Market Matters Blog

2023 Upper Mississippi River Navigation Opens Early Thanks to Two Tows

Mary Kennedy
By  Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
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MV Philip M. Pfeffer and MV Neil N. Diehl enter Lake Pepin together to begin breaking the ice on their way to St. Paul, Minnesota, to open the 2023 Upper Mississippi River navigation season. (Photo by Philip M. Pfeffer Captain Mike Slaby)

The saying "two is better than one" rang 100% true on March 11, as two Ingram Barge Company tows, each pushing six barges, entered the ice-filled 21-mile-long Lake Pepin together, opening the Upper Mississippi shipping season.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) St. Paul District notes, "Lake Pepin is the last major barrier for vessels reaching the head of the navigation channel in St. Paul, Minnesota. Located between the Minnesota cities of Red Wing and Wabasha, Lake Pepin is the last part of the river to break up because the river is wider, and subsequently, the current is slower there than it is in other parts of the river. If a tow can make it through Lake Pepin, it can make it all the way to St. Paul. The Army Corps of Engineers measures ice thickness on Lake Pepin throughout the spring to report to tow companies about the impending ice-out."

Motor Vehicle Neil N. Diehl started its journey upriver first, making its way to Winona, Minnesota, where it was eventually joined by MV Philip M. Pfeffer. Both tows arrived at Lake Pepin together at 6:15 a.m. on March 11 and began "leapfrogging" their way through the ice on Lake Pepin, according to the captain of the Philip M. Pfeffer, Mike Slaby.

It was a long day on the lake for the tows, and when I checked their progress on the tracker at 11:15 p.m. on March 11, they were on the north end of Lake Pepin. Captain Tom Cagle of the Neil N. Diehl replied to my post, saying they're "in the clear now."

Both tows continued upriver until stopping just before Hastings, Minnesota, for a rest and then continued their trip on March 12 through Hastings and on up into St. Paul, Minnesota. It's always an exciting day in St. Paul when the first tows arrive after seeing the river there in hibernation all winter.

The two tows arrived early as compared to the average date in March, according to the USACE St. Paul District. "This year's first tow was about one week ahead of the average. In the last 30 years, the average opening date of the navigation season has been March 20; last year, it was on March 21. The earliest date for an upbound tow to reach Lock and Dam 2, was March 4, which happened in 1983, 1984 and 2000. The latest arrival date in a non-flood year was April 4, 2008. Historic flooding in 2001 delayed the arrival of the first tow until May 11."

On Tuesday, March 7, the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA) noted that "Pursuant to the NGFA Trade Rules, NGFA has declared that the Mid-Mississippi River opened for navigation as of 7 a.m. on Tuesday, March 7, 2023."

NGFA Barge Freight Trading Rule 18(J) notes: "The Dubuque and South (Mid-Mississippi) opening commences the first 07:00 hours of the first business day after the first empty dry cargo covered barge suitable for loading, originating at or below Winfield, Missouri, reaches Dubuque, Iowa. A special three-person committee determined the opening after the MV Dennis T Delaney reached Dubuque at 12:45 p.m. on Monday, March 6, with at least one empty dry cargo covered barge suitable for loading."

Meanwhile, the wait is now on for the "other" 2023 shipping season to open in the Port of Duluth-Superior. The grain shipping season there begins when the first saltie reaches the Twin Ports. According to the March 11 NOAA Great Lakes ice cover report, only 6% of the Great Lakes are currently ice covered, which is low coverage for this time of year. The Soo Locks are scheduled to open March 25, 2023, signaling the opening of the 2023 maritime shipping season. The first saltie (ocean-going vessel) of 2022 made it to Duluth on April 13, 2022.

Mary Kennedy can be reached at

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