By Jim Lundstrom
Capt. Mike Ojard Was Destined to Start Heritage Marine
Mike Ojard was meant to be on the lake. It just took much of a lifetime for that to become his business.
After a variety of careers that included working as a laker deckhand earning $1.79 and a half-cents an hour during the summer while in high school, pipefitter at age 20, then on to a shipyard welder fitter, heavy construction, semi-professional arm wrestler, vocational school teacher of industrial math, welding and hydraulics, and then owner of London Auto Body and Willie’s Automatic Transmission, Ojard finally brought it full circle in 2007 when he started Heritage Marine tugboat service.
“If you switch gears every 10 years or so, things stay fresh and you always like your job. I think that it gives you a new lease,” he said. “When your job becomes mundane, then it’s time to pull the plug and go someplace else. Because you’re not going to do yourself any favors. Just gonna make your blood pressure higher.”
It was 16 years ago when Ojard thought it was time for the Twin Ports shipping industry to have a choice other than the tentacular Great Lakes Towing Co., with its 36 tugs in 13 ports around the Great Lakes.
“I got into it because at the time in 2007 I could see that the port needed another tug company in order to create a bit of competition and to keep the rates lower, which we did. And, of course, you get a lot of heat from that,” Ojard said. “We are the last privately owned tug service on the Great Lakes. The last one standing.”
Ironically, the past few winters Heritage Marine tugs have worked for Great Lakes Towing.
“The last two winters we worked for them,” he said. “And so you’re out there breaking ice or doing ship-handling jobs for them. And we invoice those guys of course.”
It was easy coming up with a name for his upstart tugboat company. Ojard grew up on perhaps the most famous tugboat to ever ply these waters, the Edna G, which, when it was retired in 1981, was the last steam-powered tug operating on the Great Lakes. His father Edward “Harvey” Ojard was chief engineer on the Edna G and his uncle Adolph was the captain.
“There was no mother in the family,” Ojard said. “It was just me and the old man. Back then, there were no babysitters, you know? So I always went to work with my dad whenever I could. And I’d sleep on the tug. That’s actually where I got a love of tugboats.”
Tugboats were in his blood, so Heritage Marine was the perfect name for the business. The fleet of Heritage tugs – stationed at Connor’s Point in Superior and one in Two Harbors – are painted in the same bright yellow of the Edna G.
Ojard has a way of astounding people who marvel at something he has done, say after switching to a more powerful propulsion system on one of his tugs. When asked, “How in the world did you figure that out,” his standard answer is, “Everybody from Knife River knows how to do that.”
Ojard is proud of the rock-solid foundation that growing up in Knife River gave him. It’s there that he saw the value of hard work pay off.
“I got into it because at the time in 2007 I could see that the port needed another tug company in order to create a bit of competition and to keep the rates lower, which we did.”
– Capt. Mike Ojard, Heritage Marine owner
At age 77, Ojard’s body may be slowing down, but he appears to maintain the drive and attitude that in the 1970s made him an arm-wrestling champion. Although he walks with a slight stoop, he still has planks where most men have sloping shoulders.
“A lot of hand strength,” he said. “I held the Minnesota State Championship in three classes for seven years, the Midwest open for five years. I won the U.S. one year and I went to the world.”
And that strength he attributes to rowing his grandfather’s fishing skiff off the coast of Knife River.
“I was just a 12-, 13-year-old kid,” he said. “My grandfather was a fisherman. He had a big skiff with an inboard engine. But when that engine quit, guess who got to row the boat? I would row for miles and I never quit.”
In the company of men as a child, Ojard had to grow up quickly.
“This is the thing,” he said. “I don’t care where you are, what you do or what your past experiences are. You can either use your past experiences for good or bad. You can use them either as a crutch or a tool. And I learned very early on to use it as a tool instead of a crutch.”
We’ll return to Ojard’s tenacity, but first let’s meet his crew.
Ojard will tell you one of the toughest challenges is to find crewmembers to help with the grueling grunt work when handling a ship.
“Yeah, right now it’s a difficult thing to do, to get good qualified people,” he said.
“And a lot of young people aren’t going into the exciting world of boating,” chimed in “Uncle” Bob Hom, who has worked alongside Ojard since 2008 (while still working as the director of operations at the DECC). “And at our age, we need at least one young person. I mean, that’s the truth of the matter. It’s just nice to have a young person who can jump on the dock when we get back and can handle a line.”
When he retired from the DECC in 2011 at age 62 after 33 years with the entertainment complex, Hom told a Duluth News Tribune reporter that he was not actually retiring but was realizing a dream by going into a second career as a tugboat captain.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do since I was a little kid was work on a tugboat,” Hom told the reporter.
Hom said his years at the DECC and seeing the tugs at work outside the building only heightened his desire to one day be doing that, and the experience working with Heritage Marine since his DECC retirement has more than lived up to his expectations.
“A lot of young people aren’t going into the exciting world of boating. And at our age, we need at least one young person. I mean, that’s the truth of the matter.”
– Capt. Bob Hom
“We’ve been on many great adventures together,” he said, and then points at Ojard. “Most of them have been his fault.”
“Bob is not only my friend, but he’s more like a brother that I’ve never had,” Ojard said. “Bob’s been one of the captains that runs tug. For example, last year in December I ended up with COVID, down for about two weeks. Bob and Bryan Rundberg pretty much kept this whole operation going.”
The other constant crewmember since 2012 is Engineer Pixie Lindberg.
“She’s five foot 2, a 74-year-old woman, long, long red hair, and she can work like three men,” Ojard said. “She’s been absolutely invaluable over the years. She watches the engine room and she knows what goes on down there. Even when we were rebuilding engines – and these are big engines – she was down there cleaning parts, and everything is big and heavy. And she loves tugboats. In fact, on the license plate on her pickup truck it says Tug Girl. She’s absolutely amazing.”
