Kismet in the Aftermath of Hurricane Ike


One of the unwritten rules of safe-boat travel is: Never keep a hard-and-fast schedule. If you do, invariably you’ll come to be disappointed, or worse. You could put yourself, the ones you love, and your boat in harm’s way. Lisa and I are very conservative as it relates to boat travel. We don’t like high wind, big waves, or night travel, like most boaters. Therefore, when we make boat-travel plans we try to be as flexible as possible, just in case Mother Nature isn’t as gracious as we’d like her to be. Even with this said, after we’ve left port in favorable conditions, we’ve still been caught in fog, rough water, and storms. The method we use to help improve our boating experience is to stay in port when forecasts aren’t favorable. We don’t take unnecessary risks.

As we started our second Great Loop, Hurricane Ike was making news as it was heading into the Gulf Coast with an expected target of the Galveston area. Although the Texas Gulf area is 1,000 miles away from the Great Lakes, the aftermath of the storm’s path headed directly northeast. Its path included the states of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan.

Lisa and I didn’t realize the impact of the rains the storm brought until our second day in Chicago. It was then we heard that the lock to the Chicago River had been closed due to high waters. Subsequently we learned from our NOAA weather channel, the United States Coast Guard, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, that not only was the Chicago lock closed but that the entire Illinois and Upper Mississippi Rivers were closed to both commercial and recreational traffic.

This area falls into the Corps of Engineers Rock Island District and the area received up to 12 inches of rain in less then two days. The extreme amount of rain caused flooding that crested levels not seen since 1947. Through no fault of our own, we found ourselves and 73 other Loopers stranded at different stages in the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. We couldn’t travel even if we wanted to. This is when, as a boater, you need to be flexible and go with the flow. You can’t get your undies balled up in a knot; it just doesn’t do any good.

Peoria Lock and Dam were still not in use because of high water. This photo was taken as we glided over the wicket.

Lisa and I consider ourselves lucky. We were in Chicago with all the conveniences of a big city. Unfortunately some boaters we know were tied up to the Kaskaskia Lock wall on the Mississippi River for 10 days. They had no power, no water, or any access to the conveniences of a small town or city.

Before the water receded enough in Chicago for us to resume our travels, my daily ritual was to check to see of the lock in Chicago had recommenced operation. I’d visit to review the different sections of the Illinois River to ascertain if the water levels had crested, were still rising, or if they were in the recovering stages. I’d then Googled “sector upper Mississippi River press release” to obtain the web page for the U.S. Coast Guard to learn about any updated closings or openings on either river system.

After our seventh day in Chicago (we’d planned only three) the Chicago Lock opened, as well as the Illinois River, up to the Brandon Road Lock and Dam just this side of Joliet. Excited to be able to move once again, we left the marina and entered the Chicago River at 7 a.m., cut our way through Chicago’s downtown skyline, and passed under the Michigan, Wabash, State, Clark, LaSalle and Wells Street Bridges -- only clearing by inches in some cases.

We went past the iconic Wrigley Building and all the people making their way to work, most being oblivious to our river navigation. The uniqueness of being able to navigate through the third largest city in the United States on our boat is something we’ve always wanted to do. Now we have. If you’re a boater, I hope you get the opportunity as well.

When we read this sign I’m sure they never thought its message would be ironic

Joliet was a short 44-mile trip down the Chicago River, Sanitary Channel, and into the Illinois River. Once we were out of the downtown area, the banks of the river became very industrial. There was a lot of tug and barge traffic that needed to be negotiated. We had to re-familiarize ourselves with the tugboat captain’s lingo. “This is down-bound pleasure craft Kismet calling the up-bound Tug and Barge.”

“ Go ahead, captain.”

“Would you like me to pass you on the one or two whistle?” I’d say.

“Take me on the one.”

So we had to re-educate ourselves on which radio channels the tug captains, bridges, and locks use. Just for a reference, it’s 13 for the tugs, 14 for the locks, and 16 or 14 for the lift bridges.

Lisa and I were glad to make our way to the free docking wall in Joliet, right next to the city, where we were greeted by a flotilla of fellow Loopers. Some had been stranded there for a week. We heard that before our arrival the river water had come to within a foot of overflowing the river wall. While we were there, the debris floating down the river continued to be extreme. The water downstream from Joliet was receding, but in most cases it was still 15 to 20 feet above normal pool stages. So at a one-foot reduction per day, one can see why it would take so long for the rivers to get to a safe level and once again be opened to pleasure craft.

