6,000 mile Great Loop journey stops in Ottawa

Hundreds of boaters are staying at Heritage Harbor on their way to complete grand circle

Loopers tie into Heritage Harbor on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023, in Ottawa.

Ottawa’s Heritage Harbor is a regular stop for hundreds of boaters looking to fulfill a lifelong dream.

Known as the Great Loop, boaters travel a continuous waterway, including part of the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf Intracoastal Waterways, the Great Lakes, Canadian Heritage Canals and the inland rivers of the United States to complete a 6,000 mile journey.

“We want to see America, not just the big cities, but all the small ones along the way that make up the real part of the country.”

—  Rick Troutman, boater staying at Heritage Harbor

These Great Loopers make their way down the Illinois River through Ottawa every year. This year is a little different – more are making their way in groups – because of the recent lock closures on the Illinois Waterway.

Throughout October, 12 to 16 boats each day have been stopping by the Heritage Harbor Marina on their journey, starting their day in Joliet, making their way through the Marseilles Lock and Dam, then staying the night in Ottawa.

A beehive of activity has occurred every evening in October as the boats arrive in a flotilla organized by the American Great Loop Cruisers Association in a way that eventually will allow hundreds of boats that have been waiting to navigate the waterway from the Great Lakes downriver to the Gulf Coast.

The AGLCA has worked with its member boaters and Heritage Harbor to organize that movement south in an orderly way and ensure all boats are safely berthed, provisioned and fueled as they head downriver to warmer winter climates.

Tuesday evening, boaters made their way into the marina, tying up, registering at the marina office, then meeting at the Red Dog Grill for food, drinks and a presentation by marina manager Jeremy Fowler.

“This has always been my husband’s dream,” said Beth Smith, of her husband Tim, both of Kelleys Island, Ohio.

The couple will complete their loop, or “cross their wake” as the loopers refer to it, at Delray Beach, Florida. Beth and Tim Smith found their boat there and began their journey in June 2022.

“He loves the water, and I like the land,” said Beth Smith, who is writing a blog of the journey. “I like going into the coastal towns. The coastal towns are very lovely and they love tourists.”

Rick and Sue Troutman refer to their boat, Gratitude, as their RV on water. They were excited about the fall colors along the Illinois River and were planning a trip to visit downtown Ottawa, and possibly grab a bite to eat.

“We’ve seen a lot of things, eaten a lot of good food,” Sue Troutman said. “It’s been a blast.”

The Hickory, North Carolina couple will cross their wake in Jacksonville, Florida.

“We’re a little over halfway,” Sue Troutman said.

Jim and Vickie Peck, of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, already have completed their loop, crossing their wake in 2020 in Florida. Jim Peck said he owns a Ford dealership in Clinton, Wisconsin, and is able to keep in touch with management every three to four days from the boat. The couple bought a boat in 2019 with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and have found the space comfortable after the pandemic – still with plenty of social opportunities.

“It’s fun to meet all the new people,” Vickie Peck said.

Mark and Kimberly Broses, of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, are taking a different approach to their journey. With a grandchild on the way, they are going to take their trips in a much smaller boat in four different segments, but go their own way, with a goal of reaching Alabama before winter, then navigating through more of the Cumberland River in Tennessee and the Ohio River to Pittsburgh on other trips.

“We’re not going to do the big loop,” Broses said. “You miss so much trying to do the circle. I want to see everything I can and do it our way.”

Fowler has been leading a presentation at Red Dog Grille for each group of loopers, giving them a slideshow presentation with maps of what’s ahead down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. The boaters can go as fast or as slow as they wish on their journeys, with some of them looking to get to Peoria from Ottawa in one day, and others stopping in Henry.

“Heritage Harbor has been a true harbor for these travelers, offering a place to rest, recharge and refuel,” said Tammy Barry, vice president of sales and marketing at Heritage Harbor. “The extensive amenity offerings make Heritage Harbor a true ‘harbor’ in the literal sense of the word. The Loopers enjoy the comfort and convenience of shower suites, onsite waterfront restaurant Red Dog Grill, concierge-level dock service and dock assistance with fueling and pump out. The Bill Walsh Group also offers a courtesy van for the Loopers to take into town to go to the laundromat, groceries and other necessities.”

Heritage Harbor said residents can visit in the evening and participate in observing and welcoming visitors from around the world as they pass through. Boat parades are expected in the late afternoon to early evening hours through Oct. 31.

“We want to see America, not just the big cities, but all the small ones along the way that make up the real part of the country,” Rick Troutman said.

Ottawa is playing a role in showing what America has to offer.

About 12 to 16 boats are stopping at Heritage Harbor each day throughout October on their way to completing The Great Loop, a 6,000 mile water journey around the eastern portion of the United States.
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