Shiver Me Timbers!

For our Summer trip we chose to explore the north coast of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Ben and I were last in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (separately) in the 1980s. We reached Sault Ste. Marie, a city perched on the river between the US and Canada, and made it our base camp for the first week. There are actually two Sault Ste. Marie cities; one in the US and one directly across the river in Canada. We brought our passports with us just in case, but never did bother to drive across the International Bridge to visit our neighbors. There’s just so much to do on the U.S. side of the river that we never had time to think about Canada.

We wondered how much the area had changed over the years. There are a few new stores here and there and some of the bait shops have been replaced with Gastro pubs and coffee places, but other than that the city remains what it was; a community that revolves around the bustling Soo Locks. Dry dock facilities and tug boat docks line the banks of the river interspersed by campgrounds like ours, fishing charters, public docks and sightseeing businesses, along with lots of snowmobile dealers. Winters are legendary here while summers are glorious and short. August is a great time to visit this area; the notorious black files have just about given up their grip on summer, and steady wind off the river and lake keep the other bugs at a comfortable distance.

We had a bird’s-eye view from our campsite

Our campground, Aune Osborn is on the bank of the St. Mary’s river which is a major link in the Great Lakes shipping route that leads to the St. Lawrence Seaway. Everything from small craft to thousand-foot long freighters pass back and forth daily through the Soo Locks located not far from our campground. I learned two new words on this trip; upbound and downbound. Upbound ships sail into Lake Superior. Downbound ships sail towards the lower Great Lakes, through the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean. There is an excellent website that explains all things Great Lakes Shipping related at Boat Nerd. Boat Nerd maintains a site to track every vessel with the  Great Lakes & Seaway Shipping Online’s Vessel Passage Maps. You’ll find an interactive map that locates each ship on the water, whether at dock or in route. Click on a ship icon and a pop out window tells you the name of the ship, when it was built, who owns it, the manifest and other minutiae, in addition to when it was expected to leave or arrive at the Soo Locks.

A screen shot from the Boat Nerd website.

Be warned; if you are an information geek this site is addictive. As I was writing this post I got lost on the page for about 15 minutes after I posted the link, just clicking on the ships to see who was traveling where. As you might expect Ben was on that website in a hot minute. He hardly needed to do that as there were dozens of fellow Boat Nerd aficionados in the campground who provided an early warning system. Minutes before a ship was due to cruise by the campground, people began to drift toward the riverbank as if drawn by some invisible force. We’d usually hear them before we saw them—the unmistakable purr of the big engines heralded their approach. Every now and then a tall ship would sail through. We had a good time chatting with some of the people who spent the better part of their summer watching the ships drift up and down the river. Most of them knew details of the ships without looking at the  website, as they’d been tracking them for years. Some of our fellow campers set up chairs and coolers for all-day viewing, waiting for a particular ship to churn by, binoculars at the ready. The ships pass impossibly close at points in the river, which thanks to viewer’s perception doesn’t look to be wide or deep enough to accommodate such large vessels.

Sault Ste. Marie is about an hour away from Whitefish Point. Those of you who remember Gordon Lightfoot’s song will know that is where the Edmund Fitzgerald went down in a horrific storm. The Fitz, as it is known here has a lot of company. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum approximates 6,000 ships and 30,000 lives were lost in the Great Lakes; other historians estimate even higher numbers of ships were lost over the centuries mariners have traveled the Great Lakes. At Whitefish point alone 240 ships are known to have sunk. The most recent shipwreck on the Great Lakes was in 2000, so while ships are now protected by satellite weather and massive amounts of technology, navigating the Great Lakes is still no guarantee of safe passage.


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