By Jenna Wieber, National Park Service
One could say it’s an annual late fall tradition of the park. No, it’s not watching the leaves fall, or the visitor centers switch to winter hours, or even the start of the new federal fiscal year. It’s the removal of the hazard buoys throughout Voyageurs National Park.
Every year after October 1st, park law enforcement rangers trade in their gun belts for rain slickers and rubber gloves. The crisp fall mornings, switching winds, and heavily dew covered boats already make this a daunting task to begin. But tackling, bear hugging, and “heave hoeing” a 60 inch tall, 10 in diameter buoy that is attached to about 10 feet of rusty chain and a large cement anchor, is a whole other task. Not to mention this buoy has been floating, soaking up, and growing slick algae on it since their deployment after ice out, typically in May.
Just shy of 200 rock, no-wake, and a few inside-channel navigation aids are deployed and retrieved every May and October. This is literally back breaking work, but it has to be done to ensure safety within the park. Not all rocks are marked within the park, but at least ones that at varying water levels, are either just slightly exposed or just below the water surface. Whether located along the United States Coast Guard (USGS) channel or the middle of the open lake.
Up until the fall of 2017, staff would have to grab these wet, water-logged, slimy buoys and struggle to get them pulled into a boat. The safety risks were numerous. From potentially falling overboard into the brisk water, to getting a hang pinched between a chain, buoy, or cement block, to even pulled or strained muscles. But with some ingenuity from a local mechanic and metal fabricator working along with our park staff, an electric buoy wench system was created to assist the rangers and park staff to make this a safer, more efficient process.
How does it work? Using the electric wench system, which is attached to a small barge, staff pull up fairly close to a buoy and throw a chain around it. This chain hooks just below the bottom of the buoy to secure it, then with just a press of a button, the wench begins to retract. This leaves staff responsible for only guiding the buoy, chain, and anchor onto the barge floor. The risk of injury is greatly reduced.
It is still a dirty job, whether spring or fall. But it is amazing what a little ingenuity can bring to the workforce to work safer, and not harder.