Chapter Seven – Chicago Ship and Sanitation Canal and the Illinois River
We finally got close enough to radio the lock master. We had never been in a lock before. He told us that we were to keep our life jackets on and to never get off the boat when locking. That made sense, so we aimed for the starboard lock wall, kicked out our fenders and grabbed onto tow lines. Ten minutes later, the green light flashed and we had successfully locked through. We were on our way down the Illinois Waterway—Chicago to the Mississippi River—325 miles.
Our first river was the Chicago Ship and Sanitation Canal. We wound our way through downtown Chicago and waved to the hoards of people scurrying to work. Soon enough though, the grey skyscrapers gave way to industrial Chicago. Noise, dirt and chemicals were in full abundance. We saw an entire hill made out of blue salt.
Our first mistake, a very serious one, was made before lunchtime. We were in the canal and suddenly saw a towboat looming toward us. We hadn’t seen it approaching for two reasons: it was a rusty old beater of a boat and looked like the many we had seen tied up alongside of the canal; and we weren’t paying attention. Well, we were quickly put in our place.
The towboat operator yelled at us with his loudspeaker, “Turn your f—— radio on! Your boat’s gonna get squashed!”
He was right and as he passed us, we scraped the side of the canal. I shoved the boat away from the wall with my leg and we missed hitting the barge by inches! In our ignorance, not only had we put ourselves in danger but also the towboat crew. We used the radio from then on and paid very close attention. We were lucky that day.
Our second lock that day was the Lockport Lock and we descended the thirty feet easily. We tied up that night beside the police station in Joliet, Illinois. We were happy to be ashore. The river journey was very nerve-racking!
Nick and I wandered around the town and looked for a grocery store. We were unsuccessful and ended up buying food at a convenience store. Yuck! I realized that when I found a good grocery store, I should stock up. I began hoarding in earnest. That evening, Nick and I walked over to the police station and asked the officers where the nearest phone booth was. It was at the police station across the river. We asked if it was safe. Apparently it was, so we walked across the river in the dusk and phoned various people. I was beginning to feel out of sorts and was losing my zest for travelling. But, I figured that things would get better.
We later learned from friends that stayed in Joliet that the police were having “a little gang problem” and did not advise walking around. When I heard that , I felt sick because of the chance that I had unknowingly taken with Nick. I really questioned the wisdom of taking a child with us on such a trip.
The next day, we had to postpone our departure until 11:00 because the Brandon Lock was busy locking up a towboat. Towboats or barges took precedence over pleasure craft. We learned quickly that they demanded respect and commanded the rivers. After our one and only ugly encounter, the operators were always courteous to us as long as we called them on the radio and asked which side they wanted us to pass them on—the one (port to port) or the two (starboard to starboard).
We had a couple of hours to kill before we left Joliet, so I rode my bike to the grocery store which was several miles away. I really stocked up on the necessities! By the time I returned to Hetarae, the Brandon Lock was ready to take us down.
Every lock was different and we approached each one with trepidation. The Brandon Lock though, was fairly simple—the lockmaster’s assistant threw down the lines and we held on until we descended. The lock doors would open, the whistle would blow and we’d make our way into a new part of the river.
The rivers were easier to navigate than the lakes. There were mile markers posted on trees along the way, so we were able to keep track easily of where we were. The charts were simple to follow too. It would take us less than an hour to finish one chart, then we’d flip the page and start onto the next. The waves were minuscule as compared to the ten footers we encountered on Lakes Huron and Michigan. The only waves that were rough were from the power boats. Even the towboats were very considerate and hardly left any wake.
The main problem on the river was finding a safe place to stay for the night. One couldn’t anchor on the side because the boat might get hit by a passing towboat in the dark. So, we found a destination for each night and made sure we got there. Unfortunately, sometimes we would be on the boat for ten or twelve hours if we ran into a long wait at the lock. Of course, on the run from Joliet to Harborside Marina, it worked in our favour. We could only go a short distance because there was nowhere else for us to be safe for the night.
Harborside Marina was clean and the people were pleasant to us. The nearest town was Wilmington—too far away for us, so we entertained ourselves at the marina. We had a shuffleboard tournament, toured a beautiful houseboat and took full advantage of the showers.
The only thing we didn’t like about Harborside Marina was the sulphuric water. We made the mistake of replenishing our water supply there, which was undrinkable. So, in addition to stocking up on food, we learned to stock up on water whenever possible.
We headed south the next day. We made it through the Dresden Lock without any difficulty and were expecting to anchor at Mile 260 behind Waupecan Island. At about Mile 258, we spotted a rickety old dock and made a U-turn in the river to approach it. Another boat was tied up there and they lent us a hand. We ended up staying the entire weekend at this dock because we liked the little town so much. Morris, Illinois was a great place for us. It had a good grocery store, a Laundromat, public library with Internet access, a playground and a nice trail along the riverfront. We couldn’t ask for more and were reluctant to leave but knew we had to keep moving.
