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Knife River couple completes 6,400-mile 'Great Loop' motorboat journey

Kay and Greg Libby spent two summers circling the eastern half of the U.S. on their boat, Superior Passage.

Kay and Greg Libby on their boat, Superior Passage
Kay and Greg Libby on the aft deck of their trawler, Superior Passage, docked at Drummond Island, Mich. The retired couple from Knife River spent 230 days over two summers making a 6,400-mile journey around the eastern half of the U.S. by interconnected waterways.
Contributed / Kay and Greg Libby
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KNIFE RIVER, Minn. — Cross one adventure off Kay and Greg Libby’s bucket list. They are officially "Loopers” now.

You might recall the retired Duluth-area couple the News Tribune wrote about in March who were starting the second leg of a two-summer trip around the eastern half of the U.S. by boat.

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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.

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, to the Eastern Seaboard and into the historic canals and inland waterways of New York and Canada.

The Libbys finished the loop and motored their trawler, “Superior Passage,’’ into their home port of Knife River on Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior on July 16.

Superior Passage boat
Kay and Greg Libby's boat, Superior Passage, moored along the Benjamin Islands in Ontario during their 6,400-mile Great Loop boat journey.
Contributed / Kay and Greg Libby

“I wasn’t sure what to expect of this going in … but it far exceeded my expectations,’’ Kay Libby said after being home a few days. The couple is readjusting to life on land after living the last five months on the 31-foot boat.

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The Libbys agreed that, beyond the incredible scenery and historic sites they visited, it was the people they met dockside all along the way they will remember most. “The camaraderie among the Loopers was fantastic,’’ Kay added.

Greg Libby agreed, adding that the journey may have seemed daunting before it started. But not any more. “I actually think it was easier to do than I expected,’’ Greg said.

Boat in Erie Canal
Greg Libby atop the Superior Passage as the boat is moves through a lock on the Erie Canal system. There are about 150 locks along the Great Loop journey, depending on the exact route taken.
Contributed / Kay and Greg Libby

They had mostly good weather while underway, but also had a week of wind and fog that kept them dock-bound along the East Coast. They had little trouble navigating, but their 2022 leg started two weeks late due to river flooding in Tennessee, and they spent an extra week tied to a dock in Ontario when a canal system shut down due to high water.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.

The Libbys seemed to take everything in stride. And that’s exactly the mantra of the Looper culture.

“It really didn’t affect us that much,’’ Greg said of the delays. “We went with the flow.”

They had bikes to ride in towns, and museums and historic homes and forts to tour. They took a tour boat out to the Statue of Liberty. Even navigating through the busy port in New York City turned out to be a breeze.

Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor
The Statue of Liberty as seen from Kay and Greg Libby's boat, Superior Passage, as they motored through the New York harbor and up into the Hudson River.
Contributed / Kay and Greg Libby

“We did it early in the morning. I think it was a Sunday, so it wasn’t that bad,’’ Greg said.

There were tides, 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.

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Greg was usually at the helm of Superior Passage. Kay served as the navigator and trip planner, deciding the course and how far they would go each day, depending on what they wanted to see ahead, where they wanted to take extra time on land, and what amenities or supplies they needed.

“You figure out early in the trip what roles each other will play and we sort of stuck to that,’’ Kay said. “We got along very well.”

They cut their trip a couple weeks short with a decision made when they were in northern New York, deciding to forgo a northern loop into Quebec, in part it was because the Libbys both have elderly parents they wanted to get home to, but also in part because of high fuel prices in Canada. Diesel prices during their trip started at about $2.89 per gallon in 2021 and then skyrocketed during this year’s leg, topping out at $7.50 in Canada (converted to U.S. currency.)

“It was one of the factors to cut out the Montreal/Ottawa side trip,” Kay noted.

Great loop trip.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

The Libbys are selling the Superior Passage — some Loopers keep looping, but their trip was one and done — and they will hunker down at home with family for a while before planning another big adventure.

Still, Kay is already waxing nostalgic about the friends she made along the Great Loop.

“To describe the Looper culture, I’d say the boaters we have met are open to adventure, discovering new things, people, places and foods, willing to go outside their comfort zone, can laugh (eventually) about those humbling moments, are always willing to lend a hand, spare parts or information … puts safety first, lives without a schedule and takes it one day at a time, are good at problem-solving and can 'roll with it' when stuff happens,’’ Kay wrote in a Facebook post late on the trip.

