Although best known for serving along the coast of the country, the Coast Guard can be found all over the world. But right here at home, it also conducts operations on America’s vast and expansive river systems.
Master Chief Petty Officer Michael Love is the Officer in Charge (OINC) aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Cheyenne — a 75-foot river buoy tender homeported in St. Louis, Missouri. The Cheyenne, along with the other cutters assigned to District 8, serve 10,300 miles of inland waterways and rivers covering 21 states.
The waterways that the Coast Guard patrols have $5.4 trillion in economic impact and help sustain $30.7 million jobs annually.
Love says he always knew he wanted to enlist in the Coast Guard.
“I am a legacy guy. My grandfather was in the Coast Guard during World War II. My dad did 34 years and my brother was also in the Coast Guard,” he said.
During his 26 years of service, Love has spent a lot of time on America’s rivers.
As a Boatswain’s Mate, he holds one of the most versatile roles within the service.
“What I can tell you is what we do on the rivers versus the coast … it’s a very different world. It’s a lot more challenging and there’s a lot more involved,” he said.
Navigating the waters of the rivers requires a keen awareness of surroundings and experience, due to the everchanging ebb and flow of the rivers.
“When we are underway, from sun up to sundown, these guys are grinding. They are dragging chain, pushing buoys over the side or they have chainsaws in their hand cutting down brush. It is very intense, and the guys are nonstop working,” Love said.
Although the river tenders aren’t underway as much as the cutters patrolling the seas, they make up for it in hard, laborious work when they are.
The Coast Guard has numerous responsibilities on the inland waterways and rivers that include things like law enforcement, protecting the environment, and search and rescue.
The Cheyenne is primarily focused on Aids to Navigation (ATON) and it works closely with the Army Corps of Engineers on this mission.
“They [Army Corps] go out and do the digging and surveys and when there’s an issue or they need buoys, we go out and mark the channel to however they designed it while maintaining our AOR,” Love said.
This work is important because of the continuous floods and droughts that constantly assault the rivers. Without the Coast Guard ensuring safety and marking the channels, the vast movement of agricultural and energy products would not be possible. The work is hard and dirty.
When it’s time to cut down brush, it looks more like a logging expedition in a jungle, Love says.
“In one year, some of these bushes and trees will grow like 10 feet high. When we are up there – it’s like 100 degrees,” he said.
It’s laborious but important work. The Mississippi River alone is responsible for 92% of the nation’s agricultural exports, making the safety of the rivers vital to the nation.
Recently, the Cheyenne was given the 2020 Hopley Yeaton Cutter Excellence Award for servicing 1,185 buoys and 150 shore aids along 576 miles of the Mississippi River through record-breaking high waters and floods. The crew was also responsible for responding to a search and rescue case where a woman was moments away from being pulled under a fleet of barges — saving her life.
When the units spread across the Midwest are not focusing on ATON, they have missions that include maritime security, environmental protection, and national defense. This means they are inspecting vessels and facilities throughout the major rivers to ensure seaworthiness. They also make sure these vessels are safe for people and the environment.
Despite the heavy presence in the Midwest serving its rivers, many who live within the area don’t even realize the Coast Guard is there. The perception is that the Coast Guard is only found on the coasts and nowhere else.
“I just think they need to know that we are here and to understand what we are doing,” Love said.