TOWER- Skies were cloudy and Lake Vermilion’s surface was troubled by a brisk, cool wind early Friday morning, but nothing that day would prevent a certain courier from the swift completion of …
TOWER- Skies were cloudy and Lake Vermilion’s surface was troubled by a brisk, cool wind early Friday morning, but nothing that day would prevent a certain courier from the swift completion of his appointed rounds. And as the mail boat pulled out of Pike Bay headed toward open waters, a brilliant white glimmer of sunshine that suddenly appeared on the not-too-distant surface promised it would be a good day to be out on the lake after all.
“Tradition” barely does justice as a description for the mail boat service operated out of Aronson Boat Works. For nigh onto 100 years, the mail boat has been delivering letters and packages to island and other water-access summer homes on the Tower end of Lake Vermilion.
There is, however, no nostalgia to be found in the brand-new Lund demonstration boat used to run the circuit six days a week. But the boat’s skipper and mail carrier, Larry Milbridge, makes sure his tourist passengers get a good lesson about life on the lake, with stories of the present spiced with items of history both general and personal.
“This is my home area,” Larry said. “I retired from my real job. I was a game warden up on Lake of the Woods for 25 years. I bought an old tear-down (house) years ago and, when I retired, I tore it down and put in a new place. I heard that the mail boat job had come up. Three months in the summer – that’s kind of a no-brainer.”
That was six years ago, and for Larry, slipping into the role wasn’t difficult at all.
“I’ve been on the lake since I was nine years old,” he said. “Even when I moved away to work, I’d come back to my parents’ lake place. I knew the lake, that was the easy part. Learning the route took about two or three days.”
A sample of personal history popped up as the boat passed an old weathered boathouse.
“We used to jump off that boathouse when we were kids,” he laughed. “I shimmied up there and jumped right in.”
While it’s estimated that there are about 3,300 homes around the entire lake, only places on the Tower end of the lake that are isolated and accessed only by water are part of the mail route. That makes Larry’s delivery load around 50 stops or fewer. Last Friday’s deliveries took him from near Rice Bay in the east to Oak Narrows in the west.
Bald eagles, singles and pairs, watched from the trees as the mail boat whizzed by, sometimes slowing to allow a better look. Headed west, a young bald eagle in flight slipped into formation in the air off the port side and briefly kept pace before turning away.
A loon mama toting a fuzzy brown baby on her back was unruffled as the boat encroached on her small cove to reach the only visible dock around.
As a game warden, Larry was attuned to the possibilities of nature sightings, but there was another aspect to the job he appeared to enjoy even more.
“It’s a personal business – you meet a lot of nice people out here,” he said. “You know everybody.”
Well, not quite everybody.
“I have some that are regulars that like to meet me on the dock,” he said. “And some, I’ve been doing this six years, and there are some I’ve never seen. I’d at least like to meet them sometime or another.”
That personal touch brought the stories and lifestyles of lake dwellers alive, and the longer the trip lasted, the less the lake seemed like a place and more like a community. Larry’s enthusiasm for lake life was evident at those stops where someone could be seen on a property, whether they were on the dock waiting or not.
“There he is!” Larry shouted at Aaron Denny, who was working on the third story of a new lake house he’s building. “I want a job like you when I grow up! I’m watching your progress.”
As Larry coasted up to the dock and delivered the mail, he and Denny were exchanging banter about construction projects, and Larry called out a parting shot.
“Work harder, work faster!”
Denny got the last word.
At another stop, Larry sometimes finds a treat waiting.
“Hi, Sharon,” he called out.
“She leaves blueberry scones in here for me sometimes,” he said as he opened the mailbox. “My wife has come with me before and she said, ‘Please stop feeding the mailman.’”
A stiff breeze caused an anxious moment as Larry backed away from the dock and the boat drifted precariously close to the rocky shallows.
“C’mon … no, no, no, no, no, NO!” he shouted, coming within inches of striking the propeller before moving away. “Boy, did I luck out there. This thing acts like a sail. I used to have an old clunker, and if you hit something it didn’t matter. This is the boss’s boat. It’s for sale. Situations like that – not good.”
Five new stops were added to the route this summer, and a few of them reflect a change in type of customers.
“These are some of my new types of customers – people who are working from home,” he said as he pulled up to another dock. “You can probably see most of my people are retired – who else can spend summer at a lake place? But now I’ve got people working from home this year. They said they have great service out here, and most of these people, their work is on computers. Things are changing out here.”
Larry appeared to be on top of changes large and small, pointing out new construction in one spot where the day before barges brought three cement trucks, and noting another where someone was re-planking a dock. He notes points of interest along the way, including lodges, campgrounds, sites of past fires, and has stories to go with most of them.
“These people are fun here,” he said as the boat zoomed past a waterfront cabin. “They’ve got a tiki bar. See that boat that’s upside down? It’s called the S.S. Painkiller.”
While Larry is a good conversationalist, he never takes his eyes off of the route, looking for other boats, loons, and on Friday, the unexpected— three swimmers out in open water that caused him to throttle back suddenly. No waving, no bright life jackets, just three heads bobbing up and down in the rough waves as they were treading water. A high-speed course correction to avoid one would’ve sent the boat straight at another. As Larry maneuvered the boat between swimmers at low speed, he turned to one and muttered “Not smart” before jumping back up to speed.
While the mail is a priority, safety always comes first, even if that means setting aside the postal service’s reputation for delivering in any and all conditions.
“My last day last summer I had an old couple with me and as we came out of Pike Bay, I said, ‘Folks, I don’t normally do this but I’m asking we all put a life jacket on,’” he said. “I could just see it was all whitecaps. We started heading toward Birch Island and the water starts coming over the bow, and I said, “That’s it, we’re going back.’ No piece of mail is worth my life or my customer’s life.”
Larry said he hasn’t noticed a decrease in boat traffic this season, but there’s been a change in the types of boats he’s been seeing.
“There are more pontoons, for sure,” he said. “That’s the fastest growing segment of the boating industry. They’re nice, they’re comfortable, but they take up too much dock space at the restaurants.”
Pontoons have become more popular because of structural and horsepower enhancements that make them capable replacements for ski boats while providing plenty of room for passengers.
“It’s not grandma and grandpa’s putt-putt-putt-around-the-lake pontoon anymore,” he said.