Cruising the Great Loop

This 6,000-mile boating adventure is often dreamed about, but less often completed.

by Jonathan Wright
The IVY Club
As the only AGLCA sponsor on the Illinois River, the IVY Club is among the top places for transient boaters to stop for an overnight stay, fuel up and get a great meal. Photo by David Vernon

“No matter how you do the Loop, you have to go past Peoria,” explains Gary Hunt, harbor/docks director at the Illinois Valley Yacht & Canoe Club, better known as the IVY Club. “Last year we had a record number of boats come through. I think a couple hundred boats actually stopped at the IVY Club, so there must have been at least 250.”

These transient boaters are navigating the Great Loop, a 6,000-mile system of waterways that encircles half of the United States and part of Canada. From the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and up the Eastern seaboard, the Great Loop offers a number of potential routes for adventurers—and each one of them runs through Peoria.

Nestled along the Illinois River between Chicago and St. Louis, Peoria lies at the heart of the nation’s inland waterway system. Its river heritage is hardly unknown, though its potential for tourism feels somewhat undertapped. While the iconic Spirit of Peoria paddlewheeler hugs the downtown riverfront in between sightseeing cruises, this river’s significance—cultural, geographic and commercial—is easily taken for granted.

Five miles upstream in Peoria Heights, the IVY Club is often characterized as a “hidden gem”—a lesser-known destination in spite of its 112-year history. Perhaps it seems less accessible to the non-boating public, though you don’t need a boat to enjoy its many amenities. And for so-called “Loopers,” it’s one of the best stops on the entire route. 

“I think the IVY Club is on everybody’s top-ten list,” notes Chuck Stiles, who’s completed the Great Loop twice with his wife Margaret, most recently in September of 2018. “They’re really accommodating… friendly folks. When you go in there, they treat you like a member. Everybody I know that goes down that way stops at the IVY Club.”

The Great Loop
The Great Loop is a 6,000-mile boating adventure that encircles the eastern half of the United States and part of Canada. All of its potential routes run through Peoria.

A Maritime Lasso
It is said that three boys completed the Great Loop in a small sailboat sometime around 1890, but there is little documentation of this effort. Sixteen years later, Scott J. Matthews, a boat builder from Ohio, took his wife and two children on a year-long adventure aboard a 74-foot yacht he designed and built himself. Starting from Peoria, they traveled down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers into the Gulf, circled around Florida and up the East Coast, through the Erie Canal and back to Ohio—lassoing the eastern half of the country. It was the first such voyage for a private yacht. 

Nowadays, only a handful of Loopers take the Mississippi all the way down to New Orleans, explains Ron Matuska, a 20-year boater who’s completed the Loop with his wife, Jan. “The reason for that is the [lower] Mississippi does not have facilities for recreational boating. There are very few places to stop and get food and fuel.” 

Instead, the vast majority take the Ohio River to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, affectionately known as the “Tenn-Tom,” a series of locks and canals that cut across Mississippi and Alabama and empty into Mobile Bay. Constructed in the 1980s, the Tenn-Tom was a larger building project than even the Panama Canal. Without it, the Great Loop would be much less traveled. 

“There is much more to do and see on the Tenn-Tom Waterway,” Matuska explains. “There are so many small towns on the rivers—and opportunities to go to places like Chattanooga, Knoxville or even Nashville, Tennessee.” 

Having navigated both routes, Chuck Stiles also prefers the “cruiser-friendly” Tenn-Tom, with its various tourist attractions, plentiful marinas and the company of fellow Loopers. “When you go down the Mississippi, you’re going to be by yourself… dodging huge [barge] tows. On the Tenn-Tom, you can be with half a dozen boats all the time.

“I enjoy anchoring out and I especially love the little towns,” he adds. “A lot of times, we’ll stay somewhere for two or three nights. We like to spend that time in each of the towns… and just see what there is to see.”

As for a typical day on the Loop, there’s no such thing, Matuska chuckles. “Every day is different depending on where you are and the weather.” While some Loopers meticulously plot their schedules, most take it day by day, allowing for some amount of serendipity. “Usually we just kind of wing it. We have a general idea where we need to be at what time of year. Generally, people say you need to be in Chicago on Labor Day, give or take a couple of weeks.”

To be sure, any Great Loop expedition is defined by the weather as much as the itinerary. You’ll want to be on the East Coast in the spring (sidestepping hurricane season), Canada and the Great Lakes in the summer (avoiding frigid northern winters), the Midwest river systems in the fall, and the Gulf of Mexico and Florida in the winter (of course). The calendar finds most Loopers landing in Peoria in September or October—when the IVY Club gets its biggest influx of transient boaters. 

Stopping in Peoria
“[Peoria] probably has the most welcoming yacht club,” declares Alex Ertz, who’s completed the Loop twice with his partner, Andre Surovikin. “A lot of yacht clubs are kind of exclusive—only members or members of associations can even stay there. But the IVY Club has made it known that all Loopers are able to stay there.”

