21 Oct 2022

IL Waterway Lock Closures 2023: What to Expect When They Re-open

Maintenance on the Illinois Waterway has locks closed through September 30th and AGLCA will keep you up-to-date on how these closures are impacting the Great Loop route.

Update 8/31/23:  We know many of you are anxious about your passage through the Illinois Waterway this fall as we await the reopening of the three locks that are closed for maintenance. As we have in the past, AGLCA is working to organize our member boats into Flotillas so that the bottleneck forming in Chicago doesn’t create issues all the way down the river. This process worked in previous years when maintenance kept locks on this same river closed until November. That said, many of you already know there are more Loopers this year than in the past. We still believe we can help our members create some kind of order out of what would otherwise be chaos, but we need your help. Getting through this area in October, particularly in the first two weeks, will take patience and cooperation.

Current Status

First, the maintenance projects at all three locks are still expected to wrap up as scheduled on September 30th. In a check-in with the head of the project on August 30th, he shared that they are certain Brandon Road (the first closed lock) and Marseilles (the third closed lock) will be completed on time. There are some concerns, however, about Dresden Island (the lock in the middle). The contractors are working round-the-clock, adding resources, and modifying processes to save time. They are still expecting an on-time opening, but if there are any concerns about possible delays, they are at Dresden Island. We will continue to check in on progress and keep you updated as September unfolds. Our thanks to the US Army Corps of Engineers for their careful planning, and their contractors’ diligence that is working to keep the projects on track. Now, it’s time to start planning for the reopening on October 1st.

Last month, we asked those planning to head into the river system in the first few weeks of October to submit a form designed for us to gauge how many boats would be transiting the area. The results tell us that even more members than we anticipated plan to come through Chicago and continue downriver when the locks open – a total of 274 boats so far, with additional boats being added nearly daily. More specifically, here are the responses:

  • 70 boats responded that they’d like to go through as soon as possible
  • 55 boats responded that they’d like to wait a few days for traffic to die down
  • 72 boats responded that they’d like to wait about a week
  • 58 boats responded that they’d like to wait one to two weeks
  • 19 boats responded that they plan to go through in the second half of October, although we didn’t specifically request that this group answer the survey, so there are likely more.

With that many Looper boats, the issue shifts from how many can lock through per day to how many the marinas, anchorages, and other services downriver can support simultaneously. The Illinois Waterway has fewer facilities than many of the places that precede it on the Loop. Even if we could get 50 boats locked through per day, there wouldn’t be enough places for them to stage the night before, and not enough places for them to go once they lock through.

The Preliminaries

As mentioned above, we have been in contact with the Corps of Engineers and facilities downriver, and with their feedback taken into account, we are most comfortable with Flotillas of 16 boats. 16 boats can stage at Joliet the night before they start this section of the waterway, 16 boats can fit in a single lockage in this area, and 16 boats should be able to find accommodations after locking through the third of the re-opened locks – Marseilles Lock and Dam.  That number also leaves some room for an unknown number of non-Looper pleasure craft and delivery captains who we expect will be in a hurry to transit this area. We will continue to work on this and if we believe more boats can get through, we’ll certainly adjust.

The next step towards organizing you into Flotillas is for you to fill out another survey, selecting your first, second, and third choice dates to leave Joliet, Illinois and head through the newly re-opened locks.

Please understand that you may need to adjust your expectations.  Again, our preliminary survey showed that 70 Looper boats want to go through “as soon as possible” after the locks reopen. It’s nearly impossible for 70 Looper boats and an untold number of other pleasure craft to lock through in a few days’ time, especially since they are competing with commercial traffic that has priority and has also been backed up for months. Further, it would be nearly impossible for 70 Looper boats to find places to tie up or anchor if they moved down the Illinois River at the same time. The next choice on the August survey was waiting “a few days” with 55 more boats selecting that option. If that second wave sticks with the plan of waiting a few days, they’ll be starting down the river before the large “as soon as possible” group clears, and that has the makings of quite a logjam. Therefore, when filling out the new survey with your first, second, and third choice dates, we highly recommend you select the latest dates you might want, rather than the earliest, to help smooth out the curve of Loopers coming through.

Here are a few things to ease your mind if leaving Lake Michigan later worries you:

  • Boats remain on Lake Michigan late in the season every year and are still able to head south safely and enjoyably in late October and early November. We don’t necessarily recommend remaining on the northern part of the Lake into November, but if you are making your way southward and watching your weather days, safe passage is possible and relatively easy. Plus, you’ll have extra time to spend on the Great Lakes, which are some of the best cruising grounds on the Loop.  August’s issue of the Great Loop Link gave you many options for exploring the western side of the Lake with this extra time.  The September issue offers ideas on marinas where you can tie up to wait for the locks to reopen. This is also an opportune time to take a trip off the boat to see family and friends or enjoy other types of travel. The best way to help assure easy passage is to delay your plans if you can. 
  • If you are attending the Fall Rendezvous and have concerns about making it there in time, The Perch’s itinerary through this area last year would have put us at Joe Wheeler State Park in 14 travel days, which we did over the course of 19 total days (excluding an extended stay at Paris Landing for last year’s Fall Rendezvous that would otherwise have been just an overnight stop). If you leave Chicago by mid-October, you should have ample time to make it to Joe Wheeler State Park for the event which starts on November 6th.

