Ice coverage on eastern Lake Superior has hamstrung ship traffic this week, with 18 vessels waiting Wednesday in Whitefish Bay to move through a soup of ice 8 feet thick in some places, with slabs of ice as big as pickup trucks.

“This is just crazy how much ice we have out there; we’ve had 35 square miles of ice descend upon and affix itself (to existing ice),” said Mark Gill, director of vessel traffic services for the U.S. Coast Guard, who likened Whitefish Bay to a bathtub drain that took in all of Lake Superior’s ice during several days of westerly winds dating back to last weekend. “The wind blew all the ice down from the open lake. It’s all packed in there and rolled up on itself.”

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None of the vessels are beset in ice; rather, they’re staged in the ice waiting for Canadian and U.S. coast guard icebreakers to reestablish tracklines through the bay. Six of the vessels are downbound, headed for the nearby Soo Locks, while 12 are upbound.

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Alder, from Duluth, and the Mackinaw - the largest U.S.  icebreaker serving the Great Lakes - have been chipping away with assistance from several other, smaller icebreakers. Canada’s big icebreaker Pierre Radisson was set to join the fray later Wednesday.

“The ice is very mobile; there’s a lot of water in it,” Gill said. “Hit with the icebreakers, it moves and doesn’t take the break. It’s been very slow to say the least.”

The Kaye E. Barker, a 767-foot iron ore and coal hauler which wintered in Duluth, suffered damage to its forepeak while trying to maneuver in the ice. A hole in the Barker’s ballast tank wasn’t dangerous, Gill said, but it was forcing her into the adjacent Waiska Bay, where it will transfer its load of iron ore onto the Lee A. Tregurtha. The Kaye E. Barker will then receive a temporary fix before carrying on to Sturgeon Bay, Wis., for permanent repairs.

“Hopefully, by midday Friday, we’ll be back to normal - after that it’s a matter for Mother Nature,” Gill said, adding that rain in the forecast would help, as well as some sunshine.