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Exploring the continent: Who needs sails when you have the sun?

Marie Cusick
Bill Carlsen and his wife Cynthia Berger returned to upstate New York last week after taking a year-long, solar-powered journey across the country to promote sustainability.


As they navigate their boat through the locks along the Erie Canal, Cynthia Berger and her husband Bill Carlsen look like pros.

But just over a year ago, they were amateurs, with an ambitious idea:  to spend 12 months taking a solar-powered canal boat through waterways known as, “The Great Loop.”

“You basically circumnavigate Eastern North America,” says Bill. “It’s bounded on the North by the Great Lakes, on the West by the Mississippi and other inland rivers, on the South by the Gulf of Mexico, and the East by the Atlantic intercostal waterway.”

Right now, the pair is navigating the final leg of their journey. Last week, Bill and Cynthia arrived in Waterford, N.Y., back on the Erie Canal where they began.

Recharging your batteries

“We’ve been traveling for close to 6,000 miles and now we’re coming home” says Cynthia.

For the past year, their home has been a 20-year-old canal boat called, The Dragonfly. After they bought it in 2009, the couple spent about $6,000 outfitting the boat with solar panels and an electric motor to power their journey.

They took to the water on June 1st of last year in Macedon, N.Y., and it’s been 12 months of non-stop adventure for the empty-nesters.

Cynthia is a journalist who’s been documenting their trip. Bill is an environmental education professor from Penn State University on sabbatical.

“I really wanted to do something quite different, and the idea of a sabbatical is to kind of learn new things and recharge your batteries,” says Bill.

The couple spent just a few months getting ready a trip that many people plan for years. They read a few books and took an online boating safety course.

Cynthia says Bill spent about a week designing and installing the solar panels, “He made a little miniature canal boat out of balsa wood,” she recalls, “and then [he] made mock ups of the solar panels and then tried them in different positions to figure out how they would fit on the roof.”

That solar power, combined with their mission to promote sustainability, has propelled the pair across the continent – at the breakneck speed of three miles per hour.

Pioneering spirit

It’s a pace that’s given them time to talk to like-minded people, and learn about other environmental efforts around the country.

“We visited the nation’s first LEED-certified shopping mall in Savannah,” says Cynthia. “We visited a housing development, in ... Jerseyville, Illinois, where they were creating low-incoming housing with net-zero energy costs.”

Bill says he wants to bring his new knowledge back to the classroom next fall:

Making your house more energy efficient or figuring out a way to move yourself from one place to another in a more sustainable way, isn’t something that we have to leave to the government to figure out, or to big companies to figure out.

Bill believes that a similar spirit inspired the American pioneers who built the Erie Canal. When construction began in 1817, there were virtually no qualified engineers in the country.

He says the canal was created by amateurs: “When the Erie Canal was built, it was built by people who weren’t trained as professional engineers and they invented much of the knowledge and much of the technology to accomplish this amazing engineering feat.”

Right now the couple is wrapping up their own amazing feat.

Spring rains have delayed their return, by closing parts of the canal, but they hope to make it back to their home port of Macedon by early next week.