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Video: Ice breakers busy on Lake Superior after brutal winter

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This year's shipping season is getting off to a slow start in the Duluth-Superior harbor due to record levels of ice on the Great Lakes, including ice that's five feet thick in some places, the Associated Press reports.

As of last week, 90 percent of Lake Superior was still covered by ice, according to maps from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That's down from a peak of 95 percent earlier this year.

Nine Coast Guard cutters across the Great Lakes are prepared to clear channels and escort ships, and two more cutters are on the way from Canada, said Jim Sharrow of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. Many local tugboats are also clearing the ice.

Three ships in Duluth are expected to leave for the first time this season, this weekend.

Ice breakers will lead "a convoy " all the way to the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, which opened Tuesday morning, according to KSTP.

"The last time I remember having to convoy ships across the lake was back in 1979," Sharrow said.

Sharrow said this means that after a ship is loaded with taconite pellets in Two Harbors, it will have to wait at port for other ships to load.

"So it may represent an extra two or three day delay before they can even leave their loading port or unloading port," he said. "It adds up quickly, when you get to five to six days, you've lost an entire cargo for the season," MPR News reports.

Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers' Association, said heavy ice on the lakes early this winter has already prevented a lot of cargo from being delivered. Ships got wedged in the ice, and trips that should have taken two and a half days took a full week. The iron ore trade was down 35 percent in January, according to MPR.

The Helen H is one civilian tug working to break up the ice. Capt. Mike Ojard, who has spent all his life among the tugs on the North Shore of Lake Superior, said this is the worst ice on the lake in 20 years.

"Last year we were breaking ice on the 4th of May. This year will be worse. There's a lot of slips that will have to be opened up later in the season," he told MPR News. "I'm sure we'll have ice with us way into June."

An MPR crew went along with Ojard on the Helen H one recent day, and posted a photo gallery and a video that captured the experience.

Meantime, a KARE 11 crew took a trip on the Coast Guard cutter Alder, and here's that story:

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