When you fill out the new form, please take all this into account. As we stated, we are most comfortable with Flotillas of 16. If the numbers hold, we can get all 274 boats through in about 17 days. The problem is, in our preliminary survey, too many want to go towards the beginning of the pack.

We will do our best to put you in a Flotilla for the day you request, but please be committed to adjusting your plans, if needed, to travel with the Flotilla you’re assigned. This entire plan depends on Loopers working together and being patient and cooperative. If some decide to ignore the process after filling out the form and go when they want instead of with their Flotilla, we can expect a difficult-to-resolve bottle neck.

The Plan

Please note that nothing we are going to describe in this plan constitutes a reservation of any kind.  We cannot control how many non-Looper boats will also be trying to get through the area, and we are not making reservations for you at marinas nor determining how many boats a specific anchorage might be able to hold. You will need to plan your own trip, just as you always would. But by staggering the entry into the first of the closed locks (Brandon Road Lock), we can help flatten the curve of Loopers coming through.

As we all know, pleasure craft are the lowest priority for lockage. With commercial vessels also backed up from the closure, it could be days or weeks before pleasure craft are allowed through. But we’ve confirmed with the Corps of Engineers that they will accommodate a lockage of pleasure craft once each day shortly after first light.

We recommend that boats stage at or near Joliet the day before their Flotilla is designated to start through the re-opened locks. So, if the first Flotilla is set to transit the locks on October 1st, those boats should plan to arrive at Joliet on September 30th.

In addition to your preferred dates, the form you’ll be filling out will ask for volunteers willing to serve as Flotilla Leaders. Flotilla Leaders will be responsible for communicating with lock operators and disseminating the information to the rest of the Flotilla. This is important because the lock operators greatly appreciate hearing from one boat instead of 16.  The Flotilla Leader will confirm the expected lock through time, and the number of boats, with the Brandon Road lock operator the night before they intend to lock through.

Sunrise in Joliet on October 1, 2023 is 6:49 a.m. Depending on instructions from the lock operator the night before, and likely confirmed the morning of, the Flotilla will leave Joliet (Mile 287.8) at first light. Between the Joliet Wall and the Brandon Road Lock is the McDonough Street Drawbridge (Mile 287.2) which has a vertical clearance of 17’ when closed. This bridge will not open between 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. so be sure to consider that in your planning as some Looper boats cannot clear this bridge without an opening. You will want to clear this bridge before 7:30 a.m. In addition, Waterway Guide reports that due to bridge maintenance, you must request an opening one hour in advance.

The Brandon Road lock operators will be expecting the Flotilla and will do their best to find a break in commercial traffic as close to the planned time as possible.

After locking through at Brandon Road, the group will proceed 16 miles to Dresden Island Lock & Dam (Mile 271.5). Ideally boats will travel together because they will not be locked through until all have arrived. The lock operators at Dresden Island will be informed about the Flotilla’s details by their colleagues at Marseilles, but the Corps has asked that the Flotilla Leader contact the lock operator at Dresden Island about two hours prior to expected arrival to coordinate locking through.

The same process will be followed at the Marseilles Lock & Dam (Mile 244.6), with the group leader contacting the lock operators about two hours before arrival.  Once you’ve cleared the Marseilles lock, you’ll have cruised about 43 miles and transited three locks. Most will be ready to stop for the day. The obvious stopping point is Heritage Harbor Marina (Mile 242.4), an AGLCA Sponsor.  There are also a few anchorages nearby, and depending on how much daylight is left, faster boats may choose to make Starved Rock Marina, which is another 9 miles downriver.

Should you need a bail-out point due to mechanical or other issues, there are a few small marinas for shallow draft boats above the Marseilles lock, and there are some anchorages. Review your charts, guidebooks, and navigation apps to identify your Plan B (and perhaps C and D) in advance.

Please don’t make a marina reservation until you know your Flotilla’s anticipated date.  Flotilla 1 will leave Joliet on October 1st if the locks open on schedule and should arrive below Marseilles that night. All Flotilla’s dates could shift if the locks open late.

Once you’ve begun this segment of the Loop, we urge to you continue moving each day (mechanical issues or foul weather excepted) so that those coming behind you have a place to drop the hook or tie up. The first place with significant numbers of slips is the Alton/Grafton/Port Charles area where the Illinois River meets the Mississippi. You can review The Perch’s 2022 Itinerary through the Illinois Waterway on the www.GreatLoop.org website in our segments area if you’d like an idea of some of the possible stops.

