We Escape Lake Michigan Alive!

187 Days Looping
2,723.0 Nautical Miles Total (3,133.6 Statute Miles)
81.1 Nautical Miles This Week
9.2 Hours Underway This Week
8.7 NMph Average Speed
1 Locks This Week, 130 Total Locks

Monday – Oct 14th – 0 NM – 0 Locks – To: Hammond, IN
We had a great night at the Hotel Nichols. In the morning we had an excellent breakfast, packed our bags and walked to the boat. The wind and waves had died down some overnight, but there were still 4 foot rollers coming down the harbor channel. We re-checked the weather and some of the reporting buoys out in the lake and it looked pretty good for the water to calm down once we got out into the lake. We waited until 11:00 so that the waves had some more time to calm down, then cast off and headed for Hammond Indiana, just south of Chicago. We decided to go to Hammond rather than Chicago as there was fuel available there, and several other Loopers were staging there for the run down the rivers.

Hammond was a 70 mile run almost directly across the lake, we figured about 8 hours. The weather and wave reports said that we would see 4-5 foot waves at the start of our trip, dropping as we progressed with 1-2 ft as we neared Chicago.

We pulled out of the slip and headed out of the harbor. The waves were still rolling in down the harbor channel but not quite as bad as in the video, still it was a very tense few minutes as we got pushed around going out between the jetties into the lake. Watching the depth gauge, we were swelling up and down just over 5 feet. When we cleared the jetties, we breathed a small sigh of relief and turned toward Hammond.

The waves out in the lake were larger than we anticipated and we could only cruise at around 8 knots so as not to bounce too much. We altered our course slightly so that we could take the waves at around a 45 degree angle, this caused the boat to roll side to side quite a bit, but we didn’t bounce and slam the bow as we were able to cut through the waves a little easier. We saw regular 5 ft waves with the occasional 6 foot. Anything on the boat that wasn’t bolted down, fell on the floor. Brenda who had done very well the entire trip, almost immediately got queasy and went to her happy place sitting on the floor, which helped for about the first half hour, but not much after that. After a while she just curled up in a ball on the floor and tried to sleep through it.

It was really rough, probably the roughest water we have been in. We didn’t feel unsafe, just uncomfortable. The waves on the lake tend to come at you from all different directions, and there is a definite pattern to them. We’d get a set of three large waves in rapid succession, and then somewhat smaller waves in between. For about the first hour, the larger waves would come about every 45 seconds, then when we reached about hour 2 they were only about every 60 seconds, then every 90. When the larger waves hit us, we’d heal over (left to right) about 30 degrees. The next two larger waves would hit us before we’d fully righted, so it was quite disconcerting. I tried to take a few videos but it just doesn’t do it justice on how rocky it was and how large the waves looked.

As we progressed along, the waves slowly got smaller. About 3 hours in there was a definite change in the size of the waves, they went from 3-5 feet down to 1-2 feet in just a few miles. This allowed us to increase our speed to 20 knots and we were able to make some good time.

When we were about 45 miles out of Chicago, I saw two masts on the horizon lit up by the sun. I though it was a sailboat, but as we continued to get closer, (and I was able to use binoculars), I saw that it was the spires on top of the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago! At 30 miles from Chicago, you could start to make out the skyline and outlines of other building. I tried to get Brenda up off the floor to have a look, but she was having none of that!

Because we were able to speed up, we cut about two hours off of our crossing, and at 4:30 we pulled into the Hammond Marina at the Horseshoe Casino. It was actually 5:30 but we’d crossed into Central Time half way across the lake). I backed the boat into a slip and were greeted by 7 other Loopers who were already there. We’d caught back up with the rest of the later pack, and survived Lake Michigan!!!! After meeting a bunch of new friends and catching up with some old ones, Brenda wanted to get away from water, so we walked into the Casino. We put $5 into a slot machine with a Frog theme and burned through it in a couple of minutes, ( we won 2 cents in the end of play), then we found a noodle bar for dinner.

The fuel docks at the marina didn’t open until 9:00 the next morning and we needed to fill up after running hard for a few hours. Chris, Angela, and their son Sebastian on Pura Vida III who were in the slip next to us needed fuel as well, so the group plan was for us to be waiting on the fuel dock at 9:00 when they opened, and to leave at 10:00.

The winds had gone almost completely calm, so we turned in early to get a good night’s sleep and recover from the day.

Tuesday – Oct 15th – 11.3 NM – 1 Lock – To: Dalton, IL
Tuesday morning we were ready to go at 8:00 and followed Pura Vida III to the fuel dock. The wind had come back up some overnight and it was blowing at about 10-12 knots trying to keep us off of the fuel dock. It wasn’t pretty, but we got tied up and waited for the fuel attendant to arrive. At about 9:10, she came down the dock and greeted us, then started looking for the office key. Nope, no key. They had to call someone to come and bring her a key to get in. It was about 9:45 by the time the key arrived and almost 10:30 by the time both of us were fueled up. We could see the rest of the group having a pow-wow on the other dock, and they radioed us saying they were going to stay in Hammond one more day because the wind had come up and it was a late start to get to the wall in Joliet Illinois, the next scheduled stop.

