The Mackinac Bridge is more gigantic she-beast than static steel structure. Meet seven of the people who do the care and feeding.
This article is featured in the August 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
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As it celebrates its 60th birthday this fall, the Mackinac Bridge remains as much enigma as it does icon. Indeed, as Pat Rickley—a 23-year veteran of the Mighty Mac’s toll booth—told us, he’s shocked by how many longtime Michiganders cross as first travelers. And many travelers don’t seem to know exactly what the bridge connects to on the north end: Canada and Mackinac Island are common mistakes. Even for those who’ve crossed its five-mile span dozens of times, the bridge’s sheer grandeur can easily overshadow some fascinating details. Like that there’s a trolley that runs underneath the bridge. Or that it was originally painted rust orange. Or that the bridge’s giant, suspended cables are actually made of hundreds of thin metal laments wrapped so tightly and sealed so well that if you pound a wooden wedge into the core (as workers do to check routinely for corrosion), you’ll reveal steel as strong and shiny as it was on November 1, 1957. These are secrets to most of us, but common knowledge to the men and women who care for the bridge as both a part of everyday life, and as an honored tradition of maintaining the cherished link between Michigan’s two peninsulas.
All photos by Erik Olsen
Todd Mayer, Steeplejack
Well, my official job here is steeplejack, and a lot of the guys who work here have that title. Basically, we’re here climbing all over the bridge, doing whatever needs to get done. I mean it’s almost hard to describe what I do because we do a little bit of everything. One of the things that a lot of us help out with is our “driver assistance” service. Sometimes, drivers will get out on the bridge and they’ll completely freeze up. A situation like that’ll happen a handful of times a year, and you’ll go up to the driver and they’ve got the death grip on the steering wheel. I mean, we’ve all seen the look. You almost literally have to pry their hands off the steering wheel and slide them over to the other side so you can jump in their car and finish getting them across the bridge.
Usually people who have an issue driving across the bridge know they have an issue, and they’ll call us ahead of time to let us know they’re gonna need some help. In fact, about four or five people every single day will use our drivers assistance service, and if it’s nasty weather, you can double that number. We have some regulars—people who use the bridge on a weekly basis—and we know they have to be driven across. I’d say weekly or monthly we have to drive a semi across, so all of us have our [commercial drivers licenses]. And some of our guys are licensed to drive motorcycles, because in the summertime, about once a week, you have a motorcyclist who has an issue. So you know, Mother Nature and traffic dictate a lot of what we do. You might head into work thinking you’re going to be doing one thing. But if the wind cranks up, everything you had planned that day is a wash. When you work here, you’ve basically got to be prepared for anything.
Trestin Fogelsonger, Painter
We’re never not painting the bridge. I mean, the contractors that handle the bulk of the painting, it might take 15 years to paint the entire thing end to end. I guess you could say it’s great job security.
I actually started out my career being scared of heights. I mean, I would start shaking or have a panic attack. I couldn’t even get off a ladder onto a roof. But I was working at the local gas station here in town, and I had a couple of buddies who worked for the contractor painting the bridge and were making good money, so I went in and asked for a job. At first, I just kind of sucked it up and hid it. I caught a lot of flack from the other guys. You could tell they knew. You know, everybody else that I worked with had been almost a career blaster and painter, and I was so slow behind everybody. But that kind of helped me out too because I realized I had to hurry up and get it or get lost.
Walking the cables was one of my first jobs here. We had to change the lights bulbs to blue because Brad Keselowski, a Michigan native, had won the NASCAR championship and he was bringing his car, the Blue Deuce, across the bridge. So me and three other guys walked from the south end all the way to the north changing all the lights blue. It would take all day, if not a day and a half, and your legs were just shaking by lunchtime from climbing the cables. When you’re up there, you’re actually physically walking on that big green cable that’s spanning north to south. It’s wide enough that I can’t wrap my arms around it, but it’s not very wide. And on either side you have these smaller cables, that you’re hanging onto. It’s almost like a rope bridge. So I guess you could say it was kind of trial by fire. It took me six, seven months to not squeeze the rails so hard that my hands would hurt at the end of the day.
