Tack­ling the gru­elling Great Loop’s wild weather and waves isn’t for the faint-hearted and may have you wish­ing you were on dry land

Canal Boat - - This Month -

We’re now into our fourth year of loop­ing – com­plet­ing the 6,000-mile jour­ney on canals, rivers, lakes and open sea of Amer­ica’s Great Loop on our 38ft trawler Ca­rina.

How­ever our lat­est trip on the eastern wa­ter­ways be­gan not in the USA but Canada, at Britt, On­tario, where our boat had been stored over win­ter. From there we cruised through Lakes Huron and Michi­gan and via Chicago to Peo­ria, Illi­nois.

We saw the most amaz­ing con­trasts of land­scape, cityscape, small towns, beaches, sand dunes and rocky wilder­ness with chal­leng­ing weather along the way.

We had to wait un­til late May for the snow to melt in Canada to re­sume our trav­els. On the Great Lakes you have to take care­ful note of the lo­cal weather fore­casts. Wave height and di­rec­tion and wind strength de­ter­mine the level of dis­com­fort and dan­ger, you are likely to ex­pe­ri­ence with storms ap­pear­ing out of nowhere.

The first part this year’s jour­ney, from Britt to Kil­lar­ney, in­volved 15 miles of open wa­ter and Ian’s main con­cern was to avoid a rep­e­ti­tion of what has come to be known as The Lake On­tario Ex­pe­ri­ence, our seven-hour cross­ing in strong winds and heavy swell. Be­tween bouts of sea­sick­ness, I made plans to es­cape from boat­ing.

A week af­ter our re­turn, the per­fect day dawned and we set off on the small craft route, through Lake Huron’s North Chan­nel, re­put­edly the most beau­ti­ful part of the Great Loop. It’s cer­tainly the wildest and most iso­lated coun­try that we’ve seen.

Un­til the mid-50s, the small fish­ing vil­lage of Kil­lar­ney was a cen­tre for the lum­ber trade. Now, it’s a pop­u­lar venue for boaters and the Kil­lar­ney Pro­vin­cial Park at­tracts hik­ers and campers. Un­til 1962 there was no road ac­cess but it now has a road link with Sud­bury.

We moored at the Sports­man’s Inn Ma­rina. The next day Deb­bie, the re­cep­tion­ist, not only kindly gave us a lift to the start of the Chikan­ish­ing Trail, but in­sisted on lend­ing us bug hats, with­out which we would have been prey to the many bit­ing in­sects. She also made sure we knew what to do should we arouse a bear’s cu­rios­ity.

We dis­cov­ered that hik­ing in Canada is not quite like hik­ing in Bri­tain. Trail does not mean path, it sim­ply means a straight line join­ing a se­ries of way­marks, some of which are at­tached to trees and some painted on large slabs of rock. We were not quite so well equipped as we would have been at home and it was hard go­ing but worth it for the stun­ning views of the lake and rocks.

From Kil­lar­ney you pass into the chan­nel, a nar­row stretch of wa­ter be­tween the main­land and the Man­i­toulin Is­lands. The pink gran­ite gives way to lime­stone and there are a se­ries of fin­ger-like pro­jec­tions

of land which form fiords. We ex­plored one of them, Baie Fine, and an­chored out at the head. There was a hik­ing trail over the ridge to Topaz Lake, and this was an­other chal­lenge.

Fur­ther along the North Chan­nel, at Blind River, we ex­pe­ri­enced a proper storm, for­tu­nately about half an hour af­ter safely ty­ing up in the ma­rina. We hadn’t re­alised it was com­ing and were alerted to it by the dock­mas­ter, so spent the evening count­ing our bless­ings that we hadn’t been any later get­ting to the ma­rina.

Blind River was our last stop in Canada. We crossed into US wa­ters and an­chored overnight at Har­bour Is­land, a short dis­tance from Drum­mond Is­land, where we would have to present our­selves to US Cus­toms and Im­mi­gra­tion.

Drum­mond Is­land is the most west­erly of the Man­i­toulin Is­lands and is the only one be­long­ing to the USA, not Canada. It was a Bri­tish out­post dur­ing the war of 1812, and was fi­nally ceded to Amer­ica in 1828.

