Denver Bar Association
March 2006
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Life After Law: The Great Loop

by Dianne Kraft Barry

My life has always revolved around boats and water. I was raised in Northern Minnesota, the eldest daughter of a District Court Judge who was on the bench for about 35 years. My earliest memories are of fishing and boating with my family at my grandparent’s resort in Walker, Minn. I lived on lakes, canoed in the boundary waters, was the first one to water-ski on the lake before the ice went out, and helped my dad build a sailboat — all before I reached high school. As a family, we spent time at Virginia Beach on the Atlantic Ocean. For a law school graduation gift, my father took me and my three sisters on a sailboat trip to Longboat Key, Fla.

Dianne Kraft Barry stands outside her boat when it was docked at Bobby’s Fish Camp on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.
My husband, Robert, discovered the Great Loop Cruise when he read one of the dozens of boating magazines that come to our house. My initial reaction to his discussion about doing the trip was, "Why?" This trek is a circumnavigation of the eastern United States, including the Atlantic and Gulf Intercoastal Waterways, the Great Lakes, the Canadian Heritage Canals, and the inland rivers of America’s heartland. It didn’t seem particularly adventurous to drive a boat through a lot of rivers. I’ve since changed my mind — it is quite extraordinary.

We bought a 40-foot Silverton aft cabin in Chicago in March 2004, while still living and working in Grand Junction. After making a rough inventory of what was on the boat, we agreed to pick it up in a couple of months.

We have always adhered to a work-hard, play-hard philosophy. Our priority, to make the most of each day, has served us, my clients and my husband’s employers well. We planned our retirement for many years, so we could continue to do the things we enjoy, like spending time with family and friends, boating, flying, traveling and continuous learning. While I have enjoyed practicing law and my clients, the process has become more contentious over the years, which has taken much of the fun out of it. I see a trend toward law as a business rather than a profession. That made leaving the practice much easier to do.

In May, we flew back to Chicago to organize the boat for the trip of nearly 500 miles. (At 10 miles per hour that can take some time.)

Our first big challenge came before we even left the harbor. As we mapped our route, we saw that the most direct course went under a bridge only 19 feet high. With radar and radio antennas, it looked like we wouldn’t make it. We did a test, and unbolted the radar antenna, put it in a rope sling and hung it upside down from the radar arch. With that modification, we were able to head directly south on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The next obstacle came shortly after starting the trip. As the Chicago Canal turned into the Illinois River, we dodged logs and floating debris. The "experts" who told us that flooding would be over were wrong.

Dianne Kraft Barry and her husband Robert enjoy the great outdoors aboard their 40-foot Silverton aft cabin.
Soon, those troubles were behind us. As we moved away from Chicago, the scenery changed completely. The landscape was beautiful, with tree-lined canals, rock walls and blooming trees along the way. We encountered our first lock on the Illinois River. The lock system is the way you make the 1,000-foot drop between Chicago and the Gulf of Mexico in a boat. We had read books about it, but all locks require different procedures. Our first lock dropped us down 39 feet. It was quite an experience. It’s like being in a dish pan as water is drained from the sink. There were times when we had to wait for hours to go through one lock (our longest wait was four and a half hours). In some places there were a series of four or five locks, determining whether we arrived at our next stopping place during daylight or after dark. We spent a few hours traveling in unknown waters in the dark.

We came to understand barge traffic and its impact on navigating locks. With so many barges on the rivers, they have priority over pleasure craft like ours. We came across some very helpful and some very grumpy tow-boat captains.

This leg of the trip wrapped up in mid-June, having taken several weeks to travel from the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to the Illinois River into the Mississippi, up the Ohio River and into the Tennessee River up in the Kentucky Lake Dam, across the cut at the Land Between the Lakes to the Cumberland River. We left the boat for the summer on the Cumberland River at Eddyville, Ky.

We resumed travel in October, taking off work for a 300-mile trip that would last two weeks. This expedition took us from Eddy Creek Marina in Kentucky via the Tennessee River to Columbus, Miss. on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. We left the boat there and did not return until we both retired in January of 2005.

In mid-February we returned to our boat to live aboard until mid-June. Living aboard a boat takes adjustment. The space is confined, you have virtually no transportation other than the boat, dinghy or bikes, communication is an issue, and the cost of moving from one place to another is high. There is the cost of fuel, slip rent, repairs and being at the mercy of people who may not have your best interests in mind.

In February we left Columbus, Miss. for the Florida West Coast. We traveled along the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway until it entered Mobile Bay. We had some repairs done in Mobile and continued our trip along the Intercoastal Waterway on the Florida Panhandle. We traveled across the Gulf of Mexico to Steinhatchee, the Crystal River, then Tarpon Springs, St. Petersburg (stayed for a month), and finally to Longboat Key Moorings, where we stayed for two months.

We have enjoyed meeting many diverse people along the way — people we would have never met without this trip. We have seen places that can only be seen by water, watched pelicans and seagulls, had dolphins dart alongside the boat numerous times, watched the terrain and trees change along the way, and most of all enjoyed the sunsets — our joys have been endless.

Our adventures ended in June, as hurricane season approached. We sold the boat with heavy heart, having invested so much time, energy and emotion. We found a 1990 43-foot Jefferson Marlago in Kentucky, and knew it was meant to be. The "Free Spirit" would take us on new journeys beginning in October 2005. That, however, is another story. You can follow our adventures on our website at http://www.irishwake.us.


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