'Great Loop' Boat Tour Snagged by Debris From Hurricane Ike

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Ron Gumm has made the best of 10 days spent with his apartment-like boat docked near here — taking in museums, scenic drives, eateries and, of course, the Gateway Arch — but he was eager Monday to head down the Mississippi River.

If only he could.

Rivers swollen by this month's torrential remnants of Hurricane Ike continued idling the North Carolina retiree and other boaters making "The Great Loop," a generally yearlong circumnavigation of eastern North America that takes them into Canada and eventually south to the Gulf Coast for the winter.

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Dozens of boats — many part of the 9-year-old America's Great Loop Cruisers' Association — remained idled Monday along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, unable to pass stretches of the inland waterways the Coast Guard began closing to recreational traffic last week because of debris and unsafe currents.

"It's pretty much Ike's aftermath," with Midwest runoff from that storm still feeding into swelling the rivers, said Lt. Chuck Mellor of the Coast Guard's St. Louis office. "Even though the rains aren't here anymore, the river's still high. And it's taking several days to lower itself."

Mellor's advice to Gumm and other so-called "Loopers": Sit tight, and be patient.

"It's going to go on probably for the rest of this week," Mellor said. "It's really hard to guess because the river changes daily."

The only closures involving commercial traffic like barges were two miles of the Mississippi just south of St. Louis. Messages left Monday by The Associated Press with barge operators and shipping trade groups were not immediately returned.

The Coast Guard cited Ike's runoff in banning recreational traffic from at least 75 miles of the Upper Mississippi River from Chester, Ill., southeast of St. Louis, to near Granite City, Ill., a St. Louis suburb. An additional 200 miles of Illinois River — stretching near Milton in western Illinois to the north-central part of the state — also was closed to casual boaters as of Monday.

Caught in between are about four dozen members of the Great Loop association unable to resume their trek to an eventual Oct. 20-23 reunion at an Alabama state park, then in most cases farther south for the winter.

Near Ottawa, Ill., southwest of Chicago, 15 "loopers" have called the Heritage Harbor Marina home in recent days, unable to get any farther down the Illinois River. Another boater was expected at the resort development Tuesday, with six to 10 more planning to pit stop there later this week until the river gets the green light, marina consultant John Mobley said.

"Everybody's just staging, getting ready to move downstream," said Mobley, who took the loop tour in 2004-05 and is known to the now-stranded guests as "Captain Moe." "I know exactly what they're going through and what makes them happy."

What makes them happy are things like courtesy cars that shuttle the stranded, self-professed "river rats" to grocery or liquor stores. The marina has WiFi, not to mention a 65-foot dinner boat that hosts 5 o'clock cocktails and Jimmy Buffett tunes.

Gumm has made do during the forced impasse, taking time to clean his 38-foot trawler dubbed "Etcetera" — a vessel with all the accouterments of good living, including a kitchen, full bathroom, living room, bedroom. Heating and air conditioning? It's got that, too.

"We've fixed things that have needed to be fixed for a long time," Gumm said, more than four months into the voyage he and his wife launched from their hometown of Wilmington, N.C. They plan to spend the winter and much of next year in Tennessee Valley — an area they couldn't see during their maiden attempt at the loop three years ago, when Hurricane Katrina savaged the Gulf Coast and deluged the Midwest.

"Right now, we can't get past St. Louis," Gumm said from his boat, still docked at a marina just north of St. Louis in Alton, Ill., and biding his time. He knows he doesn't have much choice.

"When you get on a boat, if you're not patient you get in trouble."