In summer, tows of barges glide down the Illinois River fairly slowly but unimpeded. An observer on shore might notice the water level dropping slightly from the volume of water displaced by the approaching cargo-filled barges, and then a V-shaped series of large waves will splash against shore after it passes.
The scene changes completely when ice chokes the river channel in the dead of winter. It’s harder work for the vessels and for the people who work on them and along the river.
At times, freight is offloaded from large barges to smaller ones to create a more compact, fully-loaded tow of barges with the mass needed to push, crunch and break through ice chunks as thick as 15 inches.
On Tuesday, a tugboat pushing two full barges led the way upstream, breaking and moving ice for a boat pushing empty lighter barges that were floating to the top of the ice.
“They’re running in packs,” said Chris Rush, assistant lock master at Starved Rock Lock and Dam.
Rush said hours might go by without any tows locking through, and then two coming upstream and two downward tows will show up.
During a cold snap for part of last week, river traffic came to a halt. This week, barge traffic picked up again — at least in the vicinity of Starved Rock Lock and Dam.
At best, traffic moves about half as fast through ice as open water. And, hours of travel time are lost when cables and wires that link barges break under pressure or when there are mechanical or hull issues caused by ice.
“Everything’s slower. We’re slower. Machinery’s slower,” Rush said.
Folks in the Illinois River shipping business work together to avoid getting stuck but there are times when that can’t be prevented.
Terry Happ from Mertel’s River Docks in Peru said a towboat and its barges got stuck last week for six hours under the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Bridge (Interstate 39 bridge). The pilot finally freed the barges by unhooking the towboat and then driving the boat around and around the barges to break up the ice.
“Every time you get a bend in the river they get stuck,” Happ said. “You’re taking 6,000 horsepower and you’re pushing an ice-cold steel barge against anywhere from 12 to 16 inches of ice and the thing about ice is once you start a path you can’t get out of it.”
The channel refreezes when there isn’t traffic, and ice on the edges of the channel becomes thicker as barges keep shoving chunks of ice under the top layer of ice. Where a tow is trying to navigate a bend, the pilot might have to back up, turn slightly, drive forward into the ice, back up again, and so on, until the entire set of barges is pointed in the desired direction.
The work goes slower at the lock and dam, too. Instead of immediately letting the boats push barges into the lock to be raised or lowered to the next level, ice builds up and lock tenders often need to “lock through” nothing other than a bunch of ice.
Boat pilots also will help each other lock through, Rush said. When a tow arrives at the lock alone, Artco Fleeting from Ottawa will send a light tugboat to help with the process, whether that’s pushing barges when tows are broken apart of just pushing ice out of the way.
The duration of the unusually icy river conditions this winter has been blamed for slow deliveries of road salt, as reported in Tuesday’s NewsTribune.
However, slow-going on the river doesn’t mean slow days for every business.
Hennepin Boat Store — which doesn’t sell boats — has been getting a lot of calls for help and extra supplies. The longtime business on the Hennepin riverfront sells and delivers groceries, water, paper products and other household items to crews aboard boats on the river.
“We’ve been real busy lately,” said Brad Vice, who owns and operates the business along with Frank Boggio.
“Boat Store” office manager Mandy Ciucci said when crews stop, or get stuck, at Hennepin, they either can pull up to the Hennepin dock, or the Hennepin business can send its tugboat/store to the big boat. When the river ice is really bad, they prefer that the larger line boat or tugboat either comes to the dock at Hennepin or breaks a path for the Hennepin Boat Store boat, the motor vessel “Robert J,” named for founder Robert Judd.
In addition, the Boat Store picks up workers and takes them to airports if their 30-day shifts end, and they occasionally help people get to the hospital. At times, Hennepin Boat Store will hire a local electrician or heating expert and deliver the repairman to the boats. Since the Boat Store’s clients know to call when they’re out of milk, eggs or bread and unable to get to a store, the staff has been making a lot of trips to the Lemont, Joliet, Peoria and Meredosia areas this winter.
“When they’re stuck in the ice, we’ll drive their groceries by car (to where they are),” Ciucci said.