Crunch time arrived on the Great Lakes last weekend, as more than a dozen lake freighters sailed into the Twin Ports, Two Harbors and Silver Bay — a sign of increased intensity as the shipping campaign nears winter layup.

“We’re like Santa Claus — we have deliveries to make,” said Eric Peace, spokesperson for the Lake Carriers’ Association representing American-flag shipping companies.

At this point in the season, most other cargoes have yielded shipping lanes to taconite iron ore as companies try to fill stockpiles at the steel mills along the lower Great Lakes.

“They’re not full yet, because we’re still shipping," Peace said. "And as long as we’re shipping, they need it."

The 1,004-foot-long Mesabi Miner nears the Lift Bridge Friday with a load of iron ore Friday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
The 1,004-foot-long Mesabi Miner nears the Lift Bridge Friday with a load of iron ore Friday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

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Seasonal closing deadlines loom at the Soo Locks (Jan. 15) and at the eastern end of the Great Lakes, where the last vessels must clear the Montreal-Lake Ontario section of the St. Lawrence Seaway on Dec. 31. The roughly eight-week offseason ushers in a period of maintenance and repairs across the lakes.

“That was how the Great Lakes were designed,” Kate Ferguson said. “Stockpiles that were built all summer long are shipped out, preparing the steel mills for winter when the lakes are closed.”

Ferguson is director of trade and business development at the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, which saw its last vessel Dec. 13, when the Antigua- and Barbuda-flagged Alina unloaded energy equipment at the Port Authority's Clure Public Marine Terminal on Rice’s Point.

Ferguson said two final foreign vessels will call on Duluth for grain shipments this week, the Federal Seto and Helena G. They’ll be cutting it close to leave Duluth in time to meet the year-end closing date on the St. Lawrence Seaway and reach the Atlantic Ocean.

“Our latest saltie departure on record from the Port of Duluth-Superior is Dec. 22,” Port Authority spokesperson Jayson Hron said. “With two more salties scheduled to arrive later this week, it’s possible that the last saltie departure could happen close to that Dec. 22 date.”

Hron added that grain movement through the port was especially strong in November, topping the previous month’s haul and eclipsing the November 2018 tonnage by nearly 60%. Grain tonnage for the Port of Duluth-Superior finished the month more than 16% ahead of last season and 10% better than the five-season average.

As the season draws to a close, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alder returned to its home port in Duluth on Monday.

The Alder, a buoy tender and icebreaker, finished work retrieving navigation aids on the lakes over the weekend, said Lt. Sean Murphy, a public affairs officer based in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. The Alder’s return to Duluth puts it in position for ice-breaking operations.

So far, commercial tugs have been keeping open a track in the Superior and St. Louis bays inside the Duluth-Superior harbor, but overall ore freighters were moving without needing direct ice-breaking support.

The ice-clad bow of the Mesabi Miner pushes through ice as the bulk carrier passes beneath the Lift Bridge Friday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
The ice-clad bow of the Mesabi Miner pushes through ice as the bulk carrier passes beneath the Lift Bridge Friday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

“When Alder gets there it will be revisiting the tracks in the ice,” Murphy said on Monday. “Once the heat has escaped from the lake, it doesn’t take much for really brutal temperatures to turn it into ice.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had Great Lakes ice coverage at a paltry 1.8% as of Monday.

Murphy said only Lake Superior was ahead of schedule as far as early ice production. The Coast Guard was expecting below-normal ice conditions in 2020 based on forecasts. But Murphy said he was taking the forecast with a grain of salt.

He added that Coast Guard Cutter Katmai Bay was sent in to do preventative ice-breaking in Thunder Bay, Ontario, before it heads to keep open the track around the Soo Locks.

Another factor that could weigh into the shipping season’s final weeks: more stormy weather.

“We’ve had a lot of pretty wicked storms over the past couple months that have impacted industry,” Peace said, noting the temporary Aerial Lift Bridge outage in Duluth this month due to heavy ice buildup. “But this is a time we really need to get it done.”