PORTAGE | A U.S. Coast Guard cutter made its way south on Lake Michigan this week to break up ice in Burns Harbor, to ensure lake freighters and barges can continue to come into the port.

Ice cover has hardened over 88 percent of the Great Lakes, according to the National Weather Service's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Michigan.

"Historically, in the near term, this is the most ice we've had in 25 years," said Mark Gill, director of vessel traffic for the U.S. Coast Guard. "It's the second largest accumulation by this date. It's not usual to get this much ice this early."

But commerce must go on. Freighters hauling iron ore – a vital ingredient in the recipe for steel – from Escanaba, Mich. have continued to make deliveries to the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor and Northwest Indiana steel mills. Barges have continued to pass through the Calumet River and the greater Chicago waterway system. Bulk commodities are still being shipped.

"Road salt is a hot ticket this time of year," Gill said.

Ice cutters have been working non-stop around the Great Lakes to clear passages for commercial ships this winter. Their bows shear through shelves of ice that are often several feet thick.

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Shipping ways will remain clogged with ice even when the Soo Locks in Sault Ste Marie reopen in March, opening up a passageway to Lake Superior and kicking off the navigation season. Gill has been petitioning the Canadian government to send some ice breakers from its Arctic fleet around March to help with the battle to break large chunks of melting ice into smaller, less dangerous chunks.

"It's been a tremendous challenge this winter," he said.

Earlier in the week, the Coast Guard sent the Cutter Biscayne Bay, 140-foot ice-breaking tug, to clear a pathway for the 767-foot long Phillip R. Clarke iron ore freighter. Iron ore shipments should continue from Escanaba through March, after many trips got canceled earlier in the year.

"It's been much slower than normal for the shipping industry," Gill said. "Three-day trips from Duluth to Indiana Harbor have taken nine days. That's three trip opportunities, three trips they could have gotten in."

While in the area, the Coast Guard cutter also broke up ice in Calumet Harbor, Indiana Harbor and Gary Harbor. Two local companies, Calumet River Fleeting and Kindra Lake Towing, needed paths so they could position tugs to lead barges that haul cargo through the Chicago waterways and the Mississippi River.