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With western port backups, ships are getting cargo to the U.S. via the Great Lakes

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If you want to transport goods from Asia to the U.S., the shortest route is through America's West Coast ports. But given the backlog there, some ships are taking the long way. They're going through the Panama Canal, up the East Coast, through eastern Canada into the Great Lakes.

Darian Woods of The Indicator From Planet Money and Dustin Dwyer of Michigan Radio take us to Cleveland to explain how it works.

DUSTIN DWYER, BYLINE: This journey is the journey of the Happy Rover. It's a container ship that I found out about. It took this trip back in November, and I was there on the shores of Lake Erie, waiting for the Happy Rover with a guy named Klaus Sorenson. He works for a shipping company called Spliethoff.

Is it this outside here?

KLAUS SORENSON: Yep, that's her. That's her.

DWYER: Yeah. So, Darian, standing right next to it, I have to say this ship, the Happy Rover, looks plenty huge to me. It's, like, bigger than a football field.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: OK.

DWYER: But, like, still compared to, like, one of those huge ocean container ships, it's, like, nothing.

WOODS: And the reason it's so small is because it's got to go through all those canals in the Great Lakes. These canals were built before the wave of containerization took off in the 1960s, i.e. putting things into containers and standardizing them with these big, metal boxes. So all around the world, container ships were getting bigger and bigger. But the canals in the Great Lakes - they were the same size. So the idea of containerization, of these standardized containers with their massive economies of scale - that just skipped over the Great Lakes.

DWYER: Until now, Klaus says.

SORENSON: If rates are low, it makes no sense. If rates are high, then you can find a way for it to make sense.

WOODS: OK. So, Dustin, just a bit of a reality check - I mean, we're not expecting the Great Lakes shipping routes to replace the ones to LA and Long Beach; are we?

DWYER: No. OK - fine, fine. Even in the wildest dreams of Great Lakes enthusiasts like myself, these ports could only handle a tiny fraction of what even the East Coast ports can. But there's still a real opportunity here, and it's not necessarily for these shipments that would take the long way from China like the Happy Rover.

Consider shipments from Europe. This year Klaus' company Spliethoff had the Great Lakes' first dedicated, regularly scheduled container ship route. And it ran from Antwerp, Belgium, to Cleveland.

SORENSON: From Antwerp to Baltimore and Antwerp to Cleveland, the distance is within a hundred miles.

DWYER: There is a lot of potential here. There's about a trillion dollars in annual trade between the U.S. and the EU, so some of that could go to the Great Lakes.

WOODS: For some of the year, right? I mean...

DWYER: Yeah.

WOODS: There is the polar bear in the room, winter.

(LAUGHTER)

DWYER: Which I've been skillfully ignoring this whole time, Darian.

WOODS: That's right. So there is a lot of ice in winter, and these shipping lanes are actually closed every winter for months.

DWYER: Which is, I'll admit, a minor inconvenience. It might be. But Klaus tells his customers, plan in advance. Try to ship more than you think you need early in the season. But, yeah, it's an issue.

WOODS: OK, so it's not as if Cleveland's going to suddenly disrupt the entire way that global shipping operates.

DWYER: But look. It could be a big deal for Cleveland and for people, really, anywhere in the middle of the country who want to get their shipments in quicker. So maybe the next time a global supply chain crisis hits, the Great Lakes will be here to relieve some of the pressure.

WOODS: Darian Woods.

DWYER: Dustin Dwyer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.