Loopers realize “you don’t need a lot of things, are supportive of each other, celebrate others accomplishments, respect that everyone’s Loop is done in their own way, doesn't talk politics or COVID or swear and doesn’t pour a drink until the boat is at the dock," Kay said in her post. "It never mattered if you were in a 60-foot yacht or 22-foot tug, everyone equally fit into this group.”

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Greg Libby cleaning nior
Greg Libby fillets a northern pike on the dock in Ontario's Blind River on the home stretch of their 6,400-mile Great Loop boat journey.
Contributed / Kay and Greg Libby

The News Tribune asked the Libby’s to tell more about their adventure:

What was your favorite waterway?

Trent Severn (in Ontario). It’s 240 miles with 44 locks. … It’s a protected waterway, interesting historic sites, beautiful scenery and fun little towns along the way. The scenery changed as we got closer to Georgian Bay, with Canadian Shield and it was spectacular.

Map of the Trent-Severn Waterway in Canada
The Trent-Severn waterway in Canada was one of Kay and Greg Libby's favorite legs along their 6,400-mile Great Loop boat journey. The waterway links a number of canals, locks, rivers and lakes between Ontario and Huron lakes.
Contributed / Kay and Greg Libby

What was your favorite port city?

Jekyll Island (Georgia), Annapolis (Maryland) and St. Augustine (Florida) were some of our favorites. We had gone to the major cities before, but the smaller towns were new to us. We loved the towns that had nice waterfronts, preserved their historic sites and homes, were easy to walk and bike around, had interesting tours and natural beauty.

What was your least-favorite waterway?

The section we covered on the Ohio River. It had pretty heavy commercial traffic and wasn’t very scenic. There were no marinas on that stretch.

What was your least favorite port city?

Atlantic City (New Jersey.) Marinas were expensive/overpriced, people we encountered were not particularly boater friendly … and we had a bad anchoring experience.

Kay and Greg Libby at Vero Beach, Florida
Kay and Greg Libby at Vero Beach, Fla., one of many stops along their 6,400-mile Great Loop adventure.
Contributed / Kay and Greg Libby

How was the trip different from what you expected before you started?

Discovering new things every day — sites, landscapes, meeting new people, local foods — made it an amazing experience. … Mother Nature controls your schedule. … It’s a simple lifestyle where you live in the moment without outside distractions. … The camaraderie among the Loop boaters was a bonus for us. We enjoyed traveling with another boat or two for a few weeks or months and then you part ways and connect with others. … We learned pretty quickly that everyone’s Loop is different. There were everything from 22-foot to 60-foot boats doing the Loop. Some do it in segments over a few years and some are 'all in,' meaning they sold their house and cars and do the Loop two or more times. Many had dogs or cats with them.

Did you have any unexpected problems?

Only minor inconveniences. We dinged our prop and had to replace it. The Tenn-Tom River was flooding so that delayed us a few weeks (starting the 2022 leg.) Greg got COVID. The Trent Severn locks shut down for a week.

What was your worst weather?

It was actually at the dock. We had two instances of high winds rocking the boat against the dock pretty forcefully. When we were in Chesapeake Bay the wind blew hard for a week and everyone had to stay put. When it finally quit, we had two days of solid fog. But we were never out (on the water) in bad weather.

Superior Pasage entering Knife River Marina
The Superior Passage enters Knife River Marina on July 16 after a two-summer, 230-day adventure around the eastern half of the U.S.
Contributed / Kay and Greg Libby

What advice would you give to anyone considering making the Great Loop?

Do your research and just go. You never know how long the window of opportunity will remain open. Be open to going outside your comfort zone and take it one day at a time. Your life will be enriched from the new experiences.

You posted that you are selling Superior Passage. What’s your next big adventure?

Just enjoying our family, friends and activities at home with a new perspective.

The Libbys' Great Loop boat tour by numbers

Summers 2021 and 2022

  • Total miles, 6,400
  • Total days, 230
  • Days traveling/moving, 138
  • Average miles per day, 45
  • Average speed in knots, 8
  • Museums/tours attended, 28
  • State parks visited, 10
  • National parks/monuments visited, 13
  • Forts toured, 6
  • Locks completed, 112
  • States, 19
  • Provinces, 1
  • Overnight stays, 60% marinas; 28% city docks or walls along canals; 12% anchored

About the Great Loop

The Great Loop is a circumnavigation of the eastern U.S. and part of Canada:

  • Chesapeake Bay
  • 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 Intracoastal Waterway
  • East Coast Inland Passage Waterway
  • 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.

There are 110-150 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.

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.

For more information, go to greatloop.org.

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 1/2 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.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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