After 2,000 nautical miles, I thought we’d experienced it all: fog, tides, hurricanes, locks and shallow water. But then we reached the Great Lakes and boating became a whole new ballgame!
The Great Lakes are, in fact, great. However after spending the last 6 weeks in them, I can also list about 20 other adjectives to describe them.
(Incidentally, not all of my adjectives would be quite as flattering as “great.” Think: Treacherous Lakes, Volatile Lakes, and possibly even Risky Lakes.)
In their defense, we did show up late to the party. Because the Erie Canal did not open this year until mid-August, we weren’t able to boat in the Lakes until late-August through early-October.
Typically the rule of thumb is that you need to be off of the Lakes by October.
That was our goal going in.
We arrived in Lake Ontario on August 19th. According to our timeline, that gave us 6+ full weeks to enjoy ourselves and get our boat to Chicago. Sounds easy enough, right?
Well, we found out quickly that every ounce of our skills, confidence, patience and good judgement would be tested in the Lakes.
One thing we’ve noticed while boating is that everyone can dredge up a worst-case scenario story. Approaching almost every new challenge we were given warnings…the Albermarle Sound…the Dismal Swamp…Delaware Bay…going outside in New Jersey.
Up until that point, all of the warnings had been totally dramatic and completely unfounded. In fact, I dare say we entered the Great Lakes a tad overconfident.
Lake Ontario goes on the record as our favorite.
In all fairness, it was our favorite because it gave us no problems.
We swam a ton. Enjoyed multiple calm, beautiful days. And overall loved the stops we made- Oswego, Rochester, Olcott and Youngstown. We ate good food, enjoyed the charm of rural New York, and even took a trip to Niagara Falls (though, not by boat!)
Our boat transitioned from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie with the help of a captain and crew (if you haven’t read about our Canadian experience, check it out!)
My memories of Lake Erie will always remind me of a roller coaster.
This is partly due to the weather, and partly because we spent a lot of time docked right next to Cedar Point (the Roller Coaster Capital of the World.)
We started Lake Erie around midnight in Buffalo when our boat finally arrived from Canada. During our few days in Buffalo we watched the weather go from perfect, to waves crashing over the break walls. I couldn’t fathom boating in those conditions.
For the first time on our trip we had a huge go/no-go debate.
We did not have a big window to leave Buffalo. Not going meant that we’d likely get stuck there for at least another 4 days as the weather looked even worse. Going meant we’d likely get into some storms.
Ultimately we decided to go because the seas were forecast to be relatively calm that day. We used our engines and the radar to time our ride just perfect- going very slow at first to let a huge storm pass. And then running wide open to get to Erie, PA safely just before the next storm arrived.
We did end up getting stuck in Erie, although I am not complaining at all!
The town is adorable and our good friends pointed us in the direction of every delicious meal, drink and dessert. We joked that we “ate our way through Erie.”
On the day we planned to leave, Brent went to the marina office to turn in our gate key. The dock master looked right at him, handed the key back and said “Nope, you’re not going anywhere today.”
Turns out, he was right. About 2 hours later things got really bad. The Coast Guard even brought in a capsized boat!
Eventually we got a small weather window and we were able to make it to Cleveland, and then Sandusky- two of our most memorable marinas to date!
In Cleveland we stayed at a marina that was literally in the middle of a private airport runway. We got to watch several planes take off and land just above our heads. We also had an amazing view of downtown.
Son Rise Marina in Sandusky, OH is located right next to Cedar Point. Although it was closed due to Covid19, the views were still pretty cool.
Sandusky was magical. Cute farmers market, great food, kind people and it has THE BEST ice cream! We could have easily stayed for at least another week.
But we got a very small weather window and decided to high tail it to Lake Huron.
The transition from Erie to Huron was pretty awesome. We may or may not have cruised through Canadian waters. We loved passing Detroit, through Lake St. Clair, and staying in historic Algonac, MI. But then…
Lake Huron was cold in every way and probably our least favorite Great Lake.
First of all, the weather was literally cold. We went from getting sunburned around the pool in Sandusky to absolutely freezing.
The water was also icy. Mary Grace had grand plans to swim, but it lasted all of about 2 seconds. She can officially say she swam in Huron…but barely!
Lake Huron also gave us the cold shoulder for boating. Looking at a 10-day forecast there was not one single good day. At that point we worried that if we didn’t push a little bit, we wouldn’t make it to Chicago by October.
We decided to go as fast as we could to Mackinac Island.
Yes, we missed some towns along the way. And no part of our journey up Lake Huron was relaxing. But we didn’t really have another option. It was also the most expensive 2 days of our life (you don’t get very good fuel mileage when you’re running your boat at wide open speed!)
Mackinac Island was quite possibly the most bizarre stop on our entire trip to date.
First of all, it’s an Island that you can only access by boat. And, since we have a boat…
But no. Because the Lake levels are up so much this year, all of the marinas on Mackinac Island are closed. Or rather, there’s no electricity. And you can’t run your generator.
We opted to stay across the way in Mackinaw City. Ideally we would have taken our boat over to Mackinac for the day, but ironically we had to take a ferry. The waves were 12 feet and that was a BIG no-go on our own boat.
Thankfully we thought the ferry was a piece of cake- even in 12 foot seas! (I can assure you, not everyone on the ferry felt the same way we did!)
Our day on Mackinac Island was amazing.
Mackinaw City, on the other hand, was…interesting. (For the record, yes I’m spelling both places correctly!) We were one of 3 boats in our marina. Total ghost town! I have to admit, it was a bit eerie and definitely made me want to move towards Chicago ASAP.
Two big milestones happened when we pulled under the Mighty Mac Bridge. First, we transitioned into Lake Michigan. And secondly, for the first time all trip- we were finally heading South!
Lake Michigan was unexpected…in the best and worst ways!
Our first few days in the Lake we had to stop several times unexpectedly. The waves just got too big.
Although this was less than ideal, and not the plan- it landed us in the cutest town: Pentwater. We absolutely fell in love! If we weren’t on a schedule, we would have stayed for a month.
We felt the same about Grand Haven!
After Grand Haven we got a crazy idea. We’d made pretty good time and still had a week to spare before we really needed to be in Chicago. We thought it would be fun to visit the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan.
So after a night in St. Josephs we got daring and crossed Lake Michigan.
Hindsight is 20/20, but honestly if we’d done our due diligence checking the weather we never would have crossed on the morning that we did.
Somehow overnight the forecast went from 1-3 foot waves (manageable) to 3-5 foot with occasional 7-8! Yes, it was as terrible as it sounds.
Definitely our most uncomfortable boating day to date!
We survived and spent the next week in Pleasant Prairie, WI. Highlights from that week included seeing some of our best boating friends (Howaho), visiting an apple farm, and playing a lot of tennis.
Our last official day on Lake Michigan was, by far, the best day on the entire Great Lakes!
In fact it was so good, we bypassed Downtown Chicago and went over to Hammond, IN for a better fuel price. But honestly, we just wanted to soak up every minute of boating that day.
Our time on the Great Lakes ended (pretty much) when we pulled into a Marina right in the heart of Downtown Chicago…which will be its own post.
Overall I can say that we genuinely enjoyed our time boating the Great Lakes. But I also think my memories are fonder now that they’re behind us!
Boating on a schedule is never particularly fun. Especially when you’re facing a very volatile set of Lakes!
Here’s a few final thoughts about The Great Lakes:
- We did not boat in Lake Superior. But, since our family visited Lake Superior several summers ago- we can officially say that we’ve been to all 5 Great Lakes.
- I have no doubt the Great Lakes are fabulous. We saw some glimpses of greatness. Unfortunately our schedule had us in the area late in the season so we got to experience the not-so-good parts too.
- We are fully aware that we missed about a million great stops. Hopefully this re-cap gives you a glimpse into our itinerary. I think you could easily spend years in the Great Lakes and still not see everywhere.
Thanks for following along on our adventures! You may also enjoy reading:
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