The Mighty Mississippi & Ohio Rivers

201 Days Looping
3,242.4 Nautical Miles Total (3,731.3 Statute Miles)
224.3 Nautical Miles This Week
23.0 Hours Underway This Week
8.6 NMph Average Speed
3 Locks This Week, 140 Total Locks

Monday – Oct 28th – 14.1 NM – 0 Locks – To: Alton, IL
On Monday we spent the morning walking around Grafton with Chris and Angela of Pura Vida III, seeing the sights. While Sunday was in the 70’s, Monday was back in the upper 40’s and cloudy.

Grafton is the winter home to Bald Eagles and the town plays that up. There is an interesting mix of new, mid century and old buildings in Grafton. It’s a “River Town” so has always been home to warehouses, marinas, bars, and brothels. At the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, it’s a crossroads with lots of barge traffic. Grafton floods out every few years but there are still many buildings from the mid 1800’s. We walked the length of the main street, then turned toward the waterfront and a famous (infamous) restaurant/event center called “The Loading Dock” this was a large warehouse where they loaded barges and now is a restaurant/bar and large event venue. In the warm season they hold concerts, flea markets, and other events. In the winter they turn it into a skating rink. It’s a great spot to take your picture with both the Illinois and Mississippi rivers in the background. Just outside of The Loading Dock, there was a small flock of Turkey Vultures and we watched as Angela tried to sneak up on them to take a picture.

We continued our tour of downtown taking pic’s of some of the more interesting architecture and then went to “3rd Chute” and had a hearty chili and grilled cheese lunch. After lunch, we went back to the boats and prepared to cast off for the short 14 mile trip down the Mississippi river to Alton our next stop.

We were moving to Alton for three reasons. First, Alton has fuel and our next opportunity for fuel is over 100 miles away in Paducah Kentucky. Secondly, we wanted to visit St. Louis Missouri home of the Gateway Arch which is about 10 miles down the Mississippi but there are no marinas in St. Louis or South of it on the Mississippi until you reach New Orleans, over 900 miles away! And third, it’s where our new hot water heater was going to be delivered!

At 2:30 we left Grafton with Pura Vida III, and with the 3-4 mph current in the Mississippi, we were at Alton by 4:00. The Mississippi was interesting, huge cliffs on the eastern bank, and flat floodplains on the western bank. To get into Alton Marina, you have to boat past the marina, go under a large bridge, then turn back upstream and fight the strong current back under the bridge (on the other side of a jetty), into the marina. Once you get in, the current calms down and we pulled into our slips.

We settled in, and in the evening went to a famous local bar/restaurant called “Fast Eddie’s BON AIR” which is a large music venue, bar and burger joint. It’s an interesting place. First, no one under 21 is allowed in. Second, the beer and drinks are very moderately priced, third the food is very good, and cheap! (Beverage purchase required!). There was live music when we arrived, a guy playing guitar. Fast Eddie’s plays ALL kinds of music…Country AND Western!

We ordered a couple of beers and went up to the counter to order a sampling of their menu (posted on the wall). Check out the photo’s below. Burgers (1/2 lb with fixings, $1.99. French Fries (a large order) .99, Large boiled shrimp .39 each! We ate well and it was < $12 for 4 people! Oh, it’s cash only and there is no takeout. If you order it, you have to eat it there.

When we left Fast Eddie’s, we took an Uber back to the marina. Because we couldn’t get any takeaway for Sebastian at Fast Eddie’s we asked the driver to pull into Taco Bell so we could pick-up dinner for him. At 9:00, Taco Bell was closed! We did find a McDonald’s around the corner that was open, so he didn’t go hungry!

