Chasing Summer on Lake Michigan
We have now been on our “Loop” adventure for exactly 5 months, traveled 2500 miles through 8 states and Canada, have had our engines running for 330 hours, burned 1600 gallons of diesel fuel, negotiated countless locks, bumped the bottom twice and went hard aground once (fortunately with no damage). These statistics are fun to record and to think about, but they are not nearly as significant as the number of great people we have met and enjoyed traveling with. It is overwhelming to consider how our lives have been impacted by the people we have met and spent time with during these past months.
Each day that we have spent on Lake Michigan has brought us a crazy variety of experiences and challenges, especially as we continue to linger on the lake into the month of September. We have been told and have learned from recent experiences that the weather, specifically the wind speed and direction, will clearly dictate our ability to safely move the boat from one location to another. There are safe harbors about every 30 miles as we travel down the east side of the lake and we have been thankful for every one of them. Over the last 2 weeks, we have been able to cruise some distance south only about one out of every 3 days. If the wind is blowing from any direction with a “W” in it, we have not ventured out on the lake, knowing that it would be a very uncomfortable ride. The safe haven harbors that we have ducked into have been some of the most interesting and enjoyable towns that we have ever visited. Small towns with names like Charlevoix, Leland, Manistee, Pentwater and Grand Haven are friendly villages that thrive on boating, fishing and summertime visitors. The Michigan locals in these places are glad to see us and always interested in ensuring that we have a pleasant and memorable stay.
Patience is the key to staying out of trouble on these waters, so we have waited until the weather predictions have been extremely favorable and then ventured out for 5 to 6 hours of cruising at a time as we head south toward our final Lake Michigan destination of Chicago. Waiting for the right days has resulted in some of our most spectacularly beautiful cruising. We have typically motored about a mile off the coast in clear emerald green water with stunning views of a shore lined with huge sand dunes and sparsely populated woodlands. During these carefully picked cruising days, it might have reached 75 degrees, which makes us feel like we’re chasing what is left of a summer that eluded us in a part of the country where the we can’t stick our big toe in the water. Stel and I have not experienced a day without wearing a sweatshirt or jacket, and our bathing suits are buried in a bottom drawer somewhere. No complaints….knowing that our friends and family back home are still sweltering in the heat. Hope to be in Chicago by September 12th, spend 5 days in the big city and then start making our way down the river systems toward the deep south. God is good!
From Little Towns to The Big City
We were loving our time in the small towns along the east side of Lake Michigan, but we knew that the unpredictable weather of the approaching autumn months called for us to be off the lake and in Chicago by mid-September. We were fortunate to have 2 great weather days in a row with variable winds and sunny skies, so we made the best of them and cruised from Grand Haven to Chicago with overnight stops in Saugatuck and Michigan City. After about 6 hours at the helm on our way to Saugutuck, Stel and I looked over at the shoreline and saw some of the most beautiful sand dunes that we had ever seen. We both felt a strong pull to get a closer look, so we took a hard turn toward the beach and dropped the anchor in about 7 feet of water. We quickly dropped the dinghy in the water and pushed through the surf onto a beach full of weekend boaters. We looked up at the towering dune and then looked at each other with somewhat confident expressions. We can climb this thing….can’t we? Half way to the top our lungs were burning, so we took a water break, took some photos, and then continued to the top. Wow, what a view! It would be the only time we would see the expanse and beauty of Lake Michigan from this height, and with a bonus of seeing Estrellita anchored in the clear blue water below.
On the following Tuesday morning, we delayed our departure from Michigan City, Indiana knowing that the winds were predicted to die later in the morning. We finally pulled out of the marina and headed west across the bottom section of Lake Michigan. We were rocked and rolled for a few hours as the swells struck us on our beam, but then as we saw the Chicago skyline appear on the horizon, the waters calmed as we hoped that they would. It was a stunningly beautiful approach into Chicago, and to say the least, we were pretty excited about cruising into the big city after spending so many days in the small towns of Michigan. Neither Stel or I have ever spent any time in Chicago, so our plan is to spend at least 5 days in the windy city. We made reservations to stay in DuSable Marina, which is located in the heart of the city with a landscape of skyscrapers towering over our “little” Estrellita.
