Sunny and Glorious

Day 10: Friday, September 14, 2012

Underway: 7:54 am      Motor Off: 3:45 pm      Miles Traveled: 42      Stayed At: Marina

First Things First: First time we stirred up the mud on the bottom (coming into the Muscatine Municipal Marina; first meal eaten that we didn’t bring with from home (center cut bacon wrapped pork chops, red potatoes, green beans and honey crisp apple); first water taxi near Moline, IL

Mile 497 to Mile 455: “Sunny and glorious”. That is what the voice on the NOAA weather broadcast, on the VHF radio, forecast for today and he was right. It brings back memories from our trip from Bayfield, Wisconsin to New York City (on this same boat with two kids and a dog) in the summer of 2002 – the year after 911. We had the time of our life. The girls were at the perfect age to help out and learn but be willing to be away from home and friends for a whole summer. I still have the weather broadcasts from that trip imprinted on my brain – we listened intently to them every day and nearly every day ended up pretty much the same. “Sunny and warm with a 20% change of thunderstorms in the evening and mist”. It turned out that we only had a 2% chance of rain since it only rained 3 times the entire summer and only once during the day. More about that trip in later posts. The pictures at the bottom of the page are some of the thousands we took that summer.

What a difference a day makes. Today was another nice day on the river – quiet, warm and sunny. We are staying at the Muscatine Municipal Marina for the night. Muscatine used to be the pearl button capital of the world. They harvested tons of clams and cut millions of buttons out of the shells.

Our record is still intact through Lock #16 – we still haven’t shared a lock with any other boats. Millions of gallons of water has poured in and drained out just to let little old Aurora drop down 10—15 feet to the next pool of water on the Mississippi. The lock operators have an interesting job. Lots of slow times, busy times during summer weekends and some real excitement dealing with huge tows and tugs in between. They definitely have to have patience since everything needs to happen slowly or bad things can happen. It’s fun to chat with them when they aren’t too busy – which has been the case most of the time we have locked through.

Did you know time takes on a new meaning while traveling at 5.8 mph? You look for new measures to mark the passage of time on a trip like this – miles on the chart, the next daymark, the next red or green buoy, time to eat, sunrise and sunset, when is the next gas stop – the clock only really matters at the beginning of the day and end of the day (usually because we are including it as part of this blog). What “time” it is doesn’t usually matter.

In Passing: Today we passed by Arsenal Island, Horse Island, Turkey Island, Goose Island and Indian Island (among dozens of others named and unnamed). Drury Slough, Andalusia Slough, Velie Chute, Rock River, Le Claire Canal and Lake Potter all passed by without much notice. All sharing the same watershed and draining to the same place sooner or later – the Gulf of Mexico. Someday we will learn the difference between a chute, slough, canal and lake on the Mighty Mississippi.

FYI: Daymarks are red and green markers usually on or near shore that guide boats on the river down the channel and around key turns and bends in the river. They usually have a small sign listing the mile marker where you are on the river. Before GPS, they were an important measure for plotting your location. We use them to keep track of our progress and to mark the passage of time.

Rain and Serendipity

Day 9: Thursday, September 13, 2012

Underway: 6:58 am      Motor Off: 3:15 pm      Miles Traveled: 40      Stayed At: City Dock

First Things First: First “real” rainy day (foul weather gear rain); first long pants day for Mike (I still had shorts on under my foul weather pants – does that really count?); first six (or seven) layer day for Cindy (t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, sweatshirt, jacket with liner, fowl weather jacket and a real life preserver); first time Cindy got to wear her new polka dot rain boots; first pipe laying operation on river; first museum (the Buffalo Bill and River Museum in Le Claire, Iowa; first email from and to Grandma A (have fun with your new Ipad); first laundry day; first time eating dinner inside in salon; first hot chocolate day; first two hot chocolate day for Cindy, first weeds.

Mile 537 to Mile 497: Bad thing – cold rain. Good thing – the sunset after a rain. Bad thing – wet foul weather gear. Good thing – clean, warm, dryer fresh clothes. Bad thing – no good anchorages. Good thing – a free stay at the city dock. Everything is relative I guess.