Tuesday – Oct 29th – 0 NM – 0 Locks – In: Alton, IL
Our water heater was supposed to arrive on Monday but it didn’t show up. On tuesday morning I went to Home Depot to pick up a few parts that I knew I’d need. When I got back, the new water heater had arrived, so I brought it to the boat and got into the replacement. The water heater is under a set of stairs. It is accessible for general maintenance by removing a shelf unit under the sink in the guest bath, and crawling in next to the fuel tanks. To replace it I had to remove the stairs which involved 40 something screws to disassemble the steps.

The step removal took about an hour and a half of “boat yoga” twisting and stretching to reach screws. Once the steps were out, the actual removal of the water heater was pretty easy. Just a few hose clamps, an electrical connection, and 6 easy to reach screws and it popped right out. There is a cold water in and hot water out hoses that are similar to the ones used on a sink. There are also two rubber hoses that circulate coolant from the engine to heat the water when under way, and one 110 volt electrical connection.

I did a bunch of cleanup of the bilge under the heater then Chris from Pura Vida III stopped by and helped me put the new heater in place. They are not heavy, less than 40 lbs, but awkward. I screwed it down, re-attached the hoses and hooked up the electric. We turned it on and did a quick test. The water heated up quickly, and aside from one small leak which was resolved with some extra pipe tape and a little more tightening the install went well.

I put the expansion tank back into place over the water heater, then Brenda helped me re-install the steps. The re-install was easier as now that I knew how they went together, I could do most of the re-install from the top, until the last step that I had to do from the access hole.

It was a full day job, but there were no big issues and aside from the normal minor cuts and scrapes common on any DYI project, it all worked well! By the time I had everything back together and picked up, I was able to take a nice hot shower on the boat!

Chris and Angela had met an Uber driver, Pam, who is a retired school teacher/principal in St. Louis and now lives in Alton. She is very knowledgeable about the area and a wonderful tour guide! We called Pam and she took us to one of her favorite restaurants, Morrison’s Irish Pub on the edge of downtown. We had a great meal, when she picked us up, we arranged for her to take us to St. Louis on Wednesday for a personalized tour.

When we got back to the boat, there was a great night view of the Lock.

Wednesday – Oct 30th – 0 NM – 0 Locks – In: Alton, IL
Wednesday morning dawned cold, rainy, windy! The forecast was for it to stay pretty much the same all day, so we postponed our trip to St. Louis until Thursday. We took an Uber to WalMart to pick up some provisions, then spent the rest of the day working on boat stuff and napping.

In the evening Pam came to pick us up and took us to another of her favorite restaurants in town, Bluff City Grill, and had dinner with Marty & Deb Johnson of Stay Strong who had just finished their Loop and lived near Alton.

Angela, Tom, Brenda, Marty, Deb, Sebastian, Chris

Thursday – Oct 31st – 0 NM – 0 Locks – In: Alton, IL
Thursday was cold, in the low 40’s with a steady wind, in the morning we saw a few snowflakes! It was cold in the bedroom, and we found out that our heating unit under the bed had frozen up. We left the mattress folded up and put a space heater in the compartment to thaw it out. By 10:00 it had stopped and was clearing, we bundled up and Pam picked us up at 10:30 for our trip to St. Louis. There were 5 of us plus Pam in a small SUV so Sebastian (Angela and Chris’ son) had to ride in the back.

We started our tour with a ride around Alton seeing some of the architecture and the homes on the bluffs above the river from the back side. Alton has some beautiful Victorian homes on brick streets from the heyday of the river traffic. Alton was also home to a Civil War era prison and still has a large flour mill. Mostly it’s now a bedroom community for St. Louis.

After our tour of Alton, we crossed the bridge into Missouri, and headed to St. Louis. Our path in was through some of the more run-down areas of the city. There were lots of boarded up and burned out houses and very run-down or abandoned industrial sites. This is the main path into St. Louis from the airport and Pam mentioned that this is what many people see and judge St. Louis by. This is also the area where she taught school, and was a principal. Tough job! Pam explained that in the early 1980’s St. Louis started busing students as part of an effort to desegregate schools. This caused “white flight” where the white population of the city fled to suburbs to keep their children from being bussed to poor inner city schools. This caused the population of the city to go from 750,000 in the 1970’s to under 300,000 today and neighborhoods to fall into decay.

