June 20 to July 9 Pickwick Lake to St. Charles
At last Nine Lives is underway again. Not our most auspicious start, on several levels.
In October last year, we left Nine Lives at a marina on Pickwick Lake, in a covered, in-water slip, where she will spend the next two winters as well. As usual, there was a list of work to be done (this is boat ownership), and 8 months in which to do it. Dick also arranged for monthly cleaning, and a major refurbishment of the gelcoat. In November, Dick returned to the marina to check on things, and finalize all the arrangements. Through the winter, he sent emails and made phone calls, to no response. The local harbor host even visited on our behalf. Eventually, Dick visited in person again in April, discovering, and he was not particularly surprised, that nothing had been done. The boat was filthy, and none of the mechanical work had been started. He managed to get the most important item on the list, the check of the house batteries, done while he was there, and the required replacement batteries were ordered. Assurances were made that the installation of the new batteries, the 2000-hour engine service, the bottom paint, and a thorough cleaning and waxing, plus other minor items, would be completed before our arrival in late June. Follow-up phone calls were made, and further assurances given.
We set off from Hilton Head on Monday, June 20, with the vehicle loaded with all the pantry items that we had removed in the autumn, plus fresh and frozen provisions for the first few weeks. As we drove off, Dick commented, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we got there and found Nine Lives out of the water!” Nine hours driving later, we arrived at the marina, and as we drove toward the parking lot, there she was, up on blocks, out of the water. We later learned that she had been taken out just two hours before our arrival. It wasn’t funny at all, deeply annoying would be a better description!
There was a bit of a scramble to find local accommodation for a few days, with a full-size fridge-freezer to ensure that all the food did not spoil. For all that Pickwick Lake is a vacation destination, and with many very expensive homes along the cliffs, the area has little in the way of accommodation or restaurants. We stayed at a hotel and conference center in the State Park at the top of the lake, and Dick checked on the progress of the bottom paint and other work twice a day.
Nine Lives was finally splashed on Thursday, and on Friday morning we were able to move aboard. Even then, there was work still being done. Some things did not happen, including the 2000-hour service, but Dick felt confident that it could wait until we return in the autumn. The promised waxing did not get done either, just a cursory wash-down, and inside cleaning was impossible to arrange at short notice. So, Nine Lives is not looking as beautiful as she should.
One thing I can tell you, appalling as this seems, not getting the work done in a timely manner is absolutely normal at all the boatyards we have dealt with (so far, we are 4 for 4). There is huge demand for skilled work, and constant boating emergencies, so regular maintenance work and non-essential repairs are given low priority everywhere. Friends ask, can we go somewhere else? The short answer is no. All of the reputable boatyards are the same anyway, and this is an ideal location for our next 3 year’s plans. We have a covered slip at a good rate for the time we need it, not easy to find. That said, the yard manager assured Dick that this will not happen next winter. We will keep fingers crossed, and Dick will have to attend in person more often.
We spent Friday and Saturday on various start-up tasks, including sanitizing the freshwater tanks, launching the dinghy and testing the motor, adding new cords to lessen the sway of the dinghy while we are underway, fuel, pump out, and fresh water fill. I occupied myself with various jobs, including of course bed making, putting away all the provisions and pantry items, and preparing fresh bags of cloves. A number of other inside jobs were completed, and some were postponed until later.
I was surprised and pleased to find no evidence of unwanted critters inside the boat, and almost none in the cockpit. This, in spite of the condition of the outside, and the lines, fenders, dinghy, and power cords being festooned with spider webs. I put this down to multiple precautions. All food that is left on board is kept in plastic storage bins. Bounce sheets are placed in all drawers and closets, bags of cloves are distributed generously in the pantry cupboards, and I did a careful and complete spray inside and out with spider control as we left. No way to know which of these precautions is working and which are boating myths, and I have no plans to “test” by leaving any of them out!
We tried several local restaurants during our enforced stay in the area. The only upscale eatery was in Corinth, a 30-minute drive away. The town is an interesting mix of new and old, and everything is well cared for and clean. The meal in the restaurant was good, and we will certainly return. As we drove out, we saw three middle-aged men, sitting on chairs on the sidewalk, with guitars, jamming with no audience but having a wonderful time. Nice town.
