Friday, August 31, 2012


Detroit Harbor, north end - 2:30 pm, August 31, 2012
Washington Island, Wisconsin -

The low water today marked a low for the year, as far as we're able to determine, and it raises serious concerns regarding loading and unloading of ferries at the island and at Northport.

If memory serves us well, the lake levels generally go even lower on a gradual basis, from this point to approximately the end of the year.   How much lower is anyone's guess.  Recreational boaters, and I am one, have already noticed the drop in lake level.  The sailboat that I thought would easily get in or out of the harbor scraped mud Wednesday when I motored toward open water.  Today, I would not be able to depart or return.  I'd run aground trying.  The key for my sailing will be to wait for a strong, very strong southerly wind that will push along enough water into Detroit Harbor, so that "the next time" will lead to haul-out for the season.  But that is a problem that doesn't impact others, except for fellow boaters.

Algae line shows unofficial drop of around ten inches since season high.

What we'll do with the ferries when water drops even lower may mean special loading considerations, until we're able to adjust ramps further.  Doing so may mean knocking out concrete, cutting steel, and looking ahead to a new low level several months from now.   Better yet may be to consider a much longer-term solution, but that will require permits and some expensive, time consuming construction to provide greater flexibility in loading.  Were these requirements for passengers only, it could be done using a floating stage.  Even with autos, the requirements aren't overwhelming.   But when heavy semis are considered, the ramp situation becomes both an engineering and financing challenge.  And, none of the shore ramp modifications address what could ultimately become shallow maneuvering area.

Stern ramp of the ferry Robert Noble is lower than the other ferry ramps, and the air gap shown
here between underside of ramp and the concrete of the pier 
reduce to zero clearance with a full vehicle load and associated passengers standing aft.
Our ability to load ferries, one right after the other or simultaneously, speeds up the movement of traffic on busy days.   This feature of service may be lost until ramp improvements have been addressed, or water levels rise.

Fortunately the successful passing of this weekend will mark the start of fall, a period of operation with a slower pace and a lesser ferry schedule, a breather in which to better assess our options.

-  Dick Purinton

Comprehensive Conservation Plan Out For Review

Aerial view of Plum Island looking west.  
(Photographer unknown, thought to be a FOPPI file photo.)
Washington Island, Wisconsin -

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) just released their long awaited draft of the Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP), a plan that includes Plum, Pilot, Hog and Gravel Islands.

Of special interest to many people who enjoy natural history, geology, underwater and land archeology, and the encompassing maritime history of these islands, will be the plan pages that relate especially to Plum and Pilot Islands.  This is a very comprehensive document indeed, and it's not hard to understand the time it took to assemble this document and obtain various department approvals prior to public input.  Besides the islands mentioned above, this document is also a CCP for the many other islands in the upper Great Lakes area that also come under management of the  USFWS Regional Office in Minneapolis.

You may want to begin reading this as soon as possible, given its length.  Public comments on this document are due by September 23, 2012.   Written comments can be mailed to the USFWS address at:

    USFWS, 5600 American Blvd. West, Suite 990, Bloomington, MN  55437-1458

Or, you may email comments to:    (put "Great Lakes Island CCP Comment" in the subject line.)

The actual document can be viewed at:

Plum Island boat house (exterior refinished) - FOPPI photo
Highlights and pleasant surprises

Plan highlights regarding the future of Plum and Pilot have indeed included the prospect for visitation on Plum Island, with the creation of nature trails, the planning for an interpretive center, the continued restoration of buildings there, and the acknowledgement of the need for more work on the part of volunteers. The extensive work list now being tackled by the many members of the Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands (FOPPI) may seem almost without end.  Work already accomplished is a good start, but it's only the very beginning.  That's when people like Tim Sweet, FOPPI President, with his leadership and vision, can instill energy and enthusiasm in others, and present an orderly, longterm process, the results of which older citizens and members of FOPPI might never see.

But we need to start somewhere and the USFWS, by and large, with this plan draft has recognized both natural and human (cultural) benefits these islands have to offer.  This ongoing project is important, we think, for future generations of children who might ask: "What are cormorants?"  "What's a lighthouse?"  ... not to mention the future appreciation and understanding for the century or more of commercial shipping propelled with canvass and steam that sailed through this passage between bay and lake.  (I was reminded how quickly dated design and technology can become when my grandson pointed to the window crank on the 1985 Jeep Cherokee I was driving and asked, "What's that?"  Of course, in his  nine years he had only known electric window buttons and door locks.)

