Our Love Affair With The River


The river system from Chicago to Mobile has gotten a bad rap. What we hear from some of the Loopers who travel through Charlevoix as they head towards Chicago and the start of this system is sometimes a lack of enthusiasm and an apprehension for this part of their trip. The concerns seem to range anywhere from boredom to fear. Sometimes partners and crew even forgo this portion of the Loop and re-join the captain and vessel when it reaches the Gulf of Mexico.

The Illinois River is a peaceful sanctuary
on the river system.

We’re sorry to hear about all this. This portion of a Looper’s trip is no different than any other part as far as the ability to experience remote beauty, warm-hearted people and, in fact, it has some of the most colorful and memorable stops one can experience while going south. Add to this the challenging navigation and communication skills required to negotiate around large barges in tight spaces, the preparations for the multiple bridge openings, and entering and tying up to gigantic locks, all this while coping with the current. The rewards are many and varied as you master these skills and you find your vessel finally melding into the rhythm of the river.

The architecture and mechanics of these old bridges is truly amazing.

There are countless opportunities for finding beauty on the rivers. The water itself has a special personality that can hold one’s attention as it changes from one portion to the next. When still, it reflects the landscape above, when turbulent it swirls and wanders. It’s alluring how the water almost carries you along with it toward its final destination, the Gulf of Mexico. The sunrises and sunsets shining on land and water bring a glow to the start and end of a day. The architecture of the bridges alone, which grace the rivers quite often in the beginning, offer a moment’s pause to imagine how all these amazing designs were born and have endured over the years.

Our motto is: Treat the tug captains
with respect and they’ll return the favor

The tug captains are professionals who have a system. They require professionalism from the captains of pleasure craft cruising in their territory. A new skill set is needed here, one that many boaters never have had the chance to practice before. It goes beyond communication between boaters, with marinas, or even with the Coast Guard. This is a cultural experience and a glimpse into an old transportation system that has it’s own language and rules. “I’ll see you on the one whistle?” Or, “Meet me on the two.” These are examples of some of the lingo. Add to that an unfamiliar accent and did I say colorful? See what I mean?

Hoppie’s, a traditional Looper stop where you’ll gain a lot of information on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.



There are two unforgettable, legendary stops on the river system. One is Hoppie’s Marina at Kimmswick, Missouri, on the Mississippi River. Hoppie’s has been in business since 1935, and is nothing more than several old barges fastened together along the west bank of the river. Fern and Hoppie currently run the business along with their daughter Debbie. Fern is famous for her daily informational meetings given to all interested at about 4:30, on most days.

During this time she’ll share the current conditions that a boater will find while traveling south on the Mississippi and east on the Ohio Rivers. She warns everyone about silted-in anchorages and the dangers of eddies, wing dams, river fog, and more. Fern will help you to avoid taking the Mississippi for granted, and is a reminder that traveling on this impressive river is a blessing.

The other well-known stop is Bobby’s Fish Camp. It’s just a little dock on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway at the heart of historic Bladon Springs, where you’ll get an incredible catfish dinner, served home-style on large pans, with huge bowls of coleslaw, served in a room full of your fellow dock mates. If it’s off season and you are traveling with a caravan of boats, the Demopolis lockmaster may take a count of the watercraft in his lock and make a call to Bobby’s to see if they think it’s worth their while to open up the restaurant for the evening.

Bobby’s Fish Camp is the place to stop for a delicious catfish dinner served home-style.

We can understand the apprehension about some situations that may occur further down the river system. Just before we left on our first Loop a friend of ours sat down with us to go over some navigation planning. He shared a few stories about boats being shot at, and schemes to get boaters arrested for waking small fishing boats. We never felt threatened by the residents on the shore of the river. Of course we always tried to be respectful by not waking their shoreline while transiting this area.

In the more southern section of the system there are a lot of fishing boats, even in the late season. There’s no good reason to be zipping through these areas because you have to slow down every so often for a fishing boat anyway. But as our friend told us sometimes there may be an unscrupulous person in a small boat who might try to frame you for waking them when in fact you gave them a very slow pass. Next thing you know you’re summoned at the next stop to show up at the courthouse to defend yourself. The solution to this problem is simple. We had a camcorder at the ready and when we felt uncomfortable coming across a fishing vessel that looked suspicious. There were only two of these occasions where we needed to take a video and record our non-wake near their boat all the while waving to them like tourists.

Our Diamond Island anchorage where
we enjoyed a peaceful evening.

There are many down-home culinary goodies that await a river traveler. Just visit any of the small towns that dot the way and find the local hot spot and you’ll be in for a treat. The selection can include pork chops, fried chicken, catfish, hush puppies, grits, and all things barbequed. It’s all delicious and served with a warm smile, a southern accent, and invitations to return again. Being northerners we found the hospitality exceptional and by the time we hit Mobile we were wishing we had that friendly accent ourselves. The food and the easygoing personalities helped to make our journey even more memorable.

We hear remarks about the isolation, being too far from towns, grocery stores, civilization. But this is true only part of the time. The continuing warmth of the movement south, the varied wildlife, the stunning beauty of the secluded anchorages where you’re sometimes just barely tucked out of reach of the groaning tugs and barges that keep this system alive and humming. All this plus the camaraderie and helpfulness of all the other boaters helps to minimize the thoughts of being in remote surroundings.

There’s so much history in this area of the country. This region is rich in battlefields, civil-rights, and history museums, as a lot happened here a long time ago. It’s easy to take a break from boating and reflect on the past. There are often marina loaner cars, for land excursions and an educational opportunity, not to mention a respite from the confines of your boat. It’s all just within easy reach.

We left the boat to tour the Shiloh
National Military Park, and learned
a lot about this period in history.

Sure the sun and sand beckon, a waiting treat at the end of an accomplished voyage. But let’s not sell the river system short. We hope that boaters on this route will slow down and savor the time spent in these waters while soaking up the beauty, the character, the history, and the culture. It deserves a longer look, and a special kind of respect for the diversity it shares with its travelers. The time spent on the rivers enhances a trip south on the American waterways.