It’s had its ups and downs

BETWEEN HANCOCK AND HOUGHTON – After 26 years, Bob “Butch” Paavola and Dave Manninen barely notice the constant rumbling, which shakes the control house of the Portage Lake Lift Bridge as vehicles pass underneath them.

“There’s always been rumbling,” Paavola said.

Paavola, who is the head bridge operator, and Manninen, who is the bridge daily maintenance person, started working together on the bridge in August 1988. Both were working for bridge managers the Michigan Department of Transportation sand blasting and painting the bridge.

“They had two guys retire (from the bridge),” Paavola said . “They asked us if we wanted on.”

“A lifetime later, we’re still here,” added Manninen.

Although there are three other part-time seasonal bridge operators, Paavola said he is the only full time operator, although his job is much less stressful in winter.

“It shuts down in December, and starts up in April,” he said.

However, there are times in winter when the bridge will have to be lowered or raised, Paavola said.

During the summer, Paavola said most of the raising and lowering of the bridge decks is done to accommodate recreational boats. Although the bridge is raised on demand for recreational boats, he tries to get as many as possible to pass under at the same time to minimize disruption of vehicle traffic on the bridge.

During the summer, Paavola said there really isn’t a pattern of heavy or light boat traffic wanting to pass under the bridge.

Manninen said during the summer, the National Park Service Ranger III passes under the bridge twice a week heading to and returning from Isle Royale. United States Coast Guard boats occasionally need to pass through, also.

Raising and lowering the two decks is quite an involved process. Paavola said there are a series of buttons and switches needed to be operated in proper sequence. First the warning bells and lights have to be turned on. Next, the traffic-control arms have to be lowered. Bars locking the decks in place are then moved out of the locked position.

“Then we raise it,” he said.

After the boat or boats pass, the process is reversed.

Paavola said there are times when the 55-year-old bridge will stop during a raising or lowering, which becomes a problem for vehicle traffic.

“You’ve got a few hundred cars backed up in no time flat,” he said.

In six or seven minutes, Paavola said 150 cars on both sides of the bridge can come to a standstill.

There is some risk in working in the control house, which is mounted on the south upright supports of the bridge. Paavola said occasionally, a truck driver, who isn’t paying attention will ram the underside of the house.

“They’re not measuring (the height of) their loads,” he said.

When the control house is hit, Paavola said it can be a nerve-wracking experience.

“Most of the time, you don’t know it’s coming,” he said.

Three years ago, Paavola said a driver of a boom truck didn’t realize the boom was too high, and it hit the bottom of the house, cracking its floor and causing ceiling tiles to drop off. The boom fell off the truck onto the road, but fortunately, at the time there was no vehicle traffic directly behind the truck, so no one was hurt.

Eight or 10 years ago, Paavola said logs fell off a truck at 5 p.m.

“It put about 10 or 12 logs on the deck,” he said.

Although it was rush hour, no one was hurt during that incident, either, Paavola said.

There are occasional minor vehicle accidents on the bridge, Paavola said, usually in the winter when people drive too fast and end up on the raised median between the northbound and southbound lanes. Also in the winter, there are occasionally snowmobile crashes on the lower deck.

Manninen said every 15 openings of the bridge, he has to grease the various machines that operate it. Exactly how often that happens isn’t consistent, however.

“Some days you’ll have 20 openings,” he said.

Also as part of his job, Manninen said he has to pick up trash from the decks.

Standing on a platform at the top of one of the north bridge supports, Manninen commented on how the waterfront of both the Hancock and Houghton sides of Portage Lake have changed since 1988. There were no houses or condominiums on either side, as there are now. The Ramada Inn hadn’t been constructed, yet, and the Coast Guard still had a station on the Hancock side.

“It’s amazing how much has changed since then,” Manninen said.

While Manninen and a guest were standing on the platform, they were dive bombed by a parent peregrine falcon. Two nesting boxes have been placed on the north and south support pillars. The box on the south side has three chicks.