Jeff Manes: Paddling pals get scenic tour of ‘Big Lake’
February 1, 2013 9:48AM
Jeff Manes | Sun-Times Media file
At a glance
For more information and photos of Mary Catterlin and Amy Lukas’ excellent adventure, go to “Two girls and a tree named Makeba” (Facebook) or lakemichiganinadugout.blogspot.com.
Updated: March 4, 2013 6:08AM
“We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.”
— Mark Twain
During the 1860s, Huckleberry Finn and runaway slave Jim poled their way down the “Big Muddy.”
In the 21st century, Mary Catterlin and Amy Lukas paddled their way around the “Big Lake.”
While a college freshman, Catterlin had the trunk of a huge cottonwood hauled to her parents’ backyard. Four years later, she and Lukas paddled and sailed around Lake Michigan in that tree.
Catterlin and Lukas, 24, have been friends since they played soccer for Michigan City High School. Catterlin hails from Trail Creek in LaPorte County. Lukas is a “beach baby” who has lived in Beverly Shores all her life.
Lukas attended MCHS, but could have gone to Chesterton High School because she lives in Porter County. Catterlin earned a degree in fine arts at Indiana University. Lukas earned a degree in biochemistry at Valparaiso University.
I recently met these adventuresome young ladies at the Hammond Marina, where they were named Paddlers of the Year by the Northwest Indiana Paddlers Association.
“Amy and I graduated from ... college in 2011,” Catterlin began. “We took a year off and got ready for the trip last summer in 2012. Some people go backpacking around Europe after they graduate college; we circumnavigated Lake Michigan.”
When did you have this epiphany?
Catterlin: “We were sitting around a bonfire one night, talking about the boat and I said, ‘We should go around Lake Michigan.’ I was completely serious; Amy thought I was kidding, but I was serious from the very beginning.”
When did that conversation occur?
Catterlin: “About a year into making the boat.”
How long did it take to complete the boat?
Catterlin: “It took me four years; I was going to IU at the same time, so I’d work on it during my summer vacations and winter breaks.”
You became quite adept with a chainsaw.
Catterlin: “For some of the major chainsaw work, I had a friend or family member who helped me, but pretty much, I just went into it head first. I did some research and made a few models, learning as I went along. Most of the work was done with an adze. The outriggers and two pontoons are fiberglass-foam. They were lightweight, durable and gave more stability to the boat. It was a sailboat as well.”
But mostly you paddled.
Lukas: “Yes, we got a deal on some handmade, lightweight paddles. The brand name is Bending Branches. We got a few sponsorships for items such as life jackets, a water filter, water purifier, energy bars ... . We also had friends and family contribute.”
Catterlin: “I made topographical maps of Lake Michigan for people who gave to us. There is an example hanging on the wall.”
Oh, my. You wood-burned that?
Lukas: “Most of the maps say, ‘Two girls and a tree named Makeba; thank you.’ ”
Catterlin: “The canoe is named after the calypso singer Miriam Makeba and Jacques Cousteau’s boat ‘Calypso.’ It’s a link to both of them.”
In what month did your quest begin?
Lukas: “July 1. We were guessing it would take about three months.”
How close was your prognostication?
Lukas: “We made it back to Beverly Shores 93 days later on Oct. 1.”
Amazing. You two are like modern-day versions of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
Lukas: “The last comparison someone gave us was Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.”
Catterlin: “We like Lewis and Clark better.”
Lake Michigan is not to be taken lightly.
Lukas: “Growing up on the lake, we were aware of its potentials. It can throw up waves at any moment. We used a marine radio every day. We checked (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) for wave heights and direction.”
Catterlin: “We always wore our life jackets and were very familiar with wave patterns and what our limitations were. Neither one of us were afraid to talk to the other person, like, ‘I’m uncomfortable with this.’ ”
Lukas: “We’re not thrill-seeking daredevils. We made intelligent decisions together. We also knew the capabilities of the boat we were in. Because Makeba is an open boat, we knew we couldn’t be on the water if there were crashing waves.”
How many days were you landlubbers?
Catterlin: “About 30. Kayakers could be out on the water where we couldn’t.”
Lukas: “On one of our weather days, we discovered a Scandinavian festival on Washington Island, near Wisconsin.”
Catterlin: “And there was a yacht club’s annual beach party in South Milwaukee.”
Your trek was taken in a clockwise direction.
Catterlin: “Yes, we started at Beverly Shores and headed toward the steel mills. Then, we went up through Door Peninsula and island-hopped to the (Upper Peninsula), cutting off Green Bay. That was about 16 miles of open water; we did that in one day.”
Lukas: “We followed along the U.P. We tried paddling underneath the Mackinac Bridge, but the current was a bit strong. We met a friend in the U.P. who trailered our boat over the bridge. Then, we followed around to Little Traverse Bay.”
Catterlin: “When we got to Grand Traverse Bay, it was really foggy, so we had to go into the bay like 17 miles to the finger, which is called Old Mission. We camped at Old Mission in our tent and cut across the next day.”
Lukas: “From Warren Dunes to Beverly Shores, about 21 miles.”
What was your longest day?
Catterlin: “About 43 miles.”
Paddling versus sailing?
Catterlin: “About two-thirds paddling and one-third sailing. We averaged 2 to 3 mph paddling; when we were sailing, maybe 4 mph — 5 was pushing it. The slowest we ever went was like 1 mph — seven miles in seven hours.”
Lukas: “We usually did eight- to 12-hour days.”
Lukas: “We ate donated energy bars every day. Luckily, they gave us seven or eight flavors, so we didn’t get sick of them.”
Catterlin: “We mailed some food to ourselves.”
Lukas: “We had chosen like 13 post offices around the lake which were within walking distances. We’d mail like a week’s worth of food to ourselves via general delivery. Mary’s parents mailed them for us.”
How big is Makeba?
Catterlin: “Almost 11 feet long; she weighs 300 pounds.”
Lukas: “We had a few leaks, but we brought marine caulk and epoxy.”
Both: “We’ll think of something.”
Some folks have dreams and bucket lists that never are fulfilled. For 93 days, Mary Catterlin and Amy Lukas lived theirs. You feel mighty free and easy paddling a dugout canoe.