Cracking Great Lakes Ice, Christmas Tree Cutter Nears Chicago

November 28, 2022Noelle Wiehe
Great Lakes

Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw commanding officer Cmdr. Jeannette Greene, left, and Ensign Lauren Hatfield load trees on Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw in Cheboygan, Michigan, on Nov. 22, 2022. The ship will transport the trees, purchased with donated funds by the Chicago Christmas Ship Committee, during a buoy tending mission in the Great Lakes as part of the annual Chicago Christmas Ship celebration. US Coast Guard photo.

The US Coast Guard’s only heavy breaker plying the Great Lakes, the Mackinaw, is cracking through the ice on a path from its Cheboygan homeport to Chicago.

The cutter’s crew will replace navigational buoys across Lake Michigan, but they’re also toting a special present for the Windy City’s neediest families: a shipment of 1,200 Christmas trees lashed to the ship’s stern.

For the 23rd year in a row, the Coast Guard is playing Santa by taking on the role of the Christmas tree ship, an annual homage to two doomed commercial vessels that used to deliver cut trees to Chicago. This year, volunteers from Michigan’s Wolverine and Cheboygan high schools and Dutchman Tree Farms helped load the yuletide cargo.

Mackinaw is slated to arrive Friday, Dec. 2, a day before the Windy City formally celebrates the gift of the trees. The festivities will include musical performances by Chicago’s Taft High School choir and the US Coast Guard Academy’s Glee Club.

“We have classes all around the boat and there's a big ceremony on Saturday, and that's where the story is told about what the Christmas tree ship is,” Ensign Lauren Hatfield, the project’s officer, told Coffee or Die Magazine during a Monday phone interview while Mackinaw sailed off Illinois.

Great Lakes Christmas trees

Christmas trees are secured on the fantail of US Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw in Cheboygan, Michigan, on Nov. 22, 2022, in preparation for transport to Chicago as part of the 23rd annual Chicago Christmas Ship celebration. US Coast Guard photo by Cmdr. Jeannette Greene.

COVID-19 social distancing rules kept the Coasties from mixing with the public for the last two trips, but this year the cutter will anchor at Chicago’s Navy Pier so the crew can give free tours.

“They are very integrated with the whole process because they're the ones taking up the trees, giving the tours, and offloading the trees,” Hatfield, 23, said. “They do become subject-matter experts.”

Those talks include tales of the ill-fated wooden three-masted schooner Rouse Simmons, the first Christmas tree ship that foundered in a storm off Two Rivers Point, Wisconsin, on Nov. 23, 1912.

Rouse Simmons’ 300-nautical-mile voyage was honoring a different doomed ship, the 52-ton, two-masted schooner S. Thal, which broke apart during a November 1898 storm off Glencoe, Illinois. It was bringing a consignment of cut pines to Chicago, too.

Its lifeboats washed ashore empty. All hands were lost.

Great Lakes Christmas tree ship

Crew members on board US Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw grip a buoy to the deck while underway on Lake Michigan on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. Each colored hard hat on the buoy deck signals a particular role for each shipmate. US Coast Guard photo by Public Affairs Specialist 3rd Class Gregory Schell.

Hatfield came aboard Mackinaw six months ago and quickly learned that serving as Chicago’s Christmas tree ship is “a big deal.”

“Typically, we're out here doing buoys or breaking the ice and we're really just working with the lakers, and we're doing our own thing,” she said. “It is a very different light and a very unique light to be so involved in public affairs.”

And the Windy City pit stop doesn’t detract from the cutter’s daily mission, which is to ensure safe, navigable waterways, including by pulverizing ice.

“We ourselves are ramming into the ice, breaking it up for other vessels,” Hatfield said. “The Mackinaw is a very strong ship. We will drive right through the ice, plow through it, and chop it up.”

cutter Mackinaw

Crew members on the US Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw toss a wreath to mark the sinking of the Rouse Simmons while underway in Lake Michigan, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022. US Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Gregory Schell.

To honor the 16 mariners lost when the Rouse Simmons went down, Mackinaw’s crew will stop during their voyage and lay a wreath in the water.

Despite a chance of rain and clouds, the weather looks to be holding steady on the lake, and Hatfield said, “Right now, we are looking like we'll be there on time.”

“It's a great mission to be a part of,” she said. “The cutter is proud and very humbled to be a part of something so special.”

Read Next: Toys for Tots at 75: Santa Delivers Christmas to 8.4 Million Kids

Noelle Wiehe
Noelle Wiehe

Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.

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