In order to read the most pertinent information for Plum and Pilot Islands you can fast-forward using the table of contents as your guide.  Much of the information I read is concentrated between pages 49 thru 55.   There, Cultural Identity, Objectives and Strategies are outlined.   But I think you will also want to read or at least skim the other pages, too, for interesting background information on surveys of plant types, birds and animals found on these islands.  It adds to the depth of our understanding, and greater appreciation for the job of the USFWS staff.

Pilot Island with dead cedar trees  (photographer unknown)

If there is one facet of this plan I found still disappointing, it was the passive approach to cormorant nesting on Pilot Island, and comment indicating that these birds may no longer actively nest there.  Not so, from what we've seen and heard from others.  If ongoing study of these birds is of such great importance, then let us in on the study parameters and objectives.   If counting of these birds is the extent of study, what has been the historical tally of nests and of birds found there, and how will letting this island be a bird island exclusively - an an extremely important protrusion of rock with maritime buildings, from an historical point of view - how will this further enhance our knowledge of those birds?  Are there not other suitable island locations nearby from which they also have opportunity to eat fish and reproduce, but which have had no similar human historical footprint?

Nesting cormorants dictated Pilot Island's
recent past, and perhaps they will dictate its future.
Well, those are my comments in a nutshell at first reading, but I will take a second and third look before committing pen to paper.  In the meantime, there is a USFWS Open House - a listening and conversation session - scheduled for the Island Community Center's Rutledge Room, Monday, Sept. 10th, between 5 pm and 8 pm.  This will be an opportunity to ask questions of USFWS refuge staff, and to submit comments if you wish.  Comment forms will be available there, so that written comments can be submitted there, or mailed in later.

This draft CCP is an important document that should receive attention from every citizen with an interest in the islands, their environment and local maritime history.

-  Dick Purinton

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


An afternoon sail with Steve Schwandt
Detroit Harbor, Washington Island -

I received a few emails from regular readers of this blog, which in itself is a great ego boost to know folks notice when I don't write!

A few thought my lack of frequent postings may have been prompted by health reasons (and I think they may have been right - a streak of laziness!) since there was only one blog since July 5th, and that one blog was about the buoy situation in Detroit Harbor.

My lack of frequency really had more to do with the many things going on here, both work and play, that the idea of a blog just took a back seat to those other activities.  But that's how summers are,  packed with lots of activity:  work (in my case a long stint as Cherry Train driver / narrator) and family.  I've also been a regular contributor to the revamped Island Observer, our community newspaper.  In a way, that writing competes for my urge to write something here every so often.

A plug for the island newspaper

I may as well use this opportunity to recommend - for those not already subscribers - that readers of this blog consider also taking out a $30 subscription to the Island Observer, if they are not already subscribers.  It's a great little newspaper with varied topics, filled with community information, generally upbeat in tone, accurate reporting of island news, with important background on unfolding news.    If you change locations several times each year as many readers do, just let the Observer office know where & when to deliver.   A great many people are working behind the scenes, both on the business and the editorial end, to bring a quality product to you.  Numerous friends I am aware of have renewed their subscriptions after a long absence, and in a few cases (which always surprises me) they've signed on for the first time.   I happen to think it is the quality of contributing writers and the strong editorial direction of Managing Editor Mary Marik that has made the greatest difference, but in fact, this has been a team effort from many, including folks behind the scenes you may never hear about.  It is, in my opinion, a great small newspaper success story these first six months under new ownership and management.

Island's BBQ a success 

The Death's Door Barbecue (DD-BBQ) held Saturday at the Island airport drew 25 contestant teams as well as many Kansas City Barbecue Assn. certified judges, plus hundreds of members of the public who did their own private assessment of barbecue product, fresh from the smokers and grills.  (Do they use grills?)  The Lions Club set up their big tent at the end of the runway, anchor for many of the food-related activities and booths, while the teams with their specialized sauces and rigs were tucked around the fairway between rows of hangars.   This was a community event in every sense of the word, headed up by a committee that had been hard at work since the snow began to fly last December.  Many people and organizations, including the Town of Washington and the REA, contributed.  Their hard work paid off, without question, and the day's weather cooperated to provide an activity that visitors and local residents enjoyed.

