Local officials seek federal funding for Lake Superior patrols after Coast Guard station closes
Rhonda Silence
Outdoor News

Local officials seek federal funding for Lake Superior patrols after Coast Guard station closes

After more than 90 years, the U.S. Coast Guard closed its station in Grand Marais this summer, finalizing a plan it made public in 2021.

The Coast Guard station was established in 1928. It’s been staffed on a seasonal basis since the late 1980s, up until the complete closure this summer. The facility is situated on Artist Point near the breakwall housing the Grand Marais Lighthouse.

As WTIP reported last year, the Grand Marais station was staffed only in the summer months by a limited crew. At the time of the station’s closing, the federal agency in charge said it responded to less than one call per year.

In a press release, federal officials from the Coast Guard said they “would not consolidate these stations if we thought it would increase the risk to boaters or the maritime industry.”

However, during a meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners Oct. 11, local officials said the closing of the Coast Guard Station has “left the burden of Lake Superior water rescue to Cook County Sheriff’s Department and to the Grand Portage tribal government.”

The area that is now absent of any US Coast Guard patrolling is a massive area that extends from the Ontario border south to Schroeder, including all of the water in between stretching to Isle Royale National Park.

Seth Moore is the director of biology and environment for the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. During the Oct. 11 meeting, Moore said local resources are not equipped to handle distressed boaters or people recreating on Lake Superior who run into trouble.

“This area needs coverage and it needs patrolling for safety of vessel operators and recreational boaters and commercial and subsistence fishermen,” Moore said. “We have averaged in Grand Portage about six to eight on water rescues per year for probably the last decade. and we’re noticing an increasing trend that began with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are more and more recreational boaters using this area.”

Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen, Grand Portage Tribal Chair Bobby Deschampe, and Moore presented information to the county board Oct. 11 requesting support to seek federal funding in order to adequately patrol the waters from the Ontario border to Isle Royale and south to the mouth of the Caribou River. The trio made a similar presentation and request before the Grand Marais City Council Wednesday, Oct. 12.

The letter will be sent to a number of elected officials at the state and federal level, including Minnesota Senators Amy Klobuchar, Tina Smith and Rep. Pete Stauber.

The Cook County Commissioners voted unanimously to support the letter and the funding request. The Grand Marais City Council took a similar step following their meeting Oct. 12.

Among the requests from Grand Portage and the Cook County Sheriff’s Department to the federal government are funds to purchase two watercraft “to be used for patrols and search and rescue operations.” Additionally, “funding is needed for safety equipment, staffing, and training for on water search and rescue.” Local officials estimate the financial need at about $2 million “to commence on water first responder responsibilities for this region of Lake Superior.” The request also includes funding support for an estimated $500,0000 per year for staffing and vessel maintenance, the officials explained.

Without the Coast Guard being present, Eliasen said the sheriff’s department is bound by state statute to assist people on Lake Superior. In the information he shared with the commissioners, Minnesota statute 387.03 states that the sheriff’s department is responsible for “investigating recreational vehicle accidents involving personal injury or death that occur outside the boundaries of a municipality, searching and dragging for drowned bodies, and searching and looking for lost persons. When authorized by the board of county commissioners of the county the sheriff may purchase boats and other equipment including the hiring of airplanes for search purposes.”

During the Oct. 11 meeting, Commissioner Stacey Hawkins said that as more people continue to recreate on Lake Superior, the federal government needs to step up and support Cook County.

“It’s education for people who think that Lake Superior is just like any inland lake and have no clue,” she said. Hawkins suggested working with Visit Cook County, the local tourism agency, to educate the public about the realities and dangers associated with travel on Lake Superior.

Moore referenced several recent examples where people attempted to recreate on Lake Superior and needed assistance. In one example, people in a pontoon boat needed a tow back from Isle Royale after they became weary of making the journey back to the mainland, Moore explained. In another instance, a person who attached a sail to a kayak with the intent of venturing to Isle Royale ended up in distress near the Reservation River, some 10 miles south of where they started and nowhere near Isle Royale.

As it stands now, the Cook County Sheriff’s Department has an 18-foot Lund it can take on Lake Superior if needed for search and rescue operations. The boat is not stationed on the water, so reaching people in distress is essentially impossible in terms of an emergency or lifesaving situation, particularly when the water temperature of Lake Superior is factored in. Eliasen said some of the fishing guides and commercial anglers stepped in to assist people in distress, something that can’t be counted on in the long term.

In other words, the request for funding is a safety issue, and it’s taking a proactive approach as more people continue to recreate on Lake Superior along the North Shore, Moore said.

In this episode of the WTIP Outdoor News Podcast, hosts Joe Friedrichs and Kalli Hawkins follow this story through the lens of two local meetings and discussion that took place at the courthouse and city hall in Grand Marais.