Residents consider future of Grand Marais' harbor

Grand Marais light
People in Grand Marais love their harbor. They don't all agree about the best way to improve it.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

The heart of Grand Marais is its harbor. The 70-acre bowl of clear, cold water is just steps away from the tiny downtown.

Jean Roberts was born by the harbor, 82 years ago.

Jean Roberts
Jean Roberts has lived in Grand Marais all her life. She says she wants future generations to be able to enjoy the peace and quiet of Grand Marais' harbor.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

"My great grand-parents were here," she says, "and they used to throw rocks in the Lake, and my grandmother used to take us down to throw rocks in the lake. And my mother did, and I did, and my children did, and my great grandchildren are throwing rocks in the lake now. I just think it'd be a sin to do anything to that harbor."

The harbor hasn't changed much in the last 50 years -- at least.

On one side, rocky Artist's Point juts into Lake Superior. There's the Coast Guard station, and then way out at the end of the breakwater, the city's signature lighthouse spills a warm glow on the waves.

On the other side, the city campground is tucked between the harbor and the highway.

Chuck Carbert manages the campground and marina. He says he's lived in a lot of nice places, but this is the best.

Throwing stones
Mason Willing and his mom, Rebecca Willing, enjoy tossing stones into the water. The harbor is just a few steps from downtown Grand Marais.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

He says lots of the people who camp here come back year after year. And many of the people who use the marina are regulars too.

"We've got kayakers that use it, and every now and then we'll get a float plane that'll come in," he says. "But it's basically just used for recreational -- powerboating, sailboating, there is a sailing school. And for safe refuge when the storms come up. You can't forget that -- it's a place to come in and get off of Lake Superior, for your safety."

But during a storm, the waves can kick up pretty high, even in this little harbor.

The Minnesota DNR has been trying for years to build safe harbors every 30 miles up and down the shore of Lake Superior. The weather on the big lake can change suddenly, and the DNR says the harbors would make it safer for boaters.

The DNR would like to build a safe harbor and a bigger marina in Grand Marais, and the agency says to make economic sense, a marina should have room for at least 100 boats.

Molly Hoffman helped organize a group called Harbor Friends. They're advocating a new marina, but a small one.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Molly Hoffman, who lives near town, doesn't like the proposal. She says it would require a structure too massive for the tiny harbor.

"Our little breakwater over there now, that you see, is six feet. That's not very tall," she says. "And so you can see the water in the harbor, the wall beyond, and Lake Superior beyond. But you have to remember in your mind that this harbor isn't that big. You move an 8-foot breakwater into this harbor, and you can't see the water."

Hoffman says having more boats in the harbor would also get in the way of existing activities like sailboat lessons and a dragon boat festival. And she says a bigger marina could crowd out the easy access to the beach for campers and walkers.

Molly Hoffman and Jean Roberts are part of a group advocating for a new marina, but not much bigger than the existing one. It can handle 70 or 80 boats.

Golden light
The lighthouse is a beacon for boaters and a beloved icon for the village of Grand Marais.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

That doesn't make sense to Mayor Mark Sandbo.

"The one that was built now, the year after they built it, they said it was too small," he says. "Well, let's not do that same thing again. If we can get somebody to pay for it and build it, let's build it the right size. But I don't want to destroy our harbor." The city and the DNR have hired a consultant to come up with designs for a new marina.

The design work will cost about $100,000. The DNR says a new safe harbor and marina will probably cost more than $8 million. The agency has been asking the Legislature for money for safe harbors for several years.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.