The 2012 DD-BBQ may well be the start of a new, annual island summer activity.  Event organizers will certainly refine their ideas for hosting this event based upon this first experience, so that increasing numbers of visitors may be attracted and entertained.  We heard "well done" from many.  (They referred to the event itself, and not the brisket and ribs.)

In like manner, thanks should also be given to those many other island organizations that host events during the year, too many to list here without risking leaving someone out.

But, a special note of recognition should go to the Lions Club members for their annual sponsorship of the Island Fair with its strong community-based activities, such as the Main Road parade, the bingo tent, providing the framework for many others to build upon.   This year, just weeks before that event, Club members installed new electrical service and water for the various games, food booths and other activities set up on the school grounds.  This installation replaced the multiple extension cords streaming from receptacles, overloading that often blew circuit breakers.  This was a very timely and considerate project on the part of the Lions.

And buoys are still not resolved

Amid the range of summer activities, and the ferrying of people and vehicles, came the controversy over removal of buoys in Detroit Harbor.  A discussion with several officials from Cleveland's Ninth District last week, August 21st, brought some hope that at least further review will be given.  But as of this moment, no word has been received.

Late summer's water levels continue to drop.  Mud flats were exposed in the shallows since the last major high pressure system blew our water to Muskegon and Charlevoix.  I hadn't seen that much mud since last January.   Where did the water go?  Why doesn't it blow back toward us?  What will we do if we don't get dredging help to deepen the channel?   How, in all of this, will two large cylinders replace the several floating navigational aids we formerly used to stay within deep water?

A number of issues, and many of these are controllable by man through policy and funding.  We hope to be able to report positive news at some future date.

Labor Day, the big wind-up to summer, is just around the corner.   I've got a seat with my name on it - upper bleacher, back row - at the Red Barn, to see Eric Lewis and friends Friday night.

Its fortunate we're offered so many choices on Washington Island, deciding when and what to participate in.  Thanks to all the people who work behind the scenes for these offerings of quality and variety.

More blogs to follow...promise!    -  Dick Purinton

Thursday, August 9, 2012


Detroit Harbor buoys and sinkers offloaded at the Potato Dock August 8th.


As a ferry operator, my greatest tension came when entering the Detroit Harbor Channel in heavy fog or blinding snow.   Finding the entrance mark, knowing I was where I was supposed to be in relation to the dredged channel, was an enormous relief.

A most reassuring moment was the visual sighting of buoy #2 by a crew member, followed by buoy #4.  We considered ourselves "home" once we were inside the end of Kap's Marina dock, and from there, the outline of the ferry dock was generally visible.

If the Coast Guard's long range plan for Detroit Harbor's navigational aids proceeds, then in cold weather months we'll have no floating buoys to help us.  The Coast Guard will remove temporary, seasonal buoys made of lightweight foam sometime in November, resetting them again in spring, so that they won't have to deal with the steel buoys, ground tackle and heavy sinkers.  In the interim, we'll have to learn to split the difference between the new cylinders that bracket the channel like the Colossus of Rhodes.  There will be a gap between cylinders #4 and #5 and the entrance tripod where no aids will mark the 150-foot wide channel.

This plan was revealed by the Coast Guard Tuesday through questions asked of the crew who came from Muskegon in their specialized aids-to-navigation maintenance craft.  By Wednesday morning they  had already pulled #6 buoy opposite our ferry dock.   (The crew is shown in the photo above depositing steel buoys 2, 4 and 6, along with sinkers on our Potato Dock property, where, I was told by Bosun Mate Chief Barra, the cutter Mobile Bay would moor to remove them from Washington Island.)

What will replace them, I asked?  Chief Barra, following orders to remove the steel "ice hull" buoys until told otherwise, said that foam-filled buoys would replace them until the late fall.

What will we do then, I asked?  Chief Barra said we would have the new navigation poles (the 20-foot poles atop the cylinders) to help us, and that "we've done the best we could."

If the plan to construct the two new cylinders in the harbor, aids #4 and #5, came to us as a surprise and  a curiosity in June, this new revelation caused even more surprise, along with consternation.   Why would the Coast Guard build two very expensive cylinders (at a cost approximating a half-million dollars), and then proceed on a plan to pull the steel "ice hull" cylinders on which we, as primary user of this dredged federal channel, depend for safe navigation in winter months, we wondered?

