Lake Superior ice yields to 'King of the Waters'
The Alder conquered it all.
The floormats on the bridge of the Coast Guard cutter Alder are emblazoned with an official seal and the words, “King of the Waters.”
Out alone on Lake Superior, plowing a path through blankets of ice that can halt freighters five times the Alder’s 225 feet, the King of the Waters lived up to its name.
Thursday’s ice-cutting expedition featured the navy-blue-clad crew weaving and dodging its way politely around about 80 guests, including Lake Superior Marine Museum Association and Coast Guard Auxiliary members and other dignitaries, such as Vanta Coda of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.
“It’s my first time aboard the Alder,” said Coda, the executive director of the Port Authority since 2013. “It’s always good to have a field trip.”
The trip started with a seaman blowing a whistle into an intercom to signal the voyage was underway. The cutter crawled out of Superior Bay and through the black waters below the Aerial Lift Bridge before encountering the day’s opponent: sheets of ice that from the deck looked like a topographical map of a barren arctic world. There were ice ridges like mountain ranges, and cracks and fissures that wove like rivers and hand-drawn borders.
No matter. The Alder conquered it all. Knifing for 4½ miles up the Duluth shoreline, about 800 yards offshore by eyeball, the Alder pressed and the world around it gave way in surrender. Watching ice yield to hull was hypnotic, akin to a bonfire trance, only instead of sparks Alexis Cook was sprayed with pellets of ice and frigid wash. The middle school science teacher from Superior’s Cathedral School was prepared in waterproof gear from head to toe.
“I love being on boats, but you don’t usually get to go out when the lake is covered in ice,” Cook said. “It’s so beautiful; it’s perfect.”
From the bow of the boat the stiff northerly wind brought tears to a person’s eyes, but the two lookouts posted there kept their binoculars drawn in search of obstacles. There was nothing. Then there was something. Open water. The last of the ice sloughed off and what had been a bumpy ride on a gravel road suddenly went smooth amid the rolling open sea. The only hiccup on the trip out was a particularly rugged field of ice directly offshore from the Lakewalk Surgery Center. Once the Alder has to ratchet its speed down to a single naut, said Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Maffia, it’s time to “back up and take a run at it.”
One ram was all the Alder needed to breach the stubborn ice and advance.
“We’re golden,” said Maffia, who noted that the year’s first ship traffic figures to come next week, when the thousand-foot Mesabi Miner departs from the Midwest Energy Resources Co. dock with a load of coal. The Soo Locks at the east end of Lake Superior are scheduled to open at midnight March 25.
Commissioned in 2004, the Alder is a cherry of a ride. With its reinforced black steel hull and two-story engine, it’s got a muscle car’s appeal. The rumbling engine room requires double ear protection - plugs and muffs - and was strictly off-limits for the guests. Outside it, the noise was a purr with the ice being blended into submission as the prevailing auditory sensation.
The Alder’s usual duty is as an aid to navigation. Soon, the Alder will be spreading buoys throughout shipping channels from Duluth to Michigan. These aren’t beach buoys that mark swimming areas. Rather, they’re buoys the size of space capsules that bob and dip while tethered to enormous cement blocks that sink and rest on the lake floor. The Alder features a massive crane meant for lifting, placing and retrieving some 120 buoys, said Cierra Waitman, a 24-year-old Virginian and one of the Alder’s several female crewmembers.
“Buoy run’s about four weeks long,” Waitman said succinctly.
Ice-breaking, the Coast Guard says, it does to aid commerce. On the return trip home to its dock on Park Point, the Alder retraced its path, widening the track before counting on the sun to keep the slush from freezing back over again.
“The big thing is we made it to water’s edge,” said Lt. Junior Grade Derrick Rockey. “We found open water, which is good.”
Good, too, for the guests, who were treated to California burgers and a fine cup of coffee.
“Better than I ever expected,” said Minneapolis resident and museum member Wayne Halverson of the voyage. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”