You know it's spring when the first "saltie" arrives in Duluth.
The season's first oceangoing ship arrived Monday in the Port of Duluth-Superior. The Kom, a 465-foot vessel, came from Spain for a shipment of durum wheat bound for Italy to be made into pasta.
Dozens of people lined the shipping canal Monday afternoon as the Kom announced its arrival. The salties travel more than 2,300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes, and they're always a treat to see.
"I just like big boats, this is the coolest thing in the world," said Dale Stewart, of Cambridge, Minn., as the immense Kom glided past. "I love Canal Park and I love watching these big suckers come through."
Most salties transport durum and spring wheat, grown mainly in North Dakota, to Europe and northern Africa to make bread, pasta and couscous. This year they'll be arriving with lots of energy-related cargo — wind turbine components and equipment for the oil and gas and mining industries, said Ron Johnson, who directs trade development for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.
"Hopefully those cargoes coming in will provide empties for the grain to move outbound," he said. "That's the ideal."
This year's arrival of the first saltie into Duluth comes nearly a month earlier than last year when severe ice conditions on the Great Lakes brought shipping to a virtual standstill for much of the spring.
This year, ships again ran into problems. Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Control Specialist Rick Burch said strong west winds stacked up ice up to 9 feet thick in the southeastern tip of Lake Superior.
"It all piled up there," Burch said. "For our ships to get up to Duluth and areas like that they had to go through that ice, so it created a lot of problems."
At one point, 12 ships were stranded until icebreakers could clear a path and escort them to open water.
Several other vessels delayed their departures because of the heavy ice. As a result, iron ore shipments in March fell to 825,000 tons, the lowest level since 2009, down more than 60 percent compared to the month's five-year average, according to the Lake Carriers' Association.
But all that ice has helped raise water levels in the Great Lakes and that's allowed ships to load even more cargo, said Adele Yorde with the port authority.
For every extra inch that a 1,000 foot ship can drop down in the water, she explained, they can take on another 260 tons of iron ore or coal. And with lake levels up nearly a foot last year, "you're adding close to 3,000 tons on every trip that that thousand-footer can take."
Last year that helped shippers catch up from their slow, icy spring, and she's confident they'll be able to do it again, this year.
The first "laker" of the new shipping season departed the Duluth harbor on March 23. Those are the bigger ships — some 1,000 feet long — that carry primarily iron ore and coal throughout the Great Lakes.
But it's the salties that get people excited, Yorde said.
"It's a reminder that we are an international seaport," Yorde said. "When the salties start arriving, it really reminds us that we are part of the fourth seacoast of this nation, and we are the farthest inland port. It's what connects us to the rest of the world."
Correction (11 a.m.): The original version of this story misidentified Ron Johnson. The story has been updated.