We were finally able to get underway on June 26th at 8am. Unfortunately, there was already an up-bound tow at the Pickwick Lock, and we had a 3-hour wait until it was our turn to go through. Later in the afternoon we were caught by thunderstorms. The winds were so strong they lifted up the fold-down seats on the bow, then the rain came down in sheets. This helpfully dropped the temperature from 95F to 71F, at least temporarily. We anchored behind Swallow Bluff Island, first time for our new anchor rode (chain) and markers. Dick had to wear his bathing suit in the rain for the anchoring exercise (fortunately for me, my role in the anchoring process is inside at the helm!) I posted on facebook to complete our first day, and Dick wondered why nobody asked for a picture of him out there in his swimming trunks!
With the sun shining, and our first day successfully complete, we enjoyed our traditional toast to the season’s boating of bubbly, accompanied by cheese and crackers. Dick fired up the grill for an excellent meal of steak, baked potatoes and mushrooms.
Before dinner, Dick took time to fix the new boarding ladder. He used his purpose-bought pipe cutter to trim the supports. When that broke (mutters about cheap piece of junk), he made a second attempt using the vastly more time-consuming hacksaw. Sadly, the supports were still far too long and the boarding ladder was still unusable.
When we anchor, I set alarms on two devices, to ensure that we are alerted if we move more than an acceptable amount during the night. Of course, deciding how much is too much, is somewhat of an art. One has to take into account currents, distance from shore, amount of chain we have out, and whether or not there are tides. On this occasion the research said that the current would keep us in line in the channel, so I set a fairly small radius on the alarms. At 4:38am I was rudely awakened by a loud Whoop Whoop Whoop a few inches from my ear. I leapt out of bed, calling for Dick to wake up, and rushed up to the cockpit. Instant relief to see that we were nowhere near either shore, followed by absolute puzzlement when I could see from the anchor light on the other boat in the anchorage that we had turned completely around and were facing the opposite direction. This would be expected in an area with tides, but on an inland river it was mystifying. We could only conclude that the upstream and/or downstream dams had stopped moving the water, thus minimizing the current. Later that morning the other boater came by and told us that a huge wave had come through during the night and completely repositioned his boat. Since we were already wide awake after the excitement, coffee was made, and we watched the sunrise and got an early start.
This first part of our summer voyage required retracing our route from last autumn for nearly two weeks. In order to catch up with the plan, we ran for two long days and missed a couple of anchorages. Our second night was at Pebble Isle Marina, an okay spot, but it will be too shallow when we return in autumn, and it has little to recommend it. This area is all part of Kentucky Lake, a long ribbon of artificial lake created by the Tennessee Valley Authority through the beds of several rivers, including the Tennessee River.
We passed the Tennessee River Lighthouse, a 70-foot structure, high on the bluff, that used to show a continuous white light. Anecdotally, it was used as a navigation aid for some years, but it is now sadly derelict and falling further into disrepair each year.
Ospreys nest on the taller daymarks, and some had nearly grown chicks still being looked after by their parents.
We arrived as planned at Kentucky Dam Marina. As is not uncommon in this part of the world, there was no response to the radio, and our phones did not have enough signal to call. We had to go to the fuel dock, and ask for docking instructions by calling out to the attendant. The first suggestion was to “take any of those slips”. I pointed out that they appear to be 14-foot-wide slips, and Nine Lives is 19 feet. Oh. The uncovered slips in the marina were mostly empty, but we elected to go all the way to the end and take the t-head.
The nearby restaurant was closed except for weekends, so I made jambalaya on board. It was the first time for that recipe, won’t be the last!
Dick took the time for one of the undone chores, installing the new TV. The previous one, although working fine, was not a smart TV, so Dick decided to replace it. This will allow us to stream regular programs (acceptable wi-fi permitting). We also installed a new DVD player, and are continuing with our usual evening tradition of watching murder mysteries and other box set programs.
Kentucky Dam Lock was very backed up, and the lock keeper advised Dick that pleasure craft have a difficult time using that lock, plus the river above has heavy barge traffic. We decided to take the longer route through Barclay Lock and up the Cumberland River, expected to be faster even though it is considerably longer. We had an hour wait for the lock, and met several tows on the river in both directions, but it was an easy day to Paducah.
