Winona Park Maintenance staff member Jim McMartin drove the city’s lake weed harvester, mowing a path for Trinona swimmers this weekend.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Quentin Douglas has not gotten a chance to drive it yet, but people ask him all the time: what is that thing? What is it doing to the lake? “I had at least 20 people ask me last week,” he said. They ask Douglas, not his coworker, Jim McMartin, because Douglas is standing onshore, conveniently next to the Lake Park bike path. McMartin, meanwhile, is floating on the lake, with the outside world drowned out by the dull roar of a diesel engine.
“It’s very peaceful,” McMartin said. “I get paid to sit on the lake.” Most days, the Winona Park Maintenance worker is mowing ballfields, installing park benches, and fixing things, but all this week, he is spending his days driving a strange boat back and forth across Lake Winona. The boat is a seafoam green 1982 Altosar aquatic weed harvester, with a two-cylinder Lombardini diesel engine — original, made in Italy — and control levers with pool balls for knobs. Every year, the Winona Park Maintenance Department takes it out of storage and mows a path through the lake weeds along the route of Trinona’s swim leg in Lake Winona.
The curly-leaf pondweed is raspy to the touch, with long leaves and stems that cling to swimmers’ legs as they go by. In years past, the weeds, combined with the thrashing of other swimmers, gave some racers panic attacks — not to mention the terrible effect all that drag had on their time splits. So McMartin mows the weeds down in a wide swath around the Trinona buoys.
The Altosar is a throwback to the days of working paddleboats. Four paddlewheels drive the pontoon boat through thick weeds that would clog propellers, and make it surprisingly nimble. In the right hands, it pivots like a skid steer. On its business end, the Altosar has sickle bars — like the teeth of a hair clipper — that can be lowered into the water. The cutting teeth sheer off weeds, which are scooped up onto an inclined conveyor belt. Every 30 minutes or so, the belly of the Altosar fills up with hacked-up weeds, and McMartin chugs toward shore to offload the clippings into the bed of a pickup.
Years ago, the city used the Altosar to mow much of both West and East Lake Winona. Central Garage Superintendent Arlan Runningen said that Cal Fremling’s Lake Winona Committee — an environmental group similar to today’s Healthy Lake Winona — raised funds to purchase the aquatic harvester as part of its efforts to improve Lake Winona’s water quality. “There was a time when we’d harvest from mid-May until June,” Runningen recalled.
The Altosar has been on its last legs for several years now. The City Council planned to buy a new lake weed harvester five years ago, but replacing the $220,000 aquatic mower was never the city’s top priority. Leaders kept pushing back its replacement date. Instead, in 2013, the city tried to switching to an herbicide to control the lake weeds. Small applications were very effective, Public Works Director Keith Nelson said, but it was too expensive to use over large areas. The city stopped using the herbicide, and the aging Altosar is now used sparingly, too: just once a summer to cut a path for Trinona.
The harvester is still running, though, and its rusty hull just got touched up this spring. “We’re keeping it patched together util we see how the need changes,” Runningen explained. “It’s never sunk,” he added. “We have had a few leaks on it where it started to get low. My personal fear was that it would be left over the weekend, and I’d come back on Monday and it’d be on the bottom.”
As McMartin slowly chopped through weeds, a few little bluegill in the Altosar’s path swam just fast enough to stay ahead of the harvester. One fell behind and flopped up on the conveyor belt. McMartin reversed the conveyor and the guppie plopped back in the water. “Back in the earlier days when we first started harvesting on the lake, it wasn’t that uncommon to get some pretty good-sized fish coming up the conveyor,” Runningen remembered. “And of course the guys were really careful about that. [The fish] never got injured, they’d just flop around there and you’d stop the conveyor, and they’d flop back off.”