This photo gives you an indication of the debris that built up in the Kaskaskia Lock. (Photo by Robert and Kay Creech)

Joliet is typically a one-day stop as Loopers make their way down river. Not this time. We had to wait seven days before the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would open up another section of the river and nearby locks. Stranded again!

We took advantage of the added flex time by cleaning the boat, and having pot-luck dinners with our new friends on the wall. We walked all over town, read, napped. Again, we were thankful to be safe. But after a week, we were also more than ready to be on the move again.

The area from Joliet to the Mississippi River was hit hardest with flooding, therefore it was closed the longest -- two weeks in some places. Once the section from Joliet to Ottawa was opened, we left and we were able to witness first-hand the flooding aftermath. Water lines on houses, some still partly submerged by river water, as well as water up and over the banks of the river. The water was high enough that the first lock we came to was mostly underwater and not in operation.

When the water is this high, the lock dam has wickets that are lowered to the riverbed. This procedure then allows all vessel traffic to traverse over the dam, right over the wickets, and continue down stream. We did this three separate times over the next several days, as we worked our way through the still-receding waters of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.

Chuck and Fabin Miller took this flood shot at Grafton Harbor Marina in Grafton, Illinois. Notice the water level between the dock and sidewalk, compared to the photo below

While traveling down river, Lisa and I were constantly on the lookout for debris to dodge. We came across the typical logs and branches. However it was the trees, occasional house doors, roofing, and appliances we also had to be vigilant about. They all can cause severe damage to a boat’s driving gear. Added to the high water and debris were the dramatically displaced channel buoys. In some cases they’d completely disappeared, washed away by the force of flooding water. We learned early on not to trust the buoys’ placement, and instead rely solely on our GPS chart plotter and paper charts.

Leaving Joliet on Wednesday, September 26th, brought us to Heritage Harbor, in Ottawa, Illinois. Heritage Harbor had been home for many of the stranded Loopers, some for up to two weeks, as they watched the rivers rise, close, and eventually recede. The river at Heritage rose to within a foot of the floating docks’ support-pole tops. As bad as it was, it could’ve been much worse if the water had risen enough to separate the docks from their support system.

The ramps from the docks to shore were completely submerged at one point, so boaters had to use their dinghies to get to shore until the water subsided. By the time Lisa and I arrived, the water had gone back down, and all that remained where the high-water marks on shore and stories of the flooding from the Loopers stranded there. Despite the delay and inconvenience, everyone seemed in good spirits. They had plenty of time to get boat chores done, catch up on organizing, and they all got to know each other quite well during this forced, extended stay at Heritage Harbor. Most were more than ready to resume their traveling adventures when the rivers finally opened.

Chuck and Fabin Miller took this flood shot at Grafton Harbor Marina in Grafton, Illinois. Notice the water level between the dock and sidewalk, compared to the photo below.

We only spent two days at Heritage Harbor and left when the U.S. Coast Guard opened up more of the river downstream. Our destination and plan was to anchor at Bath Chute, four miles this side of the last closed section of the river. If you travel into a closed section of a river, you risk not only potential hazardous travel conditions but also getting a $1,000 fine from the U.S. Coast Guard and confiscation of your boat. None of these were risks we were willing to take.

We thought the balance of the river would open up the next day so we decided that patience was in order. To our surprise this last section remained closed to pleasure craft for another day-and-a-half beyond our expectations. Again, nowhere to go, lots of time to read, and write. The Coast Guard opened the final section of the Illinois River on Monday, September 29, at 1:30 p.m., so we pulled anchor and headed out.

As we came through the last 125 miles of the Illinois River we still saw flooded shore-side house and farmlands, the water hadn’t receded completely, even two weeks after the storm had come through. We experienced a little bit of uncertainty, distress, and some inconvenience, and so we can only imagine how the local towns, businesses, and homeowners -- the real victims of the floods -- were able to cope with Mother Nature’s wrath and aftermath.

This house, on the Illinois River, is surrounded by water twelve days after the rains stopped and the rivers opened back up.