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Sault Ste. Marie — Before freighters loaded with iron can head to the steel mills on the lower Great Lakes, the U.S. Coast Guard must spring into action to clear shipping lanes of ice.

They call it Operation Taconite.

Three cutters — the Canadian Coast Guard’s Samuel Risley and U.S. Coast Guard’s Morro Bay and Mackinaw — all shared the Poe Lock earlier this week ahead of Sunday’s opening of the shipping season.

They were the first vessels to transit into the upper lake this year. The ships work to open shipping channels in Whitefish Bay and Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. Other icebreakers are working in Duluth, Minnesota; Green Bay, Wisconsin; and the Straits of Mackinac.

It’s a sign of spring at the locks, an event anticipated by everyone aware of the significance of the spring season when tourists will once again breathe new life into the economy.

“This operation is the most important non-life-saving mission of the U.S. Coast Guard,” Executive Officer Adam Leggett said.

Leggett said the Coast Guard will facilitate $500 million worth of commercial traffic during the shipping season. In an average year, the Coast Guard breaks ice for 120 days.

“Today, we will get an abbreviated look at our operation,” he said. “The men and women will be working 15-hour days preparing for the shipping season.”

The Great Lakes fleet of ships hauled 85.7 million tons of cargo last year, an increase of 3 percent over 2016, according to the Cleveland-based Lake Carriers Association. Iron ore for steel production was the largest commodity, at 46 million tons.

Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers Association, said it’s unclear what impact President Donald Trump’s 25 percent tariff on foreign steel will have on shippers, especially since Trump granted initial exemptions to the European Union, Canada, South Korea, Australia, Mexico and other nations.

“As a trade association, we cannot be predictive. If the demand for steel rises, we can ship more cargo. Every ton of foreign steel purchased takes cargo off the Great Lakes,” Nekvasil said. “Not every ship in the Great Lakes fleet is operational at this time. If demand for steel increases, the fleet can put more vessels into operation. We have the capacity.”

Heavy icebreaker Mackinaw awaited guests invited for its first trip on Wednesday.

The Mackinaw slowly approached the Poe Lock, a 1,200-foot trough of St. Mary’s River water, which can lift the 3,500-ton Mackinaw, along with two other icebreakers, 21 feet to the level of the upper river and Whitefish Bay.

The bay is on the eastern end of the southern shore of Lake Superior and is 90 percent ice-covered. There are windrows of ice piled four feet in upper Whitefish Bay.

“We have 20-24 inches of ice in Whitefish Bay,” said Lt. j.g. Chantel Early, an assistant operations officer on the Mackinaw. “We will cut a first track and establish a 60-mile-long track line through the ice.

“And once the lakers arrive, we will establish one-way traffic. We need to get above the locks into Whitefish Bay.”

After the shipping season ends in January, the locks at Sault Ste. Marie are inspected and repaired for the next season.

“The Soo Locks are a critical connection in the Great Lakes navigation system, and we are dedicated to their reliability,” said Lt. Col. Dennis P. Sugrue, district engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Thanks to our talented team at the Soo Locks. We have completed several critical maintenance projects this winter.”

Preparations each spring also include filling the locks, a task that takes at least 12 hours to fill with 22 million gallons of icy water.

The U.S. Coast Guard operates nine ice-breaking-capable cutters on the Great Lakes, including the heavy ice-breaking Mackinaw. At 240 feet in length, the vessel, with a crew of nine officers and 46 enlisted personnel, can break solid ice up to 42 inches.

Their work will eventually ease. Ice in the Great Lakes should be slowly melting soon, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Matt Gillen of the Gaylord office.

“We expect a slightly earlier spring with above-normal temperatures across the Upper Peninsula with temperatures in the low-40s,” Gillen said.

John L. Russell is a photojournalist and writer from Traverse City.

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