Ships await rescue for days in Lake Superior ice
U.S. Coast Guard officials, saying the “proverbial drain is clogged,” are hoping to plow through unseasonable Lake Superior ice Wednesday that has tied up 15 ships and halted travel.
A Canadian icebreaker from Quebec is set to join other American vessels already working to unblock a path for the 15 ships heading to various ports that have been in a holding pattern — some since Sunday, said Mark Gill, director of vessel traffic services for the U.S. Coast Guard at Sault Ste. Marie.
“They’re just waiting ... for us to get a track through it,” he said Tuesday.
It’s rare to see this much ice at Whitefish Bay — on eastern Lake Superior between Michigan and Ontario — in a shipping season that officially started late last month, Gill said. The navigational lock complex at Sault Ste. Marie opened March 25 after being closed since mid-January for routine maintenance.
The ice jam formed after changing weather in the region over last weekend, he said.
While as much as 75 percent of the lake was frozen as recently as two weeks ago, warmer air and westerly winds loosened ice and pushed it around Whitefish Bay, which “kind of acts like a drain,” he said.
“Because of the way the ice is packed in, the proverbial drain is clogged and no one is moving.”
Carol Launderville, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Coast Guard, said Tuesday that eight ships needed escorting through Whitefish Bay.
“The Canadian Coast Guard ship Samuel Risley and USCG ships are hard at work creating tracks through the ice,” she said in a statement. “Once those tracks are established, then direct escorts through these very challenging ice conditions will be made, and the ships can get underway to various locations throughout Lake Superior and toward the St. Marys River.”
Meanwhile, another Canadian Coast Guard ship, the Pierre Radisson, is being deployed to help the icebreaking mission, Launderville said. The ship, which is home-ported in Quebec City, was expected to arrive on Lake Superior early Wednesday, she said. Gill said that ice cutter had more horsepower than the American vessels — the Mackinaw and the Alder — already in the area.
Among the ships in a holding pattern was the Kaye E. Barker, a freighter operated by the Interlake Steamship Co., which sustained hull damage below the water line before reaching the bay, Gill said. The vessel was expected to offload its cargo onto another ship and undergo an inspection, he said. The other waiting ships were not believed to be damaged, Gill said.
Ten of the ships have already crossed the Soo Locks; five others were waiting to cross, the Coast Guard said. The locks are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They lift and lower vessels between Lakes Huron and Superior.
About 10,000 ships move through the Soo Locks each year, hauling millions of tons of cargo during the March-to-January shipping season.
Lengthy or extensive ice is a concern for shippers and others involved with the industry since it can impact the bottom line.
The brutal winter of 2013-14 cost the economy more than $700 million and nearly 4,000 jobs, according to the Lake Carriers’ Association. Gill said the ice buildup is “about half as much of what we had” last year.
Associated Press contributed.