“I’m tired of storing our dreams. Let’s live them!”
For Teresa O’Kane and Scott Soper, this mantra has served them very well over the years. They have figured out a wonderful way to balance their professional lives with their nomadic love of exploring the world. Teresa is an author who has published three books so far about their travel experiences over the past decade, with another book about the Great Loop in the works now.
Having spent a total of 5 years traveling overland through Africa, what was their next adventure? They decided to explore North America’s Great Loop, a continuous waterway through the Eastern part of the United States and Canada including rivers, lakes, and the Atlantic Ocean. They will complete the 6,000-mile journey in their Nordic tugboat, Green Eyes, in segments over three summers.
About 150 boats complete the Great Loop each year, so it’s a select group. Some people complete the loop in about a year, but as Scott says, “you have to time it with the weather and move with the seasons. You’re not going to be on Lake Ontario in January!” If you’re starting from Florida, you’d try to be to the Great Lakes in June.
Social Distancing on the Great Loop during a Pandemic Summer
Scott and Teresa’s first leg of the journey began in June of 2020. They drove and camped from California to join their boat in Travers City, Michigan. The boat was the perfect set up for social distancing, letting them travel all through all through Northern Michigan, Lake Huron, Mackinaw Island, the Cheneaux Islands and right up to the Canadian border. Completing the Canadian portion of the Loop wasn’t a possibility in the summer of 2020 due to the borders being closed with COVID travel restrictions.
They had never been to Michigan before, and people were pulling their boats out of the water the last week of August. Teresa and Scott had bought a boat they could tow on their trailer, so they were able to plan a side trip and drive down to the Tennessee River to take it all the way down to Fairfield, Alabama. There were some travel setbacks, in that to move through the Great Loop, you are dependent on locks in certain places like the Illinois River that were closed due to scheduled repairs.
Overall, there were a lot of locks to negotiate, which is challenging. They spent about 6 months on the water in 2020, ending their trip in Fairhope Alabama, where the boat sat docked in the water for six months while Scott and Teresa returned to California.
Related: Learn More About the Great Loop
Enjoying Another Summer on their Tugboat on the Great Loop
Fast forward to May of 2021 when the couple had the boat moved to Cape May, New Jersey with the goal of timing their arrival in New York “for Canada’s proposed border opening on June 21st. When that didn’t happen, we turned Green Eyes slowly north and cruised to the top of Lake Champlain, almost touching the Canadian Border, then waited in Burlington, Vermont for a rumored opening on July 5th.”
“When that didn’t happen, we turned south and cruised the Eastern Erie, getting stuck for two weeks at different locks because of weather and flooding. As serendipity would have it, this turned out to work in our favor. The delay brought us to Oswego, New York in time to cross Lake Ontario, our second Great Lake, for a proposed border opening to fully vaccinated Americans on August 9th. That opening did happen.”
The third time was definitely the charm to being able to cross the border into Canada with vaccination proof plus a negative COVID test. Having the opportunity to explore all the beautiful waterways in Canada and to meet all of the wonderful people along the way was a true gift.
You’ll definitely want to read more on Teresa’s blog about traveling through Canadian portion of the Great Loop, especially what happens when you become a bit too relaxed by the crystal clear lakes surrounded by granite rocks (don’t worry, all’s well that ends well!).
Traversing the African Continent
In addition to their past two summers on the Great Loop, Scott and Teresa have traveled widely around much of the world. They’ve spent a total of five years in Africa, living like locals and doing as much as they could on each trip.
The first few times they went to Africa, they backpacked and explored different countries. They had the chance to travel on overland trucks, which eventually inspired them to buy their own: a 40-year old Land Rover.
They found traveling in your own vehicle to be a completely different experience, that the “people who lived in Africa treated you differently, even the police at stop points in Africa because people learned to drive in them.”
These rugged off-road vehicles are a touchpoint for many of the people they connected with throughout the continent. Teresa and Scott look forward to going back to South Africa and getting back in their Land Rover, which is stored near Kruger National Park, less than a day’s drive to Botswana.
Their time traveling in the Land Rover parallels their more recent time on the tugboat. In the Land Rover, they slept in a rooftop tent instead of inside as on the boat. But in both modes of travel, you have to be a very organized and quite a minimalist to make the tight quarters enjoyable. That approach has also helped this adventurous couple be able to do what sounds interesting in the spur of the moment.
Explore Africa with one of Teresa O’Kane’s Books about their Travels:
Making Long-Term Travel a Priority
It can be overwhelming to think of being away from home and exploring in an open-ended way like this. Like many global citizens, Teresa and Scott approach travel as one of the most important things in their lives. Their experiences have made giving up other things fairly easy.
