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2010 Shipping Season Opens Early

It must have been quite a sight—a six-freighter convoy lined up in the St. Mary's River waiting for the Soo Locks to open for the 2010 season and let them enter Lake Superior. All six were on their way to pick up iron ore, to restock steel mills that had let their supplies dwindle last season.

At the other end of the lake the night before (March 20), the James R. Barker went sneaking out of the Duluth-Superior Harbor at about 3:30 a.m., marking the opening of the shipping season for the Twin Ports. The 1,000-footer had spent the winter in its berth at MERC’s Superior Midwest Energy Terminal, and left the port carrying 65,000 tons of coal bound for St. Clair and Monroe, Michigan.

You see, ship traffic along the St. Lawrence Seaway is seasonal, and ice rules. Yes, the Coast Guard cutters (and icebreaker tugs) do their job breaking up frozen sections to let ships through late into December, but they can't keep the entire water-highway, from Duluth to the Atlantic, open year-round. Once it closes in mid-December, Great Lakes vessels “lay up” until the season opening in late March.

Ice build-up is the annual hurdle encountered on the way to shipping's opening day. The milder conditions this past winter let the Army Corps of Engineers give the industry just what it needed, the opportunity to open four days early—which it did, on Sunday morning, March 21, 2010 at 7:00 a.m. (EDT). (Normally, locks close for the winter from December 15 to March 25 each year, but not this year.)

It didn't take long, however, for a few of the ships to get stuck in ice jams, including the empty Presque Isle (one of the six ships at the Soo) which was bound for Duluth that day. By 9:30 a.m. Sunday, it was wedged in, and it took the Coast Guard three hours to free it.

According to the Coast Guard, on Saturday, the day before the opening, shifting winds moved an 11-mile-long section of ice into the commercial shipping channel. Two freighters got stuck on Saturday, one for more than six hours.

Despite icy challenges, a line-up of ships at the locks is a very good way to start the season, and a hopeful sign for the 2010 shipping season. Shipping is a derived demand and when the need for coal, iron ore, grain, limestone, cement, scrap iron, etc., is high—so is ship traffic in the Great Lakes. If demand is down, as it was last year, ship traffic is sure to follow.

In 2009, ship cargoes (total tonnage) were down 25 percent overall for the Seaway, according to Andrew Bogora, communications officer for the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, and at the Duluth-Superior port, the dip was closer to 60 percent. Last year, 31 million tons of cargo was shipped through the Duluth-Superior port, compared to nearly 46 million tons in 2008, which is about average. The Ohio-based Lake Carriers Association reported a Great Lakes-wide dip of 34 percent in cargo last year, while the port of Green Bay was down about 18 percent. Demand for coal is steady as power companies replenish stocks, but who knows if demand will continue?

Bogora expects overall tonnage to rise by roughly 10 percent in 2010, and the Duluth Port Authority is looking for a return to Twin Ports averages by mid-summer—perhaps another indication that the recession has bottomed out.

The brighter economic outlook didn't make dodging ice floes any easier, no matter which direction ships traveled during the opening week. By Tuesday morning (March 23), the Barker was leaving Detroit Edison’s coal dock at St. Clair, Michigan and ran into ice clogs about two miles north of Marine City. Several hours were spent turning and passing, and it finally was positioned to continue on its way.

Earlier in the month, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Alder took a first look at ice conditions in Lake Superior near Duluth. Ice coverage peaked on February 23, 2010 and was reportedly up to 20 inches thick in the harbor. By Monday, March 22, the Alder had cleared the Superior front channel, the Superior and Duluth Harbor basins, and continued on to Silver Bay, Taconite Harbor, and Two Harbors.

About the same time the Barker was leaving the coal dock at St. Clair (about 10 a.m.) on Tuesday, the Twin Ports welcomed its first inbound "Laker," the John D. Leitch, coming from Thunder Bay. It came through the Superior Entry, since the Duluth ship canal is closed until the painting of the Aerial Bridge is completed. (The bridge will open on March 31.)

Following the Leitch's arrival, the Canadian Navigator made the Duluth-Superior port the next day. Both are "Lakers," (Ships that only travel the Great Lakes—too large to fit through the smaller locks of the Welland Canal to reach the oceans.) Ocean-going ships are aptly called “Salties,” and the first one is expected in Duluth sometime in mid-April.

Throngs of tourists and locals alike line the pier at Duluth's Canal Park, waiting to watch the first “Saltie” approach. It signals the bridge with its whistle, waits for the operator to answer back with an equally sibilant response, and finally enters the channel. An annual rite of spring worth the effort it takes to be there.

If you want to up the ante (and corresponding level of excitement), enter The First Ship Contest. Just submit your best guess as to the date and time the first ship will pass under the Aerial Lift Bridge. The winner will receive a prize package with luxurious accommodations, delicious meals, and tickets to area attractions in Duluth—Minnesota's beautiful city on the big lake. To enter, go to: www.visitduluth.com/featured/first-ship.php.

In the meantime, look around the harbor to see what vessels are visiting the Duluth-Superior Harbor today… check it out at www.duluthshippingnews.com/. Or, see what's happening at the other end of the lake, with a live web cam view of the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie: www.mwhazecam.net/stmarie.html. Once the season begins, ships come and go around the clock, until once again the cold weather and ice signal the close of the port and locks in mid-December.

- Information for this article was gathered from the Duluth News Tribune, Duluth Seaway Port Authority, and The Green Bay Press Gazette.

Posted on March 25, 2010

This page last modified on March 26, 2010     © 1996 – 2020 Regents of the University of Minnesota     The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.
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