Before the Breaking Wave: The Duluth North Pier Lighthouse

By W. Scott Olsen

 Monday, December 14, 2015

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I had expected a sound. Something deep, low frequency, something earth-core and knee shaking. Something heavy. Something I would feel in my teeth. Something dangerous, threatening, pressing.

There was a storm on Lake Superior. Gale warning. The waves had grown large and were heading west, and I had come to meet them. But what I heard—no, what I felt inside the lighthouse was silence. Not the silence of emptiness, though. There wasn’t a quiver to be found. No shudder. No bending or creak. Nothing hollow at all. The tremendous weight of the lake was pressing against us. This was the silence of strength.

***

I don’t know when lighthouses got into my imagination. Fifth grade seems right. Lighthouses are perfect for a fifth-grade boy. They are dangerous and romantic. They are alone against nature. Alone against the universe. They stand, light shining, no matter what wave, no matter what storm. The lighthouse keeper is anonymous, mysterious, brilliantly intuitive regarding nature, and absolutely essential. Invisible and essential—what more would a fifth grader desire?

I had the cliché down well. I would wear a cable-knit sweater and a pea-coat. I would wear some type of oil-skin pants and buckle-front galoshes, mostly unbuckled. My hat would be a sailor’s cap. I would smoke a pipe. In the evenings I would sit in front of a stone hearth and a peat-fueled fire, a bottle of good but not fancy scotch on the table, a bearded collie curled up near the chair, and I would listen to the BBC on an ancient console radio. I would listen to the news from Nepal or Antarctica or Senegal and I would know what the world was doing. And when it wasn’t time for the news, I would listen to Celtic music. On a far table, in a dim corner, there would be a short-wave radio with VU meters, some type of very large dial, and a table-mic. Meteorological and ocean charts would hang on the wall above the radio.

It was always evening. Or midnight. And it was always misty or raining. Sometimes thunderstorms. Frequently hurricanes. Waves crashed on the shore rocks, spray making its way into outer space. I don’t know why, but in my imagination it was never a pleasant Tuesday afternoon with bright sun, gentle breeze, comfortable temperatures, and steaks on a charcoal grill.

In my fifth-grade imagination, I do not remember keeping ships from harm. But I remember how clearly, earnestly, completely I wanted to be ready to do so. Vigilant. Competent. Anonymous. Essential.

And I suppose the desire never really went away. Even though I am very much older now, something about the idea of a lighthouse sticks. Self-sufficiency. Noble purpose. Romantic isolation. Like nearly everyone else, I still pause at the pictures, thumb the calendars, read the articles. It’s a wistful, innocent, naïve dream, like owning a horse farm in the mountains or landing on Mars.

Every now and then, however, I give the idea a push. I see a picture, waves exploding against the side of some lighthouse, often the famous one of La Jument off the coast of France, the lighthouse keeper standing outside looking at the helicopter that carried photographer Jean Guichard while a wave rises and envelopes the far side of the tower, or any tower during a heaving storm, and I do a bit of digging, just to make it real. Could I get there? There is a hole in the story. All the pictures are dramatic, exciting, and they are all from the outside. What is it like to feel those waves from the inside? What is it like to stand at the light glass and point a camera lens down into that spray?

Some magazine published a picture of the American Shoal lighthouse in the Florida Keys, white-sided living space surrounded by a red cage that tapers to the light at top, so I called the Coast Guard to see what it would take to get inside. An act of God, they told me, notarized, in triplicate. Then I learned about the Frying Pan Tower, a lighthouse thirty-four miles off the North Carolina coast that someone was turning into an elite, expensive, adventure bed and breakfast. I called and asked if they would trade a couple nights and transportation out and back for a magazine story. I told them I wanted to be there during a hurricane. It was a short conversation.

I live on the American prairie, where Minnesota borders North Dakota, so I am a long way from any salt water lighthouse. Yet every day I stare at a map in my office, the Raven map of North America. Every day my eye traces the shores of Hudson Bay, James Bay, Lake Superior. One day, the obvious finally got through. There were lighthouses on Lake Superior. Hell, I’d already been to one of them, the Split Rock lighthouse north of Duluth. There were two in Duluth, two in Two Harbors, one in Grand Marais, more if I motored north. There were at least eleven in Wisconsin, at least thirty-three in Michigan just on Superior. I found photographs of storm waves breaking on the towers in Duluth and Grand Marais.

The fifth grader in me smiled. All I needed was a way in.

***

I called the United States Senate, the office of Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. No, I said, I did not want to spend the night in a lighthouse. All I wanted was an hour or so inside. All I wanted was to take pictures, to listen to the tower and the waves, to tell the inside story. There was just one condition, though, I said. It had to be during a kick-ass storm.

