The Icemen Cometh: Travels with the U.S. Coast Guard on the Frozen Great Lakes

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‘We’ve had the polar vortex.” Pepper says in the officers’ quarters the Friday before our departure. “We’ve had the polar plunge. Since ’89, nothing’s even come close.”

We’d be wise to recall, before too long, that the Coast Guard is one of the five branches of the United States Military. And it’s unique. It’s housed under the administrative auspices of the Department of Homeland Security (not Defense) and totes the authority of a federal law enforcement agency more or less in its back pocket.

“We’re like the FBI of the waters,” says Pepper.

Per the official literature: “The Coast Guard is an adaptable, responsive military force of maritime professionals whose broad legal authorities, capable assets, geographic diversity and expansive partnerships provide a persistent presence along our rivers, in the ports, littoral regions and on the high seas.

Coast Guard vessels serve alongside the Navy’s during wartime but otherwise just sort of drift around and, you know, guard the coasts. They’ve got what you might call a PR problem, though, because so much of what they do is mind-numbingly boring on paper: In 2012, they screened more than 436,000 vessels. They verified more than 70,000 worker credentials. They conducted over 11,600 annual inspections of U.S. flag vessels. They boarded and searched--zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Other than sporadic cocaine interdictions in the Caribbean and an occasional dramatic rescue, the Coast Guard’s rote operations are much more bureaucratic than military. Which is a big reason why they’re seizing on the fiendish media interest now; Semper Paratus and all that.

“Ice is the story,” admits the Coast Guard’s Midwest external affairs guy, Kyle Niemi. He says he’s been entertaining media requests by the literal boatload -- Hell, he’s got an AP photographer on a helicopter right now -- and that the press junket with the Morro Bay up in Algonac before the bona-fide ice-breaking gets going is basically to appease a slew of reporters en masse. Two days later, the crew is scheduled to take a Congresswoman out for a spin.

People want the details, Niemi says. They want photos. They want to see how all this treacherous arctic stuff gets done...

PRESSURE RIDGE: A line or wall of broken ice forced up by pressure; a seismic feature.

Ergo: The USCG Morro Bay (WTGB 106) is one of nine vessels in the Coast Guard’s Great Lakes icebreaking fleet. Through the winter, the fleet’s activities are choreographed “like chess pieces on a chessboard” to facilitate the reasonable demands of commerce. Essentially, that means creating navigable paths through the ice and providing direct assistance to stuck ships.

The Great Lakes region is split into two strategic ops: Operation Taconite (Sector Sault St. Marie) and Operation Coal Shovel (Sector Detroit). They are so named -- should be clear -- for the principal products supported by those regions. Operation Taconite is the largest ongoing icebreaking op in the United States. Its primary goal is enabling the cargo transport of iron ore (aka taconite) to the steel mills on Lake Michigan and Lake Erie. Operation Coal Shovel encompasses southern Lake Huron, the Detroit/St. Mary’s River, Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario.

The Morro Bay, whose slogan or tagline is “Jack of All Trades,” is a 140-foot tug like all of the Coast Guard’s Bay-Class vessels and is moored, along with the Neah Bay (WTGB 105), in Cleveland, Ohio, USCG’s District 9 HQ. The Morro Bay was commissioned in 1981 and was used as a training vessel in Chesapeake Bay until 1998, when it was decommissioned. After 9/11, its services were required for beefed-up security on the East Coast. It was stationed in New London, Conn., until last year, when the Coast Guard recognized that the Great Lakes needed another permanent icebreaking asset around these parts.

“If any year proved the wisdom of that decision,” says Captain Pepper. “It was this year.”

Though the official shipping season doesn’t really get underway until late March, when the Soo Locks at Sault St. Marie open up, freighters carrying Great-Lakes-specific or winter-specific cargo are active even during the icy months. At multiple points this season, freighters have been stranded for days, helpless as they wait for an overtaxed icebreaking fleet.

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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