Saving a harbor

GRAND MARAIS – Out on the frozen ice of Lake Superior, a phe-nome-non that disappeared decades ago has returned to the harbor at Grand Marais.

This winter, ice fishermen have been able to leave their shanties on the bay overnight without fear of the shacks being lost to shifting weak ice, displaced by winds and waves.

“We haven’t had that in years, I can’t tell you when the last time was,” Grand Marais resident Jack Hubbard. “It just shows you what can happen when a lot of good people put their nose to the grindstone and want to get something done.”

Hubbard is the reigning champion of the village’s decades-old David versus Goliath effort to get the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state government to build a new breakwater to protect the harbor at Grand Marais.

Last month, after help from countless federal, state and local lawmakers and untold millions of dollars spent over several decades, a scaled-back version of the originally-conceived retaining wall was finally completed.

The roughly 1,400-foot-long structure – built with more than 1,000 semi tractor-trailer truckloads of rocks and armor stones each weighing 7-9 tons- will prevent the harbor from being choked by sands flushed into the bay on east-heading shoreline currents.

“It’s nice to have a functioning harbor again,” said Hubbard, the former supervisor of Burt Township where tiny Grand Marais is the largest village, a place where winter or summer, tourism keeps the town alive.

However, while the breakwater is now stopping between 100,000 and 150,000 cubic yards of sand from reaching the bay each year, the village now needs to eliminate tons of sand that washed into the harbor before the protective structure was built.

Hubbard said in the middle of the bay, the water ranges from 28 to 35 feet deep, with one hole where the depth approaches 50 feet. But in many places, the water is 8 to 12 feet deep and the marina is only 3 to 4 feet deep.

“Essentially, what it is is a bowl of sand now,” Hubbard said. “We need to do some very serious dredging in that part of the harbor.”

Fortunately, Grand Marais Harbor is one of a dozen Upper Peninsula projects slated for emergency dredging funds this year. A total of 15,000 cubic yards of sediment is expected to be dredged from the marina at a cost of $525,000.

“The safety of Great Lakes boaters, as well as the economies of local communities, urgently demands dredging work in the hardest hit areas,” Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh said. “Because federal money for dredging of harbors is uncertain, we have found our own solution. The emergency dredging plan helps address the problem for this year. We must still seek a long-term solution to this continuing challenge.”

Hubbard said the township has spent about $200,000 over the past 15 years for dredging the marina. He said locals would like to see the marina become about 15 or 20 feet deep.

Michigan had more than 800,000 registered boats in 2011 -the third-highest in the country- and today, the Grand Marais harbor is largely known as a recreational boating port, with interest increasing as the harbor construction project developed over the past year.

The 240-acre harbor was authorized by the River and Harbor acts of June 14, 1880, and May 17, 1950, to serve as a harbor of refuge. The natural bay represents the only safe haven for ships along the 90-mile “graveyard coast” that stretches east from Grand Marais along Lake Superior to Whitefish Point.

In 1883, original construction began on two piers to block sand infiltration into the harbor and a 5,770-foot pile dike that extended west from Lonesome Point the following year. At that time, the depth of the harbor was 55 feet and the dike was built to protect wharves used by commercial fishing and the logging industries. It also blocked additional sediments from plugging the harbor.

By the 1930s, however, the fishing and logging industries had declined dramatically, which reduced the economic viability of the harbor for commerce. This provided the Army Corps with the roots of what would become a long-standing justification for ceasing maintenance of the pile dike. That breakwater was allowed to wash into disrepair in Lake Superior storms after funds were last spent toward its upkeep in 1943.

By 1970, the dike had been destroyed with the exception of remnant footings found beneath the surface. Seagull Island, once a shorebird nesting area located in the northeastern section of the bay, disappeared. East Bay and Lonesome Point were also lost.

Through 1993, about $5.1 million had been spent on the harbor for maintenance, rehabilitation and studies. Three years later, Burt Township voters passed a tax hike of a quarter-mill to fund activity to restore the Grand Marais Harbor.

With that local support in place, legislators and activists began redoubling their efforts to search for solutions to the problem. The first steps were to acquire funding for a sedimentation study and have it carried out. A new study, with an underwater rover and aerial photography was announced in 1998.

Throughout the decades, bureaucratic red tape, the Army Corps justification and cost estimates of more than $7 million for the project kept the breakwater from being built.

Then in 2006, a fatal boating accident occurred. Villagers blamed the sand-filled harbor as “directly responsible” for the tragedy because a large rescue boat, big enough to fight the stormy seas, could not be launched from the harbor.

Hubbard was among those heading renewed efforts to get the breakwater built. Much of the work he performed in his capacity as township supervisor.

“It seems like everybody did a little part of it,” Hubbard said. “It was definitely a long drawn-out affair, that’s for sure.”

In April 2011, Grand Marais was awarded $40,000 in a Reader’s Digest contest for its save the harbor efforts. Village officials hoped the national exposure generated by the contest would help shine a light on the community’s plight.

Two months later, an announcement came that the remaining funding needed for the $7 million project had been secured through state sources. The Michigan Waterways Commission would contribute $1 million and $4 million had been secured in a one-time appropriation in the state’s 2012 budget. Those funds were added to $1.8 million previously secured by federal lawmakers and $200,000 raised by the community.

Work started in spring 2012 and by September, the township’s state-funded work on the project was completed. The federally-funded section was completed in January. A ribbon-cutting ceremony is expected this June.

“For more than 50 years, the community of Grand Marais worked to obtain funding and approval to build the much needed breakwall to save their harbor of refuge on Lake Superior,” Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, said. “To see the breakwall out in the harbor now is a testament of the strong determination, resilience, and hard work that is ingrained in residents of the Upper Peninsula.”

From the ice fishing shacks to nesting grounds for the endangered piping plover and increased hopes for tourism and recreational boating, Grand Marais Harbor has new promise for the future. Hubbard said he thinks some of the lost beach features may even return.

He said: “You can actually put together a plan now on revitalizing things and it’s going to last.”

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is