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Ryan Beamer, Duluth bridge tender

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Up on the aerial lift bridge, a room with a view

  • Article by: CURT BROWN
  • Star Tribune
  • March 23, 2011 - 2:23 PM

DULUTH - To get to Ryan Beamer's office, you walk through the wind on the harbor side of the 81-year-old aerial lift bridge, the iconic landmark that spans the Duluth Ship Canal. Then you climb 25 narrow steel stairs to the bridge's pilot house.

You'll find Beamer, 39, leaning back in a Lay-Z-Boy recliner. He's the supervisor of the nine Duluth bridge operators who raise and lower the bridge to make room for the lake freighters, ocean vessels, fishing charters and sailboats "shooting the chutes" of Duluth's jutting piers.

The bridge is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with two operators per shift. They each pitched in $40 for the recliner. The sleeves of Beamer's bright blue hooded sweatshirt are rolled up and his fingers are laced together behind his head. A panel with eight video monitors hangs over a control panel of levers, gauges, buttons and colorful lights. He rises to snap open the lid of a Tupperware container and sprinkles some Tabasco sauce into his lunch - potato chowder his wife made the night before.

A marine radio crackles. The captain of the inbound American Spirit, a 1,000-footer coming for coal, says he'll be at the piers by noon. Beamer jots down the impending arrival on a board with a Magic Marker.

"You can see him just out there to the left of the south pier lighthouse," he says, scanning the gray horizon. "There's a little bump."

An untrained eye sees nothing. Beamer's co-worker, George Flaim, tells the boat captain the winds are north by northwest at 15 knots. The captain asks about the seas. "Nothing to worry about, Cap, we've got charter boats out fishing."

That's better than yesterday, Beamer recalls, when winds whipped at 39 mph and "the rain came down sideways."

And that prompts a story from eight years back, when an ocean-going "salty" captain lined up north of center in 30-knot winds, his bow riding high in the water with nothing in his hold to lend ballast.

"Captains are notoriously arrogant," Beamer says. "Me and the old boss looked at each other and said: 'Holy cow, he's not going to make it.'"

The captain veered through the canal at an awkward angle, "figuring a glancing blow was better than dragging his propeller over the pier wall.

"He kicked his tail end around and you could see muck and water washing over the pier. He cranked it up and drove straight through and we looked at each other and said: 'No way. How did he possibly make it?' There had to be divine intervention."

Beamer's boss keyed the mic on the marine radio and said: "OK, you can breath now."

"The guy's answer," Beamer said, "came back over Channel 16: 'Yeah, I think I'll go change my shorts now.' "

CURT BROWN

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