© Detroit Free PressGreat Lakes total ice cover: 88.3%
How rough a winter has it been on the Great Lakes? Ask the crew of the freighter Arthur M. Anderson — whenever they make it back to port.

The 767-foot bulk carrier, due in port a week ago, was only just west of St. Ignace in northern Lake Michigan as of Monday afternoon, making its way to its winter layover port in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. The Anderson — famously the last ship to receive communication from the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald before it sank during an intense storm on Lake Superior in November 1975, killing all 29 crew members — was stuck in ice west of the Mackinac Bridge all day Sunday. A U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker had to free it, the reported.

That's after the Anderson spent more than two weeks battling through ice in southern Lake Erie, for a trip from Conneaut, Ohio, to Gary, Ind., that typically takes two days. The freighter became frozen in place off Conneaut on Feb. 19, in deep, pressure-ridged lake ice stacked upon itself by winds. A U.S. Coast Guard cutter escorting the ship couldn't break it out, and two additional cutters from the Canadian Coast Guard were sent to assist. The Anderson sat locked in ice for two days before being freed.

It's the second straight tough winter for Great Lakes shipping, and the lakes altogether were 88.3% ice-covered as of Sunday — more than the 86% ice cover on the lakes on March 1, 2014, amid a winter with record snowfall and near-record frigid temperatures.

"Last winter, we had a little bit of a warm-up near the end of February, before we got another cold blast. This winter, we've had consistently cold temperatures," said George Leshkevich, a physical scientist with the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor.

Last winter's Great Lakes ice cover peaked at 92.5% on March 6 — the second-most since 1979. A flirtation with the documented record of 94.7% in 1979 may not happen this year, Leshkevich said.

"We're close to the time when we could expect the ice to start deteriorating," he said. "But if we keep getting cold temperatures, that could change. I hate to make forecasts like that, because you can be so wrong."

The overall ice-cover number is being held down by about 25% open water in Lake Ontario, and Lake Michigan, which is only 71.2% covered by ice. But Lake Superior was at 94.1% ice cover as of Sunday, with Huron and Erie at about 96%.

There's only a moment for Great Lakes haulers to catch their breath before a new shipping season begins next week, when the first cement boat gets underway March 12, said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers Association, a shipping trade group.

"I think they will need some ice-breaking assistance," he said. "It's always easier to keep going in ice than it is to get started. The traffic in the shipping lanes helps keep them from freezing. But now that the ships are in port, when we get going again, it will be tougher to get going."

After a second straight difficult winter for freight haulers, the Lake Carriers Association is appealing to the U.S. and Canadian governments to put more ice-breaking boats on the Great Lakes in the winter.

"We need adequate ice-breaking resources here on the Great Lakes," he said. "The economy doesn't know the weather; it still needs the products."