There were a lot of dead Asian Carp, and Barclay Lock smelled like a bad fish fry. Not sure which is more unpleasant, dead ones, or the live ones leaping out of the water, hitting under the boat, and potentially jumping into the dinghy. A tree in the river even had dead fish festooned in its branches, which also speaks to how high the river gets during spring flood stage. We saw lots of turkey vultures, ospreys, and a bald eagle on the shore was deciding whether a dead carp that had washed up looked tasty. It was clear from how undercut the banks were that the river has been particularly high this spring. Tree roots were exposed, but the trees themselves still had leafed out.
At the turn into the Ohio River, there are two Federal Mooring Cells. These are huge steel structures that are set up for barges to moor to while waiting for locks. One of the two at this inlet had collapsed. You can see in the picture the sheer size of the structures, and imagine the power of the water that caused the collapse.
We liked Paducah last fall, and were not disappointed on this visit. We stayed two nights. I had time to do a quick load of laundry, and Dick spent the day running errands on his bike in 100-degree heat. He found some great bread from the bakery, beautiful fresh strawberries and other fruit from the market, and he made a run to both the grocery store and the hardware. There were so many items, he sadly forgot the main reason for the hardware store, which was a replacement pipe cutter. As mentioned earlier, the boarding ladder that replaced the one that we lost last fall (oddly enough at Paducah), needed the ladder supports to be trimmed to fit the boat and make it useable for me. Getting on and off has been quite a challenge, the step from the back is usually too long for me, so without a ladder I can be stuck on board.
On our first evening we tried a highly rated and trendy new restaurant. It was in a re-purposed freight warehouse, but unfortunately it was rather too trendy for us. Leaving aside décor that consisted of a basic coat of paint and hard metal chairs, we were told to scan a QR code to see the menu, which we refused, so paper menus were reluctantly provided. The only option for the wine list was the QR code, go to the website, or order completely blind from the choices rattled off by the waitress that gave only varietal, not origin, winery, or price. We did choose from the website, but requiring patrons to bring and use a smart phone does not endear us to any restaurant. Dick’s food was quite good, mine was not.
The next evening, we returned to Cynthia’s, a restaurant we enjoyed last fall, and it was a much nicer experience. The setting was another historic warehouse, but sympathetically renovated, and there were tablecloths, wine glasses, and menus! The crepes Dick had for dessert rank as one of his top ten restaurant desserts ever. Given the number of business and personal restaurant meals he has had all over the world, this is saying something.
After filling up with water, we set off by 9am, but we anticipated a 3 to 4 hour wait at Olmsted Lock. We arrived at the lock at 11:30 and went straight in. Last fall when we came through the water was high enough that we didn’t even go through the lock itself, instead we were directed to pass right over the wickets (dam). Olmsted replaced two other locks on the Ohio River, and yet it can still be under water when the river is running high. The 30-year lock building project was both the largest and the most expensive inland waterway project ever undertaken in the United States. Olmsted carries the most tonnage of any lock in the entire Army Corps of Engineers system.
As we made our way down the Ohio River to the Mississippi, we passed many barges at anchor, and being gathered together for transit of the river system. Barges are the containers, huge floating steel tubs usually 195 feet long by 35 feet wide. They get lashed together and are pushed by a tugboat, called a towboat, more often shortened to tow. Boaters learn very early to call the tow, if you try calling the oncoming vessel a barge they may not answer, as that would be a bit like trying to speak to a railway car instead of the driver. There are essentially two types of tow. Smaller tugs, amusingly referred to as lunch bucket boats, push and pull the barges into place for loading and for lashing together. The reason for the name is that the 3-man crews work the same tug in the same part of the river, bringing their lunch aboard and going home after their shift. Larger tugs handle the transport up and down the rivers, and may have more crew, who of course sleep on board. Last autumn on the Illinois River, we saw barge trains of up to 3 wide and 4 long. This spring we have seen several that are 5 wide and 6 long, for a total of 30 barges. These exceptionally large barge trains are only possible south of St Louis, because of the limitations in the size of the locks further north. The tonnage of the materials carried is staggering, and these run 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. We will easily meet or pass 10 that are underway each day as we travel. Mostly the barges are filled with sand or different types of stone. Some carry chemicals, and some are carrying scrap metal. Many are covered, so we don’t know what is inside. Later in the year there will be many carrying grain and flour.
