Ice breakers challenged

MARQUETTE – U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers challenged by Lake Superior ice as thick as six feet in some places are not expected to make it into Marquette Harbor for several days, delaying the local opening of the shipping season.

“You’re not even on our radar,” Mark Dobson, vessel traffic controller for the Coast Guard’s Operation Taconite in Sault Ste. Marie, said Monday of Marquette’s ice-breaking prospects. “We can only imagine what that ice is like in Marquette right now.”

Across Lake Superior, Coast Guard cutters were struggling Monday to break this winter’s tremendous ice cover, which on Lake Superior is the thickest it’s been in two decades. The Great Lakes overall have been almost completely locked in ice for the first time since 1979.

Cutters Katmai Bay and Alder were heading to break out thick ice in Taconite Bay, Minn., continuing north across the Canadian border to Thunder Bay, while the Mackinaw was 45 miles from Whitefish Point Monday afternoon, working to lead a two-ship convoy along the Canadian shoreline, downbound to Whitefish Bay and eventually through the Soo Locks.

Another ship initially in the Mackinaw’s convoy – the Presque Isle – was damaged and returned to Duluth Harbor, much like the cutter Morro Bay, which was also in port at Duluth with a damaged rudder.

“It’s slow going everywhere,” Dobson said. “It’s just so thick and heavy, there’s nothing you can do.”

The thickness of the ice, and the preoccupation of the icebreakers, has resulted in a delay of boats into the L.S.& I. Railroad Dock in Marquette’s Upper Harbor.

Jennifer Huetter, Cliffs Natural Resources district manager for public affairs in Michigan, said Monday the first boat scheduled to arrive at the coal unloader was the Mesabi Miner, which had been set to arrive Saturday.

The James L. Kuber was initially scheduled to pick up pellets Wednesday as the first ore boat of the season.

“The Mesabi Miner did not arrive and the Kuber was rescheduled,” Huetter said.

The Michipicoten, which was situated on the north side of the Soo Locks, was then expected to arrive Wednesday, but that too was put off.

The Lakes Contender is now scheduled to be the first ore boat of the season, due to arrive Sunday.

“The icebreaker, the cutter, is going to have to lead that boat in,” Huetter said. “The guys at the ore dock said that’s the only way it’s going to get in.”

Huetter said ice thickness on the Upper Harbor at the ore dock was estimated at two feet.

The first coal boat of the season is now expected to be the James Kaye Barker, which would be expected to follow the Lakes Contender into port, Huetter said.

Dobson said the ice thickness the cutters are encountering was at least three feet in some places, four feet in others. In the middle of Lake Superior, ice rubble fields six feet thick were being encountered.

As the Mackinaw moves south toward the Soo Locks, additional cutters were to keep the locks cleared, with only single lane downbound traffic operating. Dobson said there were three or four ships waiting to come up into Lake Superior after the Mackinaw convoy clears the locks.

He said the cutters can be moving along decently and then hit a “rock solid” section of ice. In some cases, ships have needed four hours to move one mile.

“They’re chugging through it,” Dobson said. “But it’s very time consuming.”

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.