Lucas Will and Greg Petry’s dream to paddle around Lake Superior began five years ago. As roommates and outdoor education students at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD), Will, 30 and Petry, 29 talked about their passion for the lake and how it had shaped their lives. They promised each other that in the summer of 2010 they would circumnavigate its 1,200-mile perimeter by sea kayak.
The Superior Dream expedition got off to a rough start. Shortly after departing Duluth Harbor on June 26, Will and Petry’s skin-on-frame kayaks—homemade specifically for the expedition—started taking on water. The boats’ tender stability further complicated matters, and within eyeshot of their departure point, Will and Petry were forced to land and reassess. That night, they sullenly watched a television news report of their expedition send-off from a Duluth motel.
It took them four days to get the trip back on track. They made the tough decision to jettison their wood and nylon kayaks in favor of plastic and set off once again—this time successfully. Keeping Lake Superior’s rugged coastline of rock and sand on their left, it took them 97 days to return to their starting point. Up next: The pair has partnered with UMD film students to shape hours of raw video into a feature-length documentary. After that: Freshwater dreams of sea kayaking the other Great Lakes and more adventures on the greatest lake of them all. —Conor Mihell
CanoeKayak.com: Why was doing this trip so important to you?
Lucas Will: We both feel the lake had an important role in shaping who we are as adults. It was a huge presence in our lives during really formative years for us and during that time a deep curiosity to see more than just the shoreline we knew gave us the idea for this expedition.
Most people can only dream about doing a 97-day trip. What does it say about your lifestyles to be able to do it?
Will: We’re no different than anyone else: We have student-loan debt, we have bills, we have family, we have friends, [and] we have goals. This just happened to be one of them and it meant we had to make sacrifices to do it. I would argue that anyone can do this, it just takes some sacrifices and the ability to know your limits and travel within them.
It must’ve been pretty disappointing when the skin-on-frame kayaks you built for the trip didn’t work as planned.
Greg Petry: I’d be lying if I said I felt great about leaving them behind. We thought [about it] long and hard. When we stripped all the hype and a bit of our pride away to get to the foundation of the trip it became a simple call: We wanted to kayak around Lake Superior. That was our goal.
The Great Lakes are sometimes downplayed by those who have never paddled them. Based on your experience last summer, how would you describe paddling on Lake Superior?
Will: You can’t downplay Lake Superior until you’ve actually paddled on it and after you do there’s no way you would.
Petry: One way or another, Lake Superior gets her respect. Luke and I both paddled in the largest water of our lives on this lake. Storms and wind pick up fast, and the water temp can kill you. If you don’t take this lake seriously, you could be in for a really bad day.
What was the greatest challenge you encountered?
Will: We found struggles more frequently after we were into the third month of paddling. I think the number of days that we’d been out, the weather starting to change, the fact that we’d been doing the same thing over and over for 60-plus days, started to break us down a bit. Physically we were feeling good but so much of doing an expedition like this is mental.
Do you want to do it again?
Will: A friend of ours, Sam Crowley from Marquette, Michigan, said, “A journey like this can only happen once. No other trip, even going around the lake again, will be like this one.” We totally agree with that. It was such an awesome experience from start to finish, but if we did it again it would be totally different. If we did do it again though we would definitely go the reverse direction around. I can’t tell you how many times we would turn around and look at the shoreline we just paddled past and saw things we hadn’t noticed in passing right beside—arches, caves, rock silhouettes… Going the other way around it would be a completely different lake.
As outdoor educators and leaders, why is it important for you to share your story with a broader audience?
Will: Despite its notoriety, Lake Superior is still such a mystery to many folks. Most folks I’ve met don’t have a clue about this huge inland sea. By reaching those who live beyond its immediate community hopefully we can create a sense of value for them. We believe we’ll create, or at least jump start, that connection for folks simply by telling our story of kayaking around it.
Petry: The more we can get people to get out and enjoy the outdoors the more people that will find they love and can’t live without wild places. People fight for the things they love. It’s simple: Luke and I love Lake Superior. I want other people to fall in love and then protect the wonderful spaces that are left.