Right now we are sailing towards the Afton Lock and Dam which is our second to last lock, yay! We took a zero day in Grafton, Illinois yesterday and it was an absolutely wonderful impromptu decision. We stopped into Grafton on the 22nd to pick up some packages my parents sent to the post office. For some reason only one package showed up so we had to wait until the following morning for the second. After spending our afternoon at a bar right on the river using Internet, we rowed directly across the river to a sandbar to spend the night. There we met Jim and his dog Gypsy. We hung out with them for a couple hours as the sunset. It was a great time, thanks for the company and cold drinks Jim! Kyle and I spent our evening under the stars around the fire. We could hear live music in the distance from a bar across the river. Our sandbar was pretty unique because it was right on the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. So technically Grafton is on the Illinois River, but it connects with the Mississippi River right by our sand bar. Anyway, after making breakfast and packing up we headed to the post office before continuing south. On the walk to the post office I was mentioning how much I loved the town and wished we would have explored it more. That was it, the decision was made- we would spend the day doing just that. Being tourists and wandering around on intuition and instinct, rather than any sort of plan. And since we had found out that we didn’t want to be stopping in St. Louis, we decided to celebrate my birthday in Grafton as well and go out to dinner that evening.
Solvi was safe pulled up on some grass in front of a nearby restaurant, so we were free to do whatever we pleased all day. The day was spent walking around the town, meeting all the local people, window shopping, having lunch in a park, and stopping in at a couple bars to cool down in the AC over a cold drink. At one point we saw a really awesome motorcycle with a side car and wandered around until we found the owner to ask him about it. Another time we ended up in a clock repair shop and spent over an hour talking with the kind owners. It’s a rare thing these days, to spend an entire day with absolutely no intentions other than finding food for dinner. I felt I was really living, not just existing. We were so present in every interaction and encounter. There wasn’t any side chatter going on in my head. It was extremely relaxing and evoked a sense of mindfulness in everything I did throughout the day. During one of our retreats from the heat of the day we met a guy who told us, “If you do anything in this town, you need to go up the hill.” He then went on to explain that just a quarter mile, straight up, was what they call “the best view in the Midwest”. He informed us about a free trolley that will drive us up there and said at the top is a winery with a restaurant where you can sit out and look over the entire river valley. Kyle and I weren’t feeling like making any definite decisions, but we kept it in mind. When the temperature finally started dropping as the day turned to evening, we headed back to Solvi to check on her and to change clothes. Twenty minutes later we were standing at the trolley stop with our thumbs sticking out. The driver got a kick out of our hitchhiking joke and picked us up with a big grin. He then told us about the winery and the area we were headed. The trolley ride was only about 10 minutes, but it was straight up. The view kept getting better and better as we increased in height, until we reached the top of the bluff and the view was absolutely spectacular. We jumped off the trolley and spent some time walking around before heading into the restaurant. We came to a viewing spot and both just started roaring with laughter. Down below, probably 500 feet down, was little Solvi. She was the tiniest little speck on the river’s edge, but we both knew it was her. How fun to be able to not only see the river from a different perspective, but also Solvi. After finding a perfect spot on the patio overlooking the river valley, we ordered some drinks and an appetizer. There we spent our evening- in what we call our “fancy clothes” because we usually only where them in town, drinking red wine and Guiness beer, overlooking miles and miles of the river we have come to find our home. Taking the trolley and being so high up really made me feel like I was far away in some distant place. It made the entire experience special. We laughed, cheers’d, and held hands while eating fresh spinach and pita bread. It was a lovely and romantic evening filled with love, a spectacular view, and the company of my best friend. A birthday I will never forget! A huge thanks to my parents for dinner and for their constant support 🙂
We made it through the last lock and dam this evening! It has been an extremely long day. 30 miles of rowing and about 4 of sailing. Two locks and one 8 mile stretch of a man made canal where the current was against us. Extremely exhausted and a bit anxious about the St. Louis Harbor tomorrow morning. Good day overall though, beautiful sunshine and fun singing sea shanties.
Well we made it through St. Louis Harbor! I am feeling quite relieved because it was a big ordeal leading up to the passage. As a whole the passage really wasn’t that bad. It was definitely intense and nothing to be taken lightly, but it went well, quick, and smooth. St. Louis Harbor is supposedly the busiest place on the entire Mississippi River and the river through the area is absolutely smothered in commercial traffic. Tugs and barges in all directions, lots of bridges, heavy current, and a busy channel way. We knew before we even started this journey that the river is a bit different after the last lock and dam and that it becomes more industrial and the ships get bigger. We have both been fully prepared for this change, and had done sufficient research and planning to make the transition as smooth and safe as possible. I wasn’t feeling very worried about the area due to that research, but a few people along the way really got me worrying. When we first arrived in Grafton a bar tender informed us about a kayaker that had been killed two months prior while trying to kayak through St. Louis. A few other people in the area also warned us to either be careful, or to not go at all. Then, to top it off, when we arrived at the Afton Lock and Dam, the lock master looked right at us and said, “I have lived in this area my whole life and I would never go through St. Louis in a boat like that.” He then went on to explain all the reasons why: 9 knots of current, driftwood, logs, commercial traffic so bad that you can’t maneuver, bridges funneling water causing the boat to turn…and that’s when I stopped listening. I am completely fine with people giving their advice, their opinions, and making some suggestions; the way the lock master went about it I found a bit unprofessional. He really scared me, without giving any suggestions or encouragement. Anyway after leaving that lock we were about 10 miles from the start of St. Louis Harbor. Because I had gotten so scared we pulled off on an island and did some more research. We fortunately had 4G service so were able to use google and make phone calls. After about an hour of checking weather, the Army Corps website, and reading encounters from other small boats who have made the passage, we came up with a game plan. We downloaded an application that shows us where all the tugs and barges are and where they are headed. We checked the weather forecast pretty extensively, and studied our chart carefully. After doing all that I felt much better and we continued for the day. Last night we stopped right at the mouth of the harbor and spent the night on a small sandy area in order to get an early start and get through the harbor as quickly as possible.
