One Remarkable Trip

Traveling the Great Loop in a 1980 Aqua Patio

August 2022 Feature Heather M. Serrano

Many people dream of taking epic journeys, but Dawn and Christopher Carlson and their friend Janice Cade actually made it happen a couple of years ago when they traveled part of the Great Loop from Chicago, Ill., to Mobile, Ala., in their Aqua Patio pontoon.

The Great Loop is made up of a series of waterways through the Great Lakes that go down the rivers to the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida, up the East Coast and then back again into the Great Lakes. Navigating part of this journey alone sounds impressive enough, but Dawn, Christopher and Janice took it a step further by completing their leg in 28 days on an almost 40-year-old pontoon.

The idea and execution was terrifying and thrilling at the same time, and the group enthusiastically threw themselves into the adventure which led to some marvelous experiences and valuable lessons. The journey certainly had its ups and downs, but in the end the group emerged victorious.

Where It All Began

Before they ever bought the Aqua Patio, Dawn had a goal to photograph all of Michigan’s lighthouses. To do that, she chartered a bunch of boats with different captains to take her to the lighthouses she couldn’t otherwise reach.

During her time with these charters, she discovered she loved being on the water and began playing with the idea of traveling down the entire Mississippi River. While searching the web, she came across the Great Loop trip, which fanned her already kindling flame for adventure.

“I was really excited to learn about it because I’d never heard of it before,” shared Dawn.

She bought several books on the subject, diving into the information and sharing it with some of the charter captains. Fortune appeared to smile down upon her when one of them said he was doing the Great Loop—or at least part of it down to Florida—and was thinking of taking some people along.

Naturally, Dawn and Christopher began planning to take the trip together with the captain. For an entire year everyone anticipated the journey, but unfortunately the captain changed his mind, so Dawn and Christopher had to produce an alternative plan.

Christopher had already saved up the vacation time and Dawn had made arrangements too. The vacation time was looming only a month away and it became a matter of deciding whether they would get their own boat to make the trip or give up on the excursion altogether.

“We questioned what we would regret more,” shared Christopher. “Whether we’d regret spending the money on this great adventure, or looking back and saying, ‘Darn! I wish we’d have made that trip.’”

After making their careful list of pros and cons, the couple decided they’d learn a whole lot more if they went ahead and made their trip.

Good Ol’ Pontoon

Dawn explained the main reason they chose the pontoon was because it was user-friendly to beginners like themselves. They also wouldn’t have to worry too much about the draft because of a pontoon’s tendency to sit more atop the water unlike sailboats. Another attractive feature of the boat they purchased was the unbeatable price.

“We wanted this to be like our survey trip,” described Dawn, “so we decided to just get the pontoon boat, go down the river and see how we liked it.”

They ended up buying the old 1980 Aqua Patio for a steal of a deal. However, they still had a number of repairs to do in a hurry. Luckily, Christopher is pretty handy with motors, having fixed plenty in the past, so fixing the boat motor was within his abilities.

“It was fortuitous,” laughed Christopher.

A Welcome Tag-Along

With Christopher having only 10 vacation days, he wouldn’t be able to make the whole trip with Dawn. Not wanting to go alone, Dawn asked her good friend Janice to go for the remainder of the journey with her.

Naturally, Janice was rather excited and agreed, getting swept away with the promise of adventure. Together they arranged for Christopher to travel the first 10 days up to Hoppies Marina on the Mississippi at Kimmswick, Mo., and then for Janice to travel the rest of the way to Mobile, Ala., with Dawn.

Before leaving, the gang decided to do a shake-down cruise in one of their local lakes near their home. They loaded all their things on it to get the approximate weight they’d be carrying on the river and took it on a little test drive.

Looking back, it was a good thing they took the boat for a spin before facing the Great Loop. The short ride went successfully until they returned. As they neared the dock, they heard a loud POP followed by a splash and the group discovered the boat’s motor and transom had both unexpectedly fallen off the pontoon into the water.

Even if the unfortunate event delayed their trip, the gang was grateful that it happened on their shake-down cruise near the dock and not on their trip in the middle of the river.

That being said, Christopher added this lesson to the long list he compiled throughout his time on the river: Whenever you hear a very loud POP under the boat and feel a shake, DON’T ignore it.

