The Outside World, In and Around Duluth

Kayaking the Harbor

The forecast was for almost 70°F and sunny – a perfect early spring day to get the kayaks back in the water.

We got down to the harbor to find that it was cool and foggy.

We were treated to this mystical view of the bridge, from the little cove next to the Army Corp of Engineers vessel yard:

It was cool, but not too cold. However, being right on top of the just-unfrozen water brought the ‘feels like’ temperature down quite a bit. Glad to have been wearing a wool hat.

We paddled across the harbor to check out the Essayons, a tugboat which had sunk a few years ago.

The word ‘essayons’ is French for ‘Let us try.’ There could hardly be a more fitting name – consider its storied past:

  • The Essayons was built in Muskegon, Michigan, by the Army Corp of Engineers in either 1906 (citation) or 1908 (citation), and delivered to the Duluth Harbor.
  • The Essayons was originally powered by a steam engine. During an sloppy loading of coal in April, 1919, the tugboat ‘turned turtle’ and sank. The steam engine was replaced with a diesel engine (charming citation that includes reminiscences of the old children’s story ‘Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel’).
  • The Essayons was the first ship to pass under the Aerial Lift Bridge, in 1930 (citation).
  • Zenith Dredge purchased the tugboat from the Army Corp of Engineers at some point in the 1950s (citation).
  • The Essayons was retired from tug duty in 1966 (citation).
  • Its original steam engine was donated to the Lake Superior Maritime Museum, and is still on display (citation).
  • The Essayons was purchased by Hobart Finn in 1994, and had planned to convert it into a floating bed and breakfast (citation).
  • In 1997, some kids vandalized the tugboat, which was being converted into a bed and breakfast (citation).
  • In 2004, it was vandalized again.
  • In 2007, there was a fire at the True North Cedar factory, and although two other boats were lost, the Essayons survived (citation).
  • Finally, in 2009, shifting harbor ice hove in the hull, which may have been weakened by corrosion (citation), and the tug sank. It now rests in about 20 feet of water (citation).
Here’s a picture of the Essayons from some of her happier days, and in her usual mooring:
Above photo by Dennis O’Hara, from Northern Images
And here’s a picture from shortly after she sank:
Above photo by Bob King, from The Superior Telegram
On our paddle, this is how we found it:

This was interesting, doing a little research on the Essayons. There’s another ship of the same name, and also commissioned by the Army Corps of Engineers. That one is a large dredge, and is definitely the more famous of the two boats. This one is better. A story about the sinking of dreams.

We kept paddling and came across a thousand foot lake freighter that must have been completely empty. I’ve never seen one of the big freighters floating so high:

I also didn’t realize that the propellers were shaped like this. Swept and aggressive. There were a couple of guys doing some welding farther up the shaft. Cheaper than drydock, I suppose.

We also came across an amazing amount of… junk, I guess:

And this is just one small section – there was a lot of the interior shoreline that looked just like this – like a huge, sprawling junkyard on the harbor.

Looking at all of this, I couldn’t help but think of the amount of money and time and expertise that were spent to create all of this. Custom parts, gears, fittings, cowlings, pipes, compressors, awnings… it’s hard to fathom that none of it was usable anymore. The current price of scrap steel is around $400 per ton (citation). Does whoever owns all this expect that the price will be rising anytime soon? Hard to know. Until then,

I usually paddle in woodsier places, so this was an interesting departure. I left with two strong impressions: 1) there is an entire world at ports that most people know nothing about, and 2) there is a huge population of Canada Geese living amongst all of the junk. I guess that makes sense – except for a few intrepid kayakers, there aren’t many people who would come down to bother them.

This was interesting, but I look forward to getting back out into quieter backwaters.


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