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Cold snap hampers shipping on Great Lakes; vessels huddle at anchor as operators alter plans

Jan 02, 2018 08:25PM ● Published by Editor

Four of eight freighters at anchor on Lake Superior offshore from Duluth on Monday afternoon make a picturesque scene with the Aerial Lift Bridge. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

By Brady Slater of the Duluth News Tribune - Tuesday, January 2, 2017 

Bursting with horsepower to spare in what has been a banner season, the Great Lakes shipping industry slowed against its will in the past week.

On Lake Superior offshore from Duluth, as many as nine freighters at a time have been anchored and at ease the past several days — mostly waiting turns to load iron ore pellets in the Twin Ports and Two Harbors.

A rush to haul an estimated 1.5 million tons of iron ore pellets out of the Northland in the last half-month of the shipping season stalled when arctic air enveloped the Midwest, sources said.

"There's no way that is going to happen now," said Jim Sharrow, the Duluth Seaway Port Authority's director of port planning and resiliency.

The gears of industry shuddered against the cold, causing dysfunction up and down the supply chain. There are any number of culprits behind the slow loading taking place right now in the Duluth-Superior harbor, Sharrow said, but all of it is traced to the bitter cold.

"The operators and coast guards and all the service organizations that help to keep ships moving are all very well organized to deal as well as they can with things," Sharrow said, "but they can't make it summer sailing."

Frozen train brakes impede departures at the mines; thousands of feet of elevated conveyors through the Allouez neighborhood of Superior stiffen up in subzero temperatures; clumps of iron ore pellets bond with ice and cold and no longer move freely; and rows of hatches on lake freighters become welded shut by a foot of ice or more during bitter-cold voyages.

"The dock managers would know, but we don't call and ask what the problem of the day is," Sharrow said. "The operators are meeting (Tuesday) to reshuffle their vessels after several days of getting held up for one reason or another."

The busiest dock, BNSF Railway Dock 5 in east Superior, has had as many as seven vessels waiting at a time.

"We're working to load boats and move them out in the push before the end of the shipping season," BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said in an email response to the News Tribune. "This cold weather can impact equipment and our operations. Our employees prepare for that every winter and work through issues as they come up, often in extreme weather conditions. We'll continue working to load vessels ahead of the season closing."

The BNSF dock's iron ore pellet cargoes are generally bound for mills outside Chicago or along the south shore of Lake Erie, Sharrow said.

Had ships been able to move freely in and out of the Twin Ports, most vessels likely would have made one or even two more trips this season before the close of the Soo Locks on Jan. 15 — a move which shuts off Lake Superior from the rest of the lakes for about six weeks of offseason. About 20 cargoes had been planned to leave this month from the Twin Ports and Two Harbors combined, Sharrow said.

Operators had been building stockpiles of iron ore pellets at the nation's steel mills to keep the mills producing through winter. The industry learned during the abnormally cold spring ice-out of 2014, which lasted into June, how expensive and limited rail shipments of iron ore pellets can be to the mills.

But operators are now considering adjustments to vessel schedules which seem likely to make multiple trips per ship unrealistic.

"It's possible a large percentage will have to forgo that and move the cargo in the spring," Sharrow said.

The slowdown is also being brought on by the rapid accumulation of ice, especially in the narrower rivers and locks connecting the lakes and the working harbors all along the shores.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory on Tuesday, the lakes were almost 20 percent ice-covered — but each lake to varying degrees. The shallowest, Lake Erie, was 40 percent covered, while Lake Superior, the deepest, was only 8 percent covered. Because passage though its waters was less impeded, Lake Superior was soaking up only one of the nine binational coast guard icebreakers currently working alongside an armada of tugboats to keep open channels and harbors throughout the lakes.

"I compare ice-breaking to plowing the roads," Sharrow said.

"Bridged" while waiting to reach Park Point on Tuesday before noon, a row of vehicles lined up to let the freighter Thunder Bay pass.

Her nose a menacing icecap, the 740-foot Canadian freighter moved beneath the Aerial Lift Bridge to the familiar sound of horns followed by laps of water against the hull. She was to discharge salt at Hallett Dock No. 8 in St. Louis Bay, then get in line for Two Harbors and a downbound load of iron ore pellets.

A Thunder Bay crewmember worked on the aft deck underneath the bridge and wore heavy gloves as he punched a portable keypad.

A question was shouted from alongside the ship canal: "How are you doing?"

"I'm fine," said the man with a stiff comb mustache who wore a hard hat over a cap covering his ears. "It's a bit nippy."

The Thunder Bay drifted by and seemed lucky to do so. It had broken away from the other patient freighters — some having been anchored for days.