Their answers, we think, come from institutional decision making in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and perhaps Washington, based upon projected long term costs to maintain buoys in Detroit Harbor and the (perhaps) limited life of the Muskegon specialized nav aids maintenance craft. This vessel  powers across the lake each summer - as it has for the past number of years - to lift and inspect buoy chain, anchor fastenings, repaint buoys and reset the aids.  A presumption on our part is that the efforts made to save money on the annual District budget, coupled with the practical matter of lifting and maintaining the heavier steel buoys led to the solutions now evident:  permanent structures and seasonal, lighter foam buoys.

What is missing?

It is impossible to fault any single individual for a decision made over time because input has doubtless come from numerous, expert sources within the Coast Guard organization.  Rather, these decisions seems to us, frequent users of this waterway, an institutional failure to include the opinions of those upon whom such decisions can make a huge impact.

We have no idea of the cost involved in maintaining the old floating steel aids, life as we knew it for so many years, versus the cost of building new cylinder bases with light poles (at half a million dollars), and so it is hard for us to compare costs, one way or another, other than to say, that was a huge chunk of taxpayer money spent on cylinders.   And one of those cylinders, #5, is nearly useless in terms of its importance to channel navigation because of its position.  It would have been far superior had it replaced buoy #2, so that a line of marks could be used for navigation.  Had this been done, we would have less reason to squeal now about the pending loss of floating aids for six months of our operating year.

Only a few years back, the Commandant of the Coast Guard ADM Thad Allen, in his annual statement on  Coast Guard operations, admonished his organization to "Honor the Mariner." By this he meant: to listen; to engage in dialog; to not make hasty assumptions that might make matters worse for the maritime community.

We've seen great improvements since his statement was publicly made, most notably in mariner licensing where six months to get a license renewed was standard practice and mariners were advised to begin their renewal process for a five-year license a good year in advance of the expiration date, just in case.  Rich Ellefson told me just the other day that his renewal application had been approved, along  with official notice to him, within one week of his mailing!

Our frustration with the buoy change-out is coupled with our difficulty to communicate our concerns to someone in the Coast Guard - anyone - with authority to listen and address the Detroit Harbor situation.   It seems that the various names and phone numbers we had led to messages announcing personnel on vacation, on family emergency leave, on temporary duty elsewhere, and in the case of one officer I had met and knew, his voice mail box was full and I was unable to leave a message.

It was only after many calls were made that a call was finally returned to Hoyt Purinton of WIFL.  By this time, our greatest hope was to simply keep the removed buoys here, stacked on Washington Island's shore, so that if resetting is approved, the Coast Guard will not have to go to Sturgeon Bay or somewhere else to retrieve them.

And, if cost is a major consideration in Detroit Harbor's plan, as it must be, why not consider privatization of navigational aid maintenance?  I suppose there may be some Federal Code that limits service of navigational aids to the U. S. Coast Guard, but maybe it't time to reconsider that policy.

I observed the seven-man Coast Guard crew struggling to off-load buoy and sinker on our Potato Dock, and I found it hard to believe this could not be achieved locally with a barge and backhoe or other more specialized, private marine equipment, with greater economy.  It wasn't but a few years ago our company got chewed out for resetting harbor buoys to positions where they did us the most good, so far were they from their proper and useful positions.  Given frequent winter buoy drift in ice, our actions were essential to avoid running them over with our propellers, or running ourselves aground to avoid them.  We didn't mind the inconvenience of the task, and we believed we saved the Coast Guard an unnecessary trip to Washington Island, or so we thought.

Given today's GPS instruments and available commercial lift equipment, surely it is possible for a contract to be privately let that will specify annual maintenance and placement of buoys and sinkers.

As of late Wednesday, August 8th, Ferry Line President Hoyt Purinton was told by a Ninth Coast Guard District Waterways Management representative that the Detroit Harbor situation would be discussed via phone conference on August 20th.  There is no guarantee that a change in plans will result, but we're hoping that common sense will prevail.  We've made an assumption here that as a ferry transportation company, we also speak for those who rely on our services and our reliability to make ferry trips safely in all weather conditions, and that "improvements in navigation," whether viewed up close or from afar, should not pose greater risk to those dependent upon water transportation.

- Dick Purinton