Barge improvises icebreaker to get across Spring Lake

SPRING LAKE, Mich. (WOOD) — Residents along a portion of Spring Lake have witnessed quite a show the last few days as a barge carrying excavation equipment had to think on their feet once the ice thickened up.

“We see a lot of eagles, see a lot of boaters, see a lot of walkers — but no barges in the ice,” said Mike Simcik, who lives near Lakeshore Beach on the south shore of Spring Lake. “They gave a lot of thought to this. Very creative, resourceful people.”

The barge began its slow trek to Grand Haven earlier this week. Crews from Harbor Hawk, a local company that builds seawalls and other water-related projects, had just completed a job on the lake. But every winter season when temperature begins to plunge, it’s a race to beat the ice on the smaller lakes. This year, the ice won.

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“We try to coordinate the job so we don’t have a long distance to go. Just so happens we’ve got a bit of a distance to go this time around,” John Hanks said.

He was at the controls of the excavator perched at the front of the barge. The machine is being moved to Harbor Hawk’s next job.

When 6 inches of ice formed on the lake, the excavator became a makeshift icebreaker. Hanks sits at the controls, swinging the bucket left to right and right to left, each time sweeping a little more ice out of the way.

Using an excavator as a makeshift icebreaker, a barge works its way slowly through the ice on Spring Lake on Jan. 20, 2022. Using an excavator as a makeshift icebreaker, a barge works its way slowly through the ice on Spring Lake on Jan. 20, 2022.

Hanks figures they’re still two days out from Grand Haven.

“We’re in about 6 inches of ice and we’re cutting through it. The goal is to get back out on the big lake,” Hanks said. “This trip that we’re making right now would usually take 90 minutes. And so far, we have roughly 16 hours and we’re halfway.”

The work is slow and the weather cold, especially in the middle of the lake.

“Fortunately, I’m in the cab of the excavator but Vic, the fellow that’s the captain, he’s all dressed up trying to stay warm,” Hanks said, noting the tug has no heat.

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Hanks and the captain come ashore at night. Residents have been offering up dock space for the tug. Once the sun comes up and the day gets underway, there aren’t many breaks in the action.

“When we’re going to take a break, I’ll try to get a quick snack and just keep rolling because as long as I’m not breaking the ice, we’re not getting very far,” Hanks said.

The work continues. Once they make Grand Haven, there’s another project waiting. Then they’ll hit the open waters of Lake Michigan for a project on White Lake.

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