Low water hinders run to Isle Royale

Isle Royale will welcome fewer visitors from Minnesota in 2007 because of low water levels. This weekend, the Wenonah was to have resumed its summer duty -- shuttling people between Grand Portage, Minn., and Isle Royale -- but lower Lake Superior...

The Wenonah sits at the Sivertson Fisheries dock Friday in Superior. It won't offer service to Isle Royale this year because Lake Superior's low levels make it too dangerous, the vessel's operator said. [Clint Austin / News Tribune]

Isle Royale will welcome fewer visitors from Minnesota in 2007 because of low water levels.

This weekend, the Wenonah was to have resumed its summer duty -- shuttling people between Grand Portage, Minn., and Isle Royale -- but lower Lake Superior water levels forced the 71-foot ship to abandon its run for the first time in more than 30 years.

"We'd need at least two more feet of water to operate safely," said Don Szczech, chief operations officer for Grand Portage-Isle Royale Transportation Lines, the company that owns and operates the Wenonah.

"We were running dangerously close to the bottom last year, and this year the water is even lower," Szczech said. "Operating in these conditions was out of the question."

Lake Superior has dropped 14 inches from last year's level and is 21 inches below its average June depth, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As the result of several years of unusually dry weather, the lake is only 3 inches above its all-time June low, recorded in 1926.


The Wenonah draws about 6 feet of water and can no longer navigate its way into the Hat Point Marina in Grand Portage, from which it normally operates.

Grand Portage-Isle Royale Transportation Lines continues to provide service to Isle Royale via the Voyageur II, a 63-foot vessel with a 4-foot draft.

But the Voyageur II has a much lower capacity. It is authorized to carry 48 people, less than one-third of the 149-passenger load the Wenonah can handle.

Szczech said the Voyageur II will step up service this summer, but even so, the line probably will be able to carry only about half of the 4,700 visitors it transported to Isle Royale last year using both vessels. He already has been forced to turn away business because of his reduced capacity.

The entrance to the Hat Point Marina, which is used by Grand Portage-Isle Royale Transportation Lines, has about 4 to 6 feet of draft at its entrance. The Grand Portage Marina, across the bay from Hat Point, has only about 3 feet of draft in places, said Gene Stone, who manages both facilities for the Grand Portage band of Ojibwe.

Stone said water levels in Grand Marais can vary by as much as a foot, depending on wind direction.

Besides the Wenonah, several other large vessels that usually tie up in Grand Portage also have had to relocate to deeper marinas, such as Knife River's. Stone said the loss of clients with bigger vessels hits his bottom line especially hard because longer boats pay higher dockage fees. Having larger boats out of the mix also will cut into marina fuel sales, he said.

Szczech plans to reposition the Wenonah in Grand Marais and offer sightseeing cruises of the North Shore from there. He sees an opportunity to fill a void left when the Grandpa Woo discontinued its regular service. The Wenonah was tied up at a dock in Superior on Friday, where it underwent a U.S. Coast Guard inspection.


Although Szczech is eager for the Wenonah to resume service between Grand Portage and Isle Royale, he's not encouraged by Lake Superior's languishing water levels.

"I hope we've found the bottom, but I don't know that we have," he said.

"It's grim," Szczech said, adding: "From what I'm seeing right now, I don't anticipate the Wenonah will be able to get in here next year, either."

Szczech said Grand Portage-Isle Royale Transportation Lines is looking into the possibility of purchasing a new boat with less draft and possibly a water jet propulsion system.

Even marinas situated in deeper water have had problems because of low lake levels this year.

Joe Radtke, manager of Barker's Island Marina in Superior, said he has about 8 feet of draft at his facility. But even that has not been enough for some of his customers.

Radtke said the marina recently enlisted the help of Jeff Foster Trucking to move a 44-foot sailboat with an 8½-foot draft about one-half mile downshore so it could launch safely. A crane from Kraemer Construction lowered the vessel into the water from a commercial dock that formerly served a Georgia-Pacific plant.

For Barker's Island, low water levels have boosted business, because some boat owners displaced from private docks or more shallow marinas have sought alternative moorings this summer.


Commercial traffic on the Great Lakes has been affected by low water levels as well. The Lake Carriers Association, a group representing the operators of the U.S. Great Lakes fleet, reports that through May, lakers have moved 28.1 million tons of cargo, 7 percent less cargo than they did during the same period last year. Nevertheless, carriers managed to beat their five-year average tonnage movement for January through May by 3 percent.

The Lake Carriers Association pointed out that tonnage figures would have been even stronger if lakers weren't being forced to lighten their loads because of low water.

Fred Shusterich, president of Midwest Energy Resources, said 1,000-footers loading coal at the facility he oversees in Superior are leaving with 62,000 tons instead of the 64,000 tons they would normally receive. Despite the reduced loads, Shusterich said his facility is running ahead of last year's pace with about 1.9 million tons of coal shipped through May.

"It should be another good year for us," he said.

PETER PASSI covers business and development. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5526 or by e-mail at .

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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