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Ships battle ice as Great Lakes shipping season wraps up

The tugboat Helen H. breaks up ice in the Duluth Harbor on Thursday to clear a path for the laker Baie Comeau as it departs with a load of iron ore pellets. The ice has been unusually hard on lakers as they attempt to finish work before the shipping season ends on Wednesday. (Bob King /

It's a fight against the ice to keep the Great Lakes shipping season open, and Mike Ojard and his tug boats are being tested.

"I'm 68," the owner of Heritage Marine said. "I've never seen a winter like this."

Extreme cold for most of December and into the New Year has meant slow-going for ships trying to work before the Soo Locks close on Wednesday. If they don't make the window for deliveries or layups, they'll be stuck until the next shipping season opens in late March.

"There's so much ice," Ojard said.

His Knife River-based team had to perform double duty Thursday in escorting the Baie Comeau out of the harbor. Although the U.S. Coast Guard's cutter, the Alder, returned from Thunder Bay, Ontario, overnight, it was moored in Duluth. So Heritage Marine had to break ice and help guide the ship under the Aerial Lift Bridge and out to open water.

"It's just nuts," Ojard said. "This has been a killer. The cold is hard on equipment. You can't believe the vibration on the hull and propeller from the ice."

Eight ships that were active during the shipping season are planning layovers in the Twin Ports. Four have arrived while four remain in operation. The Presque Isle was in Detroit on Thursday. The Cason J. Callaway was in Sandusky, Ohio. The Mesabi Miner was on Lake Michigan and is underway, despite having its hull pierced in an accident with a Coast Guard cutter on Sunday. The Kaye Barker was near the Soo Locks with a plan to get one more load of ore in Silver Bay.

Tom Curelli, director of operations at Superior's Fraser Shipyards, said conditions on the lake and in the ports is what one would usually expect in late January or February, after the shipping season has closed.

"I've seen it like this but not this early," he said. "The ice is tough as steel, and it can cause some damage."

Ships occasionally miss making it in for scheduled layups, when Fraser's workers scramble to refurbish and ready ships for the next season a little more than two months away. One ship didn't get to the locks in time last year.

Curelli said work hasn't been slowed by the frigid weather. The ships that are already in came in early, allowing a head start.

The ice has been a problem across the Great Lakes. Sunday's collision between the Mesabi Miner and the Coast Guard cutter Hollyhock, clearing a path on upper Lake Michigan, left the laker with a puncture about 4 feet above its waterline, the Coast Guard reported. The Hollyhock had stern and fantail damage and is moored in St. Ignace, Mich., for a damage assessment.

Other ships have been trapped in ice or are moving extremely slowly through it, the Coast Guard reported. Coast Guard maps show 80 to 90 percent ice coverage on Lake Superior from Duluth through the Apostle Islands.

There's plenty of work to do to get all of the ships where they want to be, Ojard said. He'll be looking for the Laurentien today. The Mesabi Miner plans to load coal Saturday for a run to Taconite Harbor before laying up. The Algowood also is expected Saturday. The remaining ships expected for layup are scheduled to arrive Monday.

"We'll muscle our way through," Ojard said.