The U.S. Coast Guard plans to close its seasonal station in Grand Marais by next year and will rely instead on its Duluth station more than 100 miles away for severe water emergencies.
The plan is part of a wider consolidation of "redundant" Coast Guard stations that was made public last week in the federal register.
"Many stations were established at a time when boats lacked engines and were powered by oars and paddles," the plan's summary said. "With modern boat operating speeds and improved direction finding technology, many calls for Coast Guard assistance can be responded to by multiple units significantly faster than when these boat stations were first established."
Lt. Paul Rhynard, the Coast Guard's public information officer for the Great Lakes Region, told the News Tribune that the station in Grand Marais is staffed only in the warmer months by just four people and a boat, all from the larger "parent unit" in Duluth, and has responded to "less than one" emergency per year over the last decade.
"They're sort of camping out there for a summer and getting about one call a year, it just made sense to bring them back down to the parent unit in Duluth," Rhynard said.
But the plan worried Grand Marais City Council members.
In a June 9 meeting, the council and Mayor Jay Arrowsmith-DeCoux collectively decided to submit comments expressing their concerns. The public may submit comments on the plan through Aug. 3.
"Your boats might be fast but not fast enough," council member Kelly Swearingen said.
Ryhnard wouldn't say how long it would take for a boat from Duluth to reach the Grand Marais area as a number of factors — weather and size of boat — can change those figures.
But he said other agencies in the area could still provide more immediate help on the water, and the area will continue to be served by the Coast Guard's aircraft based in Traverse City, Michigan.
The Cook County Sheriff's Office has jurisdiction for water emergencies within the county and 7 miles into Lake Superior, but usually responds to emergencies on inland lakes and water bodies while the Coast Guard handles Lake Superior.
Chief Deputy Will Sandstrom said the Coast Guard's departure will mean the agency will need more training and possibly more equipment.
"We're certainly going to have to amp up the training for the big lake ... (The search-and-rescue unit) train more on all the inland lakes and they do some training out on Lake Superior, but would have to get our training more up to speed with the big water," Sandstrom said in an interview with the News Tribune.
It may also mean a bigger boat. He said they currently use "basically a fishing boat" and would look into getting "a vessel to handle the waves."
But he noted that U.S. Border Patrol now has a larger vessel stationed there that is comparable to what the Coast Guard used.
"We could team up with them for resources if we know we're responding to a big emergency," Sandstrom said.
Sandstrom said the sheriff's office might respond to six calls per year on Lake Superior, but most are reports of a boat that drifted from shore or an odd object in the water that might look like a person or overturned boat.
He said the last "actual full-blown emergency" on the lake was in 2014 when two men drowned near Bluefin Bay resort. That event was in December, when the Grand Marais station wasn't staffed for the season, but 11 agencies responded, including a U.S. Coast Guard boat crew and Canadian Coast Guard plane dropping flares to help searchers see at night.
Grand Marais' Coast Guard station, called the Station (Small) North Superior, was established in 1928 and has been staffed on a seasonal basis since 1988. It sits on Artist Point near the walkway to the Grand Marais Lighthouse. According to the Coast Guard's website, it's responsible for the area of the lake from Taconite Harbor to the border with Canada, including Isle Royale.
This story was updated at 9:53 a.m. June 18 to add Kelly Swearingen's title. The story was originally published at 5:40 p.m. June 17. The News Tribune regrets the error.