“We try to accommodate every boat that needs to stay or needs fuel,” notes Gary Hunt. “We’re in a good, safe, quiet location.” With all of its facilities and amenities, the IVY Club is ideal for an overnight respite, to refuel and have a meal, whether in the onsite dining room or at a nearby restaurant. 

“The night we ate there, everybody wanted to talk to us,” Ertz recalls. “It was a beautiful night with a great view of the river.”

For Ertz, his pair of Peoria visits was a homecoming of sorts, as he once worked for Caterpillar after graduating from college in the late 1970s. “I got reacquainted with the town after being away for a long, long time,” he explains. “We went to the Caterpillar [Visitors] Center and stayed at the IVY Club each time. Our second time through, we also stayed at the dock downtown—that’s when we were able to walk to some of the restaurants. 

“We were very impressed with how the town had been revitalized in certain areas,” he continues, citing the energy in Peoria’s Warehouse District. “When I lived there 30 to 40 years ago, you wouldn't even go to Southwest Adams. We went to a wood-fired pizza place called Sugar, and there’s also a brewpub where we had beers before dinner with some other Looper friends.”

For most, this camaraderie is the best part of doing the Great Loop. “We met our first Looper right there at the IVY Club,” adds Chuck Stiles, “and traveled with them for a while. You meet a lot of friends over and over again—and you stay in contact with them forever.” 

Great Loop New York
Chuck and Margaret Stiles pass by the Statue of Liberty while navigating the Great Loop. Photo courtesy of Chuck Stiles

Lifelong Dreams
These relationships are fostered by the 20-year-old America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association (AGLCA). “Our mission is to help people plan and execute their Great Loop adventure,” explains executive director Kim Russo. Through newsletters and podcasts, a members-only discussion forum and other resources, the AGLCA has become a central hub for current and prospective Loopers. Twice a year, the association hosts a rendezvous featuring seminars, “Looper crawls” and other gatherings where Loopers can swap stories, share advice and connect with one another.

Most travel by power boat, around 50 miles a day, taking a full year to complete the 6,000-mile journey. “About 10 percent of our members are on sailboats,” Russo says, “but they have to take the mast down to be able to clear some of the bridges. So that makes it a little bit of an extra challenge.” Others have even traveled the Great Loop on a jet ski or in a kayak. Whatever your mode of transport, it’s a very safe journey, she adds. “It’s mostly an inland water route, so you’re always near land, for the most part.” With just a bit of experience, it’s also relatively accessible. “You can’t just buy your first boat and get out there the next day, but it doesn't take a lifelong boater to be able to do this.”

The popularity of the Great Loop has increased significantly over the last decade, she adds, in line with the rise of social media. “If you were doing this trip 30 years ago, you might send letters back home. Twenty years ago, you may have emailed a few close friends and family with details about where you were. But today, you’re posting to social media constantly. So instead of four or five close friends hearing about it, your 400 acquaintances are all hearing about your trip.” 

Helping others achieve this objective is the most fulfilling aspect of her job, Russo notes. “For some people, it’s a bucket list [item] that came up recently. For others, it’s kind of a lifelong dream. This is just a group of really neat people who are out there doing something they love. For me, it’s great to do a small part to help them make that possible.”

Alex Ertz and Andre Surovikin stayed at the IVY Club on both of their Great Loop adventures. Photo courtesy of Alex Ertz
Alex Ertz and Andre Surovikin stayed at the IVY Club on both of their Great Loop adventures. Photo courtesy of Alex Ertz

Making Connections
As the only AGLCA sponsor on the Illinois River, the IVY Club is a well-known stop for Loopers. “We’re the oldest yacht club between Chicago and Mobile, Alabama… steeped in tradition and the river heritage,” says Gary Hunt. “That’s why it’s important to us. It keeps us connected with people navigating the river from a recreational standpoint. It’s also a big revenue stream in the fall.” 

Most Loopers stay just one night at the IVY Club, but if they’re around for any length of time, Hunt will point them toward the downtown riverfront, Peoria Riverfront Museum, and fine dining in Peoria Heights. “I always tell people they need to go to Grandview Drive and see the river valley from up there,” he adds. Loopers may represent a mere drop in the bucket of local tourism dollars, but it all adds up.

In the end, what makes the Great Loop special are the people you meet and connections you make along the way. “It’s also the challenge,” adds Chuck Stiles. “I don’t think the Great Loop is going to repair a broken marriage, but it surely helps strengthen a strong one. My wife and I both enjoy this and we’re right there, together, for 10 months.” 

Here in central Illinois, the general public is largely unaware of the Great Loop. Most people do not realize that in order to get to the Gulf of Mexico from the Great Lakes, you must either go down the East Coast or the Illinois River—and pass through Peoria.

“The IVY Club considers the privilege of serving these boaters an honor and it has become a genuine part of the club’s history,” says Hunt. “We’re looking forward to another exciting boating season in 2019, which will include hosting many boaters traveling the inland waterways.” PM