Today was our first “real” rain day. Thankful that the storms forecast for today earlier in the week petered out. A little chilly but we can dress for it by adding layers (ask Cindy). We survived another way-too-exciting lock experience today. We didn’t run out of gas this time but wind, big waves and a new hazard made for another heart pounding lock passage. We were lucky this time that they opened the lock for us right away even though a tow was waiting below to lock up. We didn’t have to pound to weather for an hour waiting for passage. But mother nature threw us a new twist – large, thick, mats of weeds (which had floated down from shallow areas upwind) filled the lock as we entered (some type of invasive species I’m sure). Boris did not like this. We were able to grab the guide ropes along the sides of the lock and stop the boat (our earlier lock experience helped prepare us for this) but the rolling waves still made it difficult to keep the boat off the wall. Imagine our relief when the upstream lock doors finally closed, calming the lock pool a little. It was amazing seeing the waves force their way through and probably 6’ up the gaps in the gate doors. Getting out of the lock also proved a challenge as we had to move through a lock full of weeds before getting to clear, calm water downstream. Another experience to add to our life’s resume.

We started early today and decided to stop early too. Anchoring spots on this stretch of the river are few and far between. We lucked out again, though, by stopping at Le Claire, Iowa to get gas and decide what to do next. After getting gas, we stopped at the Buffalo Bill Museum right next to city’s courtesy dock and asked if we could stay overnight. A very helpful volunteer at the museum didn’t know the answer but went above and beyond by calling the city and the police for us who said it was fine for us to stay. What a deal. Small towns are amazing places sometimes.

After securing the boat, we decided to go to the Buffalo Bill and River Pilot Museum. Both were interesting experiences. The Buffalo Bill Museum had a section honoring an inventor/professor from the University of Minnesota that ended up having a serendipitous connection to us (see Wild Things below). The River Pilot Museum houses a full size, original historic paddlewheel steamship from the late 1800’s– the Lonestar. Interesting seeing what life on the river was like back then compared to our experience now.

Next we decided to finally wash clothes. The gas station also happened to be a combination gas station/convenience store/A&W/ and Mother Hubbard’s Laundromat – and only 4 blocks from our home away from home (Aurora). We were excited to get this project done on a rainy day and its particularly fulfilling doing 3 loads simultaneously and getting completely done in a little over an hour (it’s the little things in life, right?).


Mike made a fun discovery while waiting for the clothes to dry. While reading a brochure about Le Claire he discovered/remembered that this is the home to the show American Pickers – he has spent way too many hours watching episodes online. He says he likes to learn about history this way but it probably has more to do with the treasure hunting aspect to the stories. It turned out their store – Antique Archeology – was right behind Mother Hubbard’s so he baled on laundry and went to visit their store. Another random discovery. And another story to tell.

Wild Things: While at the Buffalo Bill Museum, we were looking through an exhibit honoring James J. Ryan – an inventor and professor from the University of Minnesota in the 40’ and 50’s. He invented many safety related devices including the first “black box” recorder for airplanes. We were looking in the guest book for people who knew Professor Ryan to leave messages and the last entry was from August 2012 – from Professor Virgil Marple from the University of Minnesota. Mike had Professor Marple in college in the late 70’s and we have enjoyed visiting his “farm” where he raises old antique cars in his spare time. Small world I guess.


A Perfect Day on the River

Day 8: Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Underway: 7:15 am        Motor Off: 4:30 pm        Miles Traveled: 43        Stayed At: Anchor

First Things First: First time we passed a tow – the Aubrey Harwell – stressful but we ended up beating him to the next lock (yah!); started our first book on tape (Clive Cussler’s Devils Gate) – it wasn’t too windy today so we could actually hear it; first time swabbing the decks (Aurora needed it); first mosquitos.

