Traverse City Record-Eagle


January 18, 2014

Cold snap keeps cutters busy in St. Clair River

PORT HURON (AP) — Seventeen crew members and one cat have spent more than a month — including Christmas and New Year’s — breaking through a frozen landscape.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Neah Bay left its home port of Cleveland on Dec. 14, and hasn’t returned since because of an early onset of ice on Midwest waterways, according to the Times Herald of Port Huron.

“At least in the couple seasons I’ve been on board, this has been significantly colder earlier in the year than I’ve seen in the past,” said Neah Bay Commanding Officer Molly Waters. “We’ve seen some pretty extraordinary ice conditions.”

The 140-foot Neah Bay is part of Operation Coal Shovel, a group of four ice breakers assigned to the Detroit and St. Clair rivers, and the western basin of Lake Erie.

Waters said the crew’s priority on the St. Clair River is to break ice to prevent flooding. But the vessel spends much of its time clearing the way for commercial traffic on the rivers.

Waters said the long time away from port and the loud rattle and shake of constant ice breaking takes its toll on the crew and the ship.

“Ice breaking is a fairly violent industry, even in the sloppier brash we’re in right now,” Waters said.

The demand for a clear path through the broken piles of ice turns what should be a 12-hour day into a 16- or 18-hour battle against the ice.

“It’s been an icy year,” Boatswain Mate Second Class Mike Klopp said.

It’s not just any old ice that’s clogging the St. Clair River. It’s brash ice, or broken ice, that swallows the cutter’s path almost as soon as it’s made.

Ice breakers on the St. Mary’s River connecting Lake Superior with Lake Huron typically deal with plate ice, which holds a path better after it’s cut, Klopp said.

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