12 boats. All different brands, types, sizes and speeds. 12 owners with equally different personalities. Not to mention spouses, kids, and pets… all with opinions.
But we had one common goal: get out of Chicago and down the rivers.
When it was all said and done we had: 10 Locks. 4 Rivers. 1 engagement. 1 night on a barge. 2 shooting stars. 2 boats run aground. 3 Costco size bags of candy devoured. 6 Marinas. 2 anchorages. 1 dam wall. And more laughs than I can count.
Before I really jump into this story I have to give a quick shout out to Team Southbound. If you’re reading this…know that I adore you. But my goodness, herding actual cats sounds easy after our crazy journey out of Chicago!
Also, for the purpose of this story I’m going to start back at the beginning of the Illinois River and wrap up when we arrived at Green Turtle Bay. Many of us have chosen to continue boating together, or have plans to see each other again in the future. But I had to stop this post somewhere!
So a long time ago, the Army Corp of Engineers decided they needed to do some work on the Illinois Waterway. They announced lock closures from July 1st to October 29th, 2020. To say that this significantly impacted Great Loopers would be an understatement!
Not only would boats essentially be trapped in Chicago until the locks opened. They would also face a massive backup of commercial barges with significantly higher locking priority.
But there was a plan!
The AGLCA (America’s Great Loop Cruisers Association) knew that if boats grouped together they might have a chance to get through the locks faster. Raising and lowering the locks takes a significant amount of time and single boats don’t have any priority.
Groups of boats don’t necessarily have priority either. However, it makes it much easier on the lockmasters and it was worth a shot.
Somehow I raised my hand to lead up a group of boats. (Of course I did.)
In other words, herd cats down a river.
Starting in early October this became an unpaid part time job. I spent countless hours studying the maps, talking to the locks, calling marinas, and discussing the route with Loopers who traveled in previous years.
I had a Plan A. And then enough back up plans to span most of the alphabet.
I communicated these plans with our group which I quickly dubbed “Team Southbound” because our goal was to get south out of Chicago as quickly as possible! The Team grew from 6 to 10 boats before we even got back to Chicago (we were on a break…read about it HERE.)
The first part of my plan was undoubtedly the craziest.
We had to get the whole team to one starting place. I chose not to micromanage how everyone got there, other than to set up an overnight locking (more on that in a minute!)
We left Chicago with one other boat in a snowstorm. It was crazy and definitely motivated our plans to push south.
After the first lock (Lockport) we arrived to Joliet right during rush hour. I’d spent so much time studying the challenging parts of this journey, that I failed to plan something that should have been routine.
They will not open the drawbridges during rush hour(s). We sat there debating our options for a while. Technically we would fit under by 2 inches, but that’s something we wouldn’t normally risk. However, the alternative was waiting almost 2 hours. With sunset coming and our marina still a ways away we decided to take the risk.
I stood out front on the lower roof watching, and having minor heart failure. I guess the plan was for me to yell and have Brent throw the boat in reverse if we were about to hit, but we didn’t develop that plan well. Nor did we have to put it into play. Thankfully!
One more lock that evening (Brandon Road) and we were heading to our marina in total darkness. I celebrated our arrival a bit too soon.
First, it took us forever to find our assigned slip. And secondly, once we found the slip it took us entirely too long to realize we weren’t going to fit. After the fact, we learned that the assigned slip was 16 feet wide and our boat is closer to 17 feet. (Picture cartoons of Santa sliding down a chimney…except in really expensive clothes that he doesn’t want to touch the sides!)
The next day more boats from our team arrived giving us a total of 7.
Here’s where the real adventure south started.
In order for the 7 of us to join the rest of our team we had to do an overnight lock through Dresden. It was really fun telling a group of boaters to set their alarms for 4AM!
Miraculously, everyone’s engines were on before the set departure time of 4:30AM and we all cleared the lock with relatively good attitudes.
All 7 boats pulled into our next marina by 9AM (which is pretty much unheard of in the boating world!) And we joined up with 5 more boats- bringing the team total up to 12.