Chicago Exceeds Our Expectations
We spent 5 short days in Chicago and we found that it was not nearly enough time to experience all that this great city has to offer. Unique among great American cities, Chicago has kept its waterfront as a public playground and there are not too many places in the world where you can float your boat within a few hundred feet of the tallest and most impressive skyline that you will ever see. There are numerous well-maintained harbors that are actually in park-like settings. We took full advantage of the miles of bike paths that provided easy and inexpensive transportation to visit museums, parks, the zoo, Navy Pier, the aquarium, restaurants and our favorite market – Mariano’s! We were quite impressed with the city’s dedication to providing scenic, safe and enjoyable walking, running and biking access to the downtown waterfront areas. (We also were introduced to the CURB and UBER “apps” for calling taxis!) We kept the boat at DuSable Marina, which is known for it’s proximity to the heart of the city. It was great to be able to sit on the bridge of the boat and just stare at the impressive site above us, but it was even greater to be within 5 minutes of the “Magnificent Mile”, Grant Park or Millennium Park. If you have not yet been to Chicago, then go…and go before the end of September, because as you can tell from the photos, it can get a bit chilly as fall approaches.
As Stel and I were looking at all of the things to do in Chicago, we discovered that the Zac Brown Band was performing at Wrigley Field on the last evening that we were going to be in town. We were fortunate to find some tickets and WOW, what a treat! It was great enough to be able to go to historic Wrigley Field (not originally on Stel’s bucket list), but Zac Brown and his unbelievably talented band played for 3 hours and it was probably the best concert that we have ever been to.
We were sad to leave, but due to incoming weather, we pulled out of the marina early the next morning and passed through the Chicago lock, which lowers you about 3 feet into the narrow river passage through the most impressive skyscrapers of the city and then on toward the Illinois River system. As soon as we got into the middle of Chicago, we were informed by a fellow looper that a railroad bridge was under repair and we would not be able to pass beyond the city for another 3 days. We immediately turned the boat around, went back through the lock and back into Lake Michigan toward Calumet Harbor, an alternative route located about 15 miles south of Chicago. We were fortunate to have friendly weather conditions for the rest of that day, but it made for a very long run before we reached a safe stopping place in Joliet, Illinois. It was quite a industrial environment on the Cal-Sag Channel and we quickly realized that the rivers leading us down south were going to be vastly different from our days on the “inland sea”, Lake Michigan.
Illinois River Adventures
You would think that cruising on a trawler would involve easily made transitions as we move from one area to another, but the last 10 days have been rather dramatic. As you can see from the photos, we moved from the beautiful open waters of Lake Michigan to the very congested, muddy and industrial waterways of Illinois. Our autopilot has seldom been used as we keep our hand on the wheel to navigate around huge TOWS, debris in the water, sharp bends and low bridges. To give you an idea of the difference in the water in this area, Mark Twain said “it is too thick to drink and too thin to plow”.
As most of the LOOPERS have finished the Lake Michigan section of the trip and funneled into the narrow river headed south, we have once again enjoyed the opportunities of cruising with each other in groups of 2 or 3 boats. Some of the friendships that we have made started back on the east coast, but many of the cruisers that we are now meeting are couples who are just starting their Loop adventure from their home ports in Canada, Wisconsin and Michigan. Just when you think you have met most of the people on this wonderful journey, more of them jump into the mix with new excitement and energy. One of the few sad things that we have experienced is traveling with couples who eventually finish their loop (officially called “crossing your wake”) and then having to say goodbye as they head home and take a break from the cruising life for a while. We have seen many couples celebrate the end of a wonderful experience, but not without shedding a few tears as they leave a very simple and satisfying lifestyle behind….at least for a while. Most of these couples have cruising in their blood and will be seen back on the waterways soon enough.
Stel and I continue to enjoy the challenges of each and every VERY different day. The challenges of weather, navigation, safe anchoring, finding healthy food, finding a convenient laundromat, dodging logs and TOWS, conserving power and fuel, dealing with mechanical issues, helping others and being helped by others, and maintaining good communication with family and friends keeps us very busy. Our marriage has never been better as we continue to pray, work and play together along this journey of a lifetime.