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Continued: Lake's ice holds a chilling message

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: February 28, 2014 - 12:46 PM

The measuring points are located along the lake’s “sail line,” the route navigated by the towboats.

The men are looking for two types of ice. Blue, or black ice, is compressed and solid and harder to break through. White ice results from thawing and freezing cycles and as a result, holds air bubbles that make it softer.

“This is all blue ice,” VanGuilder said. “We won’t be seeing any white ice until later.”

The Corps does not have an ice-breaking ship for the Mississippi — being heavy craft, it would be difficult to navigate the ship through the 9-foot-deep channel used by the towboats.

Typically, shippers like to see ice less than 20 inches thick before trying to break through to St. Paul, though the first towboat last year smashed through a barrier 22 inches thick. The ice is broken by using an empty barge followed by a string of loaded barges to give it the extra oomph to plow through.

On this bitterly cold February morning, as VanGuilder pulls the measuring rod from the hole, a seasonal ritual he will repeat many times in coming weeks, he is asked half-jokingly if he can detect any sign of spring from beneath the ice shelf.

“Definitely not,” he replied, wryly.


Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter; @StribJAnderson


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  • Bill Chelmowski of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers drilled a hole to measure the depth of Lake Pepin ice, a predictor of navigation’s start.

  • Bill Chelmowski drove an airboat with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers crew member Al VanGuilder, heading to the next of 17 points at which they measure the thickness of ice on Lake Pepin.

  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers use airboats to travel to measurement points. They’re out on the lake two weeks later than last year due to the cold.

  • at mile 770

    Lake Pepin is at Mile 770 of the Mississippi River, between Lake City, Minn., and Pepin, Wis. It is 2½ miles wide — the widest part of the entire river. Ice depth is measured here and in other spots by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determine when towboats can safely break through to St. Paul each spring.

    The earliest towboat arrival in St. Paul, according to records, was March 4 — in 1984 and 2000. The latest arrival was May 11, 2001, due to flooding.

    Here are the past ice depths measured at Mile 770:

    2013: (Feb. 13) 19 inches; first towboat on April 8 2012: (Feb. 15) 15 inches; first towboat on March 17 2011: (Feb. 16) 22 inches; first towboat on March 31 2010: (Feb. 17) 26 inches; first towboat on April 15* 2009: (Feb. 18) 22 inches; first towboat on March 23 Keep track: Measurements are posted at

    *Lock construction delayed shipping season

    jim anderson

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