Next Steps

Please fill out this form, completing it only once per boat. On the preliminary form, we had many duplicate submissions which makes it harder for the Home Port Crew to work through them and will delay the Flotilla assignments. You will receive a confirmation on your screen and an email letting you know that your form has been successfully submitted. Forms must be submitted by September 8th. At that point, we will organize the groups and notify you of your Flotilla assignment by September 11th. Late form submissions will be accepted, but you’ll be added to groups that have availability which are likely to be those later in the month. Once we have the Flotillas set, we’ll be creating a group on our website for each Flotilla to facilitate communication and information exchange among the 16 boats.

We know this is not ideal, but it is part of Looping. One of my favorite Looper-isms is that the Loop is easy enough to not be arduous, but challenging enough to be an accomplishment. This is one of those challenges that leads to a huge sense of accomplishment upon crossing your wake. This will also be the root of some of your most repeated stories about the Loop and some of your closest Looper friendships. Thank you in advance for your cooperation to help make this plan a success.

The Home Port Crew is here to help. Please reach out to us at [email protected] or 877-GR8LOOP (877-478-5667) with questions.

--Kim Russo, AGLCA Director

Update 8/1/23:  AGLCA will be facilitating putting our members into groups of about 20 boats to proceed through the re-opened locks together.  One member of each group will volunteer to coordinate with the lock operators and share the information with the other boats in their group. The benefits here are two-fold. 1) Loopers can remain at a safe harbor until the lock is nearly ready for them to transit, keeping them out of the way of the commercial traffic that will also be jockeying for position, and 2) The lock operators appreciate hearing from one rather than 20 boats, and they also appreciate us staying out of the way until it’s our turn to lock through, as large numbers of barges and tows will be entering and exiting the locks.

**If you plan to go through the Illinois Waterway in October, please fill out this survey.**  

We are working with the Corps of Engineers to ensure the process will be as smooth as possible. In the meantime, it will be helpful to get a better handle on how many boats will be planning to transit the area during the first two weeks post-opening.  Therefore, we’re using this survey to begin to gather the information we’ll need to form groups. Again, this is just for us to get a better feeling for how many boats we’ll be dealing with.  In next month’s Great Loop Link, we’ll share more details on how these smaller groups will proceed through the area.  Sometime on or about September 1st, we’ll open the ability for you to join specific groups.

Posted 10/21/22:  In a similar plan to what Loopers saw in 2020, the Corps of Engineers will close four locks in 2023 for much needed maintenance.

The eight locks found on the Illinois Waterway, connecting Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River, were built back in the 1920s and 1930s. The locks have an expected 50-year lifespan, and the Corps has done an amazing job doubling that lifespan. The Illinois Waterway is one of the busiest in the nation, moving in the neighborhood of 140 million tons of goods up and down the river every year.

We will continue to share more information with Loopers as it becomes available, but this is what we know right now.

Beginning June 1, 2023 the Corps of Engineers will be closing Brandon Road, Dresden Island, Marseilles, and Starved Rock Lock & Dams.

Brandon Road ~ closed 120 days (June 1 – Sept. 30)
Dresden Island ~ closed 120 days (June 1 – Sept. 30)
Marseilles ~ closed 90-120 days (June 1 - Sept 30)

Brandon Road and Dresden Island will both have new upper miter gates installed and gate machinery replaced. Brandon Road also needs to have repairs to the concrete walls. Valve and electrical system replacements will also be done at Dresden Island.

Marseilles requires a little less work, only machinery replacement and electrical rehab. 

Why these 120 days?

As we learned in 2020, the dates picked by the Corps of Engineers isn’t random. They aren’t trying to make life difficult for Loopers, but instead are looking at the big picture, keeping in mind all the vessels who use the waterway.

And, as with most things, Mother Nature gets her say as well.

When considering the ideal time to do the repair work on the locks, of course winter is out. No one is working on locks in the middle of winter with freezing temperatures and a foot of snow. After winter, comes the flooding season (affectionately known as spring), when depending on how much rain and melting snow is coming down the system from places further north, they are forced to wait until water levels recede back to normal before beginning any maintenance work. But by the fall (harvest season) some of those aforementioned 140 million tons of commodities are ready for their trip up or down the river.

The only option left is summer.

But all that considered, if they are able to complete the work on time as they did in 2020 (even with all the COVID-related supply chain and worker absentee delays they experienced) this will have Loopers heading down the river system in early October. Not too bad, considering the 2020 closures started in July and went through the end of October, meaning Loopers were just starting down the rivers in early November.  The 2023 Fleet will hopefully be headed down the rivers to warmer locales about a month sooner, which is great news!

Doug will keep us posted as the projects progress and if changes or delays come up, he will let us know. To keep informed on the projects yourself, head to the Rock Island Corps of Engineers website.  On the right side of the screen, click on the Navigation box, and then scroll down to the box labeled Illinois Waterway Consolidated Closures for all the latest information.

We are grateful to Doug and his team (including all the lockmasters on the Illinois Waterway Lock & Dams) for keeping us informed and working with us to keep Loopers cruising down the rivers!