Within a week, we had learned about the towboats, could read the charts well and kept a good eye out for the mile markers. We were even becoming efficient in the locks. It was the heat, humidity, dirt and bugs that were getting to be a real problem.
The sun shone brilliantly every day. We couldn’t swim because of the filthy water and the current. We had to plaster ourselves with sun block and hide under the canvas canopy so we wouldn’t roast. The solar showers were useless and we worked up a real sweat in the cabin killing houseflies. I remember giving Nick a job—he was to kill as many flies as he could and I would pay him one cent a fly. After five minutes, I owed him $1.07!
At night, after the houseflies went to sleep, we shut the cabin up tight and were able to keep the mosquitoes out. But what was worse, sweltering inside the cabin or sitting outside and being bitten alive?
The strain must have been showing, because beside our boat one morning on the dock were half a dozen ripe, delicious tomatoes. The good will of people on the rivers was repeated countless times. From Chicago to Dead Lake Marina in Creola, Alabama, every person we met was kind to us.
One of the most unnerving things we saw was at the Marseilles Lock and Dam. The other dams had fencing, so if you were sucked towards the dam, you wouldn’t go over the falls. At the Marseilles Lock though, there were only ropes strung horizontally across the dam. If a boater accidentally went over the dam, he was to grab a rope and hang on as his boat went over the falls. We hoped we didn’t have to test this!
We spent a night at Starved Rock Marina and were able to clean ourselves up. We saw our friends from Stars of Noon and Starlight. We certainly hadn’t been expecting them, since their departure from Chicago was supposed to be two weeks after ours. They had left earlier though and were making good time. Unfortunately, Starlight had been having engine trouble, so Stars of Noon had been towing her.
The next day, we passed through the Starved Rock Lock and Dam easily and motored thirty-one miles to our anchorage. We planned to anchor behind Upper Henry Island and were surprised to see Stars of Noon and Starlight there. We rafted beside them and had a great reunion. We were amazed at how happy we were to see somebody we knew!
It was a very buggy night, so we went down below early and shut the boat up. Although it was hot, the heat was better than the mosquitoes. At one point in the evening, Nick started to cry which made me start to cry, so Dennis had to cajole us out of our depressed state. Luckily for us, Dennis was able to make good of any situation.
The next day we were lucky and pushed our way to Peoria and the Eastport Marina. The weather was hotter than ever but the marina was like an oasis. It had air-conditioned private washrooms—shower, sink and toilet. There was a swimming pool, several barbecues and laundry facilities. I would have happily stayed at the marina for the rest of my life if I could have.
Being from Canada, we weren’t used to the heat and humidity, so Nick and I spent the entire day in the swimming pool. At five o’clock, when the air temperature became bearable, we taxied into Peoria and bought groceries. I noticed that the outside temperature was 91 degrees.
Since we’d been in the river, I noticed that my ability to enjoy the trip was getting less and less each day. I knew I was not getting enough exercise, fresh fruit and vegetables, so I thought I had better remedy this, knowing that it was only September and we were going to be gone until June! At this rate, I’d be a basket case.
I began running every night. It was too hot during the day, so at about eight o’clock each night in the dark, I ran. I was too afraid to venture any further than the protection of the marina, so I was forced to run in the parking lot. I would go around and around until I felt better.
It was in Peoria that we met a very nice couple from Canada who were making the same trip as we were. Chris and John of the Insanity Era became very good friends. They were much better off than we were, so we really enjoyed being invited onto their air-conditioned, comfortable boat.
After our two day respite, we moved southward again. We made it through the Peoria Lock and Dam easily but knew from guidebooks that we had a fifty mile stretch with no marinas and virtually nowhere to anchor. So, after all day on the boat, with me killing houseflies and Nick lying in his bunk, we came upon our planned anchorage for the night—Duck Island. We were supposed to be able to get behind the island but when we attempted this, we got stuck. The water was very low. Dennis backed us out and we pondered about what to do. We didn’t have enough time to go even another ten miles since the sun was beginning to set so we decided to pull off the river as best we could and anchor. We were only in five feet of water, but had no other choice.
We made supper and as we were eating, a small towboat passed us. It literally sucked the water away from our boat, so that the keel touched bottom and we tilted over. After the towboat left, the water returned and the boat floated again but we knew that we could not stay where we were for the night. If a bigger towboat went by (which was quite likely) we might really tip over and not be able to right ourselves. We’d be stuck sideways in the mud.
Panic set in and we quickly made the decision to go back to an abandoned lock a mile upstream. By this time, it was almost dark and if we couldn’t anchor at the abandoned lock, we would have nowhere to go.