At Cairo (pronounced Kay Row to our private amusement), we turned the corner, and were at last in the Mississippi River, a week after leaving Pickwick Lake. We stopped for the night at Boston Bar, an anchorage we visited last fall. Naturally, just as we got into position to set the anchor, the heavens opened, and there was no time for bathing suits, so Dick just had to get outside and get soaked. The rain stopped as soon as the anchor was set.
Boston Bar is not our favourite anchorage. There is a strong current, and it was particularly strong that night. Our anchor held, but there is a large bridge abutment and a wing dam of riprap directly behind. It would have been very close getting the engines started in time to prevent disaster if the anchor had come loose. We are planning a different stop on our return in the fall. To add another reason, as if one was needed, Dick thinks that the combination of the strong current slightly starving the intake of water to the raw water pump, and sand in the river getting into the impeller, contributed, if not fully caused the generator to break down. In the morning, when I came up to the cockpit with my coffee, there was a strong smell. I mistakenly identified it as diesel, and Dick duly sniffed and said, no, he could not smell any diesel. In fact, it was burning rubber. Next time I smell something strange I will not try to be specific.
The next evening, we anchored in Little Diversion Channel, just south of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. This is a pretty, but narrow channel, and one of the few safe anchorages between St Louis and Cairo. It took several tries before the anchor set, most unusual for our trusty rocna. There didn’t seem to be a lot of current to hold us in place, but as Dick discovered when he jumped into the water, there was plenty! He immediately found himself 10 feet behind the boat, and had to swim very hard to get back.
Dick started up the generator, and was just getting ready for our traditional beer after stopping for the day, when the generator stopped. Several tries more and it was clear there was a problem. It was humid, 90 degrees, and we really, really wanted the air conditioner! The air conditioners cannot be run without either shore power or the generator. Dick began his investigations and found that the impeller for the raw water pump was completely worn out. We carry replacements, so he installed that, and then cleaned the strainer. Still the generator overheated, and it became clear that the pump was not moving the water. The only conclusion (after Dick jumped into the water to examine the outlet, just in case a piece of dead fish had been caught there) was that somehow there was a problem with the pipe. (Ultimately, we learned that the problem was the bits of the worn impeller blocking the pipe, something Dick could have fixed if he had realized the issue.)
Little Diversion Channel was quite a pleasant stop, well off the busy river. There were butterflies flitting around the boat, and a hummingbird circled us a couple of times, but I had nothing to offer them. A couple of fishermen went by, and some pontoon boats. Local law enforcement passed several times, carefully slowing right down to pass us without a wake, most considerate! We enjoyed a very nice dinner, another new recipe, but it was awful cooking in the heat.
Although it was really hot, we made the decision not to stress the engines by running hard for the 8 hours it would have taken to get to Hoppies, and we proceeded as planned to Kaskaskia Lock. Running that far against the current at high speed would have cost an extra $250 in fuel, plus it would be quite hard on the engines. At Kaskaskia we tied to the lock wall, and spent a quiet night (sadly no fireworks visible, although it was July 4th). We did skip the planned exploration up the Kaskaskia River to Evansville, and proceeded the next morning to Hoppies.
As we travelled up the Mississippi River, we were struck by the amount of coal being carried on the many barges. It had been my impression, from reading news reports and articles concerned with climate change, that coal is on the way out, having been replaced by other fossil fuels (and of course other forms of energy such as solar, hydro, and wind power). We have passed generating stations that are clearly coal-fired, many with piles of coal waiting, but they have all been shut down, or are on standby. There are two other critical uses for coal, steel making, and cement production. Electricity does not get hot enough for these processes, so coal is still being used. Also, coal is now being shipped to China, Japan, and other Asian countries. Coal production declined after 2013, but it had increased steadily between 1950 and 2013, and in 2020 it was still higher than it was in 1980. In fact, this year, 2022, coal production is up, predicted to be 22% higher than last year.
We passed the interesting Tower Rock, a huge rock formation in the river. First mention of this rock was in 1673, when missionary Jacques Marquette wrote that this was a place dreaded by the savages because a manitou, or demon lives there. Later a band of river pirates occupied the rock, and preyed on Mississippi shipping. The outlaw base was destroyed in 1803 by US Army dragoons. Sailors passing the rock would celebrate with a drink of spirits. We did not follow that particular tradition, we are strict about saving all alcoholic beverages until we are docked or anchored for the night.