Sharrow ticked through added notes which figured to tickle maritime enthusiasts:

• The last saltie to leave Duluth, the Beatrix on Dec. 19, was bound for the United Kingdom with a load of spring wheat and originally ticketed to hit the Atlantic Ocean by Christmas. Instead, it's among six ocean-going foreign vessels still caught in the St. Lawrence Seaway System near Montreal. "They're working with them to get them out, but there's a lot of ice in the St. Lawrence River and it's taking a while," Sharrow said.

• The entire system absorbed a hit when the U.S. Coast Guard pulled an ice-breaking buoy tender, the cutter Hollyhock, from its seven-vessel rotation. The Hollyhock is a sister vessel to the Duluth-based Alder and is home-ported out of Port Huron, Mich. But an engine, extended by repairs previously, finally came due to be overhauled and forced the Coast Guard to pull her in despite appeals from lake carriers, Sharrow said. The Canadian Coast Guard also helps with ice-breaking on the lakes.

• The freighter G3 Marquis left Two Harbors loaded with iron ore pellets on Tuesday only to come back to anchor in Duluth to wait out a gale warning on Lake Superior. Like the Thunder Bay, the G3 Marquis is among the next generation of efficient Canadian lakers and a 740-footer. Conversely, the 1,000-foot Burns Harbor left Duluth with a load of iron ore pellets on Tuesday in spite of the weather.

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  • Ojibwe Language for Beginners

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    05:30PM — 07:00PM

    January 9, 16, 23, 30. 5:30-7pm Cost:$80.00 This 4-session class will provide students with a ...


  • Intro/Beginning Iyengar Yoga at Cobblestone

    01/30/2018
    07:05PM — 08:20PM

    Class suited for introductory or beginning students. The basics of Iyengar style yoga will be tau...


  • Learn to Dance!

    01/30/2018
    07:15PM — 09:00PM

    Learn to waltz, two-step, foxtrot, and swing dance. Tuesdays at the 4-H Building, 7:15 to 9:00 PM...


  • The 100DayProject

    01/31/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    01/31/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Anxiety/Depression Support Group for Women

    01/31/2018
    10:00AM — 11:00AM

    Weekly support group for women. $2.00 suggested donation. No registration required. Please joi...


  • Gentle Yoga at Cobblestone

    01/31/2018
    10:00AM — 11:30AM

    For all with health concerns such as arthritis, high blood pressure, pregnancy or those who just ...


  • First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, inviting community conversation… Aging...


  • 1/2 Price Bottles of Wine

    01/31/2018
    11:00AM

    1/2 Price Bottles of Wine


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    01/31/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Creamy Chicken Casserole/Broccoli/Fruit/Milk


  • Women's Yoga at Cobblestone Cabins

    01/31/2018
    05:15PM — 07:00PM

    Continuing class for all women interested in Iyengar Yoga. Walk-ins allowed with permission from ...


  • Beginning Spanish

    01/31/2018
    05:30PM — 07:00PM

    January 17, 24, 31, & February 7, 2018 | 5:30PM-7PM START LEARNING SPANISH or HELP REGAIN LOS...


  • Beginning Spanish

    01/31/2018
    05:30PM — 07:00PM

    January 17, 24, 31 and February 7th on Wednesdays 5:30-7pm Focus on vacation and travel languag...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    01/31/2018
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for January 4 through February 15. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM ...


  • The 100DayProject

    02/01/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/01/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    02/01/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Lunch At the Senior Center

    02/01/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Meatloaf/Baked Potato/Peas/Dessert/Milk


  • Alcoholics Anonymous

    02/01/2018
    06:30PM

    Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and ho...


  • Film Night at North House

    02/01/2018
    07:00PM — 09:00PM

    Winter Series returns every Thursday in February at North House with film nights. We’ll revisit f...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    02/01/2018
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for January 4 through February 15. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM ...


  • The 100DayProject

    02/02/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/02/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    02/02/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    02/02/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Brats/Sauerkraut/Mash Potato/Dessert/Milk


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    02/02/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Brats/Sauerkraut/Mash Potato/Dessert/Milk


  • Friday Night Reels

    02/02/2018
    06:00PM — 08:00PM

    Friday nights from January 5 to March 9, the library is transformed into a Free-Admission movie t...


  • The 100DayProject

    02/03/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/03/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    02/03/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Voyageur Brewing Company Brewery Tour

    02/03/2018
    11:30AM — 12:30PM

    We offer tours on most Saturdays beginning at 11:30am but you need to reserve your space online i...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    02/03/2018
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for January 4 through February 15. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM ...


  • The 100DayProject

    02/04/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/04/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    02/04/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Alcoholics Anonymous

    02/04/2018
    06:30PM — 07:30PM

    Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and ho...


  • The 100DayProject

    02/05/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/05/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    02/05/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Band Instrument Drive

    02/05/2018
    08:00AM

    The Cook County School band is looking to expand our program and include all 5th graders. Current...


  • 1/2 Price Burgers!

    02/05/2018
    11:00AM — 09:00PM

    1/2 Price Burgers at Moguls Grille and Tap Room


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    02/05/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Sloppy Joes/Baked Beans/Coleslaw/Fruit/Milk


  • Overeaters Anonymous

    02/05/2018
    04:15PM — 05:15PM

    Overeaters Anonymous is a fellowship of individuals who, through shared experience, strength and...


  • Co-Dependents Anonymous

    02/05/2018
    05:30PM

    Co-Dependents Anonymous is a Fellowship of men and women whose common purpose is to develop healt...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    02/05/2018
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for January 4 through February 15. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM ...


  • The 100DayProject

    02/06/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/06/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    02/06/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Story Time at the Library

    02/06/2018
    10:30AM — 11:15AM

    Every Tuesday, January 9-February 27, story times are open to all ages and feature songs and othe...


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    02/06/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Soup/Sandwich/Dessert/Milk


  • Bible Prophecy

    02/06/2018
    04:00PM — 05:30PM

    National and International speakers presented by DVD. The DVDs will be shown at the Community Ce...


  • Kids Eat Free

    02/06/2018
    04:00PM — 09:00PM

    1 free kids meal with any paid adult meal Available after 4pm


  • Colvill All-Levels Yoga

    02/06/2018
    05:30PM — 06:30PM

    Join us for yoga. Vinyasa-style yoga set to world music. Come rest your mind and energize your ...


  • Men's Yoga at Cobblestone Cabins

    02/06/2018
    05:30PM — 07:00PM

    Iyengar style yoga class for men interested in a well rounded yoga practice.


  • Intro/Beginning Iyengar Yoga at Cobblestone

    02/06/2018
    07:05PM — 08:20PM

    Class suited for introductory or beginning students. The basics of Iyengar style yoga will be tau...


  • Learn to Dance!

    02/06/2018
    07:15PM — 09:00PM

    Learn to waltz, two-step, foxtrot, and swing dance. Tuesdays at the 4-H Building, 7:15 to 9:00 PM...


  • The 100DayProject

    02/07/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/07/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    02/07/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Anxiety/Depression Support Group for Women

    02/07/2018
    10:00AM — 11:00AM

    Weekly support group for women. $2.00 suggested donation. No registration required. Please joi...


  • Gentle Yoga at Cobblestone

    02/07/2018
    10:00AM — 11:30AM

    For all with health concerns such as arthritis, high blood pressure, pregnancy or those who just ...


  • 1/2 Price Bottles of Wine

    02/07/2018
    11:00AM

    1/2 Price Bottles of Wine


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    02/07/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Chef's Salad/Fruit/Dessert/Milk


  • Women's Yoga at Cobblestone Cabins

    02/07/2018
    05:15PM — 07:00PM

    Continuing class for all women interested in Iyengar Yoga. Walk-ins allowed with permission from ...


  • Beginning Spanish

    02/07/2018
    05:30PM — 07:00PM

    January 17, 24, 31, & February 7, 2018 | 5:30PM-7PM START LEARNING SPANISH or HELP REGAIN LOS...


  • Beginning Spanish

    02/07/2018
    05:30PM — 07:00PM

    January 17, 24, 31 and February 7th on Wednesdays 5:30-7pm Focus on vacation and travel languag...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    02/07/2018
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for January 4 through February 15. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM ...


  • The 100DayProject

    02/08/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/08/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    02/08/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    02/08/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Baked Chicken/Steamed Cabbage/Potato/Fruit/Milk


  • Alcoholics Anonymous

    02/08/2018
    06:30PM

    Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and ho...


  • Film Night at North House

    02/08/2018
    07:00PM — 09:00PM

    Winter Series returns every Thursday in February at North House with film nights. We’ll revisit f...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    02/08/2018
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for January 4 through February 15. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM ...


  • Second annual Hygge Festival

    02/09/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    In honor of the second annual Hygge Festival Feb. 9-15, participating resort and restaurant owner...


  • The 100DayProject

    02/09/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/09/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    02/09/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    02/09/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Tomato Soup/Grilled Cheese Sandwich/Fruit/Dessert/Milk


  • Friday Night Reels

    02/09/2018
    06:00PM — 08:00PM

    Friday nights from January 5 to March 9, the library is transformed into a Free-Admission movie t...