Mile 580 to Mile 537: Today was great day to travel on the river. A modest breeze, sunshine, not too hot and light traffic. We stopped in Bellevue, Iowa to walk and explore for a few minutes. If you stop at the Phillips 66 Station there you might meet the clerk who helped us with our purchases and questions – she was one the most bubbly and positive people we have met on this trip – I wish I knew her name. We also stopped in Savana, Illinois just before stopping for the day to get gas. A nice river town with two sets of courtesy docks in between a long waterfront walkway and park. Friendly too. In the span of less than four blocks carrying the gas can, we had several people ask if we wanted a ride including a fisherman in a boat. Amazing.

Yesterday, we passed into another state – Illinois – our forth state so far. At 1:40 pm today at Mile 545, we hit the 300 mile mark –we are now 1/20 of the way around. Wow!

According to the chart today, we passed by some interesting places like Deadman’s Slough @ Mile 569, Sinsinawa River, Snag Slough, Shinkles Island Bar Light and Daymark @ Mile 574.1, Alligator Lake, Mold Slough, Marquoketa Levee, Island 241, Fever River, Big Soupbone Island and Little Soupbone Island, Crooked Slough, and Smallpox Creek.  We almost anchored at Boy Scout Island which reminded us of home. Sometimes reading the chart is almost as interesting as watching the scenery. There is a story behind every one of these places.


FYI: Wing dams are low underwater dams usually made of piles of rock that jut straight out from shore to force the water flow into the main channel to increase the flow rate and reduce sedimentation (see black lines in chart above). They vary in length, depth and location. They are not marked, you usually can’t see them and you really don’t want to hit them. There are thousands of them along the shores, islands and sloughs of the Mississippi River.


A Day To Remember

Day 7: Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Underway: 7:12 am        Motor Off: 4:15 pm        Miles Traveled: 40         Stayed At: Marina

First Things First: First survey boat sounding and charting the channel; first swamp boat (flat bottom boat powered by pusher propeller); first free docking at a marina.

Mile 620 to Mile 580: Today was just a slog – the wind was gusting close to 30 mph straight on our nose for most of the day (except when the river turned around a bend blocking a little of the wind). Boris (our 8 hp Evinrude) worked hard today to keep our speed at around 5.7 mph – sometimes dropping below 5 mph in big gusts.

You feel very alone sometimes on the river. We probably saw a total of 15 boats today in 40 miles of travel – more boats than this go through our bay on Minnetonka in 15 minutes on summer weekends. Houses and other signs of civilization are scarce except near towns (which are few and far between). Just high bluffs, lots of trees and water everywhere you look. And trains – lots of trains. We have seen more trains on this trip than we’ve seen in our whole life to this point. Big, long trains. Every 20-30 minutes it seems. I can here a train whistle right now as I write this post. All traveling both ways right along the river to wherever they are going. I’m not sure I would enjoy living in some of these small river towns with trains going through continuously night and day but I suppose you get used to it.

Our record is intact – we locked through two more locks (Lock 10 and 11) all alone. The river is quiet this time of year I guess.

We were going to anchor out again tonight but after a long hot day we decided to stay in Dubuque at the new Municipal Marina. Its a wonderful facility but wasn’t finished in time for the 2012 season. Good for us since they let us stay for free. Free is good (again). We lucked out too since both the water and electrical worked at the slip so, except for no bathrooms, showers and other amentities, we are living the high life tonight. A nice end to a long, hot, windy day.


River Stories

Day 6: Monday, September 10, 2012

Underway: 7:40 am        Motor Off: 5:43 pm        Miles Traveled: 42       Stayed At: Anchor

First Things First: First morning with fog – beautiful; saw our first river dredging operation; first time Cindy locked through while floating in middle of a lock instead of holding ropes on the side (with only calm verbal guidance from Mike).

Mile 662 to Mile 620: Long, sunny, windy and tiring (but still fun) day. We are traveling almost directly south between Iowa and Wisconsin and the wind was blowing 15-20 mph most of the day right on our nose. I’ll take the wind over rain and clouds any day though.

The river kept us busy today (as it seems to do everyday). It’s a fulltime job to navigate the river and not go off course or out of the channel where there are lots of things to hit (like logs, wing dams, rocks and mud). We didn’t have a snack for lunch until 2:30 pm – there always seems to be something that has a higher priority like navigating, steering, planning our route, fixing something, organizing, getting gas, taking pictures or cleaning. We’ve talked about napping but have not had time to actually do it yet.