Hoppies is a Looper legend. It is called a marina, but a better description would be to say it is a fuel dock that has extra space to tie up overnight. They are the only fuel stop between St Louis and Paducah, and many Loop boats may not have a 225-mile range. Nine Lives can make that trip southbound in 3 days, but coming up-river against the current it took 5. We are fortunate to have a 1000-mile range, so seldom have to be concerned that we may run out of fuel. Hoppies is 3 somewhat rusty steel barges lashed together beside the shore. They had docks, but they were destroyed in flooding in 2019. I had thought they had no power, but I was delightfully wrong, and we were so glad to be able to plug in and use the air conditioners again. The temperature was 99F, and the weather channel reported that with the humidity it “feels like 112”. Even the fuel was worth stopping for, as it was $.70 a gallon less than the other marinas we would be stopping at over the next few days, so we filled up.
We had understood that the only nice restaurant was a 2.5-mile bike ride away, but an alternative in town was suggested. LaChance, a local winery, has opened a restaurant in a historic tavern building, so we decided to brave the heat and try it. Although supposedly a 15-minute walk, I was immediately regretting the decision, as the sun beat down, and the road was slightly uphill, but to our surprise, the owner of Hoppies drove up in his car and offered a ride into town. It was a very kind gesture. Tuesday is a limited menu, but Dick enjoyed his enormous catfish po-boy sandwich, and I had outstanding chicken quesadillas. We each tried a flight of wine tastings (Dick red, me white), and Dick came home with a bottle of one of their red blends. Kimmswick is a pretty and historic town, founded in 1859. The log tavern, built in 1770, that LaChance has taken over was once a favourite haunt of Ulysses S. Grant. There are a number of attractive old houses in the village, as well as the Anheuser Estate and Museum on the riverfront. The town is a regular stop for river cruise boats.
After an excellent night’s sleep in air-conditioned comfort, we left early to allow for delays at the two locks we would pass through on our way to our next stop at Alton. As we approached the outskirts of St Louis we could see beautiful homes on top of the bluffs. One has a huge sculpture in the garden overlooking the water, depicting a pair of legs diving into a pool. I can’t imagine the cost of building this enormous structure, and what could possibly be the point. We passed the Gateway Arch in St Louis in mid-morning, and were very pleased to be directed straight in at Chain of Rocks Lock. A couple of hours later, there was again no wait at Mel Price Lock, so we arrived at the marina in Alton and were tied up by 2:15.
We had booked a meal at Gentelin’s on Broadway, a fine dining restaurant we enjoyed last fall. Alton, although historic, is not an attractive town. Some efforts are being made at gentrification, and there is a pleasant waterfront park, but they have a long way to go. I was glad we were walking both ways in daylight. We enjoyed the meal, although the restaurant was surprisingly noisy. There was a man singing and playing a keyboard, and unfortunately between the amplification and acoustics in the restaurant, diners had to raise their voices to chat, and the result was an incredible din that did not add to the experience. We expect to return anyway, as the food is excellent. My lobster tail cooked in tempura batter was delicious, and Dick enjoyed his crispy roast duck.
We had only a short run to Port Charles Harbor in St Charles, just past the confluence of the Mississippi and the Illinois Rivers. North of Alton we passed our first Mississippi cruise ship. While very large, it was still dwarfed by the barge that we passed at the same time.
In Port Charles, we are tied up for several days. The generator repairs were completed almost immediately. In some ways it is fortunate that the problem happened, because while investigating the generator problem, Dick became aware of water in the port-side bilge. He knew from our experience with the starboard engine last summer that this could be the beginning of a problem with the raw water pump on the port engine. Further examination determined that the pump is definitely failing, and a replacement has been ordered and will arrive Monday. Of course, if the 2000-hours service had been done, this problem would have been identified at that time.
Dick borrowed a pipe cutter and fixed the boarding ladder at last.
We walked next door to the interestingly named Duck Club Yacht Club. A very nice club, with a lively bar and a nice restaurant that is open to transients staying at the Port Charles Marina. Dick had pizza, followed by cherry pie, while I liked my shrimp wrap.
Saturday we took the courtesy car into St Charles. As the only transients currently in the marina we have exclusive use of their somewhat beaten up Dodge Caravan. We made a grocery and liquor run, and scouted the downtown in advance of tonight’s meal in a highly rated Italian restaurant. Tomorrow we plan to spend some time wandering through the historic Main Street with its many boutiques and cafes.