We had a quick chat with Pura Vida III and decided that since we were already untied, we’d go anyway and just stop at a marina half way to Joliet. After untying from the fuel dock, we exited the harbor and had a short ride to the entrance of the Calumet River and our final escape from Lake Michigan.

As soon as we got on the Calumet River, the wind died down, and we had a nice ride for the rest of the day. The Calumet River is on the South Side of Chicago, and is very industrial. There are a few marinas just off the lake, but after that it’s scrap metal, chemical plants, grain silos, salt piles, sulfur piles, sand and gravel, and everywhere you looked barges! Thousands of barges! Most were tied up to the docks, but we met several large tows, some pushing 2-3 wide and 6 to 9 long. A 3 x 9 barge has an area of about 3 acres! Watching on our AIS (sort of like an air traffic control system) we could see them on our screen before we met them and could tell how fast they were going and in which direction. What we couldn’t see is how big they were.

The other thing we had to contend with is bridges. We had dropped our mast back down so we were only about 17′ tall, but we still had to have many drawbridges open for us. I think I counted 15 bridges. The railroad bridges were already open so we could go right through but the road bridges we had to call and wait for them to open.

We reached our first of the larger locks, the Thomas J O’brien Lock and Dam at about 1:00. This was of the same scale as the large locks we’d done on the St. Lawrence Seaway. 1000 feet long, by 200 ft wide. We only had a short wait, and we were in the lock and down.

Once we cleared the lock, it was a short ride to our marina for the night, Marine Services. Marine Services is sandwiched between two old garbage landfills and a huge railroad yard. Quite the high rent district! We pulled in behind Pura Vida III. As we approached our slip, the marina guys were waiting. Our boat is 14 ft wide, the slip next to us had a large Hatteras yacht, and we ended up with only about 16 ft of space between that boat and the dock. It was quite a challenging docking as we backed in and the big boat next to us was not tied up very tightly and was swinging in the wind. One moment we had 16 ft, the next only 14 ft! We backed in on the first try, got high marks from the dock hands, tied up and settled in.

When we checked the weather for Wednesday, we saw that it was forecast for rain and high winds. The other boaters who had stayed behind in Hammond said that they were going to stay in Hammond one more day to let the weather pass. We didn’t want to get too far ahead of the rest, so we decided to stay an extra day at Marine Service as well.

After checking in, Brenda went with the Chris, Angela and Sebastian from Pura Vida III in the courtesy car to get a few supplies and some really tasty local hamburgers, then we settled in for the night. As darkness fell, we noticed that the trash dump on one side of the marina had a large methane collector, and a huge torch burning off the gas (why they don’t use it for something I’ll never know).

Wednesday – Oct 16th – 0 NM – 0 Locks – To/In: City, ST
As predicted wednesday was a rainy blustery day with strong wind gusts and rain off and on all day. The marina was very well protected so we were comfortable on the boat. I spent most of it working on the blog, and Brenda watched TV and caught up on emails. In the evening, we went over to Pura Vida III to see their boat and plan out the next few days. Chris and Angela are about the same age as Brenda and I and their son Sebastian is 14. They are a great family and have the same cruising style and a similar boat to ours so we decided to travel together for a while.

Thursday – Oct 17th – 33.1 NM – 1 Lock – To: Joliet, IL
What a difference a day makes! Thursday was bright and calm. We pulled out of the marina at 7:30 AM and headed for the Joliet Wall. Joliet is a meeting place for Loopers to stage for the two locks that have been under construction this fall.

The river was pretty much the same, mostly industrial, some new, some crumbling. There is wildlife in the industrial areas, we saw a number of herons and Brenda spotted a coyote up on the canal wall.

We went under a number of bridges including the infamous 19 ft 1″ fixed bridge that determines the maximum height of boats that can do the loop. With our mast down, we were at 17 ft so we just breezed right under. The barge traffic was steadily increasing, and we had to play dodgem, and squeeze between some narrow gaps between barges. It was quite stressful when you have two things the size of a football field moving in opposite directions with less than a few feet between them when they pass, and you have to squeeze between them while they are moving!

