Yooper boaters embark on a 6,000-mile journey
HANCOCK — On July 2, Lake Linden natives Lisa and Jim LaVallee departed from Houghton aboard their 38-foot cruiser, Auntie Gail. Their plan was to spend the next year living and working on their boat while cruising America’s Great Loop.
The Great Loop is a 6,000-mile boating route that begins in Lake Michigan, follows a series of inland waterways down to the Gulf of Mexico, climbs America’s eastern coast, and loops back into the Great Lakes through the Erie Canal.
Jim and Lisa are not the only Yoopers tackling the Great Loop. About a month after the LaVellees began their journey, Mary Hanson and her partner Jeff Larson also embarked on the Great Loop from Pequaming on Keweenaw Bay.
The two parties did not know one another before beginning their journeys, but got in touch after discovering that fellow Yoopers were attempting the loop. For both boats, the monumental trip is an opportunity for exploration and adventure.
“We thought, well, why not? We can do this,” said Lisa LaVallee, speaking to the Gazette in a phone interview while approaching Demopolis, Alabama, aboard the Auntie Gail. “Life is short. The pandemic kind of taught us that. And so, we feel like now is the opportune time for us to do this.”
While the LaVallees navigate America’s interior waterways, Hanson and Larson have already reached the Gulf of Mexico, traveling about 2,300 miles aboard the Many Moons, a 34-foot trawler. Hanson, who is originally from Hancock, spoke to the Gazette from Pensacola, Florida, on Day 106 of the journey.
“It’s about seeing America as much as it is about the boat adventure, which is why we stop and try to explore places,” she said. “Many of the people that do it, their focus is always on where are you going next? You know, forward, forward, forward. But it’s just as important to stop and see where you’re at.”
For Hanson, the journey is also about helping her partner Jeff realize his dreams of exploring America. Jeff has type 1 diabetes which makes it difficult for him to travel long distances by car or airplane.
“On a boat, you can move around constantly, and it’s perfect for him.” Hanson explained. “This way he’s seeing more of America.”
Hanson described some of the most interesting locations and experiences of the trip to date: witnessing spectacular scenery in the Kentucky Lake, learning about the Civil War at the Shiloh battlefield in Missouri, navigating the narrow and winding Tombigbee River, and discovering the beaches and views along Michigan’s western coast. She especially enjoyed passing through the city of Chicago on the Chicago River.
“Going through Chicago on your own boat, and under all those bridges and passing by the skyscrapers, that was amazing. I am so glad to have had that experience,” she recounted.
Lisa also described the many unique experiences of traveling the nation by boat.
“We’ve been through over 30 locks. When we were on the Great Lakes we were going by freighters and now there’s barge traffic on these rivers,” she described. “It’s the commerce hub of the U.S. and it’s pretty cool to see.”
Both parties have enjoyed meeting other “Loopers” – people cruising the Great Loop, along the way. There are 200-300 boats currently completing portions of the Great Loop.
“Meeting other Loopers has been one of the unexpected joys of this,” said Hanson. “There’s something really amazing about these people and we’ve made good friends.”
“We’ve made some friends that are probably going to be our lifelong friends,” Lisa added. “It’s a big part of the journey, the experiences meeting people have just been phenomenal.”
In addition to the human friends that they make along the way, both boats are traveling with pets. Hanson’s cat, Boo, is accompanying her on the journey and the LaVallees have their 9-year-old lab/beagle mix, Minnie, along for the trip.
While exploring the country by boat offers excitement and adventure, it also requires a great deal of work.
“There are many hours where it takes both people with full concentration, not just driving the boat but navigating and communicating by radio with other crafts and so on,” Hanson explained.
For Jim LaVallee, the trip also includes the rigors of remote work. “Because my husband works, we generally stay in the marina during the week,” Lisa explained. “That allows him to work and have a Wi-Fi signal, and then we travel on the weekends.”
Despite the challenges of living and working aboard their boats, both parties are thoroughly enjoying the experience.
“This type of undertaking is just brand new to us,” Lisa said. “But you know what, with a positive attitude, it’s just been phenomenal.”
“This is kind of a dream,” she continued. “I know that sounds kind of hokey. But, you know, it was a dream and we’re living it and it is amazing.”
Hanson has a blog that she keeps updated with photos and stories from the trip. Visit mindfulmary.org/ to follow along with her journey.