Great Lakes shipping season floats to a close this weekend

The American Spirit at the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.
The American Spirit sits anchored for the winter at the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. Nine ships will be laid up in the Duluth-Superior harbor for about ten weeks for winter maintenance. The Great Lakes shipping season resumes when the Soo Locks reopen on March 25th
Dan Kraker | MPR News

The Soo Locks that connect Lake Superior with the lower Great Lakes close for the winter at midnight Sunday, marking the end of the commercial shipping season on the lakes.

Four final vessels are expected to pass through the locks and arrive in the Duluth-Superior harbor this weekend, where they will dock for the next ten weeks for winter repair and maintenance.

And regardless of what time they make it, Duluth Seaway Port Authority spokeswoman Adele Yorde predicted there will be shipwatchers there to greet them.

"We've got some pretty intrepid photographers who stand on those piers at one or two a.m. even in this freezing weather to try and capture the last laker coming in," she said.

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Lakers are the giant freighters, up to 1,000 feet long, that ply only the fresh water of the Great Lakes, typically ferrying bulk commodities like iron ore, coal, grain and limestone. The final "saltie" of the shipping season, which traversed the entire Great Lakes system, through the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean, departed Duluth Dec. 22nd.

But those ships didn't carry quite as much cargo as they did last year. They transported about 30 tons of cargo through the Duluth-Superior harbor this year, down slightly from a year ago. Overall on the Great Lakes, shipments were down about 4.5 percent.

"I think the 2016 season ended up exactly where people thought it would, we kept moving commodities, there wasn't any race to the finish as there has been in some years," Yorde. "But it was a solid year."

Iron ore cargoes increased across the Great Lakes, as mining and steel production began to pick up again.

But all other commodity shipments dropped, especially coal, which fell by more than 26 percent.

Still, with all six major taconite mines on Minnesota's Iron Range expected to be operating by March, Yorde said officials are "cautiously optimistic" for a strong 2017 shipping season.

Nine ships will spend the winter in the Duluth-Superior harbor for repair and maintenance. The shipping season resumes when the Soo Locks reopen on March 25th.