are most popular and purported to be great engines. But for about $5K less, I found one with a 50HP Yamaha two stroke. I had heard that the four strokes get great fuel economy, but I was not disappointed by my two stroke. At 2,600 to 2,800 RPM, I could cruise at 6.5 MPH. At this RPM and speed, I got about 1.5 gallons per hour or about 4+ miles per gallon.
The boat has one steering station, a pilot house. There is an open area on the bow and forward of the pilot house. We used this area to store our primary anchor, anchor rode, fenders, docklines, outboard dinghy motor, and Fred's boots. Likewise, there is another open area in the aft section near the motor. We stored our two extra 8-gallon water jugs and two extra 6-gallon gasoline can in this aft section, along with our fishing gear. You can walk through the boat from the front to the back door. This is especially nice when docking single-handed.
With both the fore and aft doors closed, the main cabin and pilot house is well-protected from the weather. The cabin has four bunks, but the two forward ones are quite small. There is a small sink and a galley area and also a small head, but no shower. The internal water capacity is about twelve gallons. Stowage areas are reasonably good for a boat of this size, although there is no hanging locker.
The draft is about 18 inches, on a fairly flat hull. We deliberately were able to beach the boat a few times. The fiberglass boat has an interior cabin primarily lined with mahogany and the joinery is good. The many windows and ports on the vessel make for nice passage while underway during the summer, but probably isn't helping me stay warm while living on it this unusually cold winter in Washington. There is little room for extras. For in depth river exploration the trailerable boat, named Free State fit the bill extremely well.
THE TRIP AND THE ITINERARY:
Cliff launched the boat in the Calumet River in Illinois in late September. On October 1st, Fred and I were heading east on the industrial Calumet to Lake Michigan, where we spent a fairly windy day on the Great Lake. Our second night's anchorage on a mooring on the Lake was one of the roughest ones of the entire trip with the boat bobbing and pitching all night.
We then entered the Chicago River about 15 miles north of the Calumet in downtown Chicago. It was quite a sight and FEELING...skyscraper canyons, low bridges with EL traffic and noisy cars and trucks, all on a busy Monday in one of this country's largest downtowns.
About 30 miles down, the Chicago River connects with the Calumet River. We went back up the Calumet to "tie the knot" to our starting point. The "twelve miles of hell" are south of the junction of the Chicago and Calumet Rivers. This section is clogged with barge traffic and refractive waves. We waited for perhaps two hours for one oncoming barge to slowly pass so we'd have room to get by and proceed on our southbound journey. The canal here is actually the DesPlains River waterway. My nerves were frayed during this whole section.
We finally came to our first big lock (there were two smaller ones early on and in the Calumet and the Chicago Rivers) at Lockport, Illinois. The nasty tight canal finally changed its character here. The pleasant town of Joliet was down from the Lockport Lock and Dam. Near Channahon, the Kankakee Rivers meets the DesPlains and becomes the mighty Illinois River. We explored some great colorful Illinois River towns on this part of the river...Joliet, Channahon, Morris, Seneca, Marseilles, Ottawa, Lima, Hennepin, Henry, Lacon, Chillicothe, and others.
The lakes around Illinois's second largest city, Peoria were next. Fred and I have great memories of Peoria...the Caterpillar Tractor factory tour, "rock soup" being hosted by a local yacht club, the Peoria waterfront, and more. The lower Illinois River follows the Peoria Lakes area. Several months later, someone asked me my what favorite section was. Without thinking (and at the risk of being politically incorrect), I stated the "Lower Illinois", and still can't quite pinpoint why. There were more great Illinois River towns; Pekin, Havana, Beardstown, Meredosia, Kampsville, Hardin, and Grafton. The shoreside activities were more limited and further apart than on the upper Illinois, but somehow, they made a most fond impression. The river itself became quite a splendor.
Our nearly 400 miles on the Illinois River ended as that grand river merged with the Mississippi at Grafton. This first 30 miles of the Mississippi were nice, but we can't say that about the remaining nearly 200 miles on the Upper Mississippi. Stops north of St. Louis in Portage de Sioux, MO and Alton, IL were most memorable. In St. Louis we tried to tie-up for a few minutes at the floating McDonald's Restaurant based under the famed St. Louis' arch, but we were ordered to leave before I could scarf down a Big Mac.
The only real marina on the whole river south of St. Louis is about 40 miles downriver. Hoppys, a real blue-collar marina is run by Fern Hopkins and her family, "real river rats", and that's a term I use with high admiration. The Hopkins love, feel, and KNOW this river better than I'll ever be able to scratch the surface.
The Mississippi River proved to be Fred's and my greatest challenge. It's flow per minute (CFM) can increase by 25-fold; it floods horrifically; there are huge barges that are equivalent to a half-dozen 100-car freight trains. It is sometimes dangerously fog-bound. Luckily we were traveling with the current...often being helped along by an extra 4 mph. Besides Hoppys, there are no other accessible services, marinas, fuel docks, restaurants or even towns along the river. The few towns that there are, Chester, Cape Girardeau, Thebes, and Cairo, are all barricaded by massive flood walls and generally inaccessible to us boaters. We contemplated taking the river all the way to New Orleans after completing our guide research, but after 218 miles we made our left-hand turn onto the Ohio River, glad to be done with the Mississippi.
We really liked the 60 or so miles of the Ohio River even though we had to fight the current for the first time on the trip, slowing us down by about 2 mph. After the hectic barge staging area near Cairo, the Ohio River was "muy tranquilo." The river towns of Joppa and Metropolis in Illinois were great, as was Paducah, KY. We turned right off the Ohio onto the Cumberland River which becomes Lake Barkley. Lake Barkley connects to Kentucky Lake with a mile and a half canal, and then becomes the Tennessee River for about 22 miles before it enters the Ohio. We closed our second loop by taking the Tennessee back to Paducah, KY. Going back to Paducah wasn't a bad idea as we were about to enter many dry counties (in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama) and our rum stores were getting quite thin. Paducah is the last "wet city" until more than half way down to the Gulf of Mexico. A few more days on Kentucky Lake and our research for a Cruising Guide from Lake Michigan to Kentucky Lake, probably to be called something like Heartland Rivers was DONE! The pace and the tempo could now change. And it did.
(Stay tuned for next newsletter to read part two of this adventure...)
POST CRUISE OBJECTIVES:
My primary objective of the cruise was do to research for that Lake Michigan to Kentucky Lake Cruising Guide. Now, and second to employment, my major objective is to put together and write this guide. The trip photographs taken with a 35mm camera, (except for Fred's), have already been digitize and put on a CD (and this is a quasi-requirement for Pelican, a potential publisher). I also just purchased a used laptop to facilitate this book writing endeavor. And the news on the employment front is also good. A log-standing good friend, Greg, offered me a job to sell pre-opened plastic bags along the Tex-Mex border. I'd be on the border every other week, and exercising my meager Spanish. During the week that I'm not traveling along the border, I'd be based near Tampa while living aboard the Nomad. The immediate fly in the ointment is the cold weather and ice here on the Potomac River. For more than three weeks, I haven't been able to move the Nomad due to the iced river. Maybe things will change soon? Stay in touch, Captain Rick Rhodes
The Cruising Guide from Lake Michigan to Kentucky Lake, The Heartland Rivers Route, published by Pelican Publishing Company.