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Chapter Eight – The Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers

 On the morning of September 23rd, we left the Illinois River forever.  The weather was poor and within half an hour of departure, it started pouring.  We felt quite lucky though to have had only a few days of rain since July.

We easily made it to Alton, Illinois and turned a sharp left into Eastport Marina.  We had been told to go to a certain slip but because of the downpour, we asked if we could have a covered slip.  Since our mast was still lying across the boat, there was no problem except for the fact that the boat’s keel kept us from getting all the way in.  Dennis made several attempts and had Nick and I jumping on the bow, since he wanted to back in.  Then he hooked lines onto the various posts and tried to winch us in, but it was not to be.  We sadly resigned ourselves to a regular slip and tied up.

The manager must have felt very sorry for us and found us a really good covered slip closer to the river.  We then saw our friends from the Insanity Era and our spirits instantly perked up.  They took pictures of the bedraggled crew from Hetarae.

 

Because of the raging current, there were no boating facilities in St. Louis, so we rented a car from Alton and toured the city.  At the science centre, the information officer told us that the Mississippi was a mean and unforgiving river.

We enjoyed Alton very much.  My friend Chris form The Insanity Era also ran in the parking lots, so I didn’t feel so ridiculous going around in circles. I even got my roller blades out and skated the parking lot.

We only had two minor mishaps while in Alton.  One morning, I decided to get groceries in the rented truck.  I had good directions from the staff but within ten minutes, I had gotten hopelessly lost in the city.  After an hour, I finally made it back to the marina.  I was very upset and felt disoriented.  I didn’t have the opportunity to really cry though because Dennis had been injured while I was away.  He had paper towel wrapped around his cut though and acted as though her weren’t even hurt.  My problems suddenly seemed tiny by comparison.

We stayed for three days at the best marina in the world.  Skipper Bud’s had private bathrooms, a hot tub, pool and many other services available to boaters.  Had I known what was ahead of us, I would have stayed right there.  I was most reluctant to leave.

We motored out of Alton one overcast morning and after a successful descent at the Mel Price Lock and Dam, we were immediately cast in the control of the Mississippi.

The guidebook told us to enter the Chain of Rocks Canal and not to continue down the river.  We did so, but were very frightened of the turbulent water.  The current and undertow threw us around like a spinning top.  Hetarae and the 9.9 Yamaha kept us on course though and we made it through.  The rest of the canal was very calm.  We then had to lock through at Lock 27.

We’d been hearing terrible rumours that this lock had been shut down and there was at least a sixty hour wait.  Sixty hours was almost three days!  We’d have to get our place in line and sit on the boat until we were able to lock through.

We ended up waiting for only four hours with a dozen other pleasure craft and by two o’clock, we re-entered the Mississippi River.  It was a good thing we’d had a rest!

We battled the current, the towboats and other hazards.  The river was fierce!  Water swirled around us continually and it was difficult to keep the boat on course.  When we passed St. Louis, the current increased to five or six knots an hour.  We barely had time to get pictures of the Arch before we were swept by!

In addition to this, the towboats increased in size and in number.  A tow pushing 49 barges—seven wide by seven long—could carry as much as 900 tractor trailers!  We had to constantly call the towboat operators to see if we should meet them on the one whistle (port to port) or the two whistle (starboard to starboard) because they weren’t able to see our little boat coming towards them.  Every time Dennis finished talking to one of them, he had a look of confusion on his face because he could hardly understand a word they were saying.  I’m sure that as soon as they heard a Canadian voice, they had some fun, but it was as though they were speaking with rocks in their mouths.

There were other obstacles such as deadheads and debris floating around.  Hitting one big log could finish our trip in an instant!  We kept a sharp eye out and veered away from the hazards while trying to keep on course.

We kept a close watch on the depth sounder.  The Mississippi had many unmarked sandbars in the bends and turns.  If we were to get stuck on one, it was likely we’d be run over by a towboat.

We finally got to our destination and were so relieved to be tied up to something solid we could forgive the sorry state of Hoppie’s Marina.

It consisted of five rusted barges tied together.  There was a dilapidated canopy about ten feet away from the gas pump, which shaded several rotting, dirty lounge chairs arranged in a circle.  In the middle was a coffee table that held an ashtray loaded with cigarette butts.  The “washroom” was housed in a shed right beside the chairs.  Hoppie—the man who owned the marina– was a very friendly fellow though and it was only his hard work that kept the place there at all.  He’d been wiped out be several floods—the one in 1993 had been particularly bad—and a tornado.  We were very impressed with his perseverance.