We went as fast as we dared and found the old lock. We inched our way in and tied up. We were safe!
As soon as the boat was secure though, the mosquitoes descended upon us by the thousands. We closed up the boat, lit the Pic coils and sweated the night away. In the middle of the night after fitfully sleeping, the mosquitoes somehow managed to get into the cabin. We killed as many as we could but there was blood all over the walls from us squashing them. This was the beginning of the end of the trip for me.
“I’m not staying on this boat one more night! I can’t stand it! I hate this! I’m leaving tomorrow!”
I think Dennis and Nick were so shocked at my temper tantrum, they didn’t know what to do. Nick started crying but Dennis kept his cool. I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night. I lay in my bunk trying to figure out a way to get off the boat and to end the trip. I couldn’t go home because we had rented it, so I really had no choice but to tough it out.
In the morning, I felt a little better but ashamed of my outburst. Unfortunately, things did not get any better. In fact, thing got worse. Our destination was Beardstown, Illinois and we motored through the heat and bugs to get there.
Our cruising guide told us to tie up to the green carpeted barge at Beardstown. Because the river was so low, we got within three feet of the barge and became stuck in the mud. Dennis backed us out easily and we anchored bow and stern. We were somewhat worried about the towboats but had no choice except to stay put. We had been warned numerous times to keep off the rivers at night, so we couldn’t keep going to find another anchorage.
We went ashore by dinghy and straggled into Beardstown. As usual, it was 95 degrees and very muggy. We were tired, dirty and hot—a very bad state to be in for days on end. We treated ourselves to Pizza Hut so that we could get out of the heat. Just our luck—the air conditioner had broken down and there weren’t any other restaurants suitable within walking distance.
We went back to the boat and had our inadequate solar showers once again. We closed the cabin up and went to sleep. At midnight, I woke up to the sound of a chain being dragged across the boat. I popped my head out of the cabin and could see Dennis rowing around in the dinghy. We had run aground. The wake of a passing towboat pushed us into the mud, so he had to go and move the bow anchor.
When he climbed back onto the boat, a whole group of teenagers suddenly ran down onto the green carpeted barge and yelled to us, “Let us on your boat! Take us with you!”
I was thankful that we were anchored instead of being tied up. Who’d want the company of teenagers on a 27’ boat at midnight?
The next morning, we woke up to the glorious sound of rain! The heat wave had broken! We remained happy until Dennis tried to pull up the anchor. He is a very strong man and had never had trouble before. I was at the helm and gunned the engine a few times to move the boat around. We thought that the anchor was stuck in the mud. When Dennis was finally able to pull up the anchor, he did so with all of his strength. Attached to it, was a gigantic, one inch thick steel plate wrench from a towboat. We sighed a breath of relief, took a picture (who would believe us?) and swung the boat onto the river.
We only had one more lock to go through until we hit the Mississippi River and of course we had trouble. We had radioed the Lock Master who told us we had quite a wait and were to tie up to a parked barge on the side of the river.
Our intentions were to come along the port side of the barge, throw out a line and hook ourselves onto it. Unfortunately, I was driving too fast and smashed the bow of the boat onto the barge and bounced off of it. Then we completely turned around, so we were facing upstream. Dennis quickly hooked us onto the barge and we sat in Hetarae very nonchalantly, pretending that we had planned this.
That night, we anchored outside of Kampsville, near the ferry. We met some nice kids and played volleyball with them. We had supper at the Kampsville Inn and noticed that the last flood had gone to the top of the door frames of the restaurant. In 1993, the inn was seven feet under water.
We had the area specialty—catfish. The portions were mountain sized and served on platters. Everything was deep fried or lathered in butter. Most of the Inn’s patrons were severely overweight and we felt like midgets dining amongst them. I wonder what they thought when I jogged up and down the road?
We went back to the boat and felt quite good simply because we weren’t so hot. In fact, we tuned in to a great radio station from St. Louis. I’ll never forget listening to “Takin’ Care of Business” by BTO while anchored in the Illinois River.
Our last stop on the Illinois River was the Pere Marquette State Park. We spent a few days there, so we could recuperate from our ordeal. It was beautiful! The main lodge had a gigantic chess board in the lobby with two feet tall pieces. I lost many games against Nick there!
The marina had been washed out by the flood of 1993 so it was not fully operational. However, boaters were welcome to tie up as long as they didn’t expect any amenities. We didn’t have electricity, air conditioning or running water, so we thought the place was great! The campground had showers and there was a bike path going to Grafton. We roller bladed, hiked and went horseback riding. The weather was bearable and even the bugs had stopped tormenting us. We had a good rest there and steeled ourselves for the great Mississippi—the greatest river in North America. It was not to disappoint us!