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Last Laker Leaves Port of Duluth-Superior; Soo Locks Close For Winter

Mary Kennedy
By  Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
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Pictured is the John J. Boland returning to the Port of Duluth-Superior after dropping off her last load. She was the last laker to leave the port, ending the 2023 shipping season. (Photo courtesy Schauer Photo Images)

The Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, closed to all marine traffic at 11:59 p.m. Jan. 15, or until commercial traffic ceased. This year, the Philip R. Clarke entered the Poe Lock around 9 a.m. Jan. 16 to close out the 2023 navigation season. On Jan. 19, the Philip R. Clarke was the last ship through the Soo Locks for the 2023-24 navigation season, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Detroit.

The Soo Locks will remain closed through 12:01 a.m. March 25 to perform seasonal critical maintenance. Federal regulation (33 CFR 207.440) establishes the operating season based on the feasibility of vessels operating during typical Great Lakes ice conditions.

"Every year, the Corps of Engineers uses the non-navigation winter period to perform maintenance and keep the Soo Locks operating," Maintenance Branch Chief Nicholas Pettit said. "The Detroit District team works long hours in extreme conditions to complete a significant amount of maintenance during this annual closure period. The work they perform is unique, especially given the harsh northern Michigan winter conditions they work in."

The team will install a temporary panel bridge across the Poe Lock. The bridge will provide the ability to mobilize materials and equipment to job sites during the winter closure, noted the Corps.

"Maintenance crews will complete structural inspections and maintenance and install lifting lugs on the upstream miter gate. On the downstream miter gates, crews will install anchorage components and complete critical structural repairs. Major rehabilitation will continue on the Poe Lock's upstream and downstream ship arrestor systems. In addition, crews will perform a wide range of other maintenance tasks from replacement of pier fender timbers to inspections and preventative maintenance on electrical and mechanical systems on both Poe and MacArthur Locks," added the press release on the Corps website.


After a record-breaking departure for the last saltie (ocean-going ship) out of the Port of Duluth-Superior, the laker shipping season went on a little longer as the warm December didn't ice up the Great Lakes. In fact, the entire Great Lakes had the smallest amount of ice coverage on Jan. 1, 2024, in at least 50 years.

On Jan. 18, 2024, the John J. Boland departed the port at approximately 3:36 a.m. with a last load of iron ore destined for the Algoma Steel facility at the Canadian Soo, which is just above the Soo Locks. Jayson Hron, director of communication and marketing, Duluth Seaway Port Authority, told DTN, "The Boland will deliver that shipment, which will be the last load of the season, and then return to the Port of Duluth-Superior for winter layup. She'll join seven other ships in Duluth-Superior for winter layup, making a total of eight, which is double last year's total and the most since the winter of 2016-17."

Hron added, "More than 150 skilled tradespeople will be performing winter maintenance work on the ships in Duluth-Superior, which is excellent for the region and its economy. Depending on the type of work scheduled and the upcoming season's plan for each ship, it's not uncommon for companies to invest $2 million to $3 million per ship in winter maintenance and upgrades."

The total season-end maritime tonnage for the 2023 navigation season through the Port of Duluth-Superior was 31,754,053 short tons. "That total eclipsed 2022 by 4.5% and topped the five-season average by 0.1%. Total 2023 grain tonnage through Duluth-Superior was 789,604 short tons. That total tops 2022 by 22.5%, so it's a significant increase, but still well below the historical average. Hopefully the positive grain-shipping momentum of Q4 2023 carries into 2024 and beyond," said Hron.

The 2023 season summary just released noted Duluth-Superior posted season-over-season tonnage increases across eight cargo categories, led by cement, which climbed 29%, and grain, up 22.5%. The grain gain included the port's first shipments of oats since 2021, some of which arrived at Duluth's Elevator A, which was reactivated in 2023 after its purchase by Hansen-Mueller from General Mills. Durum wheat also provided a highlight, with export tonnage nearly tripling the 2022 total.

In the season's final month, January 2024, nearly 1.1 million tons of iron ore sailed from Duluth-Superior, the most in a January since the onset of electronic record-keeping in 2003. For the season, domestic iron ore shipments neared 14.9 million tons, an 11% increase over 2022, and exports posted a 22% gain. In all, iron ore tonnage topped last season by 14.3%, noted the Port of Duluth-Superior season summary.

Containerized general cargo tonnage also climbed in 2023, nearly quadrupling the previous season's total. Most of this increase sailed as part of the Duluth-Antwerp liner service that debuted in 2023, a partnership of Duluth Cargo Connect and Netherlands-based Spliethoff.

Hron added, "In all, Duluth-Superior totaled 775 vessel arrivals for the season, the most since 2018. That total included the earliest-arriving oceangoing ship on record (Federal Dart; March 28, 2023) and the latest-departing oceangoing ship on record (Nordika Desgagnes; Dec. 29, 2023), making 2023 the longest international shipping season in port history (277 days) and one of the longest Great Lakes navigation seasons as well (305 days)."

USACE press release on Soo Locks winter closure and maintenance:…

Video of the laker John J. Boland returning to Duluth-Superior for a winter layup after dropping off the last load of the 2023 shipping season:…

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