US Army Corps of Engineers start ice measurements in preparation for summer shipping season

February 17, 2019 10:41 PM

It's the dead of winter but preparations are being made for the summer shipping season on the Mississippi River. This week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started taking ice measurements on Lake Pepin, which is the last barrier between St. Paul and open water downriver. 

There is only one safe way to get out on Lake Pepin this time of year: by airboat. But you better bundle up and hold on tight-- even on a sunny day, it's cold as you fly across the snow-covered ice.


Bill Chelmowski is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers boat driver.

"Today alone when we started at the lower end at Camp Lacupolis we had about 10 inches of ice. And by the time we hit just up here around Point-no-Point, we broke through once already," Chelmowski said.

The Army Corps of Engineers drills holes in the ice every mile up and down Lake Pepin. Ice thickness varies from place-to-place on the big lake. They use GPS to keep track off exact locations.

In another location, the ice was 19 inches thick.

"Last year we were up to 28, 29 inches," said Chelmowski. "So it's not as thick as last year."

Chelmowski is an expert driving the airboat. He spun the boat in tight circles, which was fun, but it's actually a technique he uses to clear deep snow away from places he wants to drill.  

Lake Pepin is the widest point on the Mississippi River and it is also where the ice is the thickest. The lake is the last barrier barges must get through to reach St. Paul and open the summer shipping season.

The Army Corps of Engineers will measure ice thickness about once a week. Chelmowski says the data is tracked closely.  

More from KSTP:

High water levels expected in Great Lakes this summer

US Army Corps of Engineers creates new islands on north end of Lake Pepin to improve habitat, solve problem on south end

Lake Pepin island building project to be part of national pilot program

Possible changes coming to Mississippi River

"These numbers that we're taking right now are being looked at by the towing industry. And then that dictates then, when they are able to break through the ice," he said.

Chelmowski says when the ice gets to be 10 or 12 inches thick, a tug boat pushing barges can usually break open a channel. So for now, the only boat many will see on Lake Pepin is the one Chelmowski is driving up and down the river.

In the last 50 years, the deepest ice they've recorded on Lake Pepin is close to three feet. The earliest the navigation season ever opened is March 4. The latest was last year, on April 11. 

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Kevin Doran

Copyright 2019 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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