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Duluth tug operator: 'It's on us' to keep ice at bay

U.S. Coast Guard cutter Katmai Bay visited Duluth last week, but as temperatures drop regional assets remain at least a day away.

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A crewmember watches the barge Michigan Trader breaks ice on St. Louis Bay as the tug Dirk S. VanEnkevort pushes it toward Lake Superior on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

As temperatures dropped into single digits and snow cover crept over the St. Louis River estuary this week, Mike Ojard expressed trepidation.

The owner and operator of Superior-based Heritage Marine and its fleet of three tugboats was asked about the U.S. Coast Guard’s plan to use regionally located icebreakers while the Duluth-Superior port went without a home-ported icebreaker until next season.

“There’s not going to be any icebreaking assets,” Ojard said. “It’s just going to be us.”

Ojard’s tugs — Helen H, Edward H, and Nels J — and other commercial tugs in the harbor are generally responsible for maintaining open water in private slips. The Coast Guard is responsible for keeping commercial shipping channels open.

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The Heritage Marine tugs Helen H and Edward H sit docked in Superior on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

For now, things are OK. The 140-foot Coast Guard cutter Katmai Bay was in Duluth-Superior last week to maintain a track in the shipping channel. The Duluth Seaway Port Authority confirmed the port is expected to see the Coast Guard cutter Biscayne Bay next. Even Canada’s cutter, Samuel Risley, based in Thunder Bay, is on-call if it’s needed for support.

But Ojard’s concern was in having icebreaking cutters a day away or more. It left commercial traffic vulnerable to a slowdown, he said. In saying so, he joined the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, which earlier this month called platooning remote assets to cover the local port a less than ideal solution .

“If we did get some cold weather, it would be really hard work for us to maintain,” Ojard said, describing how bad it can get to cross Superior Bay from Heritage Marine in Superior to the Duluth shipping canal. "When it takes you two to three hours to get from our dock (on Connors Point) to the Aerial Lift Bridge, then you’ve got an issue. It could be like that very quickly, too."

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Spar is expected to arrive in its new home port in Duluth sometime in 2022, replacing the cutter Alder as the local buoy tender and part-time icebreaker. Alder left Duluth last summer, leaving the local port with a gap in cutter service. After a year of maintenance and repair, the Alder has been commissioned to home port in San Francisco.

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The barge/tug combo Michigan Trader / Dirk S. VanEnkevort moves past the John J. Boland, docked at the Superior Midwest Energy Terminal, Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

For now, steady ship and tug traffic is keeping the shipping channel open. But Ojard explained that the right conditions can close a track in 15 minutes if it gets cold enough.

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“The tracks are important,” Ojard said. “With the storms and blowing around we’ve had, we can move around the harbor pretty easily. It’s not too bad right now. But when you get some below zero weather and it’s calm, it builds ice quickly.”

Commercial port tugs aren’t necessarily equipped, or paid, to keep shipping channels open, he explained. There's no mechanism to pay tugs to take on commercial shipping routes, and Ojard is not enthusiastic about using his tugs on a volunteer basis.

"I'm not going to burn up 100 gallons an hour in fuel and supplies and beat the heck out of my tug for nothing," he said.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Lake Superior ice cover had climbed above 2% Tuesday.

Overall, the Great Lakes were at 1.4% ice coverage. That was on par for the same date in 2019 and 2020. From 2016-18, ice coverage was ahead of where it is now — at 3.2%, 9.5% and 2.5%, respectively.

The Great Lakes shipping campaign ends Jan. 15 for 10 weeks of maintenance and repair on the Soo Locks and vessel fleets, reopening March 25.

Earlier this month, the Coast Guard expressed confidence in its icebreaking plan for Duluth-Superior.

“We think we’ve accounted for all the contingencies, and all the things that can go bad,” said Mark Gill, director of vessel traffic services based at the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. “We have a plan going forward.”

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As of Tuesday, according to vessel traffic sites, the Katmai Bay was outside Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan on the St. Marys River, east of Lake Superior, and the Biscayne Bay was located on Lake Huron — a fair bit away for Ojard's taste.

“If they keep one of the 140s on this side of the (Soo) locks that would be a good idea, but to leave Duluth-Superior bare is not a good idea,” Ojard said.

Weather forecasts called for frequent dips into single digits and sub-zero temperatures mixed with milder days in the coming week.

"You can’t look into a crystal ball made of ice to see when that happens, though,” Ojard said, before describing his own efforts to prevent a freeze. "We'll put the ice heaters in now to keep (open water) space around the tugs, so we can be ready to move."

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