Knife River couple embarks on epic 'Great Loop' boat trip over 2 summers
From the Great Lakes to great rivers, the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean and Canadian canals, the 6,000-mile trip is one for the ages.
DULUTH — Buying a big boat and taking a 6,000-mile trip over two years wasn’t the kind of adventure that Kay Libby initially had in mind for retirement, at least not until COVID-19 hit.
“Then I thought, it was every day just like the last one during early COVID, and we really can’t travel very far or take a cruise during the pandemic, so maybe going on our own was the way to go," said Libby, of Knife River, an unincorporated community on the North Shore in Lake County.
So she decided to play along with her husband Greg's wild-hair idea to buy a big-water boat and spend months on end circumnavigating the eastern half of the U.S.
It’s called the "Great Loop" — some 6,000 miles of interconnected waterways, from the Great Lakes, to the great rivers of the U.S. heartland, to the Gulf of Mexico, the eastern seaboard and into the historic canals and inland waterways of New York and Canada.
Some boaters have called it the trip of a lifetime. The Libbys started last summer, took the winter off, started up again this month and hope to finish late this summer when they “cross their wake” and motor back into the Knife River harbor.
“I don’t think I’d heard about it before. I don’t think most people in our area, even people who boat on Lake Superior, know much about the Great Loop," Kay Libby said.
Last spring and summer, the couple searched online for weeks to find just the right boat to make the trip, at a time when supply chain shortages made new boats impossible to find and made used boats hot commodities for throngs of people looking to have fun outdoors. They were about to give up for the summer when a 31-foot Camano trawler came back on the market after someone else’s offer fell through. The beefy boats are built in British Columbia and known for their seaworthiness.
The only hitch was that the boat was in Canada, and Canada wasn’t allowing U.S. citizens into their country. Greg Libby said they hired a boat inspector and decided to take his word for it that the boat was seaworthy and worth the cost.
“We bought it sight-unseen. But it turned out just fine,” Kay Libby said.
Then they had to hire an international commercial boat pilot to get the boat across the border to Port Huron, Michigan, where they picked it up, christened it "Superior Passage" and motored it back to Knife River.
That was Aug. 3. Fifteen days later, they left Knife River to start their Great Loop journey.
“Some of the other Loopers we’ve met think we’re crazy. They've been planning their trip for years and we pretty much decided to go last summer and went," Kay Libby said.
Mother Nature 'always in charge'
The Libby’s motored Superior Passage across Lake Superior, down Lake Michigan, cut through the heart of downtown Chicago and into the Illinois River system, then down the Mississippi River to St. Louis, up the Ohio River a bit and made it to Demopolis, Alabama, where they stopped for the winter Nov. 5 and came home, leaving their boat at the marina there on the Tennessee River.
“We packed a lot into that time," Kay said.
There have been some interesting, if not harrowing, experiences. They hit a piece of iron in the Illinois River and had to be hoisted out of the water for a prop repair. They had to wait two weeks for the Tennessee River to crest and fall from flood stages to start this year’s leg of the trip. And they motored into Pensacola, Florida, just as police were fetching a dead body out of the water.
“One thing you learn on a long boat trip is that the weather, Mother Nature, is always in charge. You just have to accept that and be patient," Kay Libby noted.
At a time of late winter when many Northlanders are just planning their summer adventure, the Libby’s is well underway. Already in March, Superior Passage has motored down the Tombigbee River, across Mobile Bay and along the north shore of the Gulf of Mexico. At midweek, they were windbound in Panama City, Florida. Eventually, they will cross the gulf down to Fort Myers and head into the Okeechobee Waterway so they can cut across Florida to the Atlantic Ocean.
Then they’ll head up the East Coast, winding through the intercoastal waterway, into New York City, up the Hudson River and on into the canals and waterways of eastern Canada before heading west, toward home, across Georgian Bay and back into Lake Superior.
“Our goal is to be home by late August," Kay Libby said.
But the retirees aren’t in any hurry. They're having fun as they learn to deal with unique challenges of the trip. There are tides, storms, river currents and flow levels and navigation hazards like drawbridges and locks — the human-made system of raising and lowering boats up or downstream to different parts of rivers that would otherwise be unnavigable.
“If you haven’t done them (locks) before, they can be nerve-wracking, especially when they herd a bunch of boats into one" passage, Kay Libby noted. “We had done them on the Mississippi before, on a trip down to Dubuque (Iowa), and on the Trent-Severn (canal system) up in Canada, so we had some history with them.”
Greg is usually at the helm of Superior Passage. Kay serves as the navigator and trip planner, deciding the course and how far they will go each day, depending on what they want to see ahead, where they may want to take extra time on land, and what amenities or supplies they need or want. If they want to get out and tour, or to restock food, they stay at a full-service marina in a city or town. If they are comfortable being alone, they can spend the night “anchored out" at a safe spot along the route.
Greg said he added a dinghy to Superior Passage this spring so they can anchor out more often and still get to shore if needed.
An 'amazing adventure'
It wasn’t as if the Libbys were strangers to water. Greg is an avid boater and Lake Superior fisherman and the couple had made trips to Isle Royale, the Apostle Islands and even to the Mississippi River and some Canadian canals in their 25-foot Sea Ray cruiser.
But neither had navigated on the ocean before, or spent that much time away from home. Still, they felt they had done their homework and were well equipped. Now retired — he’s 64, she’s 61 — they also have the free time and free cash to make it work.
Weather is always the biggest factor, and can be an obstacle. Each season brings different challenges for different areas — spring brings high flow on rivers; June to November brings the potential for hurricanes on the Gulf; and the entire Great Lakes system can shut down with storms in autumn and ice in winter.