Budgeting for Travel, not Tourism
As Teresa says, “when you make it a major priority and weigh every decision against that [goal], i.e. buying a new car, especially if it’ll be sitting in the driveway for a year, or [expensive] phone contracts” don’t seem worth it. After completing the 11-month overland trip from Casablanca, Morocco to Cape Town, South Africa, Scott took a photo of her at the waterfront. Teresa put that picture of herself on her Citibank credit card as a reminder of her priorities. Making that purchase (whatever it is) “isn’t going to get me back to Africa!”
When considering big purchases, they ask themselves, “do I really need those 10 days in the Bahamas, which will stand in the way of a year of travel? The decisions come so easy when you think that way. Most people get an idea in their head, like a brand-new Land Rover for USD $80,000. Ours was USD $5,000. Don’t let the ‘perfect’ be the enemy of the good. Keep things simple and reasonable.”
When they researched boats, they realized that a tugboat rental would be much more expensive than buying an older tugboat. For their purposes, they will have the flexibility of having their own transportation through the Great Loop over multiple years – and may even sell their tugboat for more than they bought it.
Since Scott and Teresa share the same budgeting philosophy and travel goals, it makes it easier to plan, whether they are heading to Africa, the Great Loop or whatever their next destination happens to be.
Embracing Serendipity when Traveling
Scott and Teresa have made this a possibility with smart planning and an openness to new opportunities. Their advice? “Just buy a one-way ticket. If you travel for longer [periods of time], then you travel for less money. Your plans change. When we first went, we didn’t want to leave Africa. It was so hard to leave, even to meet family to go to London on a canal trip. Round the world tickets are not the way to go.”
They believe in having a plan that allows for some serendipity, so they don’t book everything ahead of time. They save time and energy by not having to reschedule the later legs of the trip since they’re purposefully left it more flexible. When they meet someone interesting, they almost always find detours that add to the richness of their experience – “and, often at a great price, like visas to Burma (Myanmar) for $10!” says Teresa.
In short, “If you can say yes, you can have much more wonderful experiences and be a traveler, rather than a tourist. On a more relaxed schedule, you won’t have to pay to make [that great thing] happen right in that moment. Those things extend your budget. Travel for longer, travel for less. You’ll go with the flow and find better deals and insider info.”
They love to meet Peace Corps and Oxfam volunteers. Scott and Teresa enjoy treating them for a meal or an evening at a pub, hearing about the work they’re doing and often, “those kids know great inside tips for that country. They can [always] hook you up with ‘the guy’” who will be the perfect guide to a new opportunity.
Finding the Right Tenants for your Home
Their nomad advice is to rent their house out completely furnished, through SabbaticalHomes.com, of course! Having the mortgage and household expenses covered with rental income, plus providing a bit of extra to put towards the travel budget is the way to do something like this. The goal – probably obvious – is to find the right match in a tenant!
Scott and Teresa recommend starting with finding the renter for your home, before even buying tickets for a flight (if your travel involves flying) or deciding on a specific travel start date. They have found this makes it lower pressure not to be wedded to an exact departure date, and you’ll be able to be more flexible with potential tenants to find the right fit.
They like having a tenant commit to 6 months to a year so you have plenty of time for your trip. They had one situation where they had committed to helping build a bridge in August in Africa, so they posted their home on SabbaticalHomes early in the summer. They found a tenant much more quickly than anticipated, so ended up filling in the extra time with the hike to Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile journey across the top of Spain.
It was “rewarding physically and culturally, not commercial at all.” In total, the hike, sometimes even on old Roman roads, took 38 days. They hiked through vineyards, fields of sunflowers and olive tree groves. “You don’t have to carry a heavy backpack or cook your own food; they have a well-developed system to get your belongings from place to place and you meet wonderful people.” They had wanted to do this for years, but had never set aside the time for it, so it was a wonderful bonus to their time before heading to Africa.
For this current travel to explore the Great Loop, the SabbaticalHomes.com tenants they found are downsizing and just sold their home. They needed a temporary home before they start traveling the world themselves.
Managing work / life balance
Scott and Teresa have been married for 40 years. They had built up a small business that had become very successful, but they worked all the time and couldn’t travel anywhere; it was definitely not the balance or the adventure they wanted out of life.
So, they transitioned to moving Victorian homes and then restoring them in the new location. Their goal was always to finish a project and then take time to take a long trip, giving Teresa time after their travel to write blog posts and books about their journeys. This rhythm of working and exploring the world has worked well for them.
Related: Lyndall Farley, Beyond a Break
Staying Connected While Traveling
The connectivity during past two summers on the tugboat have been night and day versus ten years ago in the Land Rover. Traveling through Africa, they would stop and send faxes in towns they visited, when a fax machine was available.
Now, Scott and Teresa have internet access on the boat and “can still watch Netflix on the tugboat!” They’ve enjoyed watching Ted Lasso, For all Mankind, many Ken Burns documentaries and public television via the passport donation program to have be able to watch a variety of shows.
Related: Best Travel Apps
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