“That lesson came in handy another time,” smiled Christopher. “It’s a very important lesson.”

Conquering Fears

After the necessary repairs were made to the motor and transom, the group was ready to begin their true journey in October 2016. Since their Aqua Patio was small and weighed down quite heavily, their wanted to launch the boat directly in the Calumet River and not in Lake Michigan since water is generally much rougher in the Great Lakes.

With this in mind, they contacted a yacht club located at the beginning of the Calumet River to see if they could launch from their site. The club said it was fine, so they drove over only to discover there wasn’t a ramp and the club lowered boats into the water using straps. Not wanting to do that, the club pointed them to the ramp right down the street… on Lake Michigan.

Luckily, they didn’t have very far to travel on the lake before they could connect with the river. In the end, Christopher and Dawn decided they were glad because it helped them to conquer their fear and gauge their abilities.

Now the couple looks back and they’re proud and happy they triumphed over so many of their fears at the start: they launched into Lake Michigan, navigated a lock, talked on the radio, and traveled after dark, all on the first day.

“All these things we had no idea how to do,” emphasized Dawn. “We’d never experienced it before, but on our very first day we had to experience every single one of those fears. We got all of that out of the way.”

More Lessons

Needless to say, it wasn’t always smooth sailing and the group faced their fair share of obstacles, one of which happened after their first week as they got to the Mississippi River at Grafton, Ill.

Once again, Dawn and Christopher heard the fatal POP. Even though everything appeared fine, they knew they had to take a close look at it and they discovered that one of the pontoons on the boat had ripped.

Fortunately it was above the water line or it could have been a lot worse. They managed to pull the boat out of the water, find somebody who could weld, fix it and put it back in the water all in one day.

Before that, the couple ran into a problem with their rectifier regulator and had to get that fixed as well. Luckily, they had the foresight to bring along another trolling motor to help them get off the river. They were able to order a part with the help of Three Rivers Marine Service in Channahon, Ill., and received it the next day.

Then another time as they were meeting up with Janice at Hoppies Marina, one of the dockhands helped them tie their boat. However, the boat came loose and began drifting away. Again, the group was lucky to spot the problem quickly, retrieving the boat and prompting another couple of Christopher’s famous lessons: Never let someone else tie up your boat and don’t assume anyone is an expert.

Janice’s First Day

To say Janice’s first day was eventful is an understatement. She was understandably nervous about the trip and Dawn was equally nervous to show her a good time and how fun it is to travel the Great Loop by pontoon.

“Her first day was the day we had all the trouble,” admitted Dawn with a reminiscent chuckle. “It rained the whole day and by the time Janice got there, there were waves bigger than anything Christopher and I had experienced.”

Aside from the rain, Dawn and Janice were running behind schedule due to a fuel stop that took much longer than expected, so they ended up looking for an anchorage in the dark. They had their flashlight out to read the map but the battery died and then when they tried to use their radio, its battery promptly died as well.

In the end, they were able to find their way, but it was a bit of a struggle. However, after her first day, it was smooth sailing the whole way for Janice and she couldn’t be happier with the memories she gained.

“A summary of the trip? Amazing,” enthused Janice. “I’m so glad I did it. There are no words for it. It was just incredible.”

Round Two?

Dawn felt the Aqua Patio was remarkable in many ways. After all, it’s rather impressive the 1980 pontoon was able to make it all the way around the Great Loop. She admits that she had her doubts at times, but in the end it was totally worth it.

“We were exuberant that we made it,” sighed Dawn, “but also sort of melancholy the whole trip was over.”

None of them could deny the peace and relaxation that came with being on the water, especially when things were running smoothly and while traveling through less populated areas.

“You’re anchored on the boat and you’re just sitting there,” explained Janice. “Then you start noticing everything around you. We heard coyotes, owls, herons and other things. It was very relaxing being away from people.”

“It was incredibly enjoyable,” agreed Christopher, “to finally be realizing your dream of what you thought this trip was supposed to be like.”

No matter the challenge, whether it be the motor falling off the boat or realizing the boat wasn’t tied properly, Dawn, Christopher and Janice never wavered in the resilience and enthusiasm for their remarkable trip. When asked if they plan on making the trip again, they enthusiastically replied they hoped they would.


For More Information

Aqua Patio


Captain Dawn’s Crazy Adventures

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