Day One- Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal

How do you count the days?  Our Great Loop adventure began in Mackinaw City earlier this summer.  We lost track of the days.      Leaving the Great Lakes is a new beginning, so I’m calling it day one on the river.

How do you drop from Chicago at 600 miles above sea level , to Mobile Alabama at sea level?     Many Many Locks and Dams.

The first lock on the Inland River leg is just as we leave Lake Michigan next to Navy Pier.  Built in 1938, the Chicago Harbor lock is designed to prevent the Chicago River and Sanitary Canal from flowing into Lake Michigan.  Upon entering the lock, the boat will be dropped 2-4 feet then the doors open and boaters will enter into the Chicago river system.

We are traveling with a couple we met in Chicago- they went in first, so their boat is in many of our photos- hopefully we will exchange photos ! Meanwhile a selfie will have to do:

FIRST LOCK on the Chicago waterways:


This route through Chicago will wind under 40 bridges of various heights and styles in about 5 miles.  This includes vehicle bridges and rail road bridges, Lift bridges and bascule bridges, and fixed bridges.  Each bridge is described in our guidebook- for instance it might say:     “the railroad bridge is usually open unless a train is coming”.

By lowering our radar mast to reduce the overhaul air draft of our boat we will  fit under all the fixed bridges on this route.   There are at least 40 bridges in the first 5 miles.


If you want to experience Chicago from the water, a popular tour is the architectural tour by boat. the views of the buildings are amazing.


Mike and Dana offered to walk over to the Michigan bridge and took pictures of us as we crossed under the bridges!



Wonderful views of the city,  the beautiful buildings, occasional  boat traffic….gradually left the city and proceeded into more industrial areas.   The neglected buildings became more frequent.


This is a working river. with barge traffic,industrial facilities and tows. Not many other pleasure cruisers after we leave the taxis and tour boats behind!

The Chicago river joins with the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and continues about 20 miles in the canal.  The Illinois River is formed at the junction of the Kankakee and Des Plain Rivers at mile marker 273.  We will be on the Illinois River 273 miles to the Mississippi River


The first day also included the much anticipated electrical fish barrier at mile marker 296.   Many are familiar with attempts to keep the Asian carp out of the great lakes.  A permanent electrical fish barrier has been installed to prevent invasive fish species . Signs warn to stay inside, do not touch the water, and wear a life vest.   We passed through uneventful.




The locks for the day included the Thomas O’Brian Lock with a drop of 4 feet at the entrance, next up is Lockport Lock and dam dropping 40 feet.    There will be many more locks before dropping a total of 600 feet ro Mobile Alabama.

The lockmaster gives instructions as to which side to tie up, and they indicate how to put our line around the floating bollard. The bollard drops down with the boat; the doors open, the whistle blows and off we go.  The walls are slimy, and we plan to make covers for our bumpers.   A few tips have been to use cut off legs from XL sweat pants to slide onto the fenders ;  wrap in a net laundry bag or even substitute large exercise balls for our usual round fenders.   We have plenty of time to figure out the best method so stay tuned.

FIRST NIGHT- 8 hours travel time:

Free dock at Joliet is the typical stopping point for loopers on the first night.    It took about 8 hours to travel through Chicago, an hour at the lock and a many no wake zones – so after 43  miles on the first day, we motored under our last bridge and tied up at the free city wall on the outskirts of Joliet Illinois.    This is a popular stop based on timing- not amenities.  It is a crumbled wall at a remote city park.   With electric hookup, no water; well policed but otherwise no security.  We stayed on the boat and did not explore.

There were 9 boats on the wall by nightfall- two sailboats with their mast lashed onto the boat, a 50 foot carver, a trawler with water pump problems, two 39 foot Mainship trawlers,  a power boat, various trawlers and cruising boats .

All doing the loop; some had started in Florida, one couple was from Arizona and started the loop in Missouri, One started in New York and several of us were just starting from Lake Michigan.   All had great stories to share, even though we arrived in the rain, it was hard not to stand and chat on the side of the wall.


An over view of our route through Illinois:

Our next lock is Brandon,  shown on the map.  Then  327 miles on the Illinois River to Grafton Illinois, at the convergence of the Mississippi River.  The river is charted in miles- we will follow the Illinois River mile markers to Grafton which is mile marker zero; then pick up the Mississippi at mile marker 218 and follow it to zero, before entering the Ohio River.

Allowing for delays at the locks, weather and “stay-put days,   we expect to be in the Grafton/Alton area in 10 days.

Slow and steady= remember we are traveling to the gulf at an average speed of 10 miles per hour.

Every night we review the upcoming charts and plan our day.   When moving, we average 50 miles per day; when at marinas, we like to stay two nights to explore the area . Subject to change of course.

Today’s stats:

  • 43 miles traveled
  • 8  Hours
  • 2 locks
  • 60 bridges
  • 1 fish barrier

What an accomplishment to have the city of Chicago behind us, the experience of two locks and the company of other boaters to share the good times.   Life is good.







About mnsailors

Our blog will highlight our travels along America's Great Loop. We sold our sailboat on Lake Superior for a Trawler to do America's Great Loop in 2016.
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