We also passed through the electric fish barrier. There is a huge issue with Asian Carp, an invasive species that they are trying to keep out of the Great Lakes. The Illinois river is overrun with these fish, so they have installed an electric fish barrier in the river. There are signs as you approach warning that the water is electrified. Basically, they stuck a bunch of toasters in the canal so that when the fish swim past, they get fried. We turned off all of our electronics before we went through. Brenda’s iPad was still plugged into the charger, and her screen got scrambled! (Fortunately a reboot cleared it up)

As we approached the Lockport Lock, we were told to tie up to a long barge wall and wait. We tied up to a ladder built into the wall, and settled in. While we were waiting, other boats started to arrive and join us, some Loopers others just moving their boats south for the winter. We ended up waiting 4 hours for our turn and by then there were 10 pleasure boats waiting.

The long waits are because of the commercial traffic. Commercial traffic has priority over pleasure craft. Also, these locks are big, 110 ft wide and 600 ft long. Many of the barges are 100 ft wide and 1200 ft long so they have to spit them up to fit in the lock. The tug pushes the tow (3 barges wide x 5 barges long) into the lock. They split the two after the first three barges, and the tug backs back out of the lock with the back two barges. They then close the doors and raise or lower the front half of the tow. When it’s raised/lowered, it’s pulled out of the lock with a winch and tied to the wall. The lock is then re-filled, and the back two barges of the tow and the tow boat go into the lock and are raised/lowered. Then the two halves are re-connected and the barge moves on. Depending on how deep the lock is and how long it takes to empty/fill it, this process can take 3 hours for a single tow.

When it was our turn, we all moved into the lock according to size, because we were locking through with a big barge, they went in first, then the bigger boats tied up to the barge and the smaller boats tied to the bigger boats. We were lowered 24 feet, and exited headed to Joliet, Illinois.

Joliet has 5 bridges in a row but fortunately once you start the series, they open one after another as you go down the river through Joliet. Our plan was to continue on past Joliet and go through the Brandon Road lock which is just on the outskirts of Joliet. When we got to the lock and called in, we were told the wait was going to be at least 5 hours as there were two downbound tows and one upbound tow all of which had to be split. This would have put us in the dark when we got out of the lock, so we decided to turn around and go to the Joliet wall for the night.

The Joliet Wall is just a concrete wall that they used to tie barges to. It has cleats to tie up on, and the city installed power for pleasure boaters. It is just beyond the Jefferson Street lift bridge. Pura Vida III tied up to the wall, and we rafted to them to make room for more boats that would arrive later. We tried to hook up to power, but found that we’d docked at the one power panel that was not working. So, we decided to pull the boats, still connected together, back up stream about 200 ft to the end of the row by the Jefferson Street bridge and a working power panel. (I’d pulled out my volt meter and we tested the panels before deciding to move)! It was a struggle, but with 5 of us, we got tied up and had power for the night.

Just as it was starting to get dark, several other looper boats arrived and we helped them tie up. The Joliet wall is on the “wrong” side of the river in a park. All of the restaurants and sights are across the bridge, and into the main part of the city. We decided to just have dinner on the boat and turn in early as we planned an early departure.

(Side Note: A day after staying, we got a note from the Jefferson Street lift bridge operator saying hello, and complementing our boat! The bridge operators watch over the boats tied up to the wall from their control room.)

Friday – Oct 18th – 13.3 NM – 1 Lock – To: Wilmington, IL
On Friday morning we all decided to be ready to go at 7:00 AM. One or two of the non-looper boats had pulled out very early at 3:00 am to try to get through the lock. At 7:00, one of our Loopers called the lock, and the lockmaster said be here in 10 minutes! We were all still tied to the wall, and there was a mad dash to get untied and underway. As we pulled into the river, the drawbridge between us and the lock said that they were in their peak traffic restriction period and wouldn’t open until 8:30. A few of the smaller boats made it under, but most of us were stuck, so we went back to the wall to wait. At 8:25, just as we were getting ready to head for the drawbridge, the railroad bridge which is normally up, closed to let a train pass. So, by the time we got underway, it was just after 8:30. When we got to the lock, they said “20 minutes”. Like most of the other locks, 20 minutes turned into an hour. While we were waiting, we had to keep moving to stay out of the way of tugs who were moving barges around near the lock. We were finally given the go-ahead to join a smaller tow in the lock. The tow went in first, and then we stacked in 7 other boats for the trip down.

Interesting note: You will see in the photo’s below, a crew member on the front of a barge. The larger tows have one or two crew members that stand at the front of the barge and give information to the captain. They don’t really have any shelter, just standing, without a railing or tether on the front. We’ve seen them out there day and night, in rain, and cold. It’s got to be a rough job. They wear lifejackets, but if they ever fell off, they’d get sucked under the barges.

Once we cleared the lock, it was a short 10 miles to Harborside, our marina for the night. The area got less industrial and we saw a large number of duck blinds on the banks. We arrived at Harborside Marina around 12:30. Harborside is a nice marina that in season, is very busy, but during our stay they were pretty much just finishing rolling up the sidewalks. There were a few people still around as the marina sells “tiny houses” on floats. They are pretty neat and people live in them year round. The restaurant on site was still open and the food was excellent! Angela on Pura Vida III ordered a slice of carrot cake for dessert that was huge!

