Reaching the Mississippi I expected a change in the way of traveling. Not only, that the River was supposed to be faster in current. It was more the mental change I was curious about: The Illinois River was to the way to get here, and what now?
Only a few rivers in the world have influenced music, legends and world class literature in the way the Mississippi has done it and I wondered how this happened. Whatever was in front of me it must be more than just water floating down between two banks from somewhere in Wisconsin to somewhere at New Orleans. Back more than a century ago, at a time when railway and steamship companies tried to get ahead of each other, Mark Twain has put his impressions about this river in a book. „Life on the Mississippi“ is both: A memoir about his time as a steamboat pilot and one of the first guidebooks to cruise it as he described detailed how to navigate the constantly changing river.
In 2012, things are different: At least for the purpose of a sailing guide his book became almost useless over the decades. This part is taken care of by the US Army Corps of Engineers today. They control how the river „behaves“ and also publish the charts needed to safely cruise on it. And they are accomplished by Skipper Bob, a guide, that as useful and reliable it was on the east coast, in this part of the US is more often referred to as „The Book of Lies“, an impression that already had grow on the Illinois River as many recomended places proided way less depth then promised.
My first stop was north of St. Louis at Harbor Point Yacht Club, where Dave, a fellow I met in Chicago had made arrangements for a presentation and finally helped me to step up the mast. – An act, in three lessons. First: This is what happens, when harbormasters refuse to unlock the mast crane because of liability issues. Second: Never say „we could“ unless you are ready to actually do it. And finally: Mast cranes are totally overrated.
So with Paulinchen reconverted to a sailboat I was ready to head further south into the drizzle of a miserable day. Late september had covered the morning in a variety of gray and right after the fog slowly lifted to open up the view across to the little town of Alton I left the dock. The bow pointed downstream, Illinois on port, Missouri on starboard. Both banks unsaturated under heavy clouds. But I was looking forward to maybe really sail parts of the Mississippi and maybe get a few insights into the world that Mark Twain wrote about.
Expectations, that slowly dropped, motoring through St. Louis a few hours later. The Chain of Rocks Canal bypasses the white water over some rapids with a modern lock and the steamboats are diesel driven. Even the paddle wheels are in many cases yust fake, turned by the flow of water. Various endless freight trains cross the river high above the water as if they wanted to demonstrate, how their network long time ago won over the slow boat traffic. But still the industrial stretch is full of tows and some of them push up to forty barges at once.
A mass, that is hard to maneuver and barely moves upstream against the current. But it literally rushes downriver, pushed by the current. Both ways they leave the uncomfortable choppy water that most busy ports in the world have.
St. Louis is one of these harbors. With industrial piers, cranes, chimneys all over the place. Only for a short moment the City opens up downtown at the Arch. The monument is dedicated to the westward expansion of settlements as more and more people came from Europe to find hope and freedom. The site is well choosen as it reportedly is the spot where Pierre Laclède 1764 decided to set up a trading post close to both rivers: the Missouri and Mississippi. The post developed and became a city.
But the way its founders came here is not the way modern travelers would choose. Unless on a commercial ship, there is nowhere within 20 miles north or south of here to stop with a pleasure boat like Paulinchen. But the guidebooks had prepared me for that and todays destination was Hoppies Marina almost sixty miles downriver along parked barges and an uninviteing shore.
Three rusty barges tied in a small bay on the river are kind of „Must be there“-Stop. It is the place to learn what all has changed on the river since Mark Twain documented his voyage from St. Louis to New Orleans over one hundred years ago. Fern, the grand dame of the river knows about this and gives a detailed briefing every day to those lost souls who want to head down: No marina or fuel for the next 230 miles rose a little of the Huck Finn feeling.
The power boaters quickly recalculated their fuel consumption, we sailboaters dreamed ourselves into remote anchorages along the river. We all woke up when the dangers where presented: Barges, that break loose from their tow and silently drift down the river require safe places to anchor behind a dam. The Force needed to push the tow upriver is more than needed to wash a small boat out of the channel ashore. Traveling at night is life threading. Finally, all but one anchorage in Skipper Bob are useless due to the current low water.
While the power boaters went quiet again quickly recalculating their speed and fuel to conclude, the river could be done in two days, we sailboaters just repeated the facts: No anchorage for over 100 miles and don‘t travel at night. I silently commented: „Someone should put a note on the river entrance that it is not navigable for boats slower then ten knots.“
But I was not too scared and that only because I had some additional info: Katie had mailed me the stops they found a week earlyer to be deep enough to anchor some sailboats in and so we were confident enough to head on. In a group of three sailboats, out to successfully cruise the river. Others have done it, so why shouldn‘t we do it?