Thursday, January 9, 2014


    So You Want to Own an Oil Tanker

      Captain Donald Kilpela - Harborside Books
      24 Waterfront Landing, P.O. Box 24
      Copper Harbor, MI  49918
      221 pages, with photos
      $15.95 + $2.00 S+H

During winter when outdoor activities become limited in the Upper Midwest and when evening's curtain is drawn earlier than we'd like, reading becomes a way to lose ourselves.

Let me recommend a book to you.

If you enjoy learning about maritime matters, if you have a background in either vessel operations, vessel management, marine insurance or marine regulations, or if you enjoy being entertained reading about another person's plight as he spirals into an abyss while still managing to keep a determined and optimistic outlook, or if you enjoy wit and humor - much of it self-inflicted - then this book is for you.

This book gets complicated.  That is, the story gets ever more complicated, and yet it reads beautifully, easily, with conversations between real people of contrasting backgrounds and wills.  Only a Kilpela would have done these things, you come to believe.  Only Kilpela has the courage - now with hindsight of some 30 years - to tell his story without sparing us awkward and painful truth.

We've had the pleasure of knowing Don and Betty over the years through passenger vessel owner gatherings.  I've always respected their hard work in building and operating their passenger ferry business to Isle Royale from their home port in Copper Harbor, Michigan.  This four-hour run over open Lake Superior, at 60 miles, is one of the longest offshore runs made by any small passenger vessel in the U. S., and they do this in all types of conditions.  Seasickness and discomfort among passengers is a normal part of the trip.  Don keeps a file of humorous - in retrospect - customer letters, and he pulls them out to read every so often at gatherings.   He's had us in tears with laughter.   His humor in relating one near-financial disaster after another as an oil tanker owner struck me in a similar, unexpected way.  I thought also for a moment as I began reading of similarities with Anne Proulx's Shipping News, a fictional account of Newfoundland's maritime community.

Don is a funny man, but he's also seriously insightful and critical of himself and the actions he took some 30 years ago when possessed by a notion to buy an oil tanker in the Caribbean.  With multiple warnings that it was the wrong thing to do, that buying an oil tanker was a very risky proposition, he admits to being overwhelmed by the notion and plunging ahead regardless.  Credit the Finnish honesty in his veins, Kilpela had the stuff to stick it out and make overbearing circumstances work in the best way possible.  Just as remarkably, Don's wife, Betty, and his close family members supported him, and they came to enjoy this unique opportunity to spend a part of their lives in the warm, sunny Caribbean, away from the snowy Keweenaw Peninsula.

Kilpela did bring considerable experience to the tankerman's role, having lectured and written about business management.  He started several small businesses - several of which also failed.  Mostly, he relied on his experience running a successful passenger vessel operation.  The rest he made up for with his waterfront smarts, and propitious timing when his back was pressed against the wall, as it was time and time again.

Descriptive passages and lively dialog makes this book flow from one sentence, paragraph and chapter to another.  The unpredictable turns of events, the manner in which Kilpela frankly relates his blunders as well as successes, kept my interest at a high level.

I would also recommend this book to anyone interested in traveling vicariously to the Caribbean through the pages of his book.  Along the way you'll gain insight into how residents and businessmen manage affairs in these islands colonized by European nations centuries ago.

  - Dick Purinton

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


Washington Island, Wisconsin -

You're looking across steaming Death's Door in the above photo, with the Door Peninsula headland on the horizon.   It was 5 degrees below zero when this photo was taken, a gain of ten degrees over dawn's temperature.  Out of the frame and to the west of the old Plum Island Coast Guard facility, the Arni J. Richter made its afternoon run to Northport.

The main reason I posted this photo, though, besides showing the steam and ice, is the bird represented by the black dot seen in line with the tip of Door Bluff.   It's a snowy owl sitting on the ice bank, apparently content with its exposure in the 15-20 mph winds.  At first, I was unsure of the dark mass, but after borrowing a pair of binoculars from the ferry office, both Hoyt and I confirmed it was an owl hunkered down, feathers fluffed, occasionally turning its head from side-to-side.

Another reason for posting this "bird" photo is to introduce results of the recent Christmas Bird Count held on Washington Island December 15th.  Birders pooled their sightings for that day, and for the day or two on either side of that date.  Most observations are made in the field, but reports are also submitted from kitchen window yard feeders.  Sandy Peterson made the final tally seen below, along with supporting information.  This annual bird count activity takes place simultaneously throughout Door County, with Washington Island well represented by both experienced and novice birders.  Due to very cold temperatures, high winds, and ice covering the harbors, the birds seen this year were fewer in number and in variety of species than in years past, according to Sandy.

A snowy owl (or perhaps two different owls) are found in this year's count.

Our youngest son, Thor spotted a snowy owl after Christmas as it perched on the rocky point of Susie's Island.  It's likely this same bird has stayed in our area during this whole time.

Note added 01.09.14 -  Following our sighting of this owl, Melody Walsh was able to photograph the bird with a telescopic lens, and it had brownish feathers.  According to Sandy Peterson, this indicates a young bird, perhaps a young female.  Her email comment: "Snowy Owls are desperately trying to survive this winter all over Wisconsin.  Many are young of the year with no experience with winter or civilization - the ones with darker markings."  

More nature observed

Adding to local birding observations are reports of a wolf - and wolf tracks - sighted by several people on Washington Island.   At one point,  it was seen on Detroit Island, and then just Saturday it was spotted by the Arni J. crew from the wheelhouse as they crossed to Northport.  Seen scampering over broken ice, the wolf appeared to be heading toward to the mainland but was stopped by the open water in the Door.  When last observed, it was headed toward Plum Island.  According to Capt. Bill Jorgenson, it looked healthy and "well fed."

Otter hangs around

On New Year's day I tried to get several good shots as the ferry departed the Island docks, and I located myself at the tip of Kap's point, near the Travelift.   Prodigious piles of otter poop decorated the snow and the surrounding ice shelf.   Belly tracks, where it slid along in the fresh snow, were on both the shore and the neighboring, old barge that's moored there.  This is the same area where, a few years ago, similar signs showed that an otter lived in the area.

Carp or other fish pieces are often scattered about on the ice, among the piles of scat.  This animal makes raccoons seem like great housekeepers in comparison.  About the only thing the otter leaves uneaten from a fish are the boniest pieces surrounding the carp head.  The rest is ingested, and it seems rather quickly chewed.  The results scattered on the ice and snow indicate a quick trip through the otter's digestive tract.

Ferry Line mascot

The only close-up bird photo I can contribute today is of a ring-neck pheasant, taken this afternoon.  This fellow has taken to hanging around the terminal building, and, maybe to relieve boredom, he sometimes jumps to the window ledge to peer at Bill Schutz's computer.  By now he might anticipate the handouts, because I've seen him jump from the ground to the wooden deck by the south door and snatch a cookie or piece of bread offered him.  Some days he's accompanied by a hen, but today he "foraged" alone.

Winter's just begun, but already school has been called off two days in a row, this coming on the heels of a two-week holiday.  The upper and lower bay is locked up with ice, and ore boats still operating will have their share of troubles.

With this ice and cold, it will be interesting to see how wildlife continues to adapt.

  -  Dick Purinton