What body of water is the largest system of fresh, surface water on Earth, containing roughly 21 percent of the world’s supply? If you answered the Great Lakes, you are correct!
The entire Great Lakes system is connected by a series of dams, lakes and rivers; you could travel on the Great Lakes starting at the city of Duluth, Minn., on Lake Superior and make it all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. The system was linked together when the Saint Lawrence Seaway was completed in 1959 and today serves as a vital waterway for our nation.
This important waterway recently served as a backdrop for Operation Spring Restore, an annual mission to verify and replace 1,281 aids to navigation throughout the Great Lakes region. The crews began working the operation in early March and are nearing completion with more than 80 percent of the aids already in place.
This is a huge undertaking, as the Coast Guard manages a total of 2,645 aids in the Great Lakes region. These aids come in all shapes and sizes and include lighted structures, beacons, day markers, range lights, fog signals, landmarks and buoys.
The aids to navigation system employs a simple arrangement of colors, shapes, numbers and light characteristics to mark navigable channels, waterways and nearby obstructions. While they are simple shapes, they have a big job – allowing safe passage through the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Seaway and facilitating maritime commerce.
Spring Restore’s counterpart is Operation Fall Retrieve. Roughly half of the aids throughout the Great Lakes region were taken out of service for the winter months in order to minimize damage caused by ice and because of reduced vessel traffic.
Now that the aids have to go back in place, it’s an “all hands on deck” evolution. The 9th Coast Guard District utilizes six Coast Guard cutters, five aids to navigation teams and five small-boat stations. Each crew has a heavy lift and works around the clock to ensure the aids are exactly where they need to be. In fact, Coast Guard Cutter Buckthorn alone will set nearly 300 buoys!
Besides Coast Guard crews, the Lamplighters – a civilian group who manages aids in northern Minnesota, the Canadian Coast Guard and the Saint Lawrence Seaway Corporation assisted. The Coast Guard Auxiliary also helps with verification of privately owned aids in the region.
Crews are almost four weeks ahead of schedule, due to an unusually light ice the past few months.
“After an unseasonably warm winter, we’re ahead of schedule,” said Lt. j.g. David Lieberman, 9th Coast Guard District cutter operations officer. “It’s a good thing, too, because boaters are hitting the water earlier than they traditionally would, and these aids are critical for safe navigation.”
With summer well on its way, crews are putting in long hours and using their technical expertise and initiative to get the job done. If you live on or near the Great Lakes, make sure you thank your local Coast Guard crews who keep the waters in your region safe!