Coast Guard ready for ice breaking on Lake Superior

Duluth's Alder will join the operation next week, when ice is expected to thicken and spread as overnight lows are predicted to get frigid.

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Biscayne Bay sits docked behind the DECC Tuesday afternoon. (Steve Kuchera /

The United States Coast Guard announced the start of the Great Lakes ice-breaking season this week, sending the 140-foot cutter Biscayne Bay to keep shipping tracks open in Duluth.

But what about the Duluth-based cutter Alder?

The Coast Guard's director of vessel traffic services based at the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan said it was a matter of "rest and recovery."

"The Alder is in Duluth, but she had an extended aid-to-navigation program that took her outside of her normal area of responsibility for a month," Mark Gill said. "We gave them an extra week in the port to follow the extra work performed in December. We're letting them catch their breath."

Alder had been working on Lake Erie, where an engine casualty with another buoy tender caused the need. So, in addition to its normal territory of lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior, Alder had been doubling up with extra work on Lake Erie.


"Alder is undergoing scheduled maintenance and repair," Gill said. "There's nothing wrong with her."

Alder will assume responsibility for Lake Superior on Monday, Gill said.

Until then, Biscayne Bay will manage the ice-breaking needs of western Lake Superior, including the ports of Duluth-Superior and Thunder Bay, Ontario. The Biscayne Bay was brought to Duluth "to preposition the asset ahead of need," Gill said, explaining it was better to have the western Lake Superior covered now rather than face the possibility of fighting its way through a gale.

Once Alder rejoins the operation, Biscayne Bay will move over to the St. Marys River and the Soo Locks on the eastern end of Lake Superior, Gill said.

So far, the Great Lakes ice conditions are mild, Gill said, describing ice levels as below-average.

"We've got a cold front coming with six to seven days of nighttime lows at zero or below," Gill said. "We're going to be making some ice over the next five to seven days."

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The ice-breaking operation, Operation Taconite, is the Coast Guard’s largest domestic ice-breaking operation. The operation encompasses Lake Superior, St. Marys River, the Straits of Mackinac, Georgian Bay, and all of Lake Michigan.


"Right now, the ports of Duluth-Superior and Thunder Bay are all in great shape for this time of year," Gill said. "There's nothing that's going to hinder movements. We expect that will change over the next week. We'll be doing track work to support the tugs, so we can keep shipping moving right up until (Soo) locks close on Jan. 15."

Long-range forecasts call for a cooler January and February, Gill said, which means ice could develop and spread quickly.

The implementation of Operation Taconite places additional movement criteria on commercial ships plying the Western Lakes, St. Marys River, and the Straits of Mackinac. A Coast Guard news release said measures may include: restricting tanker transits to daylight in the presence of ice, reducing speeds by 2 mph in specified locations to reduce incidental ice breaking, and requiring additional voice and position reporting points throughout the operation’s area of responsibility.

The Coast Guard said it recommends all recreational ice users plan their activities carefully, dress appropriately, use caution on the ice, and stay away from shipping channels. Recreational users and island residents should stay tuned to local media resources for the status of regional waterway closures.

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