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Shipping season nears

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alder passes a buoy while breaking ice in the Duluth-Superior harbor in 2015. (News Tribune file photo)

A glance from Agate Bay out over the gleaming blue Lake Superior might not reveal it, but there is ice on the Great Lakes, and efforts to remove it in advance of the coming shipping season began Thursday.

The locally stationed U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alder will break ice in the Duluth-Superior harbor before heading north to Thunder Bay over the weekend, said Mark Gill, Coast Guard director of vessel traffic services based in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., where the Soo Locks are set to open at 12:01 a.m. on March 25.

"As of right now there will be eight downbound vessels and probably as many upbound vessels waiting to pass through the locks," Gill said.

Both Whitefish Bay at the eastern edge of Lake Superior and the St. Marys River, home to the Soo Locks that connect lakes Superior and Huron, are 100 percent covered with ice, Gill said Wednesday.

"There's not a tremendous amount of thickness compared to the 30-year average," he said. "We've had ice as much as 3 feet thick, but this year it's a couple inches thick and (we) expect it will be fairly fragile."

It figures to be slow going for the first vessels through the locks. A process that normally takes a half-hour to 45 minutes probably will require three to four hours per ship for the way vessels will push ice into the Soo's Poe Lock and have to back out in order for the lock to be cleared of ice. This back-and-forth is necessary because at 1,200 feet long and 110 feet wide, the Poe Lock already is a snug fit for thousand-foot lakers, and ice introduced by a ship's push tightens the squeeze. Some of the season's first vessels could wait in line for several hours or even days, Gill said.

Closed beginning Jan. 15, the Soo Locks were the subject of continued maintenance and repair throughout the offseason. Gate anchors, like a hinge on a door, buried deep in concrete were showing fatigue and were replaced. Dewatering bulkheads saw welded repairs and were repainted. Gears that operate the Poe gates and were original from 70 years ago were replaced, and an ongoing switchover to more modern control systems was implemented.

"We're in the middle of an overall asset renewal plan and we're trying to recapitalize a lot of the major equipment," said Kevin Sprague, Soo-area engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "This was just a part of that and we'll continue working on it for several more years to come."

The smaller sister lock to the Poe, the MacArthur Lock, won't open until mid-April. At 730 feet in length, the lock accommodates only smaller vessels. But its loss for 19 days to an outage in 2015 led to significant backups and illustrated the importance of having both in operation.

"The MacArthur really does keep things moving more smoothly," Sprague said.

In 2016, the Coast Guard counted 3,388 freighters through the Soo Locks — down from a historic average of 3,500 to 6,500, Gill said, with seven-of-10 transits containing iron ore. Of the total number of transits, 20 percent, or 428, were foreign-flag vessels coming through the entire Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System from the Atlantic Ocean.

It's hard to tell what sort of count 2017 will bring, Gill said, but he added that the Coast Guard, working with Canada, is preparing for everything. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw is scheduled to work the ice breakout of the St. Marys River. The Canadian Coast Guard's Griffon is responsible for the St. Lawrence Seaway from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean, and its sister icebreaker, the Samuel Risley, is heading to work on clearing ice between lakes Huron and Erie.

The U.S. Coast Guard is supplementing the work of those bigger cutters from its fleet of nine total available icebreakers, including Duluth's Alder. The area around Green Bay, on Lake Michigan, is one place where there is what Gill called "a slug of ice."

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