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A loopy adventure

2015 April 30

A pair of 23-year-old friends tackled the Great Loop on a boat a decade older than them with a dog and a cat as their crew. What they found was a profound personal journey filled with wonderful people and inspiring experiences

The girls along with first mate Reggie take a break on the beach.
Jessie Zevalkink photo


From Chicago, Louise entered the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and the beginning of the long inland-river road to the Gulf of Mexico. The girls were on their own at last, and they hurriedly fine-tuned the necessary skills that would get them into the Deep South safely.

“We had to learn so much on the spot because we never had anchored on our own at all, much less in contradicting winds and currents,” Zevalkink said. “The water was mucky, and the charts were unreliable, because depths change from year to year. We learned to stay within the channel markers, because the channel has to be 9 feet deep for barges.”

“We definitely learned how to get off the ground,” Smith said.


While the girls quickly mastered anchoring, locking through (there are 30 locks between Chicago and Mobile, Alabama), and talking with barges, they did have their initial doubts about the whole enterprise. Smith said her commitment flagged on their first day on the heavily traveled Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which (via the Illinois and Des Plaines rivers) is the only shipping link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. 

“There were all these barges trying to kill us!” she said. “I just wanted to go home.”

“Oh, there were all those times we thought we were going to die,” Zevalkink concurred with a laugh, “and let’s just say we did have one really long conversation.”

After all, life on board wasn’t easy. A lot of that, Smith said, had to do with not eating or sleeping very well, and the fact that Louise didn’t have heat or air conditioning. 

“There was a definite lack of amenities,” she acknowledged. “Nothing was convenient, and it took time for that to become everyday life. We both got frustrated when everything was wet; we’re adventurous and outdoorsy, but we’re still girls! It really was like pitching a tent every night. At the same time, it was cool to learn to live that way.”

They also grew accustomed to sharing such a small living space. 

“We lived on twin mattresses in Jessie’s 10-by-10 bedroom in Lake Tahoe, so we were used to being in each other’s space,” Smith said.

“Yep, we definitely were used to being up in each other’s grill,” Zevalkink agreed. “But it did take about two weeks to a month to get used to living on the boat, especially finding places for everything. That’s my OCD. I’d rearrange my things, and then Katie’s things, without realizing that I was doing it.”

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