I feel so much more comfortable doing anything at heights now than I did before. The bridge was almost a universal cure for my fear. I’ve been on roofs, or climbing on scaffolding, and I don’t even think of the heights anymore. Eventually, I just got over it, and now I’ve walked every square inch of the bridge. Every day is just like another day.
Paul Matelski, Maintenance Foreman
Basically anything to do with the structure itself—repairing the steel underneath, taking care of anything that breaks on the cables—we maintain it. For a lot of what we do, we’re actually underneath the bridge. The bridge deck actually has several hatch covers, which are kind of like trap doors. You go down through the hatch, down a ladder to a platform and then we climb on these vehicles called “travelers.” It’s kind of like a little trolley car with rails that you can use to travel north and south down the span of the bridge. So we’ll just take that out to the place you need to do the repair and take care of it.
One of the things that amazes me is that when the wind is really blowing like a son of a bear, you can see how much the bridge moves—and how it handles it. Like, in some ways, the bridge really isn’t attached to anything. I mean, it’s just kind of freewheeling: The towers sit on these rockers that allow them to tilt north and south. It’s all finger joints, sliders—so almost everything can move. It’s almost like a living thing because it’s constantly in motion. The towers are swaying, the deck is swinging; it’s expanding and contracting in the heat and the cold. It’s designed this way because they studied the weather conditions and the winds, and they took all that into consideration. I mean, it’s 60 years old and it hasn’t fallen in the lake yet. So clearly the guy that engineered this bridge did one hell of a job.
Ken Dangler, aka The Viking, Deck Repair Specialist
It’s my job to take care of any potholes in the road, but that doesn’t always make you the most popular guy because you’re the one who’s shutting down a lane and slowing down traffic. You get called a lot of names, but you know the ones that are yelling names are the first ones to call and cry about a hole. We have this new stuff we use on the road instead of concrete. It’s actually a kind of plastic, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever used and I’ve done concrete work my whole life. It doesn’t come out. It doesn’t fail. And the nice thing about it is in an hour’s time, a fully loaded logging truck can drive over it. It’s phenomenal sh*t.
Around here, it’s almost like a big group of family. I mean, everybody’s always messing with each other, but if something ever happened to you, they’d be there to save your ass. I mean, in 2008, I had a stroke. I was only 46. I went to bed and woke up paralyzed. It was the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me and the worst year of my life. First thing I thought was, What the hell am I going to do? I’m 46 years old and I can’t walk. Now I’m screwed. I did at least six months of speech therapy and had to learn to walk and use my arm again. Of course, I quickly exhausted all my sick days and paid time off. But then people donated their sick leave to me so I wouldn’t lose my job. I still don’t know who they are to this day. But everybody here does that for each other. Since I’ve been here, there have probably been a dozen or so people who’ve had bad things happen, and there’s always 20 people in line to donate their time. That’s just how they do it here.
Kim Nowack, Chief Engineer
Every year during the Labor Day Bridge Walk, one of the more unusual things I do is position myself at the very center of the bridge. The reason is that usually when we get the bridge loaded with all those walkers—and runners, as we started doing about 10 years ago now—it actually starts to move a little bit. There is actually a small component of your footstep that goes out side to side, and when you get more of these steps accumulated with a bigger crowd, that can make the bridge sway side to side. In fact, once it starts, it gets worse, because then people start spreading their stance a little bit to maintain their stability, and that makes the side-to-side push even stronger. For instance, the Millennium Bridge in London, when they first opened that up to pedestrian traffic, the movement was so big they had to shut it down right away. It’s pretty amazing that walking straightforward can cause this side-to-side movement, but it does. So all throughout the walk, I’ll be at center-span and I’ll radio out to our maintenance workers, who will take our maintenance vehicles and drive slowly across the bridge, like a platoon. That way, the rolling traffic goes slower, and that evens out the loading on the bridge and dampens out the movement a little. If you’re out walking on the bridge, you can definitely feel the movement. But generally, the walkers will be pretty jovial about it. Sometimes, they’ll ask me questions about it or joke about getting seasick. But they don’t get freaked out about it. It may sound funny, but the bridge is actually designed to move.