It wasn’t un­til we were nearly there that it oc­curred to me that the of­fi­cers might be in­ter­ested in the con­tents of our fridge. I had once tried to im­port some top-qual­ity, vac­uum-packed, Richard Woodall Waberth­waite ba­con into the USA for my son, and it had been seized and tossed un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously into a bin with other pro­scribed ar­ti­cles. I won­dered whether Cana­dian ba­con would at­tract the same cen­sure.

In the event, the two of­fi­cers were very nice. We were al­lowed to keep the ba­con and the Cana­dian Mer­lot, but then they spied the fruit bowl. The or­anges, lemon and limes had to go, but we could keep the ap­ples and ba­nanas. I opened the fridge. ‘Is that a tomay-to?’ In­deed it was, and the toma­toes, a green pep­per, let­tuce, and any­thing from the onion fam­ily which sprouted leaves had to go too. For­tu­nately the ma­rina had an an­cient jeep that we were able to bor­row, so we went to the gro­cery store to re­plen­ish our sup­plies.

Af­ter the iso­la­tion of the North Chan­nel, we had a treat in store at Mack­inac Is­land. In 1928, the is­land au­thor­i­ties de­cided to ban ve­hi­cles so trans­port on the is­land is by horse-drawn cart or bi­cy­cle. It’s a tourist des­ti­na­tion and the main street was teem­ing with vis­i­tors who had ar­rived by ferry.

The Grand Ho­tel, sit­u­ated on a hill over­look­ing Lake Huron and the Mack­inac Straits, is aptly named, and although we couldn’t go for din­ner, be­ing un­able to com­ply with the dress code which stip­u­lated a jacket and tie for men, we went for the buf­fet lunch. The din­ing room, over­look­ing the lake and gar­dens, seats 700 peo­ple, and was full. But the waiter found us a table next to the win­dow and the food was su­perb.

The next day we cy­cled eight miles round the perime­ter of the is­land, stop­ping oc­ca­sion­ally to ad­mire the crys­tal clear deep blue wa­ters of Lake Huron, and the wild flow­ers grow­ing up through the peb­bles on the beach.

Rather re­luc­tantly, we left Mack­inac Is­land and passed un­der the five-mile

Mack­inac Bridge, which links the State of Michi­gan’s Up­per and Lower Penin­su­las, and sep­a­rates Lake Huron from Lake Michi­gan.

But Lake Michi­gan’s eastern shore was an­other de­light. We had a con­tact in North­port at the western end of Grand Tra­verse Bay and spent a few days there, en­joy­ing won­der­ful Amer­i­can hos­pi­tal­ity. This area of Michi­gan is fa­mous for cherry grow­ing and we took the bus from North­port to Tra­verse City to see the Na­tional Cherry Fes­ti­val. As well as live mu­sic, aer­o­batic dis­plays, fair­ground rides and a Na­tional Cherry Queen, there were stalls sell­ing lo­cal foods and, of course, large bags of de­li­cious fresh cher­ries.

In the mid­dle of July, we had a fam­ily birth­day to cel­e­brate in Vir­ginia. We left

Ca­rina in North­port and took three days driv­ing through Michi­gan, Penn­syl­va­nia and West Vir­ginia to Wash­ing­ton DC. Our route took us through the lovely Lau­rel High­lands of Penn­syl­va­nia, and gave us the op­por­tu­nity to visit Falling­wa­ter, Frank Lloyd Wright’s mas­ter­piece built in 1935 for Mr and Mrs Edgar Kauf­mann.

The house is built into the rocks over­look­ing Bear Run and over­hangs two wa­ter­falls. It em­bod­ies Wright’s phi­los­o­phy of or­ganic ar­chi­tec­ture, that build­ings should be in har­mony with their nat­u­ral sur­round­ings and his be­lief in na­ture’s power to re­new the hu­man spirit. De­spite be­ing built over 80 years ago, it is still breath-tak­ing in its orig­i­nal­ity.

We re­turned to North­port and con­tin­ued our jour­ney down the eastern shore, which boasts 500 miles of spec­tac­u­lar sand dunes, the largest fresh­wa­ter dunes in the world, formed from glacial ac­tiv­ity 16,000 years ago. In parts they are cov­ered with trees and grass, and else­where the golden sand is ex­posed.