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I sent an email that explained what I wanted to do and a man named Tim Cossalter wrote me back. Tim is the Senator’s Outreach Director, retired Air Force General, like me a pilot. His language was more official, but what he said was I have your request. Give me some time. Let me see what I can do.

One week later his email said the Coast Guard was willing to listen. One week after that his email said full speed ahead. Over the next couple weeks I emailed or called the Coast Guard and spoke with Chief Warrant Officer Two James Taylor, William Sharp (ret), Chief Scott Lenz, and Petty Officer First Class Stephen Diggs. All set, they said. Welcome aboard. Just let us know when you’re coming.

I will, I said.

All I needed was a storm.

***

September passed. October passed. On the web, I opened the NOAA Lake Superior wave forecast page every day. November storms rocked the east side of Superior every week. East of the Keweenaw Peninsula, waves topped twelve feet, then sixteen feet. On the west side, however, the reports from Duluth were two feet. Calm. Two feet. Calm. I kept a bag packed and ready. November passed as well.

December opened quiet. Strong storms moved by to the south and the east. This was an El Nino year, and I was worried the patterns had shifted. Already there was deep snow to our south while the upper plains were brown and dry. Then it came. A storm was going to move straight up the Keweenaw, its rotation pushing the waves back to the west. And this was no little storm. A Gale Warning had been posted. Wind gusts up to 50 miles per hour. Possible waves of 24 feet in open water. I had been told the waves needed to be at least six feet tall to get the breaking and spray at the lighthouse tower. The forecast called for ten foot waves at the least. I called and made a reservation at a hotel. Then I ran for the Jeep.

***

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Gale Warning

It’s a five hour drive from my home to the harbor in Duluth. I arrived after dark. Alone in the Canal Park parking lot, I shut off the Jeep and listened to the sound of breaking waves in the rain. I walked to the pier and up to the locked gate. Waves broke over the shore rocks and spilled into the park, covering the paths. I watched water come over the pier wall, flooding the walkway. The spray in the air made it difficult to see.

I already knew part of the story. Between the north pier and the south pier, the canal entrance is 300 feet wide and considered one of the most dangerous in all the great lakes. Make a mistake and your ship is immediately on the rocks. Each pier extends 1,150 feet from the shoreline. And the north pier has a lethal history. According to lighthousefriends.com,

The Duluth Canal piers are a dangerous location during a storm. On the night of April 30, 1967, two sixteen-year-old twins and their seventeen-year-old brother were challenging ten to fifteen foot waves on the north pier, when witnesses observed a huge wave sweep one of them away. Boatswain’s Mate First Class Edgar Culbertson, Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Richard R. Callahan, and Fireman Ronald C. Prei from the local Coast Guard base braved the storm and ventured out on the pier to rescue the two boys reportedly stranded at the pierhead light. The men tethered themselves together, with a spacing of twenty-five feet, and by the light of hand lanterns proceeded to the end of the pier.

After finding no trace of the boys at the lighthouse, the coastguardmen headed back. While making their way along the pier, a twenty-foot wave swept Culbertson off his feet and carried him over the breakwater wall and into the turbulent Lake Superior waters. Despite a valiant effort by his crewmates, Culbertson perished. Culbertson was posthumously awarded the Coast Guard Medal, and a plaque on the north pier commemorates his sacrifice.

My one picture is terrible. It’s also completely accurate and true. Excited as hell, I put my hands on the bars of the gate then turned and drove to the hotel.

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In the morning, I was early to the parking lot. I knew the Coast Guard would be there to meet me about 9:30 a.m., but I wanted to watch the lake and the breaking waves. I wanted to get some sense of the whole picture before I decided what to photograph. I wanted to get some sense of the size.

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The gate to the pier that led to the lighthouse was locked, so I stood as far out as I could and took pictures back toward shore. Looking north, I watched swells crest and turn into breaking waves, crashing onto rocks that lined the shore. Looking south, across the channel that leads to the inner harbor, I watched waves crest, break, then roll up on to the beach. Watching the crests and troughs roll down the side of the south pier, I guessed the waves to be ten feet tall. Maybe twelve. And they were moving fast. These were short period waves, little distance between then, especially likely to swamp and sink a ship.

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Other photographers began to arrive. Most of them set up tripods a long way back from the spray and attached a very long lens. Then a TV cameraman showed up. Storm walkers appeared—that odd and wonderful group of people (I count myself among them) who go outside in very bad weather just to be inside it—and we greeted each other as we walked up and down the waterfront.