Pat Rickley, Legendary Toll Booth Worker
Well, I hope I won’t rile up my co-workers by self- proclaiming this, but I guess I’ve become pretty famous here at the toll booth. I get recognized everywhere. My boss went to Mexico last year or the year before, and he said he had somebody in Mexico asking about me. I guess it’s just because I try to have a little fun with everybody, be spontaneous, see if I can get someone to crack a smile. I’ll watch out for vanity plates, like with someone’s name on it; then I’ll greet them with their name, and they’ll whip their head around and be like, “How did you know?” Or there were these little kids that always used to come through, and they’d always give me the Little Rascals chin wave from the back seat. Well, now they’re all grown up, and they’ll still do the wave when they come through. Or you’ll have guys driving up, and I have long hair, so they’ll see my silhouette and assume I’m a woman. They’ll pull up and say, “Hey, Darlin’.” And I’ll turn my head around and say, “What’s up, Babe?”
I’ve pretty much seen it all. You have people drive through with no clothes on sometimes. I’ve seen college kids in cars, and they’re riding down the road, and the kid in the back is tied up with duct tape across his mouth, and the guys are just laughing. People like to screw with you. I’ve met some celebrities. Brad Keselowski, the race car driver, drove the Blue Deuce across the bridge. You could hear the car roaring. Then he pulled into my lane, and I charged him four bucks, gave him a receipt and off he went. I had Emilio Estevez last year. He had a California plate and I said, “Emilio Estevez, what are you doing up here?” And he said, “Going to see the U.P., man!” and off he went.
I’m sure a job like mine will be automated down the road. The human aspect is gradually being taken out of everything. I’ll probably retire before that happens here. But I don’t take it for granted. I look out there from my booth, out at the Straits and the Bridge. I’ve got a pair of binoculars there and I’m watching the bridge and the ships that pass and the sailboats in the summer. It’s just a wonderful place to be.
Roger Ryder, Safety Boat Captain
I just kind of tripped into the job, to tell you the truth. I didn’t have much boat experience other than paddling a canoe. Looking back, I guess I just ended up in the job because I was the only guy who wanted to be out there even on days when there were five-foot whitecaps splashing up over the hood of this little 25-foot patrol boat. But I take my job pretty personally, and I want to be there in case one of the guys on the crew or a motorist or anybody else would have the unfortunate circumstance of having wet feet without intending to go for a swim.
Whenever the guys are over the side of the bridge for work, the boat absolutely has to be out there. Luckily, I’ve never had to get one of my guys out of a tough situation. But last July, an elderly gentleman was diving one of the wrecks east of the bridge with a professional dive group. And I got a call from another gentleman who was out there taking pictures of the tall ships coming through. He was the closest to the incident and the dive boat had flagged him down because they were missing a diver. Luckily, he spotted the guy in the water and zipped over there, but he quickly realized he wouldn’t be able to do much more than throw him a line. So he called me, and I hauled over there and was able to get ahold of him and pull him up on board. He had blue lips and had swallowed a lot of water and was completely out of oxygen. The Coast Guard was there within about seven minutes to take him to an ambulance in Mackinaw City. But for me, it was definitely a moment of pure adrenaline.
The weather at this place, where the two lakes come together, can be pretty remarkable. The most interesting thing I find about this body of water is the amount of water energy in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Say you have an August thunderstorm on a Monday morning, you might have 40-mile-an-hour winds blowing from the west, and so the next day, all this water that’s been pushed out of Lake Michigan into Lake Huron needs to return. And it’s hard to explain it, but that day after the storm, it might be totally clear, there’s almost no wind, but there’s so much water energy moving from east to west, it will start pulling you. From the looks of the water alone, you’ll swear you’re drifting the opposite way. But it’s like an optical illusion. And the sheer power of it is a beautiful thing.
Lou Blouin is a writer and producer for public radio. He lives in Detroit. Erik Olsen shoots travel, active lifestyle and outdoor photography from Traverse City.