The first cargo ships are scheduled to leave the Duluth harbor Saturday. But it's going to be a slow start to the season because the harbor is clogged by ice that's five feet thick in places. A Coast Guard cutter and local tugs are working feverishly to break up the ice to allow the ships to depart.
The Helen H is one of those civilian tugs, and as Capt. Mike Ojard guided the 90-feet-long vessel across the harbor on Thursday, he explained how it breaks the ice.
"All that shuttering and shaking, that's ice going through the propellor."
"We use the weight of the vessel, not so much the horsepower, to break down the ice," he said as its bow rose onto the ice, several feet into the air, before crashing through. "This is where this boat is absolutely king, the way that she comes up. See how she rides up?"
Over the course of about two hours, Ojard dislodges thick plates down the thousand foot length of the Presque Isle, a giant "laker" scheduled to depart for Two Harbors tomorrow to load up with iron ore. As the ice dislodges it noisily grinds down underneath the Helen H.
"All that shuttering and shaking, that's ice going through the propellor," Ojard said. "We go slow and easy, so we don't break anything."
The Helen H's bow is reinforced with steel plating nearly an inch thick, but Ojard said it's still easy to poke a hole in the tug.
The 68-year-old captain has lived his whole life among tugs along the North Shore of Lake Superior. His dad was the chief engineer on a tug in Two Harbors; his uncle was the captain. He echoes what everyone around the harbor is saying -- this is the worst ice on the lake in 20 years.
"Last year we were breaking ice on the 4th of May. This year will be worse. There's a lot of slips that will have to be opened up later in the season," he said. "I'm sure we'll have ice with us way into June."
That's hard on his four tugs, he says, but good for business. That's not the case, though, for the shippers, says Glen Nekvasil vice president of the Lake Carriers' Association.
"Last year we were breaking ice on the 4th of May. This year will be worse."
"We fully expect that transit times will be two to three times their normal length, and that the Coast Guard will be leading convoys across Lake Superior in the beginning," he said.
That means after a laker is loaded with taconite pellets in Two Habors this weekend, it will have to sit and wait for other ships to load, explained Jim Sharrow with the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, "So it may represent an extra two or three day delay before they can even leave their loading port or unloading port."
That's an enormous amount of time for an industry that counts delays by the minute, Sharrow said. "It adds up quickly, when you get to five to six days, you've lost an entire cargo for the season."
Nekvasil said heavy ice on the lakes early this winter has already prevented a lot of cargo from being delivered. Ships got wedged in the ice. Trips that should have taken two and a half days, took a full week. The iron ore trade was down 35 percent in January.
"Stockpiles are very, very low at some steel companies and power plants, so we've got to get these boats going, and start rebuilding those stockpiles," he said.
Nine Coast Guard cutters across the Great Lakes are prepared to clear channels and escort ships. The Mackinaw, the heaviest ice breaker on the Great Lakes, has to bust through ice more than four feet thick in Whitefish Bay on the far eastern tip of Lake Superior. That will allow ships from Duluth to enter the Soo Locks to travel to lower Great Lakes.
Barton Nanney on the Duluth-based Coast Guard cutter Alder said it's a mystery what the ice will look like out in the middle of the big lake.
"It can change very quickly, it can be not terribly bad, and then the wind could shift and push all the ice that may be stacked up in Whitefish Bay right now out into the rest of the lake," he said.
So while Spring may have officialy sprung on land, winter is still maintaining its icy grip on Lake Superior as the shipping season struggles to break free.