Thursday, August 23, 2012

Mother Nature Rules our World

Days on cruise:  153

Distance traveled:  25.2 miles

Travel time: 2 hrs, 56 minutes

Total trip odometer:  3,171 statute miles

After 3 bumpy hours on the lake this morning, we arrived in St. Joseph where we’ll stay for the night and get the oil changed in the engines and generator. With this, we’re nearing the end of our time on Lake Michigan with only one more stop in New Buffalo before arriving in Chicago. There  we’ll meet up with our youngest daughter Adrienne, her fiancée Justin, and his parents Denise and Jeff. After that we’ve planned to leave the boat in a marina for 10 days to return home to Seattle for a week, then 3 days in Houston visiting Cathryn’s parents.

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When we left to begin our Great Loop journey, we knew the pattern of our days would be ruled by Mother Nature and the things she might throw at us like storms, high wind, big waves, very hot or cold temperatures, and more. Yesterday we came to realize she was throwing another unanticipated obstacle in our path and forcing a change in our plans.

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During the last few weeks you've surely seen stories in the news about the dreadful impact this year's massive drought is having on commercial barge traffic, especially on the Mississippi River, due to extraordinarily low water. We've monitored those stories and remained unconcerned because those barges are 9 feet deep below the water, while our boat is only 4 feet , allowing it to safely travel in much shallower water. We learned new information about the rivers in the past two days that affects recreational boaters like us too.

When Loopers travel the 450-mile stretch of the Illinois, Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to arrive at the Tennessee River which ultimately takes us south to the Gulf of Mexico, we plan to stay in marinas and anchorages overnight. The Corps of Engineers dredges the charted channel inside the rivers, aiming to keep its' depth at 12 feet in normal conditions, though they've not succeeded in doing that this year, and more than 100 barges have grounded in shallower water.

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This charted and dredged river channel remains sufficiently deep for us to safely travel. However, no one dredges the anchorages or the entrances into marinas, nor the dockside slips at marinas. As a result, it’s now being reported that many of the anchorages are entirely dry, empty of water, and many marinas have only 2  or 3 feet of water at their entrances or in their slips, making them unusable for boats our size. With fewer useable anchorages and marinas, Loopers now have to cover longer distances each day to find a place to stop at night.

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Simultaneously, daylight hours are shrinking, and it's not safe to travel the rivers at night as the barges/tugs travel 24/7 and you can't see them or the markers well enough in the dark to avoid collisions. Unless the rains return very soon, the rivers will be un-navigable by recreational boaters because it won't be possible to travel from one useable marina or anchorage to another in a single day.


Above: commercial barges tied up waiting for the Corps of Engineers to dredge the channel so they can proceed.

In the current drought conditions, the rivers are sometimes dropping as much as one foot per week. As we’ve contemplated our approaching trip down the rivers, it became clear to us that we're at risk of having to store our boat on shore for the Fall/Winter and return sometime next year to complete our Loop. This is not a desirable prospect.


So . . . that's a long lead-up to the news that we've decided to cancel our September trips to Seattle and Houston in order to increase the likelihood we'll make it to the Tennessee River (which is not suffering the low levels of the Midwest rivers) so we can complete our Loop this winter. Doing this allows us to leave Chicago on September 5, or 11 days earlier than we would otherwise, and hopefully arrive at the Tennessee River by mid-September instead of the end of the month. We did not make this decision casually or without enormous disappointment. We haven't been home or seen Cathryn's parents and the rest of our family and close friends since March, which is already too long. We’re so sad about canceling the visits we were eagerly anticipating.

But that’s life on the Loop, going with the flow literally and figuratively.

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