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

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On January 29, six freighters awaited assistance throughout the region. And though the Coast Guard often urges ships to remain in port when conditions are this ghastly, it’s hard for business to just cease and desist. Cargo shipments on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway annually generate more than $30 billion in economic activity in Canada and the U.S. In 2011, an estimated $2 billion in actual cargo was shipped. Not exactly chump change.

The icebreaking itself is fairly simple. The Morro Bay is equipped with a “bubbler,” an enormous air pump which propels 7,500 cubic feet of air up the sides of the ship at 9 PSI (“low-pressure, high-volume,”) from four holes in the hull. That process creates a lubrication which allows the boats to glide more easily through the thickest ice.

Electrician Dave Auslander -- “Oz” -- says it’s like being a puck on an air hockey table. MK2 Bradford says it’s like being aboard a hovercraft. Captain Pepper says it’s not quite like either of those things, but “you can really feel the friction when it’s turned off.”

Strictly speaking, you can feel the friction when it’s turned on, too. This boat will not quit with the vibrations. It’s like being an ant caught on a paint mixing machine.

“I say that it’s like living in a rock tumbler,” says Pepper. “A big cement mixer with enormous rocks rolling around the whole time.”

Pepper says the Morro Bay doesn’t always need the bubbler for 6-10 inch plate ice. The wake action of the ship does the job for the minor-league stuff. But when they get out into the 16-20 inch plate, or the brash, or the formidable pressure ridges, the bubbler is the only feasible weapon in the ship’s arsenal. The bubbler’s air is not hot, but it still dissolves the ice in the immediate vicinity. In moments of stasis, the growing pool around the perimeter creates the improbable effect of a boat very deliberately wetting its pants.

Sometimes on a direct assist, when the ice is rough, the crew will position themselves in front of the helpless ship and simply run the bubbler. The goal is often to relieve built-up pressure and create space for ships to move.

Out on the Lake, when the Morro Bay affects a waterborne three-point turn, the displaced plate and brash look like garbage at a junkyard, pushed around and jumbled in grotesque white bouquets.

We weren’t supposed to see Pressure Ridges until Pelee, but they’ve mushroomed up everywhere, spiky and salient, not long after we hit open water .

“We call it ‘Superman’s Crib,” Pepper says of the pressure ridges. “You know, the Fortress of Solitude?”

The crew may be on to something, for there is an almost otherworldly quality to these formations, formations which yet again reinforce the illusion that we have crossed some dimensional boundary out on the ice. Here the water has turned to rock, and the rock has turned to blue crystal.

But it’s not yet blue when we unmoor. Seaman Jahns is at the helm, taking navigational orders from Swaim. They’ve got this call-and-response type communication which seems almost parodic given the brotherly banter below deck.

One thing’s clear up here, though: Every goofy verb you’ve heard in deep-space sci-fi TV shows -- “engage,” “initialize,” “re-engage,” usually in reference to assorted thrusters -- are in fact borrowed wholesale from the bridge-speak of military vessels. The words “aye” and “Roger” are perhaps the most frequently employed this morning, but various abbreviations and words most of us still associate with Mutiny on the Bounty -- helm, valve, starboard, aft -- are equally prevalent.

“Rudder midships,” commands Swaim.

“Midships aye,” Jahns responds.

“Very well,” says Swaim.

Once we’ve pulled away and are crunching through the layer-cake snow-covered plate, Jahns peers through his sunglasses and remarks over the background noise: “I spy with my little eye something….white.”

BLUE ICE: The oldest and densest ice in a glacier or ice formation, distinguished by a pale-blue color.

Clouse. Clegg. Slack. Swaim. These men and their names seem optimized for maritime service, do they not? They are short, (the names are). They are aggressively monosyllabic, not to mention apt: Swaim? It’s like some obscure pluperfect tense or regional pronunciation of “swam.”

The first crew member with whom I interact early Monday morning, before departure, before the deep rumble of the engines activate beneath my feet, is BMC Dale Janetka. He makes his home in Avon Lake and has been assigned, this morning, to apprise me of safety protocol.

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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