The next morning, under bright skies and hot temperatures, we motored our way south once again.  Our speed was very good because we were going with the current and we breezed down the Mississippi without any other disasters.

We spent the night anchored behind a wing dam.  It was one of the hundreds of stone walls along both banks of the river and they were used to deflect the river current toward the centre of the Mississippi and to help prevent the banks from eroding.

Our instructions read:

  • “First:  Enter downstream with attention glued to the depth sounder.
  • Second: Enter close behind the wing dam.
  • Third: At all costs, do not allow the boat to be carried sideways by the current, even for a moment!  Somewhere below all wing dams is shoal water.  If the current should push you on to the shoal and pin you there, your only way off is by kedging.”  Waterway Guide—Great Lakes 1994, Argus Press Holdings, Inc., page 17.

I was more than a little stressed by the time we actually anchored.  I snapped at Nick because he wanted to play cards and I was shaking, I had been so frightened.  So I went out on the deck and cried.  I was not cut out for an adventure like this and started making plans for quitting.

After my crying bout, I went down below and made supper.  We ate, then sat out on the deck and watched the beautiful clear night.  We were alone in the Mississippi River, under a canopy of stars.

The next morning, we left the wing dam and made a fifty mile run to Cape Girardeau to obtain fuel. We had to buy extra gas since there was nowhere else to stop along the way.  I stayed and watched the boat in case the current took her away.  I don’t know how I would have saved her though since the river is much too dangerous to swim in.  In the Cape Girardeau area alone, there had been ten drownings in two months, according to the local people.

We spent the night anchored at Little River Diversion Channel and learned that our friends from Stars of Noon and Starlight had been there just several nights before.  The next night, we anchored near Cairo, at the mouth of the Ohio River.

We ventured into the Ohio early in the morning because we had to go through two locks and were going against the current for the first time.  Needless to say, after the Mississippi, we felt like we were crawling up the Ohio.

Lock 53 was really easy to get through because the picket dam was lowered, so we just motored over it.  Lock 52 was the usual – sit and wait.  This was the first lock we had to go up since Chicago, but since it only rose a few feet, it wasn’t very difficult to lock through.

We got to Paducah late that evening and searched for the grey barge near the Executive Inn.  This was the only place transients could tie up.  Unfortunately, it was no longer there and our hearts sank in despair.  We would have to anchor again.  Since Cape Girardeau, we had not been able to get off the boat.  During that time, Nick drew an entire deck of cards and I worried constantly about his well-being.  He was beginning to spend a lot of time in his cabin, lying on his bunk.

Nick said to me, “Mom, I feel yucky.”

Dennis was really feeling badly, as though it were his fault, but by then I was hardly speaking I was so angry and upset.  As we loomed closer to the Executive Inn, we didn’t know what we would do for the night.  Dennis scoured the shoreline in search of the barge.

Suddenly he yelled, “Would you look at that! I see the Nina!”

I grabbed the binoculars from him and sure enough, the prettiest sight in the world was there to behold—the Nina sat in the water looking like the Welcome Wagon!

Our spirits went from rock bottom to sky high as we motored over to her.  The crew greeted us like we were long lost relatives and we hastily set our anchor near her.  We wouldn’t be able to tie up to a dock but at least we’d be safely anchored.  We threw the dinghy overboard, and rowed ashore.  Freedom from Hetarae had become a prison.

We talked to the crew members at length and Dennis’ friend Hank Biles gladly took Dennis grocery shopping in the car he had rented.  Nick and I wandered the town to stretch our legs.  When Dennis returned we went out for supper and I demanded that we eat somewhere where I would be able to get a huge salad.  I had no idea that lettuce would play such an important role in my sense of well-being!

Although the salad was disappointing—mostly iceberg lettuce (picky!) –we enjoyed ourselves in the cozy air-conditioned atmosphere of the restaurant.  I dreaded going back to the boat.  It was so hot and we hadn’t had a decent shower in four days.  Eventually, though, we returned but not before we walked.  By this time, night had fallen.  We went back to the waterfront and watched a teenager roller-blade like a wild man.  The waterfront was built out of cement and had tiers built from the water up to the floodgates.  They looked like gigantic steps and this teenager kept flying past us, jumping the steps on his roller blades, taking a serious chance with his life.  We were in awe at his skill!

Finally, we reluctantly got back on the boat and settled down for the night.  We could hear a little kid eagerly shout to his dad, “Just pop him, Dad! Just pop him!” as they walked along the edge of the water.  What was the kid referring to?  We’ll never know!

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