We stopped in a quaint little town – McGreggor, Iowa – to top off our gas and get a few essentials. Towns are surprisingly few and far between right now – especially ones that have docks and facilities right by the river. Makes getting important things like gas a constant challenge. We met Mike (Animal to his friends) – another interesting traveler at the dock. He had everything that was packed in his canoe piled on the dock while he fixed his only seat. He started his journey in June in Itasca Minnesota at the headwaters of the Mississippi. He hopes to travel the entire length of the river – no motor or sail – just arm power. I suspect he will make it – he hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail last year – an amazing accomplishment.

It is interesting how fast you can find something in common with a perfect stranger. Mike (Animal) has spent time in our hometown and we knew people in common. He told us a story (probably pretty infamous on the river this year) about two girls from New Zealand traveling the Mississippi by kayak – frequently in bikinis. Amazingly, we had already heard this story earlier from our friends Cliff and Caroline. They saw the girls (in bikinis) passing Slipperies in Wabasha on a log raft towing their kayak. At the time, they were traveling with a guy they met from France trying to float the river on a homemade log raft (a very slow way to travel). I suspect we will here this story more than once.

We passed the 200-mile mark today – we are now 1/30th of the way around. That sounds a lot better than 1/60th of the way around a couple days ago. We also finally finished the last of our daughter Sarah’s delicious banana bread – it has sustained us every day – thanks Sarah.


Another Sunny Day

Day 5: Sunday, September 9, 2012

Underway: 8:28 am        Motor Off: 5:58 pm        Miles Traveled: 35        Stayed At: Anchor

First Things First: First time for Cindy docking the boat while at the helm; first new state border – crossed into Iowa today; first night without cell coverage; first time trying the inverter (used to convert 12v battery power to 110v) to run a small blender (not really powerful enough); first swim in the Mississippi River (Mike only) – very refreshing after a long day in the sun.

Mile 697 to Mile: 662: Another beautiful and quiet day on the river.  We still can’t believe we have had the river pretty much to ourselves. Saw the largest tow so far – 3 barges across and 5 barges long – 15 huge barges being pushed upriver by the tug Charlie G to unload something heavy and reload with grain for the trip south again soon (glad we didn’t have to wait for him at a lock). Stopped at Brownsville, Minnesota in the morning to fill our gas containers – the opportunities to get gas are few and far between so we need to try to stay topped off whenever possible. Only a one hour wait at Lock 8 today while a tow was reassembled. The reason it takes so long is that the larger tows can only bring part of their barges through each lock at once so the biggest one may have to make 3 trips to reassemble their entire load – at every lock they go through.

We stopped for gas and ice in Lancing, Iowa – a nice little town with a convenient courtesy dock. Anchored just south of Lancing in a small shallow cove – nice to have a boat that can sneak into shallow spaces (our boat draws about 2.5 feet with the centerboard up). Believe it or not but we made it all the way to Iowa without having to share a lock.

We stopped early enough to enjoy a wonderful meal in the cockpit. We fried some fish Mike’s brother Gary caught and filleted for us recently, added leftover hashbrowns from last night, a gourmet salad and strawberry margaritas (again) and you have a meal worth writing home about.

Wild Things: A large flock of pelicans and more amazing eagles. A 15 barge tow is a pretty wild thing up close (coming around a corner) too.



A New Day On the River

Day 4: Saturday, September 8, 2012

Underway: 7:38 am        Motor Off: 5:45 pm        Miles Traveled: 39         Stayed At: Marina

First Things First: First time for Cindy to be at the helm while locking through (Lock 5a) – a little stressful (her) but it went just fine. First bag of Honeycrisp apples bought at the farmers market in Winona – plus one free apple each! First test of the boats new shorepower system (nothing blew up). First dockside BBQ. First use of the blender for making margaritas (we’re roughing it).

Another beautiful day on the river.  After a fun but stressful day yesterday, we are a little more relaxed today. It amazing how different two days can be. The sunset last night was beautiful and, after the clouds cleared, the stars were amazing. Getting used to all the noises on the boat – especially when your ears are about six inches from the river next the hull – is a challenge.