Then there are commitments and responsibilities, family and friends at home.
“There is never the perfect time to go. But if you do your homework, can be flexible and take it one day at a time, you’ll find it to be an amazing adventure," Kay told the News Tribune.
Superior Passage won’t set any speed records. The Libbys typically run about 8 knots, or about 9 mph. That keeps their fuel consumption to about 2.3 gallons for every hour they are making a wake. While it varies on each leg of the tip, they average 30-60 miles a day when they are on the move. But they often take down days to explore on land, and they stay put when the weather is bad.
“There is so much to see. Almost everywhere we've stopped has had something really interesting," Kay said.
Greg brought along some fishing tackle, too.
“I haven’t had a lot of time to fish," he noted. “I’ve done some casting and caught and released a few northerns in the rivers.”
The skyrocketing price of diesel fuel is shocking the Libbys like everyone else. They went from paying about $4 per gallon to more than $5 per gallon. The trawler’s tank holds 130 gallons. It’s also expensive to spend the night in a marina slip attached to utilities, which makes “anchoring out” a cheaper option. Superior Passage is self-contained, with a generator supplying power when needed and freshwater storage and holding tanks.
“At this point, it’s not going to deter us," Kay noted in a Facebook post. “We’ll anchor out more, eat out less and make up the difference. It’s all good.”
The Libbys, like other Loopers on the water route, fly a white burgee, a triangle-shaped flag. When they finish the trip, they can change to a gold flag to mark the accomplishment. Along the way, they're enjoying the camaraderie of other Loopers and new friends, many of whom are members of the Great Loop Cruisers Association.
“Part of the fun is the other people you meet doing the loop. And all the great places you can visit along the way," Kay Libby said. “It’s an adventure that keeps changing.”
About the Great Loop
The Great Loop is a circumnavigation of the eastern U.S. and part of Canada, including Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Ocean from Cape May to New York Harbor, Hudson River, Erie Canal, Oswego Canal, Lake Ontario, Trent-Severn Canal in Canada, Georgian Bay, Lake Michigan, Illinois River, Mississippi River, Ohio River, Tennessee River, Tombigbee River, Mobile Bay, Gulf Intercoastal Waterway, the East Coast Inland Passage Waterway and the Okeechobee Waterway.
The Great Loop is a minimum of 5,250 miles, but most Loopers report their trip to be in the 6,000-mile range depending on their route and where they start. It would take a minimum of six weeks to finish the loop in perfect weather conditions, but most Loopers spend 10-14 months total on the water. There’s been an increasing trend of people using parts of two or more summers to complete the trip. The full loop runs through 15 states and two Canadian provinces.
Just over 150 locks on the route, depending on the exact route taken.
While the Great Lakes can kick up storms as big and fast as any sea, Kim Russo, director of the Great Loop Cruisers Association, said it’s the crossing of the Gulf of Mexico that causes the most concern with most Loopers. To avoid very shallow water near shore, boaters must make a 170-mile trek across the Gulf, the only spot on the entire loop that you can't see land. At trawler speed, that can take 20 hours, which requires motoring at night. The other option is three shorter days, all of which require good weather.
“It’s daunting for some people who aren't used to moving at night," Russo said. “A lot of people decide to do it in groups. It’s never been a big problem because most Loopers' boats are built for that kind of water.”
Although the trip can be done in both directions, it’s usually done counter-clockwise so that you are going with the current, not against it, on most of the inland U.S. rivers.
The farthest distance without a fuel stop is between Kimmswick, Missouri, on the Upper Mississippi River and Paducah, Kentucky, about 200 miles.
What's the best boat for the Great Loop?
The Great Loop has been done in everything from kayaks and stand-up paddleboards to 90-foot yachts. The average size boat is 40 feet, Russo said. The lowest bridge crossed under has 19 feet, 6 inches of clearance, on the Illinois River. To take the Erie Canal, you must clear 15 feet. Boats should draft no more than 5 feet. (In January, Scott Meyers, a dermatologist from Tulsa, Oklahoma, completed the entire loop in a pontoon boat, over the course of four years in four segments, but in just 34 days of travel time.)
Trawlers, like the Libbys' Superior Passage, are a popular choice because of their seaworthiness. Their boat is 31 feet long and drafts 3 ½ feet of water.
How many boats make the loop each year?
There’s no formal registration, but it’s estimated that about 200 make the loop in most years based on people who report to the Great Loop Cruisers Association when they complete the trip. In 2020 and 2021, under the pall of the pandemic, that number dropped nearly in half, to just over 100. But in 2022, more than 500 boat owners have asked to have their boat’s name printed on the annual Great Loop commemorative T-shirt the association distributes for boats that are on the Great Loop trail.
``We're seeing a lot of pent-up demand from people who didn’t go the last two summers because of the pandemic, or who were halfway and decided to stop," Russo said. “And we’re seeing people who realized that, if they can work from anywhere, why not do it from a boat? We’re even seeing families who are home-schooling on their boat.”
One issue that may stop some of those 500 boaters from completing the loop is the price of fuel. Russo said she’s seen diesel prices range from $4-$7 per gallon at marinas in recent days.
For more information
The Great Loop Cruisers Association is the best first stop for all sorts of information. Go to greatloop.org . Waterway Guide Media publishes guide books for each segment of the Great Loop. Go to waterwayguide.com . Several Loopers have also published books about their trips.
You can follow the Libbys' adventure on Facebook by searching " Superior Passage ."
John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .