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Adventure of a lifetime: Sudbury family takes their school year onto the water

Shelly Werner and Luke Booker and their two children (and two dogs!) decided to take advantage of online learning and spend this school year travelling the ‘Great Loop’, boating down through the U.S. into the Bahamas and back

After overcoming more than a few challenges, many of them bureaucratic in nature, a local family is on the adventure of a lifetime.

The family in question are Shelly Werner, husband Luke Booker, their daughters McKenna, 12, and Kinley, 10, and their poodles, Ebony and Penny.

Werner explained that she and her husband are boaters, and have always dreamed of travelling the “Great Loop,” a system of waterways that encompasses part of Canada and the eastern portion of the United States.

That’s just what they’ll be doing for the next eight months.

As of Thursday, the family had almost fully traversed Lake Michigan, and were headed for Chicago today (Friday). 

From Chicago, they’ll head onto the Mississippi, down to Florida, and then head to the Bahamas for a couple of months, as they’re only allowed to stay in the United States for six months in total. Then they plan to come back to the U.S., coming through the Erie Canal at the end of May.

Werner said she realized the adventure might be possible last spring, when she was reading an article about the province’s announcement that online education would be made available again this school year.

It wouldn’t particularly matter where they were taking their online classes, even if it happened to be from a boat.

“I said to my husband, ‘You know, we could actually do this’,” Shelly said. 

“I said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s just take a year off. Let’s just do this trip. We always wanted to do it, now we actually have the opportunity where we could bring the kids. For them it’s an opportunity of a lifetime.

“My husband kind of looked at me and said ‘Do what?’ I’m like ‘The Great Loop, don’t you know?’ He’s very familiar with the trip, too. My parents had actually done it 20 years ago.

“Anyway, the next day, we kind of talked a little bit more about it, and three days later we just quit our jobs and decided to go for it.”

The family ended up selling their old boat, purchasing in its place a used 47-foot, three-bedroom 1998 Bayliner Pilothouse (called the Oh Henry, but now renamed North of 45), a craft more capable of taking on such a journey, rented out their Garson home and moved onto their boat Aug. 1.

They spent the summer fixing up the boat and cruising around nearby Georgian Bay, anchoring in ports including Killarney and Little Current and enjoying the natural beauty of the area.

Unfortunately, for awhile, it looked like the family’s dream of doing the Great Loop was going to be out of reach. Not only are U.S. land and water borders closed, the Americans also weren’t granting cruising permits to Canadians.

So the family started looking into purchasing an RV and a truck to pull it with, planning to instead tour in the U.S. by road. 

“My wife and I have really been rolling with the punches, I guess you could say,” Luke said.

Because of the border restrictions, they would have had to hire somebody to drive the RV across the border, flying into the U.S. instead, but it was workable.

In late September, just as they were about to set this plan in motion, the family got word that they would probably be able to get a U.S. cruising permit.

So they hired a captain (William Barnaby) to pilot their boat across the border at Sault Ste. Marie. They also made arrangements to take a complicated series of flights that would bring them back to their boat on the other side of the border. 

A customs officer actually tried to tell the captain the boat had to head back into Canada immediately, but that wasn’t actually possible, as a mechanical issue had arisen that was preventing him from doing so.

Shelly said that mechanical issue turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it “gave us the time to sort everything out instead of getting turned around immediately.”

Somehow, the family was issued a U.S. cruising permit. It’s the first, as far as they’re aware, issued to Canadians this year. They figure other Canadian boaters will be soon to follow.

Luke said a memorable comment he got from a U.S. customs officer about the situation was, “You guys broke the egg, and now I’ve got to make the omelet.”

After all that “stress and uncertainty,” Shelly said the family is now adjusting nicely to their travels.

The girls, who normally attend Northeastern Elementary School, are doing well in their online studies, and Kinley’s teacher has been using the trip to talk about math, maps, history and more. 

“Wow, just wow,” Shelly said in a recent email to “Such support!”

Speaking to last month, when the family was still anchored at the Little Current town dock, young McKenna said she had enjoyed spending the last few months on a boat, although everything is limited, including power, water and internet.

She said she’d already enjoyed their travels on Georgian Bay, including seeing the giant paddle at Killarney Mountain Lodge, the Benjamin Islands and little “hidey-holes” of beaches, and was looking forward to seeing even more as she travelled.

That included being “in warmer water, and seeing what the water looks like or what different towns or cities look like in the area.”

McKenna said she hopes to have some good stories to tell about this trip when she’s older.

In case you’d like to follow the family’s travels, they have a YouTube channel called North of 45.