Life on the Loop
The Grand Canyon
Like most people who see the Grand Canyon the first time, I struggled to get a picture that captured its grandeur. I had to wait until I got the pictures back from the drug store – those of a certain age will know what I’m talking about – to realize just how hopeless it was.
Years after I first visited the South Rim, I hiked Havasu Canyon down to the Colorado River, camping near the stunning Havasu Falls for several days. A few years after that I rafted the Grand twice, rowing my own boat through the rapids of the Colorado River. I finally accepted that the grandeur is never captured, it simply must be enjoyed.
The Great Loop is similar, if vastly different in landscape. It too is a majestic trip that can never be fully captured in pictures - or stories. Just like the Grand, every day starts with some level of apprehension but ends with a faint hope that the trip might never end. Either can get the adrenaline going or be dangerous, especially for the unwary, lazy or foolish. But both are relatively safe, though bug bites take their toll.
The Great Loop may not overwhelm like the Grand Canyon, but scenic beauty shows up almost every day in its rivers, lakes, sounds, bays, islands, beaches, mountains, inlets, and a bit of ocean (or a lot if you prefer). There’s nothing to compare to the mesmerizing power of thundering rapids, but there are impressive cities, harbors, canals, locks and best to me, small towns with personality. Jaw dropping sunsets backdrop many of them. Sunrises too, for those who rise earlier than me.
On the Grand, either hiking or rafting, money has no value, except at Phantom Ranch where, if you had been smart enough to stash a few bucks, you could enjoy a cold beer or ice cream sandwich. Life becomes eloquent in its simplicity: eat, sleep, move and occasionally jump in the river to rinse off the sweat.
Money definitely has value on the Loop, but life is still simplified: eat, sleep, move and find a marina with a decent shower. What changes your life on either the Grand or the Great Loop is the opportunity to appreciate what really matters. On the Grand, that’s an abrupt, maybe unsettling demand. It’s more gentile on the Loop: you can choose how much stress to let go of. Usually it’s more and more as the trip progresses.
On November 9, 1905, thirty six years after John Wesley Powell made the first decent through the Grand Canyon, Scott Mathews loaded his wife, two children, brother in law and nanny on board the Onward, a 74’ double ended cruiser Mathews had designed and built himself and launched from Peoria, Illinois to begin the first voyage around what we now call the Great Loop.
Numerous waterways and canals have since made the journey shorter and easier. Mathews did use the Erie Canal, then in its second incarnation, to get around Niagara Falls and finished his Loop in Port Clinton, Ohio on Lake Erie where he relocated his boat manufacturing business. Pleasure boaters followed the journey in the periodical The Motor Boat, the boater social media of its day.
Mathews went on to build the 35 foot Detroit, the first gas powered boat to cross the Atlantic in 1912 (21 days, 6 hours) and subchasers and airplane hulls for the Great War. In 1924 he began building standardized boats (previous work was by individual contract and design) which opened up recreational boating for the middle class as well as kept his employees busy during slack periods. A few Mathews boats are still on the water as collector items, a tribute to their quality and design as well as the wood working skills of a bygone era.
None of us can experience the firsts of John Powell, Scott Mathews and their crews. Maybe we wouldn’t have the daring or resources if we could. But the challenge and reward of stepping out of your comfort zone are still available.