Winter is slowly loosening its grip on the northland. With the past week bringing us balmy temperatures ranging from 0 to 10°C, enjoying the outdoors and fresh air has now become an option again. I was given the opportunity to head to Duluth, Minnesota, a city on the western tip of Lake Superior, to join the USCGC Alder, a 225 foot ice breaker and buoy tender on one of its ice breaking missions around the harbor. Of course I didn’t want to pass this up.
I began my two and a half hour drive up from Minneapolis at 5:30 am, and in typical Minnesota fashion snow and freezing rain met me as I arrived in Duluth.
I arrived to the Coast Guard station around 8:30am just as they were preparing to depart. So I scrambled to grab all my gear and snap a picture before boarding.
They wasted absolutely no time departing; at 9am on the dot we headed out into the ice choked harbor.
There is little to no open water in the harbor and the Alder’s job is to open the shipping channels for the upcoming shipping season.
The shipping industry on the Great Lakes is a major one; during the winter the ships enter layup for around two months.
The start of the new season depends on these ice breaking missions.
When we started moving through the ice walking became difficult. The deck in front of me was very slippery and with the violent movements of the ship was making me look like a drunk walking down the street.
We began by spinning two circles to churn up the ice by the Ariel Lift Bridge, which is the Duluth entrance to the harbor.
We then proceeded down the harbor towards the Superior Entry on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.
…in whiteout conditions thanks to snow and heavy wind.
To escape the wind and the -11° weather I ventured up the pilot house.
This being a day filled with press, family, and others, it was quite busy in there.
The windows were the best vantage point to view the action as we departed the harbor and headed out into Lake Superior.
I went down to grab lunch and when I returned to the deck I saw nothing but ice…
…it surrounded us…
…as far the eye could see. It was hard to tell where the lake ended and the sky began.
After a 5.5 nautical mile trek into the lake we hit the edge of the ice pack.
From there it was open water. With wind gusting at 25 knots it became quite cold.
It was here where we began turning around, the waves rocking the boat pretty good in the process.
You really get a sense of how powerful this lake is with how easily the boat rolls in these not-so-big waves. It really makes you feel small.
After turning around we headed back into the ice pack.
The sun finally decided it wanted to try and come out as we headed off the lake.
The ice is a lot thicker the closer you get to shore, our previous track already filling in.
As we sailed past the lighthouse the ride became quite bumpy again, making it once again difficult to walk.
So I hung around the bow of the ship for a while.
Chained to the deck are three 7,500-kilo concrete blocks which are usually used as navigational buoy anchors. When breaking ice the bow rides onto the ice, crushing it under the ship’s (and the blocks’) weight.
Heading back down the channel you could really see how thick the ice was as we widened our original track.
We proceeded to head down into another section of the harbor, where the ice was over a meter thick.
We hit the meter-thick and began to sail in circles again in an attempt to break up the ice before heading back to the Coast Guard station.
This rescue dummy was sure enjoying his afternoon.
When we returned we began to back into the dock…
…lines were tossed…
…and finally we were all tied up. The sun waited until now to come out; how very thoughtful of it!
Sitting next to my car were a few weather buoys waiting to be placed across Lake Superior when the ice melts.
Afterwards I drove to the south shore of the lake to check out some the ice by the Superior Entry to the harbor.
Due to wind the ice stacks pretty far up the beach, leaving no signs that we had come through those piers just a few hours earlier.
Ice breaking is a blast to your senses. Its loud, the thunderous sound as giant sheets of ice fracture beneath you, the sound of ice slamming into the hull; everything rattles and shakes making everything you try to do a tad more difficult but, it is something worth experiencing.