“I guess I jumped ship from a passenger tug or private tug that was down the dock here,” Pixie said. “My husband and I were getting the engine going on it, and when we were all through, I needed something to do. And I jumped ship and came over here to help Mike with his tug.”
“She is one heck of a worker,” Ojard said.
Pixie gets a telephone call that puts a smile on her face, and reports that her chainsaw is ready.
“When she’s not on the tug, she’s cutting wood,” Ojard said.
“My second love,” Pixie said.
Pixie’s husband Bruce was ill from cancer back in 2012 and died in 2013, but he told his wife that it would be good for her to go to work on Ojard’s tug. Asked if she found that to be true, she answered, “Yes, it still is.”
“It’s good for all of us,” Hom said.
“Yeah, it’s amazing,” Ojard adds. “If you could call it therapeutic, I don’t know. But we always try to make it fun, no matter if you’re going across the lake or going to break ice at 3 am when it’s minus 30.”
So what is it about tug work that attracts her?
“Everything,” she said. “Just everything, getting away, being on the water.”
THE REALITY SERIES
Perhaps you recall Ojard and his tug service from the History Channel’s summer of 2012 series Great Lakes Warriors, which focused on several tugboat crews on lakes Superior and Michigan, including Heritage Marine.
Ojard said for him the experience of filming Great Lakes Warriors exposed the phoniness of reality TV.
“Well, actually, if they would have told the story the way it actually happened, it would have been great,” Ojard said. “It was just dumb, you know. People that are sailors or know the business know the whole thing was just staged. It isn’t reality TV, it’s enhanced reality. If they had just told the story, and saw the interaction between the crews, it would have been so much more interesting.”
Both he and Hom talked of the long interviews conducted for the series and how little was actually used.
“They did the interviews in a cold, miserable warehouse,” Ojard said. “I bet you I did 16 hours of interview with these guys. Out of those lengthy interviews, how much did they actually use? Well, very little.”
Both men advise the writer against watching the series, but the writer couldn’t help himself and got sucked into the show.
THE MANY CHALLENGES
Breaking ice is one of the jobs Heritage Marine tackles in the winter.
“The earliest we have broken ice was November 11 and the latest was May 8,” Ojard said. “Icebreaking is just a whole different animal. It’s interesting. Bob and I both agree on this. It’s 95 percent boredom. It is, but I still like it. I still enjoy it. It’s different every time you go ice breaking. The ice is always different. If it’s been pre-broken and refrozen, that’s different than it is if it’s fresh ice. And the sound of it. It sounds different every time.”
“For as boring as it is, it is interesting,” Hom said. “I mean, you bash into the ice, you backup, your bash into the ice and you do that by the hour. So if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be here. Yeah. I’m not doing it for the dental benefits.”
“As far as breaking ice or pushing a barge full of mud up the river, it is not rocket science, but ship handling is different every time,” Hom said.
“I guess I jumped ship from a passenger tug or private tug that was down the dock here… I jumped ship and came over here to help Mike with his tug.”
– Engineer Pixie Lindberg
“Yeah, that’s a whole ‘nother matter,” Ojard said. “It’s all about the size of the ship, what it’s carrying. They’re all just floating pieces of steel. The bigger they are, the more power you generally need. And they’re all a whole lot bigger than you are, even the little ones. You think they look little when they’re coming through the piers and stuff, and you get next to them to and they’re big compared to the tugs.”
Then there is tug maintenance and upgrading.
“This boat (the Helen H.), for example, we put $300,000 in the front end of this boat, four years ago, and we put $80,000 in the rear of it. I never did keep track of how much it cost us to put new clutches and rebuild the engine,” Ojard said. “You got more into it than you can get for it, unfortunately. But you do that because you want to have a good boat underneath you. You don’t want to send these people out on your vessel that has a chance to go to the bottom, bashing into the ice with a soft bow. We’ve spent a grand total of $400,000 to $450,000 on this boat, and nobody does that on a single screw. Except this is the best ice breaker in the entire harbor.
“And it’s one of these matter of principle things which, when it comes to a matter of principle, you’re not always a winner, but it gives you a clear conscience,” Ojard adds.
“He’s a lousy capitalist,” Hom said.
Then there are $1,200 a month dock charges and diesel at $4.39 a gallon.
“Sometimes it hurts,” Ojard said. “Especially when you’re putting in 5,000 gallons. This boat will hold 30,000 gallons and burns 70 gallons an hour.”
Perhaps the biggest sore spot for the business has been the lack of business.
“Last year was slow, but this spring and summer has been really, really slow,” Ojard said. “There’s very little grain moving. The port has done real poorly as far as grain goes. Very, very few grain boats have come in. I can’t remember how many salties there were last year but boy, there weren’t many and this year is shaping up to be a whole lot worse. The steel industry is still shipping but not to the volume that you’d see in the past. Hopefully, things can pick up a little bit anyway.”
With so many challenges, does Ojard have regrets about his chosen business?
“I don’t regret going into this business. It’s been fun. It’s been interesting. It’s been rewarding at times. And there’s very seldom ever a real dull moment except when we’re sitting here talking to you,” he said. “No matter what you do in this business, in any business that you’re in, it’s always a challenge. If it’s a challenge, it keeps your noodle operating.”
So what keeps Ojard up and at it every day?
“If you can imagine having a tiger by the tail, you can’t let go, you got to keep swinging. And that’s kind of what it is. Sooner or later I’m gonna get tired of it,” he said. “The other thing is if you stop, I think that would just about be the end. I mean, I gotta keep moving. Yeah.” P.S.
Jim Lundstrom is editor of Positively Superior.