GRAND MARAIS, MN. (KBJR) – For nearly 100 years, the Coast Guard station in Grand Marais, called Station (Small) North Superior, has served as a launching point for rescues up the North Shore of Lake Superior.
It’s only staffed during the busy season — Memorial Day to Labor Day.
However, this Labor Day will be its last.
The Coast Guard is shutting the station down for good, saying it’s not needed nearly as much as it once was.
It will shut down for good on Labor Day.(kbjr)
But there are a lot of people up that way who disagree, and say a large stretch of the shore could soon be far less safe.
Just after Labor Day 2006, Tofte Charter Boat captain Darren Peck was wrapping up a day on the water when he got a call from Coast Guard Station Duluth.
“Said there’s a report of four people in the water in front of Temperance River, and they asked if I can respond,” said Peck. “And I looked around and no one’s around, so of course I can respond.”
With the the Grand Marais Coast Guard Station closed for the season, and deputies more than a half hour out, Peck was the only hope.
“Went out and found three of them riding the overturned boat, and a fourth guy hanging onto the side,” said Peck. “The hypothermia was starting to set in, so when I tried pulling them in the boat, they didn’t have the strength to pull in, so multiple people had to help pull them in.”
Had peck not been right there to step up, it could’ve been a recovery instead of a rescue.
Peck says the incident was proof of the importance of the Coast Guard’s presence up the shore.
Still, the station will close this Labor Day.
Master Chief Justin Olson, Officer in Charge at Station Duluth, says there are several reasons why.
“The official reasons from my knowledge of it is optimization of our forces and force lay out,” said Master Chief Olson.
Master Chief Olson says the need for rescues within the Grand Marais area of responsibility has fallen significantly in the last decade, averaging less than one per year.
He credits better boats, better technology, better access to weather forecasts and boater safety courses.
“If we’re having more need from the public in certain areas then we should have our forces there,” said Master Chief Olson.
But agencies up the shore say a lack of needed rescues isn’t proof the Coast Guard should leave, it’s proof they should stay.
“Initially it was disbelief the station was being shut down,” said Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen.
Eliasen’s department is one of the agencies preparing to assume more responsibility.
“Their presence here has made it safer because when they go out to do inspections, people know they need to have the proper equipment,” said Eliasen.
He says the decline in water emergencies is due to the preventative measures taken by the Coast Guard. Without them, things could change.
“When there’s no one here to perform those inspections, the quality of the watercraft and equipment starts going downhill, and subsequently when that happens it will probably lead to more activity for us,” said Eliasen.
The sheriff says it’s activity they’re not prepared to take on.
“It boils down to having the proper gear and training for Lake Superior, and we don’t have that right now,” said Eliasen. “So yes, it will be much more unsafe.”
“People having concerns are always valid,” said Master Chief Olson. “I don’t think the Coast Guard or myself would make a decision that would make people less safe.”
Master Chief Olson says the Guard will soon hold training sessions with Cook County, the Grand Portage Band and other agencies that may need to save a life, calling them part of a layered approach to emergency response.
“If there’s any training gaps they have then we’re there to fulfill those and help each other out and get better as a system and a group,” said Master Chief Olson.
Still, Sheriff Eliasen, and the charter captain who once pulled four freezing men onto his boat agree that the waters of Lake Superior are better off with the presence of the US Coast Guard.
“They are doing a valid job up here,” said Peck. “I think it’s worthwhile having them up here. I want them up here.”
The Sheriff also worries about response times.
He says the Coast Guard can be on the water within two minutes of a call.
It would currently take deputies as much as 15 or more.
And while those training sessions are in the works, Eliasen tells us there’s no indication agencies in Cook County will receive the necessary equipment, or the federal funds to buy their own.
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