By: Conor Mihell
Countless adventurous journeys have proven the open canoe to be the world's humblest yet most accomplished vessel. Last summer, Michigan City, Indiana-based friends Mary Catterlin and Amy Lukas, both 24, chalked up another amazing feat by completing a three-month, 1,200-mile circumnavigation of Lake Michigan in an 11-foot, outrigger-equipped dugout canoe that Catterlin crafted herself from a cottonwood log. This weekend, the pair's story is sure to wow audiences at Madison, Wisconsin's Canoecopia, North America's largest paddlesports tradeshow.
We caught up Catterlin and Lukas for a preview of what to expect at the show.
CanoeKayak.com: This question is for Mary. Why did you choose to build a dugout canoe and not something a little more contemporary?
Mary Catterlin: The main reason is because I was 19 and didn't have a lot of experience with boat-building. I was a novice, and so I figured a chunk of a tree log was going to float no matter what. Plus, I'm a fine art major and working negatively—starting with a log and slowly hollowing it out with an adze—made sense to me.
Where did the log come from?
Catterlin: A friend of a friend let me choose a cottonwood tree off his property. It was 11 feet long and probably weighed 2,600 pounds. My guess is that it now weighs about 300 pounds. I named her Makeba.
How long did it take to make a canoe?
Catterlin: It was a four-year project. I was going to Indiana University, so I would work on the canoe during summer and winter breaks. To start I looked at different hull shapes, made a few models and followed a guidebook on making a sailing canoe.
Where did you come in on the construction project?
Amy Lukas: Mary did the whole dugout process with her adze; I let her take on the brunt of that project. Part way into making it we got the idea for the trip. We realized that it would need outriggers and a sail. I came in as the last pinch-hitter last spring to help out with the outriggers and mast.
So tell me about where the idea for a trip around Lake Michigan came from.
Lukas: We both grew up in the Michigan City and Beverly Shores, and since we were both little we've always on the water…not always paddling but sailing, swimming and surfing. We're both very aware of the lake and its different conditions, and we've both always been drawn to it and loved the idea of seeing all of it. We wanted adventure. We'd both just graduated from college and we both wanted to do something with the boat and challenge ourselves while we're both young.
Catterlin: I remember one time we were sitting around a bonfire, and Amy said what if we took Makeba around Lake Michigan. She was just joking but I was totally serious. Long story short, we just started thinking about it and then it happened.
What were some of the challenges you faced en route?
Catterlin: We knew that the lake does whatever it wants to, so we knew we'd need the proper gear and that we'd be constantly looking at the weather and the shoreline. Of the 93 days we ended up having 30 days where we couldn't move…we weren't going to take any crazy risks. We also started the trip in northwestern Indiana, which is full of steel mills and industry all the way to Chicago. North of Chicago we started camping on beaches and at campgrounds, and staying with friends of friends and second cousins. We got to meet a lot of really cool people.
How did people respond to meeting you?
Lukas: It was one thing to have us to arrive in this crazy dugout canoe vessel, and a lot of the random people were at first intrigued. They wonder who we were and why we were washing ashore. When we told our story they were inspired and wanted to learn more. A lot of people you meet on the beach have a connection to the lake.
Did the canoe work well?
Catterlin: Yeah, it did. We made it all the way around the lake. We couldn't ask anything more from the boat. We learned that dugout hulls actually widen and separate over time as opposed to swelling shut like most wooden boats. We had five leaks and made four repairs…the last leak was a waterspout spraying into the boat with every wave that hit the stern, but we were so used to being wet and we were so close to home we just let it leak. Our repair kit was quick-set epoxy so we were able to do the repairs whenever we noticed more water than usual coming in.
Lukas: We found that our average paddling speed was one to three miles per hour; sailing we did three to five. Our daily mileage varied greatly based on weather and wind direction. Our worst day was seven miles in seven hours, which was so painful. Our best day was 43 miles in 12 hours. We averaged 12 to 15 miles.
Watch a video highlight reel of Catterlin and Lukas' Lake Michigan circumnavigation: http://vimeo.com/57895612
What did the journey teach you about Lake Michigan?
Lukas: I would say there's a lot more people who have a spirit for the lake. We met a lot of wonderful people who are likeminded and adventurous. Lake Michigan was just what we expected. We didn't expect her to be tame.
What's up next?
Catterlin: We're not sure exactly. Right now we're working on a local museum exhibit with the boat and our pictures and videos that launches on March 24. Makeba is retiring from her adventures, but I will still be taking her out on day trips.
*Catch Mary Catterlin and Amy Lukas Canoecopia presentations on Friday, Mar. 8 from 4:30 pm to 5:20 pm and Saturday, Mar. 9 from 12:30 pm to 1:20 pm. Both presentations are scheduled for the Algonquin room.