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The Great Lakes shipping season ended last week, and the shipping companies weren't sorry to see it go.

Heavy ice impeded the cargo freighters' travel, forcing many of them to call it a season earlier than usual. Even the most powerful ships were unable to get through without help from the U.S. and Canada Coast Guards' icebreakers, said the Lake Carriers' Association, which represents 11 operators of U.S.-flag vessels on the Great Lakes.

The shipping companies are hoping for milder weather to make travel easier when dry-bulk shipments resume early next month, said George Ryan, president of the carriers' association.

Tough ice conditions weren't the only factor limiting shipping this year. Lower water levels on the Great Lakes also forced the freighters to cut back on the amount of cargo they carry per trip.

American Steamship Co., based in Williamsville, said its overall tonnage was off by about 3.5 percent last year. The 11 vessels that American Steamship operates carry cargo representing about 25 percent of all cargo carried by the U.S. fleet on the Great Lakes.

Michael Sheidt, senior vice president of American Steamship, said initially he was concerned that the harsh winter weather would delay the start of shipments in March. But after the milder weather recently, he said he is more optimistic everything will start on schedule. American Steamship carries iron ore, coal and limestone all over the Great Lakes.

Last year's shipping actually started early, thanks to a mild winter. And this year, the St. Lawrence Seaway plans to open for shipping on March 23, the earliest date in its 42 years of operation.

Ryan expects both Coast GuardS will have a heavy workload when Great Lakes shipping resumes, since the ice fields tend to strengthen after the previous shipping season ends and ice breaker runs cease.

The U.S. Coast Guard's largest icebreaker on the Great Lakes, the cutter Mackinaw, was built in 1944. A new multipurpose vessel with heavy ice-breaking capabilities is expected to go into service by 2006 at the latest.

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