Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2011


By Neil Barton


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Vintage image of the Ashtabula Harbor Lighthouse. ...

In the late 1950s, I had the honor of serving in the United States Coast Guard in Ashtabula, Ohio for two adventurous years.

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Coast Guardsman Earl Heck in the CIC Room at ...

At the end of the shipping season, after we closed the lighthouse, the three of us who were stationed there were transferred to the lifeboat station ashore until we were ready to reopen the lighthouse for the next season. In some ways, this short period was a “cabin fever” routine with its mundane winter chores of painting, cleaning, and other little inside activities.

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Coast Guard rescue boat at the Ashtabula Coast ...

But alas, the winter of 1958 would not be just another crummy winter; this one would be very different. It would offer not only relief from the monotonous doldrums, but also a bit of adventure for those ready to answer the call of the wild. It was all precipitated by good ol’ Mother Nature and could not have been foreseen or even imagined except, perhaps, in a Jack London novel.

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The Ashtabula Coast Guard Station as it appeared ...

Sometime late in the season of 1958, there were already serious signs of ice forming on Lake Erie; the wind was blowing cold, and many of the boats, barges, and other sea vessels had not yet been taken out of the water. The rains came, and intensified, and rained some more. A weather front had hit the Southern shores of Lake Erie from Sandusky, Ohio to Buffalo, New York. The front settled in and simply would not move on; the water rose, and there was great flooding. The combination of very strong winds and rising water tugged at the vessels’ mooring lines until over 800 of them could no longer resist and broke free into the open waters, helpless. But Mother Nature was, by no means, through with them. A horrific cold front settled in, making recovery dangerous, if not impossible, as ice now formed rapidly on the lake.

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The Ashtabula Coast Guard Station as it appears ...

This was brutal. As the boats were being blown anywhere and everywhere, they were also being locked in by rapidly growing ice. If by chance there had been anyone aboard a vessel trying to save it when it broke from its moorings, they were now in great peril. They would not be able to return, and no ship, save perhaps an ice breaker, would be able to go out and rescue them. Genuine and deep concern gloomed over this vast area. Everything was getting worse in a hurry.

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The crew of the Ashtabula Coast Guard Station ...

Back at the lifeboat station, duties and chores continued but it was no longer the same old routine. We had a new and serious concern: our commander, Chief George Todd, announced that some of us were to go down to the beaches, Lake Front and Walnut, and stand watch, scanning the horizon for anything that came into sight through our binoculars. Early the following morning, while keenly watching the endless horizon, I spotted a black dot-sized object that had not been there before. The ice was not completely solid across the lake, and consequently the floes were moving objects around like a pinball game in slow motion.

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The author, Neil Burton is still able to fit into ...

That morning, two of us who were assigned to Walnut beach observation steadied ourselves and aimed our binoculars across the waters. I was certain I that had faintly seen something. I adjusted my focus. Could it possibly be a hit? It was. I anxiously pointed my partner in that direction, and he immediately verified my sighting. We estimated that the black object was about four to five miles out. We could not get notice of our sighting back to the station fast enough. After our report to the Chief, he gathered the crew and asked for volunteers to go out onto the ice floes and check it out. We were to see if anyone was aboard, determine their condition, care for their needs, including any first aid, and bring them back to safety. We also were to identify the boat, (name and number), check the condition of the boat, and retrieve anything aboard that we deemed to be important enough to bring back.

My hand shot up immediately; I was determined not to be left out of this opportunity to venture out upon the frozen “tundra.” Four of us hardy souls were gathered together to prepare for the ice trek. Much had to be done as quickly as possible. We broke out the heavy foul-weather gear and included some extra gear just in case we found someone aboard who needed it. We were given a first aid pack, along with ice cleats to be strapped to the bottom of our boots for sure footing. We also had to haul a metal and wire rescue gurney for any unplanned happenstance. We took some tie down lines and one long, sturdy line to tether us all together for maximum safety in case of some open water disaster.