We spent a little less than two hours in Winona this morning getting gas, parts at the hardware store (x 3 trips), ice, coffee and fresh produce at the farmers market. So far we have lucked out on locking through – we have been the only boat in the lock and (except for the exciting two hour adventure yesterday) we have only had to wait less than 10 minutes to enter.

We officially named our trusty little motor “Boris” short for Borealis (our boat name is Aurora). Except for a few coughs and sputters on the first morning, Boris has been an amazing little workhorse (8 horses?) so far, knock on wood.

Tried to find a reasonable place to anchor near LaCrosse but the choices proved too shallow so we decided to stay at the Pettibone Marina (also dark clouds were approaching fast so a secure place to stay way seemed wise after our excitement yesterday). Nice evening with live music, a great meal on the boat, free wifi, shore power to charge all of our technology, bathrooms that don’t rock back and forth and hot showers.  What more is there to life?

Wild Things: Eagles – lots of eagles.

Lessons Learned: (1) Always carry some money with when you leave the boat unless you want to get extra mileage walking. (2) Don’t assume products you buy are actually well designed for their purpose. (3) Margaritas taste better with free ice.

An Interesting Day to Say the Least

Day 3: Friday September 7, 2012

Underway: 9:00 am        Motor Off: 7:10 pm        Miles Traveled: 37        Stayed At: Anchor

First Things First: First walk on a beach. First dinghy ride to shore. First 100 miles at mile 745 – we’re 1/60th of the way there. First near disaster. First “wilderness” anchorage in Kiesel Horse Bay downriver from Lock 5 –very quiet and peaceful – best anchorage yet.

(This blog post is rated GA –Grandma Alert – don’t read if you are over 80 years old and worried about what your children are doing with their spare time). A very interesting day. Cloudy and a little rain before we left our anchorage. Sun gradually came out and we cruised downriver with a gentle tailwind. We stopped at Wabasha to get gas, walk and check out the Eagle Museum right next to the municipal dock.

Headed downriver, passed a daymark marking our first 100 miles and decided to take advantage of a perfect breeze to sail down wind (with a little assist from the motor). We were consistently hitting 6.9 mph which, for our little boat, is rare but a lot of fun. We soon saw Lock #5 in the distance at the end of a long open bay above the dam. For those of you who don’t sail, running downwind is usually much quieter and easier than beating upwind.  You don’t notice the wind building – usually because you are having too much fun.  Well, the wind was probably gusting to 20 mph+ by the time we had to take the sail down. A challenge but we managed and immediately noticed that there were 2-3 foot rollers running straight down the bay with whitecaps driving us toward the lock. Well, we were told to wait for about 45 minutes (pounding upwind and surfing downwind) for a tow to lock through. We decided to ask if we could wait at the lock wall which they ok’d. We aimed for a place to tie up (the wrong place actually) and probably 500 feet from the wall, the motor sputtered and died. We had run out of gas at the worst possible time. Keep in mind, we are towing a dinghy which is now bumping into the end of the boat, the wind is gusting to 20 mph, the waves are 2-3 feet high (or worse since they are bouncing off the concrete wall) and a solid black wall is approaching fast. With some luck, we were able to sort of surf/sail the boat against the wall but we were moving too fast. We grabbed a long steel rail at the top of the wall and were slowly able to stop the boat and tie off temporarily (as waves were nearly swamping the cockpit and washing over the top of the motor. I quickly refilled the gas tank and we successfully restarted the motor (first pull) and pulled away from the wall to try again after the tow was done. It ended up being about 2 hours for us to get through the lock process. Suffice it to say we learned a lot. We survived to cruise another day.

The challenges were not over for the day but finding a decent anchorage was a “breeze” compared to our lock experience.

Lessons Learned:  (1) Pay attention to the weather even when it is sunny and you are having a blast. (2) Check and fill the gas tank frequently and especially before critical maneuvers. (3) Don’t assume things – double check the instructions if in doubt.