At in­lets along the coast, there are many at­trac­tive small towns and vil­lages. Where we stayed, and the progress we made, was de­pen­dent on the wind and wave con­di­tions on the lake. Although we’d be­come more con­fi­dent over time, we still didn’t want to take any chances, and on one oc­ca­sion, at Manis­tee, we left the dock and ven­tured out onto the lake, only to re­turn to the shel­ter of the in­let half an hour later, to the wry amuse­ment of the dock­mas­ter. For­tu­nately there was space on the dock for us to stay an­other night.

The other fac­tor which cramped our style was the me­chan­ics of our age­ing boat. It’s in­evitable with a 38-year old boat that there will be a need for main­te­nance and re­pair, but it did seem on this trip as though Ca­rina had de­cided to dump a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of catas­tro­phe upon us.

Af­ter spend­ing time and money hav­ing a rat­tling prop shaft in­ves­ti­gated and hav­ing the air-con­di­tion­ing unit re­paired, the en­gine wa­ter pump failed. We had to wait sev­eral days for a new one to ar­rive by spe­cial de­liv­ery and then have it fit­ted. But White­hall was a pleas­ant place where we were able to cy­cle to the beach, and one evening there was a vin­tage car rally, when over 400 cars pa­raded in style down the main street.

We’d been rec­om­mended to visit Sau­gatuck, a favourite hang-out of Hem­ing­way and other artists and now a pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tion. We crossed the Kala­ma­zoo River to Sau­gatuck vil­lage on the fa­mous Chain Ferry, and had the best blue­berry pan­cakes ever for break­fast, at Ida Red’s Cot­tage. Op­po­site Sau­gatuck vil­lage, fac­ing Lake Michi­gan, is the ex­trav­a­gantly-named Bald­head Moun­tain.

It’s re­ally only a big sand dune, but it’s still quite an ef­fort to climb the 282 wooden steps to the top, to get the spec­tac­u­lar view of Sau­gatuck and Lake Kala­ma­zoo.

Our goal of Chicago was get­ting closer. We crossed into Cen­tral Time at Michi­gan

City (strangely, in In­di­ana). Mov­ing into a dif­fer­ent time zone gave us a sense of our west­ward progress and how vast Amer­ica is. We did a 30-mile hop across the bot­tom of Lake Michi­gan and couldn’t help notic­ing the clouds gath­er­ing as we ap­proached Mon­roe Har­bour, where Ian had booked us a buoy. The plan had been to take a wa­ter taxi and have a cel­e­bra­tory din­ner at the Chicago Yacht Club.

But stuff hap­pens. Mon­roe Har­bour is open to the lake, and un­usu­ally, the wind was com­ing from the east, gen­er­at­ing big waves in­side the har­bour. Then, although I man­aged to grab the buoy with the boat-hook, it didn’t have the usual mov­ing at­tach­ment for thread­ing a line through, and Ca­rina’s deck was too high above the wa­ter to reach down. We ended up hav­ing to ask the har­bour­mas­ter for help.

For­tu­nately he came out straight away and at­tached our line. By this time the sky was dark and Ca­rina was rolling and lurch­ing in the waves. It soon be­gan to thun­der and pour with rain and I had to lie down in a dark­ened room. Ian had to get his own din­ner and Chicago Yacht Club had to wait till we come back next year.

The next day we woke to calm wa­ters and bril­liant sun­shine. We went through the Chicago Lock half a mile away, to en­ter the San­i­tary and Ship Canal and fol­low its spec­tac­u­lar course through the city.

Be­yond Chicago, it’s quite in­dus­trial as the canal leads into the Des Plaines River, and we en­coun­tered mas­sive barges which ob­vi­ously took prece­dence over our hum­ble plea­sure craft.

These take prece­dence in the locks too, and we had some lengthy waits. At McKin­ley Woods, the Kankakee River joins the Des Plaines to form the Illi­nois River and we were out into ru­ral ar­eas again, with some beau­ti­ful an­chor­ages be­fore we reached Peo­ria, where Ca­rina is stored.

Next year, we have some sight­see­ing to do in Chicago be­fore con­tin­u­ing south to­wards the Mis­sis­sippi and the Gulf of Mex­ico.

Dusk at Mon­roe Har­bour

Morn­ing at North­port Boat­yard

Storm at Blind River

The breath­tak­ing Mack­inac Bridge

The pop­u­lar Charlevoix city ma­rina

Tak­ing a breather at Baie Fine

Cruis­ing near Manis­tee

The start of the San­i­tary and Ship Canal

Muskegon light tower

All quiet at Lock­port

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