We started our tour of the City proper downtown. Because it was so cold, we didn’t stop much and our photo opportunities were mostly through the car windows so there are not a lot of pictures to show. We drove past Busch Stadium, “The Old Courthouse” where the Dred Scott decision on slavery was made, then stopped to take photos in front of the St. Louis Arch. From there, we went past the St. Louis city hall, and the famous FOX theatre.

Pam then took us to the outskirts of the City into the neighborhoods. There are many beautiful neighborhoods in St. Louis and some beautiful churches. We toured some high end neighborhoods with gated streets and areas of the city that were once run down, but have been revitalized. St. Louis is a sanctuary city and the neighborhood where Bosnian Refugees were settled has been completely revitalized.

From there we went past Forest Park, St. Louis’ largest park which is larger than Central Park in New York. It’s home to the St. Louis Zoo and the famous MUNY outdoor theatre. We then drove through the Washington University campus and the which was quite beautiful.

Angela had spoken with a number of people for recommendations on where to eat. If we stopped and ate at every place on her list, we’d still be there, and would not have fit back into the car! We decided to go to “The Hill” section of St. Louis which is the old Italian Neighborhood. Pam told us that until the late 1980’s, if you owned a home on “The Hill” and wanted to sell, you went to the “Italian Neighborhood Association” and they bought your house from you, don’t DARE sell directly through a real estate agent. They would then resell the house to a nice “Italian” family to keep the neighborhood traditional. It was apparently one of the safest neighborhoods in town as there was almost no “petty” crime. 😉

We went past “The Bug Store” a large garden store, and then stopped at the Cunetto House of Pasta, one of the better Italian restaurants still on the Hill. (Many have moved from The Hill to the suburbs with the migration of the Italian neighborhoods to the suburbs.) We had a great meal, taking half of the food with us in doggie bags even though we ordered the small lunch portions! From there we went to Straub’s Market to get some “Gooey Butter Cake” another St. Louis local favorite.

Our last “food” item was to get some St. Louis BBQ. Pam took us to the area near the Anheuser Busch brewery were one of her favorite BBQ joints, The Shaved Duck is located. On the way we went past “St. Louis Bread Company”, St. Louis is where Panera Bread was founded. The stores were originally called “St. Louis Bread Company” but when they started to expand they rebranded as Panera. The stores in St. Louis still carry the original name.

We bought a selection of BBQ (ribs, brisket, pulled pork) to go, and then headed back to Alton as we had scheduled Halloween Docktails with the rest of the loopers at the marina.

It was cold and starting to rain again when we got back to Alton. The marina is half closed down for the end of the season so there was no enclosed and heated recreation area that we could use. The bath house was very nice and has a lobby area that’s heated, so we all got together in the bathhouse for our Halloween Dock Tails party with Seasons, Pura Vida III, Drifters, and Long Way Home.

The heater in the bedroom was still not working, it had thawed out but there was still just a trickle of water coming from the heat exchanger drain in the front of the boat, the back one was running just fine so we assumed that there was some ice built up in the drain hose and it would just take time to thaw out. We put the electric space heater in the bedroom to keep the chill off for the night. If it’s not one thing on a boat it’s another!

Friday – Nov 1st – 74.4 NM – 2 Locks – To: Kaskaskia, IL
We left Alton at 7:30 am with Pura Vida III, Drifters, and Long Way Home. Only a mile from the marina was the Mel Price Lock one of two that we had to do on the Mississippi. Mel Price lock has two lock chambers a large one for commercial traffic and a small one for pleasure craft. If the large chamber is not in use, they will put pleasure craft through it as it’s a better lock. In our case there was a tow that past us down stream as we were getting ready to leave so we were directed to the small chamber. As we entered we saw that the lock was full of floating logs. Long Way Home, glided through first and made it to the port wall, we were next and also heading to the port wall. I got a bit of speed on the boat so that we could glide through the mess. Once we got past the trees, Brenda saw one branch stuck on the front of the boat, so I used the thrusters to wiggle it off, and it floated past. I put the engine in gear and it stalled immediately with a “thunk”. Oh No! Another propeller strike! We were close to the wall, so I used the other engine got us tied up. We looked around the boat and couldn’t see anything, so I restarted the engine and gave it another go. Same thing, as soon as I put it in gear it stalled out. We definitely had something stuck in the prop. By this time the others had made it in. Pura Vida III also hit something as they got to the wall, these rivers are nasty!!!

While we were dropping I had a look around the boat and couldn’t see anything. I tried putting the engine in reverse and it stalled again. I let the others know that we were having an issue, and they suggested another try at forward reverse. I did that and a huge log came out. The prop seemed to be turning freely after that, so when the lock door opened, I eased out and when we got into the river, revved up the engine to see if there was any vibration. And of course, there was. Crap! Fortunately at lower rpm it was not noticable. The closest marina that could hall us was 50 miles upstream on the Mississippi, so we decided to just run slow and head down to Green Turtle Bay marina in Kentucky which was two days away mostly down stream.

Aside from having to run slightly unbalanced on the engines as we kept the port engine under 1500 RPM so that there was minimal vibration, the rest of the day was fun going down the Mississippi. From the Mel Price Lock to Lock 27, you are mostly in a wide canal with large dikes on either side, so there is not much to see, but there is minimal current to deal with and very little debris. We went through Lock 27 with only a few minutes wait, we didn’t even have to tie up! The lock is so big and there was no wind so we just floated in, they closed the doors drained the lock about 14 ft, and opened the other end to let us back out onto the main flow of the Mississippi river.

From Lock 27 it was just a sort ride to St Louis. When we got to the Arch, we circled around so that we could take photo’s of each others boats in front of the arch. We’d heard that there were lots of tows operating but we were fortunate that nothing was in that area and we got some great shots.

As we were going down, we had a good 3-4 knot current pushing us along, this was great in that we could reach 10 knots, but our engines were set at where we would normally do 6 knots, a great savings on fuel and kept the vibration to a minimum with the dinged prop. The Mississippi was like the Illinois in that it was mostly either tree lined or industrial. We were passing a quarry and all of a sudden the whole boat vibrated violently, the doors rattled and we figured we’d hit another large log or run aground. A second later we saw a huge dust cloud rise from the quarry. They’d just detonated a blast and it was the shockwave from the explosion that we’d felt. Phew!!!!

The rest of the day was long but uneventful, we did get to feel the power of the Mighty Mississippi as you’d get into areas where the current shifts across the river and all of a sudden the boat would go sideways. You could see whirlpools in the water where the water was flowing round “wing dams” underwater structures that direct the flow of water from the banks back into the main channel. It’s important that you stay in the marked channel so that you don’t hit these as many are just under the surface. At 4:30 just as the sun started to dip behind the trees (thank you time change), we arrived at the Kaskaskia Lock.

The Kaskaskia lock is just a mile up the Kaskaskia river from the Mississippi, and gets you out of the flow. We tied up on lock wall on the down stream (Mississippi River side) of the lock. It was a great place to tie up. No current, no risk of being hit by tows, and a nice solid dock to tie up to. There was no power or water there, so we had to run the generator, but it was nice. Along the floating dock that we were tied up to they had pressurized air pipes bubbling in the water to keep the water from freezing, so it was a nice soothing sound. We all met at the end of the dock at sunset for docktails. When the sun went down, a breeze started to come up and it got cold quick, so we all went back to our boats with the plan to head out at 7:00 AM with the plan to reach the Ohio River.

