EXCLUSIVE: Behind the scenes at the Soo Locks opening

Published: Mar. 23, 2023 at 9:09 PM EDT
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DULUTH, MN. (Northern News Now) - The first ship of the season has now passed under the Aerial Lift Bridge on her way to Marquette, Michigan to load iron ore.

The Lee A. Tregurtha will work her way south to the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

Northern News Now’s Peter Kvietkasukas got an in-depth tour of the locks and learned how staff have been preparing for this moment over the last few months.

The infrastructure there is crucial for our and many other nations.

“The Soo locks play an integral part in Great Lakes shipping providing a necessary passage between Lake Superior and Lake Huron as well as the other lower Great Lakes,” said Justin Proulx, Chief of St. Mary’s River Section.

The roaring sounds of ships and horns have gone silent since the annual federally mandated maintenance period began on January 16.

But for Proulx, that same 3-month period has been anything but quiet.

“We need to put our fleet into winter lay-up and a bunch of maintenance and repairs and before we get into that. We have to get the locks prepared for de-watering. We have large crane barges and tug boats that will come in and break up the ice. Then, set stop lugs and other ‘pertinents’ so we can get the lock de-watered and maintainers going,” said Proulx.

During de-watering, they remove nearly 22 million gallons of water, all so crews can get in around the locks easily during the maintenance period.

LeighAnn Ryckeghem, the Soo Locks Operations Manager, says this annual respite is needed to keep the flow of goods and the economy running during the shipping season. It is also to avoid any possible breakdowns at the Locks during those months.

“If we did have an outage, it would definitely have a widescale impact, both nationally and economically. So that is why this period is so important, it allows us to strategically plan and reduce the risk of having an outage during the NAV season,” said Ryckeghem.

Ryckeghem adds that while the annual maintenance period is coming to a close, this is a year-round battle for the Army Corps of Engineers since the stakes are so high.

“We are continuously doing maintenance, even during the navigation season. We’re always monitoring, we’re always assessing, it is a continuous cycle,” said Ryckeghem.

Proulx agrees, adding it’s the staff of the Locks and the Army Corps of Engineers who keeps this vital piece of infrastructure in tip-top shape year in and year out.

“We just have a really great team here at the Soo. And a really diverse background, we have everything from electricians to divers, and every single employee plays a very critical role in the maintenance and the winter work,” said Ryckeghem.

The Soo Locks are almost open for business. On Wednesday, the Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw transited through the Locks in order to break the ice on Lake Superior.

The Mackinaw entered the Locks on the Lake Huron side before the gates are closed. Water was pumped into the lock chamber making the ship climb 22 feet before the gates opened. She then continued into Lake Superior.

And as we speak the first commercial traffic of the season is starting to make its arrival here in Sault Ste. Marie ahead of the locks opening on Saturday.

And from the westward end of Superior, the Lee A. Tregurtha is on her way after leaving the Twin Ports Thursday morning.

She’s expected to arrive later on Friday, but the first ship of the season to pass through the locks is expected to be the Edwin H. Gott who is on her way to Two Harbors to load iron ore.