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The Great Loop

Circumnavigating Eastern North America by Boat

image of boats cruising through the Erie Canal

Boating along the Erie Canal, part of the Great Loop. (image courtesy of Gladys Buzzell)

The Great Loop is a continuous waterway one can traverse that includes a little bit of the Atlantic, Gulf Intracoastal Waterways, the Great Lakes, Canadian Heritage Canals, and the inland rivers of America's heartland. Once the journey is complete, you are an official 'Looper.'

The Great Loop. (image courtesy of Raven Cove Publishing)

There are some requirements. They include a great amount of time, a boat with less than a five foot draft to get you down those inland waterways and, of course, NOAA nautical charts and a NOAA radio. Along the way, you can visit a number of National Marine Sanctuaries and National Estuarine Research Reserves.

The directions couldn't be easier. If you start in Chicago, it's best to go south in a counter-clockwise direction to take advantage of the river currents that run into the Mississippi River. While a few people stay on the Mississippi all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, most 'Loopers' choose to exit at the Tennessee River to avoid heavy barge traffic on the larger waterway. This path leads to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, which also flows to the Gulf.

Regardless of the Southern route you choose, just relax and float downstream until you get to the warm waters of the Gulf where you can explore the Flower Garden National Marine Sanctuary. From there, cruise east on the Gulf's Intracoastal Waterway. While soaking up some Florida sun, visit the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Then travel north up the Intracoastal Waterway and discover the Grays Reef National Marine Sanctuary. Continue north on the Intracoastal to New York City. From the Big Apple, it's a straight shot up the Hudson to the fabled Erie Canal.  Then head west across to the Great Lakes. Be sure to visit Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary as you sail up Lake Huron. Before you know it, you're back in Chicago. Then you can start all over again, which many have done.  They are truly 'Loopers.'

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