We left this morning around 8am and headed South towards the city. Before leaving we ate a big breakfast, took our time making sure we felt prepared and the boat was ready, and had a conversation about how to approach the day. We turned the radio on, had the application for tracking barges, and our chart book next to us. Kyle made a good point and we made the agreement that we were going to have a good and fun day, and that while going through the harbor we would remain calm and communicate with each other about what was going on. And away we rowed! Three big bridges all in a row greeted us first. We went under them, being very careful with the eddies and driftwood. Next we saw the craziness of the harbor. Barges, tugs, docks, everything around us, massive. We had a tug and barge heading towards us, so we rowed close to the Missouri side of the river. He passed with no issue, and we continued on. Soon we encountered our first really big tug and barge. On the Upper Mississippi the tugs push max 15 barges. Here in St. Louis, they push up to 40. Staying close to the Missouri side of the river, but not getting too close to the docked barges, we rowed along side the massive push. A couple guys on the back of a docked tug waved at us. A couple minutes later over the radio we heard the same guys talking to an oncoming barge. “Capt, just wanted to let you know you have a row boat coming down river Southbound.” The Captain replied “Thanks for the heads up, appreciate it.” Kyle then got on the radio and said, “Morning fellas, this is the row boat. Let us know if there is anything we can do to stay out of your way.” One of the guys replied, “We just really appreciate that you guys have a radio aboard!” He sounded a bit surprised. And slowly I started to relax. The tugs in the area knew we were out on the water, and not only that but we could communicate with each other. Many canoes and kayaks that do this trip don’t carry a radio, and while I have no doubt it can be completed just fine without it, I can’t express enough how important I feel it is. It is just such a simple device that allows a small craft to communicate with the huge ships that might otherwise not see a small craft.
The morning continued on, a constant battle of avoiding driftwood and maneuvering out of tugs way, but as a whole went smoothly. And before I knew it, the river started to open back up and on the shore I saw trees and sand, not barges and docks. Kyle and I both, for the first time all morning let our oars go and breathed a sigh of relief. We checked the chart and found out that we had just completed 16 miles in 2 hours, meaning we were traveling 8mph- that is really fast for little Solvi! We started laughing because neither of us realized how exhausted we were. I don’t think either of us knew how hard we were pushing it to get through that area as quickly as possible until it was over. Being that today is my actual birthday (25 on the 25th!) and that we had such a long day yesterday and a bit of an intense morning, when we saw our first sandy spot outside of the busy area, we looked at each other and quickly turned Solvi to head straight for it. It’s about 3pm and we have been on this sand bar since about 11am. It’s been a wonderfully relaxing afternoon. We are both feeling so excited to be past St. Louis, and past the last lock and dam. In front of us is open river! No stopping every 20 miles to go through locks. It feels that we have reached the next section of our journey and while I know for a fact it will provide its own challenges, I am filled with anticipation and excitement about what is to come.
After spending the afternoon contemplating on the St. Louis passage I have come to realize that I can learn a lot from this particular situation. Kyle and I have noticed a pattern as we travel down this mighty river. It seems that everywhere we go, the people all tell us the same thing, “This area is beautiful, but as soon as you get 20 miles down stream it gets real dangerous.” Or “Just after that next lock and dam you better be careful, you might want to skip that section.” It seems as though a lot of people are scared of what lies ahead, scared of the unknown. It has taken a lot of courage and internal development for me to push past the fear that these people have shared with me. While Kyle and I both really appreciate all the local knowledge, information, and advice, it is very important to remember to take it all with a grain of salt, as the saying goes. That when someone says the current is 9knots, it’s probably only 5 or 6. That when a man tells us the lock doesn’t like small craft, that maybe he went there on a bad day. When the woman who has never left the small Illinois town tells us that the river is a really dangerous scary place, that to her, it probably is. But Kyle and I have come prepared. We did our research, we go about our days as carefully and cautiously as possible. We check the weather, wind, and water conditions. We are patient when the conditions aren’t right, and we communicate with other boaters on the river. For some reason I really let people get to me regarding St. Louis. I let other people’s fear feed my own fear. Fortunately Kyle didn’t react this same way. Instead, he listened intently to what everyone said, but he interpreted it as data, as information. Not as a fear. Therefore his head was clear, he used the warnings to develop a plan, and because of that we had a safe, successful, and somewhat fun passage. While I would never go paddling through St. Louis for fun, it is completely doable when doing the entirety of the Mississippi River. We were able to take some pictures and enjoy the beauty the city had to provide as we rowed quickly by. I am feeling so thankful that we pushed through, that we didn’t give up or try to find a way around. It was a great experience for me as it instilled deep within that we are capable of whatever we put our mind to if we are smart and careful about it. So as the wind picks up and I see some afternoon storm clouds on the horizon, I smile as my toes are in the sand and I am safe on a beautiful sandy beach. I am blossoming out here on this journey down the river, and I am grateful to the St. Louis Harbor for providing a challenge and a growing experience.