Even though it had been in the low 50’s our drain for our forward heat/air unit was still only spitting a trickle. I tried to snake it out, but it didn’t do any good. I pulled the hose off of the unit under the bed and got a full flow of water through the unit, so that indicated a blockage in the hose to the overboard drain. I followed the hose but it disappeared behind some woodwork under the bed and I wasn’t prepared to pull that apart until we had more time in a marina. I cursed the French who designed my boat for putting a through hull behind a bulkhead where you had to disassemble the bed to get to it! Stupid! I decided to wait until we were tied up on the port side so I could get to the drain from the outside of the boat.

Saturday – Nov 2nd – 112.0 NM – 0 Locks – To: Barlow, KY
We had a relaxing night and woke at 6:00 to get ready for the day. It hadn’t gotten as cold as predicted overnight and was still 45 when we woke up. The water in the river is still 55 degrees so it takes the edge off the night air, away from the river it gets much colder. We were all ready to go at 7:00 and the 4 boats headed back to the Mississippi and down stream.

It was another great day on the river, bright and sunny. The farther south we traveled, the more barge traffic we encountered, some of them were huge 5 wide and 7 long, a few with two tugs pushing which made for some very rough water after they passed. The wake from these tugs pushing barges up stream extends over a mile behind them. The tug operators were great, we’d call them on the radio, and they would tell us which was the best side to pass on. In one case, the operator even slowed way down so that we could get around a curve in the river before he entered. With these large tows on sharp curves, they take up the whole width of the river from bank to bank frequently extending outside of the channel on both sides.

We had expected that there would be lots of small towns along the river, but we only passed one sizeable town, Cape Girardeau, Missouri all day. Because the river floods, and most of the area along the banks is flat floodplain, all of the towns are built away from the river on higher ground. We did pass some spectacular bluffs with homes on top, but the few buildings we saw were mostly summer camps built up on stilts.

Again we made great time along the river due to the push of the current. I wouldn’t want to fight that river heading upstream! At 2:30 we reached the Ohio River. Where the Ohio River enters, the Mississippi is divided into the Upper and Lower Mississippi. We’d just come down the Upper Mississippi, and we turned up the Ohio River and crossed into Kentucky. There are no restrictions on pleasure craft going down the Lower Mississippi, but there are no marinas or boat yards so you have to anchor on the side of the river, and aside from one or two places where a fuel truck will meet you on the side of the river, there are no fuel stops until you get to New Orleans. Also, the Lower Mississippi has lots of barge traffic and it’s really not safe for small craft like us.

After turning onto the Ohio, our speed dropped some as we were going upstream. The current on the Ohio was about 2 knots so not horrible, but we were not getting the push that we’d had earlier in the day. We passed Cairo, Illinois (pronounced “K-Row” by the locals), and went about 5 miles up the river to a place where the river widens out and there are some underwater dikes that separate the shipping channel from the shore. This makes a nice protected anchorage even though it looks like you are in the middle of the river.

Pura Vida III dropped anchor and we rafted up to them. The current kept us pointing upstream and we dropped our anchor as well just in case theirs slipped overnight. Drifters and Long Way Home had planned to raft up together but had trouble setting their anchor so ended up anchoring separately nearby.

We had dinner on the boat, and went to bed planning a slightly later 8:00 AM departure as we only had 23 miles to Paducah Kentucky our stop for the night.

Sunday – Nov 3rd – 23.8 NM – 1 Locks – To: Paducah, KY
WHAM! We woke up with a start! My first thought was that a barge had it the boat, but immediately realized that if that were the case, we’d be sinking. I checked the clock and it was 1:30 AM. I grabbed my flashlight, and went out on deck. The moon was out so I could see pretty well, and saw that there were three large logs that had floated down the river and hit the boats. There was one stuck on Pura Vida III’s anchor rope, one against their hull, and one half under our boat. There was nothing I could do at that time, so I went back to bed.

