Navigating the water and woods of Sault Ste. Marie and beyond in the Upper Peninsula
(The following story, “Locked Into Sault Ste. Marie,” was published by Journal & Topics Media Group on June 26, 2017. The photos also are mine.)
By Pamela Dittmer McKuen
The Roger Blough wasn’t due for an hour, but spectators had already gathered at the observation platform in Soo Locks Park. They came to watch the 858-foot freighter pass through a lock, thereby avoiding the fierce rapids and steep drop-off on the St. Mary’s River. The river links Lake Huron on the east and Lake Superior on the west in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. It’s the primary waterway for shipping cargo between the Great Lakes and Atlantic Ocean.
By the time the Roger Blough appeared on the eastern horizon, the observation platform–two stories tall and two-thirds the length of a football field–was packed three-deep. Most held cameras in outstretched arms, and a few toted selfie sticks. The freighter inched forward until it was snugly contained within the second lock.
The aft gates closed tightly, and 22 million gallons of water were released. Fifteen minutes later, the freighter was raised 22 feet to the level of Lake Superior. The forward gates opened, and Roger Blough slowly disappeared into the west, leaving the crowd to scatter.
Similar scenarios are repeated more than a dozen times each day. In the “Soo,” as the city is affectionately nicknamed, daily life is tuned to the rhythms of the shipping schedule. More than 7,000 vessels of all sizes and configurations “lock through” annually, and generations of folks come to watch. It’s a slow-television kind of thing, and peaceful to behold.
“The locks are the heartbeat of our town,” says Linda Hoath, executive director at the Sault Ste. Marie Convention Bureau. “The water is the reason we are here.”
Tourists can find the daily schedule posted in the park’s Visitors Center or by calling a hotline number. Locals, like Hoath, and those in the know follow “Marine Traffic.” It’s an app that displays near real-time positions of ships and yachts worldwide, and it covers most major ports and shipping routes.
To demonstrate, Hoath checks her phone and notes a Canadian ship is locking through at that moment. The John J. Boland, a 680-foot American freighter, is a couple of hours away.
“We love our ships and like to know what is coming in,” she says.
Locks have been in existence on the St. Mary’s River in one form or another since a small canoe lock was built in the late 1700s. The first large-scale lock, 350 feet long, was constructed in 1855. Before that, vessels had to be portaged–hoisted from the water and carried or dragged over land–around the rapids. The job could take up to three months. Today there are five parallel locks: One is Canadian, and four are American, although one American lock is inactive. The largest ships to pass through are the 1,000-foot super-freighters. The smallest are kayaks.
An engineering marvel, the Soo Locks were named a National Historic Landmark in 1966.
Sault Ste. Marie is a charming waterfront enclave in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the part north of Wisconsin that juts into the Great Lakes. The oldest city in Michigan, founded in 1668, it was first inhabited by Native Americans of the Chippewa nation and further developed by French missionaries and immigrant lumberjacks and fur traders. Now the walkable downtown bustles with casual and upscale dining venues, boutiques and antique stores, art galleries and recreational outfitters.
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT
After arriving in town, we oriented ourselves with a Soo Locks Boat Tour and dinner cruise. The two-hour excursion, narrated by Captain Rich Brawley, wound through upbound and downbound locks, and under the 2-mile Sault Ste. Marie International Bridge. He pointed out museums, hydroelectric plants and historic sites as the boat mingled with tugboats, freighters and pleasure-craft. A huge boulder pile marks the border between the U.S. and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. You can wave, but you need a passport to cross over.
There are even more ways to experience the maritime culture of the Soo. Hop the elevator 210 feet to the top of the statuesque Tower of History. On a clear day, you can see for 20 miles in every direction.
Or get up close and personal with a freighter at the Museum Ship Valley Camp. A 1917 Great Lakes freighter is recommissioned as a museum of nautical memories. Explore the vast cargo holds that once held coal, iron ore and limestone, and now displays local aquaria. Visit the engine room, pilot house, and officer and crew quarters. Pause at two battered lifeboats, relics from the unexplained 1975 sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Hum that famous Gordon Lightfoot song for the rest of the day.
After enjoying Soo hospitality for a few days, we decided to explore further afield. The Upper Peninsula is called the “UP” for short, and its residents are “yoopers.” The peninsula is dotted with picturesque villages like Hessel, which hosts the Les Cheneaux Antique Wooden Boat Show and Festival of the Arts every summer. And Grand Marais, where the scenic H-58 is ranked by motorcycle enthusiasts as one of the nation’s best rides.
Cross the Mackinac Bridge and you’re at Colonial Michilimackinac, a living history museum and reconstructed French fur-trading village and military outpost. The now-defunct 1889 Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and keeper’s quarters are across the parking lot and open for touring.At the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Paradise, artifacts and exhibits tell the stories of sailors and ships who braved the unruly waters of Lake Superior and those who were lost to its menacing waves. Especially touching is the gleaming 200-pound brass bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald. Also on the grounds is the oldest active lighthouse on the lake.
INTO THE GREAT NORTH WOODS
The deep northern woods were calling us. State and national parks are rich with fragrant pines and firs, remote forests, hiking trails, waterfalls, towering sand dunes, picturesque drives and the chance to see a bear or moose.
At Tahquamenon (rhymes with “phenomenon”) Falls State Park, four hike-able miles separate two photogenic waterfalls. The Lower Falls is a series of five panoramic cascading waterfalls. The Upper Falls, the second-largest waterfall east of the Mississippi River, is sometimes called the Coca-Cola Falls because of its color. The amber hue is not due to muddy water but to the tannins leached from cedar, spruce and hemlock groves. The water is extremely soft, appearing sudsy at the bottom of the 50-foot drop.
On the northern side of the peninsula, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore protects 40 miles of Lake Superior shoreline. The two most prominent features are the colorful sandstone cliffs and the towering Grand Sable Dunes. The North Country National Scenic Trail runs through the lakeshore.
Visitors share the woods with vast numbers of ursus americanus. About 90 percent of Michigan’s 15,000-plus American black bears live in the Upper Peninsula. Chances are you won’t encounter one. They’re pretty shy and likely to hide if they get a whiff of you.
But you’ll see plenty of bears at Oswald’s Bear Ranch in Newberry. Home to about 40 bears, it’s the largest bear-only sanctuary in the country. For the best show, get there for the 4 p.m. feeding time.
Then head back to the Soo to watch ships lock through before dark.