That night we had a team meeting to go over strategy and get to know each other. The next Lock (Marseilles) was scheduled to reopen at 4PM the next day, and I was told our group would be allowed to lock through at 5PM.
This was so unexpected! Not only were we going to be the first pleasure crafts through the lock in 4 months. But we were given high priority- even over the hundreds of tows backed up!
Thankfully after the sunset lock through we only had to drive 5 miles. And, even better, the marina was awaiting the arrival of our 12 boat Team with an organized plan. Hearing them on the radio calling in our boats one by one with docking instructions is what I imagine an air traffic control tower to sound like!
Most of Team Southbound celebrated this huge accomplishment over dinner!
It was at this point that the idea of herding cats really began to sink in.
Collectively, we’d accomplished a huge goal. We were officially out of Chicago and clear of the first lock that had been completely closed. However, we had A LOT ahead of us!
The next day most of our team set out together for Starved Rock Lock. We were initially told it would be a 3 hour wait; However, when the group arrived they turned on the green light. This caused a lot of confusion, but ultimately ended up working out.
Two of the boats who stayed back at the marina to get fuel once we learned the wait time were able to get through with a barge later in the day and meet back up with us that night.
As the group leader and the one communicating all of the information, it was hard to have our team broken up…even if it was short lived.
But it was good lesson for all of us and a great example of lockmasters prioritizing a huge group of boats (I think when they saw 10 of us sitting there they wanted to usher us out of the way quickly!)
The next morning 7 boats set out super early for the Peoria Lock. It was hard waving goodbye to the boats who were choosing to stay, but we’ve learned in boating that you almost always run into people again.
That night was the one we spent on a barge. There are literally no other options in that area except for a few bad anchorages. It also happened to be Halloween. You can read more about our night on the barge HERE.
We all agreed to leave at first light and I don’t think any of us had to set alarms. It was a long night with barges passing us and strong winds. But that day brought the final lock on the Illinois River (La Grange.)
Late in the day we transitioned onto the Mississippi River. It was truly a Huck Finn moment!
This is also the point where things got a tad dicy. The marina we were heading to had to winterize their water ahead of our arrival. Thankfully they were willing to be creative and run a water hose so that all of us could fill our tanks.
But that required a special stop near their office. Add to that a stop at the fuel dock for all of us. And then into the slips. It was well past dark when we were all tied up. Talk about a long day!
Day 97 (kidding…I have no idea what day it was. It FELT like we’d been navigating the rivers forever!) might have been my favorite for several reasons…
First, we passed by the St. Louis Arch on the Mississippi River. This was a really cool moment for our family because we specifically remember back to past trips when we discussed boating in front of the arch.
Secondly, the sun came out and for the first time it felt like we were heading south!
And finally, our destination for the evening was a dam wall (Kaskaskia.) It wasn’t the most glamourous stop. But it was a quiet, safe place to spend the night. The kids got out some chalk and made a hopscotch across the top of the whole dam.
The next day the name of the game was conserving fuel. Our boat has a generous fuel range, but a couple of the boats we were traveling with had major concerns. There’s nowhere to refuel on this stretch and once you turn onto the Ohio River you are fighting a very strong current.
Most of us anchored that night behind the Olmstead Lock on the Ohio River. I felt great knowing there would be a lockmaster with eyes on our boat all night. Until he mentioned the potential for barges to break apart. That was a concern I’d never thought to worry about on anchor!
Our final day day of this crazy journey down the rivers, was probably the easiest.
We could practically see the finish line and taste restaurant cooked food (a luxury we hadn’t had much of since leaving Chicago!) Some boats in our group made a stop in Paducah for fuel.
We transitioned off of the Ohio River onto the Cumberland River and did our final lock as a big group (Barkley.) Approaching Green Turtle Bay on Kentucky Lake was what I imagine the final .2 miles of a marathon to feel like!
We made it!
In reality, it was only 517 river miles of a much longer journey. However, these were the most intense and grueling of the whole trip (at least so far!) Our shortest day only took us 7.6 miles. But it got us through the first major lock that had been closed for so long. Our longest day was 101.2 miles.
As always, thanks for following along on our crazy adventures! You might also enjoy reading: