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Cold blast over Great Lakes has icebreaker ships busy

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Cold blast over Great Lakes has icebreaker ships busy
Superior Wisconsin 1410 Tower Ave. 54880

Mike Simonson, Wisconsin Public Radio

A prolonged Arctic blast over the Great Lakes has icebreakers trying to keep ships moving through unusually thick ice.

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You don't need to close your eyes to imagine what it's like on one of Mike Ojard's 2,500-horsepower, 100-foot long ice breaking tugs in the Duluth-Superior harbor. The ice is already six to 18 inches thick.

“If you can imagine dragging a bunch of steel buckets through a rock pile continually, that's what the sound is like,” says Ojard, “and the shaking and the banging, and you've got a tugboat that weights 600 ton(s) and you're stopped just instantly. You're shot from one side to the other.”

He says one of his tugs even broke a rudder in the ice.

Coast Guard ice breakers and cutters Mackinaw and Biscayne Bay are working with Canadian cutters at the St. Mary's River, a bottleneck of boats connecting to Lake Superior. The ice has brought a few 1,000-foot-long super-carriers to a standstill.

Mathew Anderson is with the Coast Guard at Sault St. Marie, Michigan. “We've had a few that have gotten hung up in the turns, and that's primarily where it is, when they're trying to make a turn there's not room for the stern to come around in the ice. We've had icebreakers working in the lower river for the last few days.”

Meanwhile, Ojard, who's been in the business for a few decades, says this just doesn't happen this early. “There's ice in Lake [Superior]! When have you seen that at the first part of December? I can't remember this early.”

No more Arctic blasts are in the immediate forecast, but temperatures are expected to remain below freezing. While the St. Lawrence Seaway closes for the season on Christmas, the Great Lakes shipping season continues for another month.

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