How Coast Guard keeps an ‘eye in the sky’ on St. Clair River ice build up

Taking off from Sarnia Chris Hadfield Airport in a high-tech helicopter is part of the plan

A two-person Coast Guard helicopter crew, consisting of pilot Mark Pearson (left) and engineer Ryan Davis were at Sarnia Chris Hadfield Airport on Tuesday.

My Tuesday began with an email from Carol Launderville, who handles communications duties for the Canadian Coast Guard out of Sarnia.

Would I be interested in being part of a “brief ice flight this afternoon?”

You bet.

Arriving at the Sarnia Chris Hadfield Airport at 1 p.m., I was introduced to pilot Mark Pearson and engineer Ryan Davis, both of whom work out of the Coast Guard’s base at Parry Sound and who were about to make the trip to Sombra, the point near where ice build up typically takes place during cold weather snaps like we’re experiencing this week.

While we had to wait for a break in the weather, by about 1:50 we were in the air heading to Blue Water Bridge and down the St. Clair River, a trip that was quick (at 110 knots and no traffic, perhaps not so surprising after all).

Trips like this are commonplace for Pearson and Davis, one of three crews that are in rotation throughout the winter months. In the summer, they’re deployed to any number of locations for duties that include delivering technicians and/or supplies to remote Coast Guard locations throughout the Central and Arctic region, which includes Sarnia.

It isn’t until the area near Sombra that significant ice build-ups are apparent, as is a “trail” left behind by recent visits by one of two Coast Guard icebreaking vessels.

The “ice flights” make up a significant piece of a larger picture that includes representatives from Environment and Climate Change Canada.

On Tuesday, reporters spoke by telephone with Jacques Collin, an ice service specialist, who explained how a natural “ice bridge” has formed several kilometres north of the Blue Water Bridge in Lake Huron. In cold weather, most of the ice that would otherwise find its way into the St. Clair River, is blocked by this structure.

It’s further downstream, as the St. Clair River approaches Sombra/Marine City, that ice begins to impact navigation of lake freighters that use the waterway to deliver essential cargo throughout the winter months, despite the St. Lawrence Seaway locks being closed.

From several hundred feet in the air, aboard the Bell 412 EPI, one of 22 such aircraft in the Coast Guard’s fleet, it’s easy to see a pathway that lingers even several hours after the CCGS Samuel Risley, one of two icebreakers in the Great Lakes (the other being the CCGS Griffon, which is based in Amherstburg), leaves the area.

Expect to see one of the aircraft repeating the flight path in the weeks ahead.

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