A Quiet Day Cruising the River

Day 2: Thursday, September 6, 2012

Underway: 8:02 am        Motor Off: 6:08 pm        Miles Traveled: 38        Stayed At: Anchor

First Things First: First boat bath (water looked a little too green to swim in), first meal cooked on the grill, first bottle of wine enjoyed at sunset (see Random Events).

After a quiet night at anchor, we passed under the Prescott Highway Drawbridge and stopped at the city dock to run a couple of errands and left at 8:49 am downstream to a destination to be determined. River very quiet today – only a few tows hauling rock and some fishing boats – we had the mighty Mississippi river pretty much to ourselves. Kind of amazing when you think about it.

Our first stop was Red Wing where we tried to track down a dinghy repair kit, mailed a few things, got ice and bought some storage bins to hold some miscellaneous items still cluttering up the cabin. After a scenic motor downriver, we anchored in a cove just south of Lake City Marina, had pork chops on the grill, and crashed early.

Random Events: Walked miles to track down a marine/sporting equipment store in Red Wing to find a repair kit to fix a leak in our dingy – they didn’t have what we needed but the business next door was cleaning our their ice cooler and we snagged five bags of ice for free –free is good – perfect for adding a little ice to our cooler and chilling our first bottle of wine.

Wild Things: Eagle circled the back of the boat and dove down and caught a fish (too quick to get a picture) and flocks of pelicans souring on the thermals before heading south (do they know something we don’t know).

The First Day of Our Great Loop Adventure

Day 1: September 5, 2012

Underway: 7:25 am         Motor Off: 5:00 pm        Miles Traveled: 34        Stayed At: Anchor

First Things First:  Lots of first’s on the first day of an adventure. The first minor thunderstorm (overnight), the first draw bridge, the first lift bridge, the first swing bridge (all within about the first 10 miles), passing the first upbound tow, getting passed by the first downbound tow, first marine radio call (see Wild Things below), first lock (Lock #2 in St. Paul), first tank of gas, first anchorage (quiet and peaceful night), and first blog post (one of many I hope).

We left the Watergate Marina about 7:25 am on the first day of a one year adventure motor sailing the Great Loop on our 22’ Hunter sailboat – a 6,000+ mile trip by water around the eastern third of the US – down the Mississippi, along the Illinois River, down the Tenn-Tom, along the Gulf Coast, around Florida, up the Intercoastal Waterway to NYC, up the Hudson, west on the Erie Canal, up the Oswego Canal, across Lake Ontario, through the Trent Severn Canal System, along the north shore of Lake Huron (Georgian Bay and North Channel), down Lake Michigan, through Chicago, down the Illinois River and back up the Mississippi. And what did you do on your summer, fall, winter and spring vacation? A long trip but we are trying to take it one day at a time. I will add some links to more information about the Great Loop later.

We had a great send off party at the dock with friends, family and random boat people (hi Carl – thanks for the tips) on Tuesday evening after launching the boat and packing (throwing) piles of essential items onboard. Our daughters, Jess and Sarah, helped design our boat cards, set up our new smart phone, design our web page and complete miscellaneous research projects. Our friends Cliff and Caroline helped (immensely) getting us ready and launched yesterday. Thank you to everyone for all your support, help, good wishes and goodies. We couldn’t do a trip like this without you. We are immensely grateful.

Spent the day learning the rules of the road, watching out for anything we might run into, worrying about everything, waving to friends standing on balconies in St. Paul and even enjoying the amazing scenery a little bit (a lot actually). Also tried to organize the mess but ended up just making enough room to sleep. Everything will find a good place eventually. Stayed at anchor at Lake St. Croix just north of Prescott Wisconsin.

Wild Things: Cliff, our friend who towed our boat to the Watergate, had a boat survey to do in Prescott this morning and happened to be driving over the 494 bridge and saw a small sailboat way downstream and called us on the marine radio (he has one in his truck) – talk about a random event. Took us completely by surprise to hear our boat name – “Aurora, Aurora, this is C-Quest over” – on the radio on our first day on the river. Also saw white egrets, a young eagle learning how to fish, cormorants, and many flocks of hawks riding the thermals.