“Isn’t this great?”

“Yes, it is!”

Off shore, a 581 foot long German ship, the Cornelia, parked at anchor and rode the waves. Filled with grain, the ship had been detained by the Coast Guard for suspected environmental violations. It could not leave.

I had a sheet of paper from last night’s hotel. It listed the expected ship arrivals and departures from the inner harbor, the ships that would parade down the canal for everyone to see. The Paul R. Tregurtha, 1013 feet long, was expected to depart from the Midwest Energy dock between 3:30 and 5:30 p.m. The American Mariner, 730 feet long, was expected to arrive to load grain between 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. The American Century, 1000 feet long, was expected to arrive to load coal between 11:00 and 11:30 p.m. The Federal Bering, 656 feet long, flying the flag of the Marshall Islands, was expected to arrive between 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. to load grain—the last outbound grain shipment of the 2015 shipping season from the twin ports.

So we were all a bit surprised when another ship appeared on the horizon, steering for the harbor. The Algosteel, a 730-foot-long bulk carrier, arrived.

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Despite the waves, it moved into the channel dead straight and quiet as a ghost. Ship watchers made notes in their diaries the way birdwatchers record each new sighting, a particular look of glee in their smiles.

Then my cell phone rang.

“This is Seth Monemann, Petty Officer Second Class, from the Coast Guard,” the voice said. “We may have a problem.”

I watched the Algosteel move toward the lift-bridge where the roadway, South Lake Avenue, is raised to let ships pass underneath.

“I’m on the south side of the bridge,” he said, “waiting for this ship to pass. I’ll be there in a moment. But the pier is closed for safety reasons. The gate is locked.”

“I have permission,” I said. “This is exactly what I got permission for.”

“For the lighthouse, yes,” he said. “The Coast Guard owns the lighthouse. But the Army Corps of Engineers owns the pier.”

***

There is a museum at the beginning of the north pier.  The Lake Superior Maritime Museum is filled with shipping history, elegant displays, a replica of a freight ship’s cockpit, and windows looking out over the canal and lake. There is a web cam on the roof that’s pointed down the pier to the lighthouse. It’s run by the Army Corps of Engineers. By the time I got inside, Seth was already talking with a woman named Denise Wolvin, the Director of the Visitor Center.

“You have the key,” Seth said to her.

“So do you,” she told him.

Seth looked at his collection and the two of them compared keys. I introduced myself.

“There are two locks,” Denise said. “They are different, but either will open the gate.”

It was clear I was going to get in. We just needed to figure out how. Someone decided we should all go out to see what works and another woman stepped up.

“You’ve never been to the lighthouse?” Denise asked her.

Rebecca Gordon, a park ranger at the museum, said she had not, so the four of us gathered our coats and headed outside to the gate. There were indeed two locks. Both, however, were combination locks. While Denise called back to the office to get the code, I watched waves.

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And then we were through.

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Denise returned to the museum and the remaining three of us looked down the path. Just a bit more than 1000 feet in front of us, the north pier lighthouse waited. Waves rose higher than the pier wall and flooded the way. Sometimes gently.

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Sometimes with a bit more emphasis.

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As we walked, we joked about the pleasure of waterproof boots. Twice, the wind took my hat a good distance back toward shore, but it was easily recovered. Impervious, gulls lined the pier’s north wall.

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And then we were there.

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Seth opened the door easily, then he and Rebecca entered the tower. I came in last. Seth closed the door behind me and that’s when it hit me. The quiet. The wind noise outside, the incessant rushing sound of breakers on rock and beach, the sound of rolling water were all gone.

***

The tower is not a large building. Only thirty-seven feet tall, ten and ½ feet wide at the bottom narrowing to eight feet at the lens, it rests on a foundation that’s ten to eighteen feet above the water line and then roughly twenty-two feet below. It’s made from latticed steel columns wrapped in a 5/16th inch thick steel shell.

It is, however, a completely different universe. It’s not disconnected from the outside world. It’s simply apart.

A spiral staircase leads from the entry door to the lantern gallery.

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There is no bearded collie. No peat-fueled fire in a stone hearth. No charts or short wave radio. Certainly no bottle of good scotch whiskey. There are, however, windows in the tower. Windows that look out to weather and waves. I paused at one and watched the swells arrive.

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I thought I would feel them hit. I thought I would feel the press of the lake. A gallon of water weighs a little more than eight pounds. There are three quadrillion gallons of water in Lake Superior, roughly 10% of the earth’s fresh surface water. It is the deepest, the highest, and the coldest of the great lakes.