It was a clear day, and just as sunny as it was very cold. The world glistened all around us as we were driven down to Walnut Beach Park to our jump-off point on the beach. There was a high degree of merriment among this intrepid little band as we gathered our equipment and prepared for departure into the unknown. Strapping on our ice cleats and tying ourselves to each other produced light-hearted but serious laughter. We checked each other, straightened up, and finally turned to face our first obstacle: a six foot hill of jagged ice chunks. It became instantly clear that this was not going to be a simple stroll on a smooth frozen pond. Trying to gain access to the other side of this hill, we resembled the three stooges plus one, but no one was laughing anymore. Had we not been tied together, it probably would have been both easier and faster. But tied, as we were, it was arduous, tedious, and questionable. We ran into this situation several times on the trip. Having to pull the gurney up the ice hills was no small task. If it got jammed in a crevice or stuck on a piece of jagged ice, everything came to a halt. Then we had to work in a unified, cohesive manner to free the gurney and get it to the top of the ice heap. After that, our task was called “get out of the way of the gurney careening down on you.”

After conquering the ice piles by the beach, about 300 yards out the ice took on a very different appearance and had a very different affect on all of us. The ice was much thicker and harder. Most of all, it was a very deep blue, and the clarity was so pure that it was as if we were all walking on a very hard, flat, level piece of water, unlike any other water we had ever seen before. Its beauty reached hypnotic proportions. As the shoreline behind grew smaller, the hike became notably easier and magnetically beautiful, even with the occasional ice jams and pile-ups. That is, until we came upon disturbing changes in the ice. We entered a huge area where the ice was no longer an uninterrupted sheet; it was in sections. They were thick, and we could walk on them without sinking enough to get our boots wet. But there were gaps. Sometimes they were narrow and we could simply step across. Other times they were wider and required a rather lengthy step. And then there were some where we had to stop and readjust for more line between us because progress could only be achieved by a little “leap step.”

Inevitably, the obvious silent thought arose, almost in unison, about the wisdom of continuing our journey. It was still cold, but the sun was still bearing down upon the ice. Could this be the cause of the ice gaps? There was a single voice of dissent for continuing, and it did not come from me. But the remark was not made so strongly that it was immediately quelled by the others. After all, we weren’t in eminent peril. We had already come an impressive distance, we had pretty well mastered the artful movements required when being tethered together in an abnormal and hostile environment, and, most encouraging of all, we could now clearly see our goal, which we agreed was a motorized craft of about thirty-six feet with no evident signs of life aboard. This was confirmed after some shouts, calls, and hoots of “hello,” “ahoy.” We then tried stronger shouts of “what the blankety, blank, are you doing out here on a day like this,” and other increasingly bold and bawdy remarks and questions. This was a serious mission and we were committed to it, but now something other than absolute seriousness began to occur. After being lashed together for nearly three slogging, plodding hours, we had become slightly seasoned.

Success! Through trudging and determination, the dark spot upon the horizon was now before us. Our first sigh of relief was to find that there was no life of any kind aboard this boat. The only possible tragedy would have been if someone had been on board before we got to it. It was pretty snug in the ice and not really damaged or crunched by the ice pack. The boat’s numbers were taken down along with its name and condition. We had done our duty. After the kind of trip we had just made, the boarding of the boat was a bit anticlimactic.

It took only minutes to inspect and gather the required information. We took one final short rest break, drank some water, and talked about what we had just experienced and what we would face upon our return. This was enough to roust us to immediately proceed on our return. The anticipation of completing the mission spurred us on considerably faster. On the way back, we noticed that we were surprisingly East of where we had left from. Unbeknownst to us, we had been floating while focusing on the horizon’s black dot. As none of us particularly desired to spend the night floating east to Buffalo, our pace quickened once again.

However, in a short time, we noticed that the distance between the ice packs had widened since our last crossing. Our brilliant solution to this challenge was to put the best leaper among us in the lead to make the first jump when we came to an especially wide gap that we weren’t sure everyone could cross safely. Once the lead man was across, he would turn around and wait for the second man to make his jump. Then, when in mid-air, he would give a mighty heave on the line to assist the jumper to a safe completion of the jump. This technique was repeated by each man until all the men were safe. The gurney got the same treatment, with the exception of getting the heave by several men yanking on the line. It was another creative adaptation both in concept and execution. Fortunately, this only had to be performed a few times

As we hurried, we became a little more reckless as we advanced over the ice stacks. The welcomed walking across the clear, deep blue transparent long patches again was as beautiful and thrillingly spooky as it was the first time. Upon our return to the Coast Guard lifeboat station, there was much enthusiastic conversation about the whole adventure. It had been a very long day, and we were all glad to be back. We were not heroes; we were just plain tired. But none of us would ever forget what we experienced. The rest of that winter would not, nor could not, be dull or humdrum. I slept well that night. Thank goodness that we have memories and dreams, for it allows us to experience again those precious times that help to forge us in ways that we should not forget.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2011 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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