At 5:30 I got back up, and checked outside. A fog had rolled in and I couldn’t see the shore or any of the other boats. It was just a surface fog, so it was beautiful as the sun came up to see the mist swirling between the boats.

When 8:00 rolled round the fog had lifted and we started to get ready to go. We tried to push the logs off of Pura Vida with boat poles but they were stuck solid. A couple of guys were fishing nearby and saw us struggling so came over in their boat and with much effort, got the two big logs free. That just left the one stuck under our boat, which when we pushed on it, just disappeared under the boat, and didn’t re-appear behind us. As we were already limping along, we were not going to take any chances. We pulled up our anchor and unhooked from Pura Vida III drifting downstream with the current. Then we used the thrusters to spin the boat around in a circle, after two complete spins, we saw the end of the log pop out on one side and I was able to push it off with a boat pole. Then we started the engines and with fingers crossed that there wasn’t anything else stuck, put it in gear. We didn’t hear any clanks or clunks so with a sigh of relief, we went back into the main Ohio River channel and headed upstream.

The Ohio river seemed to have more barge traffic than the Mississippi. We passed several large tows going in both directions. Just upstream from our anchorage, we passed the new Olmstead lock. This lock replaces two older locks upstream and is just nearing completion. It was started in 1988 and was budgeted at $775 million with a projected completion date of 1998. It is now scheduled to be in full operation with the old locks removed by 2020 and now has an estimated cost of $3 billion dollars!

We continued up the Ohio river past Joppa and Metropolis (home of Superman). The Ohio is is much more built up on the banks with lots of barge companies having their main offices and barge terminals here. There was a constant stream of barge traffic and we had to keep well to the side of the channels, watching for logs and other debris. At 1:00 we pulled into the Paducah Town Docks and all 4 of us got tied up. The town docks are brand new (the old ones having been washed away years ago in flooding) and are state of the art floating docks capable of rising over 65 ft when the river floods!

We were tied up on our port side, so I decided to take a look at the clogged heat/air drain the only thing I could think of is that some bit of debri had gotten lodged into the hose fitting. Chris came over to lend a hand. Water was coming through but it was as strong spray like from the end of a garden hose. While looking at it, I noticed that it was directly above the drain for the skink in our bedroom (sinks on our boats just drain overboard) and it dawned on me that the other end of the hose was not behind the woodwork of the bed but under the sink! I guess the French aren’t so dumb after all, my apologies, this time! I pulled the various bottles, plungers, toilet brushes, etc from under the sink, and saw that the shutoff valve for the through hull fitting was most of the way closed. We must have caught it on something when pulling it out from under the sink! After opening the valve, everything started working fine! I put a tie-wrap around the valve to keep it from happening again!

Paducah is the home of the National Quilting Museum, so after settling in, we walked the short distance into town, through the flood barrier, a 20 ft high concrete retaining wall that surrounds the river side of town, and visited the Museum. There were 100’s of beautiful quilts, some very traditional, some more modern in design. They had a quilt that was carved from basswood that until you got up real close, looked like fabric. There was an exhibition of quilts called “Quilts of Valor” which are quilts sewn for veterans. We spent over an hour looking at the quilts.

From there we walked into town which was only about a block from the museum. It was nearing dusk, and we checked to see where Chris and Angela from Pura Vida III were. They were just a couple of blocks from us, and we decided to have dinner together. Because it was Sunday, many of the restaurants and businesses downtown were closed, so we were limited to two choices, Shandies an upscale restaurant and Doe’s Eat Place which was famous for its steaks, but was more of a bar atmosphere. We picked Shandies, and had a great meal. Our looper friends on Long Way Home were already there with some relatives that had driven in to meet them. We had a great dinner, the walked back to the marina along the flood wall which is painted on the town side with large murals depicting scenes from the history of Paducah and the river.

NEXT WEEK: A short run up the Ohio River, The Cumberland River and Kentucky Lake!