I have been in very tall buildings that sway in the wind. Some buildings sway as much as a foot in any direction from center. Yet each wave passed without shudder or groan. Swells broke on the concrete foundation and spray filled the air. Inside the tower there was peace. Though, perhaps that’s the wrong word. Permanence. Strength. Quiet.

***

            I followed Seth and Rebecca up the stairs and through a small hatchway into the lantern gallery. Perhaps because the hatch is on shoreward side of the gallery—which means a person finally stands free of the stairs on the water side, the lamp to our right—we all kept turning. We all looked first toward shore, toward the pier and bridge and rocks and buildings and ground. We watched the swells move past us—I counted four from lighthouse to land.

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And then we turned to look out to the storm.

There is something about the room being round, about glass opening the full 360 degrees. This was not a room with windows to let light in. This was an outpost, yes, and an observer’s station. This was also the lamp held high, the place which housed the light that could be seen from any direction, in any storm, at any time. We spend most of our lives receiving—this was a place where the news began.

There have been bigger waves and there have been more terrible storms. Whitefish Bay, on the far eastern side of the lake, recorded the lake’s highest wave at 51 feet. Unofficially, mariners report waves a good bit taller.

Looking out to the horizon, the records didn’t matter much. The sky was flat gray. The wind loosed the tops of waves and blew spindrift foam across the water. A long time ago I learned about the Beaufort scale, a way to tell wind speed by looking at water. If the water is flat the wind is calm, the Beaufort number is zero. If the crests of waves are rolling over and there are streaks of foam, the wind is thirty-nine to forty-six miles an hour, what is called a Fresh Gale, and the Beaufort number is eight. The scale goes to twelve, hurricane force winds.

Today was a solid eight. I looked out the windows pointing east. Waves broke against the concrete foundation, crested easily the 10 to 18 feet between water level and foundation top, and flooded the interior space, which drained with every trough. Spray rose the 37 feet more to gallery glass, and then higher still.

I pointed my camera into the break.

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I thought I wanted clash and thunder, sturm und drang, explosion and collapse. I thought I would get something like a photograph looking down a tall winding staircase. But that wasn’t the truth at all. I was feeling something else.

Seth and Rebecca talked about the lamp and lens. It is an LED beacon, visible for ten and ½ nautical miles. It shines red, while the south pier light shines green, to mark the entrance to the canal. We all stood around, then after a few moments they went downstairs. Take your time, they said. We’ll be waiting.

***

I could imagine a deep, old, intimately worn chair. I could imagine the console radio and the short wave too. What I understood for the first time, though, was the fact that a lighthouse is not a place of action. It is, instead, serene. It is serenity in the midst of the whirlwind. That is the attraction. That is the romance and the myth. In a deep way, it’s the hope of every adult.

I watched the waves move from deep water to the pier. I watched them breach the pier wall and then hit shore. I watched them move down the canal and into the inner harbor. Outside there was rain turning to sleet and then snow. There was wind and spray. There was the sound of crashing waves. Inside the tower, I was warm. The air was quiet. There was no disconnect. I knew exactly where I was, and what was at stake should the lighthouse, this one or any other, fail. I was anonymous, in an essential place. I could stay here, I thought, for a very long time.

At the base of the stairs, Seth held the door open for me.

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“Get what you want?” he asked.

I assured him I did.

On the way back up the pier it occurred to me that I did not have a good picture of a large wave coming over the wall. I turned around, planted my feet, focused the camera and waited.

“One wave,” I yelled. “Just one wave.”

“There is a special god who hears those requests,” Rebecca said.

And as if on cue, the wave appeared.

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It curled over the canal side wall.

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It flooded the walkway, hit my legs and raced up under and inside my coat.

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When I turned around, Seth and Rebecca were both braced against the north side wall, both of them smiling.

“Your special god?” I said to Rebecca.

“Yes?” she grinned.

“Dry clothes. Just one set of dry clothes!”

We laughed our way back to the museum, opening then relocking the gate without problem. I did not want to leave.

I took a few more pictures, then stood for some time just watching the storm.

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I had dry socks and shoes in the car. But I did not have a change of clothes. I drove five hours, a prairie winter storm warning in front of me in the Dakotas, in very wet clothes. Happily. Quiet.

And I swear to God, special or otherwise, there was Celtic music on the radio.

~

W. Scott Olsen’s eleventh book, A Moment with Strangers, was published in 2016. His travel and adventure essays about road trips and flying small airplanes have appeared widely in literary and commercial journals. Professor Olsen has edited two anthologies and also edits the international literary magazine Ascent.

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