Thursday, April 10, 2014

How Cold was the Winter of 2013-14?

Last weekend, a friend and I escaped the urban landscape of the Twin Cities to enjoy the landscape on the North Shore of Lake Superior.  We stayed at an establishment halfway between Duluth and Two Harbors on the old scenic Highway 61 -- a cluster of cabins called Dodges Log Lodges, run by a congenial guy named Dan Watkins.  Our cabin was called Evergreen, and frankly, it was the most comfortable lodging I can remember ever staying in.  Spotless clean, Northwoods decor, a working kitchen and fireplace, and most important of all, a deck overlooking the lake only feet away.

Evergreen Cabin at Dodges Log Lodges (note the birdbath almost buried)

It snowed in the Cities last Thursday night, leaving about five inches of heavy wet snow.  On the North Shore the same storm left 18 inches of snow.  The roads were clear and dry, however, even if the snow along the road rose in high piles.  It had already begun to melt when we arrived so there was the springy sound of dripping or trickling water everywhere.  The evergreens whispered in the breeze, and the pungent wood smoke aroma filled the air.  Seagulls called overhead, spiraling on an updraft.

Lake Superior was...where was it?  Well, Lake Superior was still frozen over.  In fact, we had not seen any open water that day.  Wow.  My friend found a report online that claimed 99% of the big lake was still frozen last weekend.  I believe it.  No waves lapping at the shore, instead it was very, very quiet. 

Frozen Lake Superior looking NE toward the big water (the dark line is cloud shadow)
On Saturday morning, I spotted a ship on the lake (on the ice?) that turned out to be a Coast Guard ice breaker.  We sat on the deck in the sunshine (HOT sunshine) and a 40-degree air temperature and watched the ship move slowly south toward Duluth.  My friend checked the shipping news online and discovered that an ore ship, the Presque Isle, was scheduled to make the trip from Two Harbors to Duluth on Sunday.  Hunh.  Maybe the ice breaker was opening a channel for it.  Otherwise, we saw little reason for the ice breaker to be out on the lake.  The area of the lake in front of us is the tongue-shaped western end.  We could see land on the opposite side for a while, then the lake opens up to the "big water."  No shipping traffic so far this spring heading east because the big water is still frozen over.

This kind of freeze is unusual for the Great Lakes.  Shipping usually begins in late March if not earlier.  No one can predict this year when the ice out will occur.  Shipping could begin before the ice is completely out, of course, but there'd still need to be open water in channels deep enough for the ships.  The really HUGE ore ships.  In February, Time.com posted a video of the Great Lakes freezing over.  The Great Lakes freezing over.  That's how cold it's been, at least for us in Minnesota and the eastern half of the country.  What if the Great Lakes don't melt?  What if this is the beginning of an Ice Age?

Last Sunday morning, we saw an ore ship creeping along in the distance.  I tried to take a photo, but the blinding glare off the white snow made that impossible.  We watched it snail out to about the middle between the left and right shores northeast of us.  Then it stopped.  It sat there and sat there.  We finally decided to drive up to Two Harbors to find out if we could see it better there.  When we arrived at the harbor there, the ship was still in the same place.  We walked out on the break water that protects the harbor from the open water.  In fact, half the harbor was free of ice, and there was no ice on the north side of the break water for quite a distance.  We stopped to watch an ice floe pushed by the brisk wind and could see that the ice extended down in the water almost two feet.  That was an ice floe that was melting.  The ice colors were amazing shades of blue, white, aquamarine.  People fished off the break water.  One guy we passed had caught a good-sized salmon.

Open water on the north side of the Two Harbors break water
We checked on the ore ship.  It appeared to be backing up -- we could see only the back side and not the entire length as we could before.  A few minutes later, we noticed it turning.  Maybe it would take the channel the ice breaker had opened after all.  We headed for shore, thinking we'd drive up to Gooseberry Falls.  As we arrived at the parking lot, I glanced back.  The ore ship sat just outside the harbor.  Wow!  That was fast!  My friend had never seen a ship come into harbor before, so we nixed the drive to the falls and watched the ore ship enter the harbor, creeping along, then maneuver to position itself to enter the slip between two giant loading docks.  We definitely saw it much better at the Two Harbors harbor.  It was the Presque Isle

The Presque Isle entering Two Harbors harbor

An hour later, we left as the ship was entering the slip.  It had tried and failed to sail on the lake, and certainly not into the big water.  So, the winter of 2013-14 has truly been one for the record books.  Polar vortexes descended from the North Pole to freeze the Great Lakes and the country around them.  Lake Superior remained frozen over until...when?  June?  Maybe.  But, despite all the polar cold, we have survived to enjoy spring....

  

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