Saturday – Oct 19th – 19.8 NM – 1 Lock – To: Morris, IL
We got back to the boat after dark, and decided on a 7:30 am departure. At 7:30 we called Dresden Lock, our next lock and they said it would be at least 2 hours before we could lock through, so we hung around the marina for a while and at 11:00, we headed down river. When we got close to the lock, we saw that there were already a group of 5 boats anchored just beside the channel waiting for the lock. I pulled off to the side and dropped our anchor and Pura Vida III rafted up to us, and we settled in to wait.

It was a nice day, and we watched the tows go by, some sailplanes being towed up, and the local wildlife. The wind came up, and and our anchor started to drag a little, so I let out another 50 feet of chain, and we stuck. We kept checking in with the lock, and finally at 3:00 they told us to come on down!

Everyone who was rafted up un-tied and started heading down river. Pura Vida III untied from us and Brenda and I started to pull in the anchor. When we had most of the chain in, the windlass (the winch that pulls up the anchor chain) started to struggle. It’s not uncommon for this to happen while the anchor is breaking free of the bottom mud, so I give the boat a bump forward to help break it free. The windlass started to move again, but very slowly. When the anchor broke the water, Brenda called out that we had another chain on the anchor! This chain was big, the links were over 4 inches long, and it was very rusty. I had Brenda take the wheel, and I went forward to deal with the chain. The chain was hooked over the point of the anchor, so I laid down on the anchor pulpit, and tried lifting the chain off but it was too heavy. I had Brenda move the boat forward a bit to get some slack, and noticed that the chain slid a few notches across the anchor. I had Brenda swing the bow sideways and the chain started to feed across the anchor. After feeding about 20 feet of the heavy chain across the end popped out of the water and flipped over the chain. We were free!

There was a red marker buoy about 100 feet from where we had anchored and we think that it may have been the chain for the buoy. Pura Vida had hovered near by while we were struggling with the chain in case we needed help, and once we were free, we hurried down to the lock.

The lock-through was quick and we traveled the 10 miles to Spring Brook Marina arriving about 5:30. This marina was another one that is very busy in the season, but they are in the process of shutting down. The on-site restaurant was closed, but they loaned us their pick-up to go to dinner and into town for a few supplies. One of the other boats that we’d been traveling with Mary Margaret was two friends bringing a boat to Key West. They joined us so there were 6 of us in a two door pickup, and we drove to a local Fish Shack that had been recommended. We had a dinner, then drove into the next town which had the closest grocery store, got a few things, then back to the boat for the night.

Sunday – Oct 20th – 17.4 NM – 1 Lock – To: Ottawa, IL
We left Spring Brook at 7:30 and went the 3 miles down river to the Marseilles Lock. This is the lock that we had been dreading, as the lockmaster has a reputation for being unfriendly to pleasure boaters. We had called the lock to see what time they might be able to take us, and were told to come down and radio when we were there. When we got there, we were told it would be a several hours. So, again we dropped anchor and started to raft up. Brenda and I needed a pump-out. It had been too late when we had arrived at Spring Brook the night before, and too early when we left in the morning. Since we had a long wait, we cruised back up to Spring Brook Marina, got our tanks pumped out and topped off with fuel (pump-out is free if you buy fuel). After we finished, we slowly cruised back down to the lock, and dropped anchor behind the group. Most of the group had taken one of the dinghies and gone to a restaurant on shore to have breakfast.

We just hung around until 2:00 when the lockmaster called us and said it was our turn. We pulled up the anchor (no issues this time), and headed down the channel to the lock. As we got close to the lock, we noticed a flock of large white birds in the marshy area on the side of the channel. At first we thought they were swans, but Brenda checked them out through the binoculars, and thought they looked like pelicans, with bright orange beaks. She looked them up in her bird book, and they were American White Pelicans. We found out later that they are locally called Black Tipped Pelicans as their wings have black tipped feathers. Very beautiful!

Once we cleared the lock, it was just a short few miles to Heritage Harbor Marina, our stop for the next two nights. When we arrived we came in as a group of 5 boats and there was a bit of a scramble by the dock staff to get us all tied up, but they worked hard and in less than 30 minutes had us all in our slips.

At 4:00 we went up to the office and Jeff the Harbormaster and Tow Boat US Captain gave us a detailed briefing of the route from there to the mouth of the Ohio river. It was very informative and helped us plan our next couple of weeks travels. After the briefing, we went next door to the Red Dog Grill the restaurant at the marina and had dinner.

NEXT WEEK: Traveling down the Illinois River