Island Work Featured on 'Dirty Jobs'
Mike Rowe, host of the Discovery Channel television series "Dirty Jobs," spent four days in the Upper Peninsula last week, tackling the challenging maintenance work of the Mackinac Bridge and driving a horse-drawn slop wagon, considered by some the dirtiest job on Mackinac Island. Area residents and businesses welcomed the television crew with unparalleled hospitality, said show producer Dave Barsky.
Known for showcasing the American work ethic of men and women across the county who perform jobs that few want to do, Mr. Rowe painted bridge suspension cables 250 feet above the Straits, climbed a main cable to change a decorative bridge light, and crawled inside the base of a bridge tower to remove rust and repaint steel.
An air date for the shows filmed here has not yet been scheduled, said Mr. Barsky.
Film crews shot Mr. Rowe's Island adventures Tuesday, May 22, and Wednesday, May 23, they scouted and planned two days of filming on the bridge. The project ended Friday, May 25.
"He really looked nervous," said Bob Sweeney, executive secretary of the Mackinac Bridge Authority (MBA), of Mr. Rowe moments before he climbed the main cable to change a bridge light.
MBAelectrician Glen "Mink" Lewis led Mr. Rowe up one of the bridge's two main cables that support the four lanes of I- 75 between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. The task was to replace one decorative light that silhouettes the bridge at night.
"The guy was determined," said Mr. Lewis. "The fact that he was nervous and scared didn't stop him."
The 24.5-inch-wide cable is a steep climb to the top of the bridge towers, which stand 252 feet above the Straits.
Two safety lines are worn when climbing, said Mr. Lewis, who instructed Mr. Rowe on procedures before the two headed up the cable. One end of both safety lines is connected to the climber, he said. The other end of one safety line is then connected to a bridge cable and it slides along with the climber until the line is stopped by a connecting suspension cable. At that point, the second safety line is connected past the intersection and the first line is released. The climber then continues.
"No one ever asks you to do anything unsafe," he said. "I'm more frightened of a typewriter."
Mr. Rowe, who lives next to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, said the Mackinac Bridge was chosen because "the spirit of this show is to focus on a bridge that, in this case, maybe the majority of Americans didn't know about. This is the bridge to work on, for sure. It's correct for the show. There's none better."
The bridge crew becomes the host of the show, said Mr. Rowe, "and I become the guest. In this case, it will be the guys here at the Bridge Authority. It gives them a chance to do what they do best."
The "Dirty Jobs" series focuses on people whose jobs make "civilized life possible," said Mr. Rowe. The show is his tribute to his grandfather, who he calls "the original dirty jobs guy." His grandfather had an eighth grade education and could fix anything, he said.
During the climb up the cable, Mr. Lewis and Mr. Rowe wore microphones. They were able to talk to each other and their conversation was captured for the television show. Once at the top, the pair talked about the view of woods and water and the clean environment.
"One thing that hit me," Mr. Lewis said, "he was a real approachable person you could talk to."
The weather conditions cooperated for filming, with blue skies and winds on the bridge deck between 24 and 29 miles per hour.
The bridge work was filmed from a helicopter, a bridge spider climber, and from the top of the north tower.
Dave Ulrich, an MBA electrician, helped camera crews make their way to the tower. After a brief elevator trip, they carried heavy camera equipment up a ladder through a series of small openings.
Mr. Ulrich called the wind "breezy" on the tower.
"It was not enough to make you unbalanced," he said, "but you knew it was there."
Mr. Rowe painted the suspension cables by standing in a spider climber, which is similar to a window washing unit used on high-rise buildings.
The cables are painted by wearing gloves similar to car washing mitts, said Mr. Sweeney. The gloved hands are dipped into a bucket of foliage green paint, and then wrapped around the cable. The cables are made of wires wrapped together, and this process gets paint into all the cracks.
While Mr. Rowe was in one spider climber, a camera crew filmed from a nearby spider climber. Larry Antkoviak of the bridge maintenance team was with the camera crew.
"I thought it was really neat," he said. "People finally will see what we do."
While filming took place on the bridge, the MBA's boat Northern Air, piloted by Paul White and Todd Joseph, stood safety watch in the Straits below. The rescue boat always is near the bridge when crews are working, said Mr. Sweeney.
Removing rust and painting also was performed inside the tower cells. Just above the concrete base inside both the north and south towers are a series of steel cells designed to make the towers structurally stronger, Mr. Sweeney said. The steel walls that form the hollow cells run parallel and perpendicular to each other, connected by a series of small rooms with eight-foot ceilings. The rooms are approximately five feet by six feet in size.
Maintenance crews regularly inspect the cells for signs of stress, he said, although none has ever been found. Moisture, however, gets into the cells and rusts the steel. Maintenance crews remove the rust with a needle gun. The gun operates like an air hammer, with 37 needles jetting in and out to remove rust. Once clean from rust, the steel is painted with a long lasting zinc-based paint, said Mr. Sweeney, that is environmentally friendly.
The bridge is a vital link between Michigan's peninsulas, said producer Mr. Barsky, and the 50th anniversary celebration of the opening of the bridge also makes the story interesting.
On Mackinac Island, Mr. Rowe joined six-year street sweeping veteran Herman Kamphuis in cleaning up horse manure from Main Street. Mr. Kamphuis carries a broom and shovel in a cart attached to a bicycle.
He took the shovel and broom and went to work, said Mr. Kamphuis, a Mackinac Island Carriage Tours employee. Mr. Kamhuis considers his job good exercise, and not so dirty.
"You can't beat the working conditions. Just look around you," he said, pointing to the harbor and shops along Main Street.
With horses still arriving on the Island for the season, Mr. Rowe met the Arnold Transit Company freight boat and help lead arriving horses to the Carriage Tours barn on Cadotte Avenue.
Mr. Rowe then met up with Island native George Wellington, who drives the horse-drawn slop wagon that hauls about 17, 30- gallon containers of food waste from restaurants.
"It's probably the dirtiest job we have," said Dr. Bill Chambers of Mackinac Island Carriage Tours.
The general rule for driving the slop wagon to keep from getting nauseated from the smell, said Dr. Bill, is to place barrels with orange and grapefruit waste to the front of the wagon, keeping the smellier containers to the back.
"Otherwise, you'll lose it," he said.
The containers are taken to the Solid Waste Handling Facility, where contents are mixed with horse manure collected from Island streets, creating compost. Some of the compost is used on Island flower beds. To show the complete cycle, Mr. Rowe then helped plant Grand Hotel geraniums. The hotel hosted the crew while they filmed on the Island and at the bridge. R. Daniel Musser III, hotel president, also is an MBA board member.
Bruce Zimmerman, director of the Department of Public Works on the Island, said Mr. Rowe understood the unique environmental issues the Island faces dealing with waste and the cost of transporting it from the Island.
"We essentially identified Mackinac [Island] as, in one sense, this place that time kind of forgot," said Mr. Rowe. "In one really specific way, they are on the cutting edge of 'green.' The way they are composting right now is really important to the Discovery Channel. It's important to Discovery Channel viewers."
The show has produced more than 150 episodes, with two or three segments making up the one-hour show. For the bridge, the initial plan, Mr. Barsky said, is to produce an hour show focusing just on bridge maintenance. The show contacted MBA three months ago with its filming request.
The show has filmed in 25 states. Mr. Rowe called Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and the Upper Peninsula "dirty jobs country" because of the reception they received here.
"It's unbelievable how you guys have taken to this show. It's ridiculous," he said. "It's great."