Locking Through

We are currently parked in Sault Ste. Marie in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The word Sault is pronounced “Soo.” Businesses and attractions are either named “Sault-something” or Soo-something,” presumably in the name of variety, and to confound tourists who might be searching for a business named Sault-something when it’s actually spelled Soo-something. Our campsite is within sight of the Soo Locks. For those of you who might not be familiar with water navigation, Wikipedia defines a lock thusly:

“A lock is a device used for raising and lowering boats, ships and other watercraft between stretches of water of different levels on river and canal waterways. … Locks were first used in medieval China during the Song Dynasty(960–1279 AD).”

Now you know everything I’m willing to cut and paste from Wikipedia about locks.

Approaching the lock

The Soo Locks enable ships to traverse the 21-foot drop between Lake Superior and The St. Marys river. The Canadian/American border cuts through the river, so the Locks are a cooperative international operation. Before the locks were built, the St. Marys rapids plunged from Superior into the river. The Ojibway Indians simply carried their canoes around the rapids. Europeans moving into the area followed suit. They would portage their goods from boat to a wagon and back to a boat. Finally it was decided a lock would make transporting cargo easier. The Northwest Fur Company built the first lock on the Canadian side in the 1797. It was destroyed in the War of 1812, and people portaged their goods until 1855, when a new lock was completed. Today’s American locks are under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers. There are five locks; four on the US side of the river and one in Canada. The American Locks are the MacArthur, Davis, Sabin and Poe. The American literature at the visitor center didn’t list the name of the Canadian lock—I guess since it’s Canada the Corps didn’t think any Americans would want to know. I looked it up, and the Canadian lock is called the Canadian Canal. Apparently the Canadians aren’t as keen to name stuff as much as we are in the good old US of A.

“Look Daddy, MINIONS!”

Hundreds of ships pass through the locks daily. The US Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard maintain a visitor’s center at the locks, with a store, historical displays and a two-story glass observation deck that lets people watch ships as they go through the lock. We spent a couple hours watching ships pass through the locks from the deck. In addition to watching the ships, there was bonus entertainment watching the “goose patrol.” Guys wearing yellow vests rode small scooters to chase Canada geese away from the locks while others swept goose poop off the walkways. All us observers were very amused until a little kid yelled “Look daddy, MINIONS!” That earned a big laugh from all of us on the second floor of the observation deck. If that’s not enough entertainment value for you, there’s also a tour boat company that will take you through the locks for the full experience. I am all about the full experience, so it became a must-do.

We signed up with the descriptively named Soo Locks Boat Tours. A double-decker boat chugs upbound (towards Duluth MN) through the American locks and returns downbound (to the Atlantic Ocean and all stops on the way) through the Canadian lock after a brief tour of life on the other side of the locks. It was great fun. We and about 40 of our new best friends piled onto the boat. We headed for the upper deck and settled in. It’s generally cooler in the U.P., and even chillier on the water so most of us were bundled up. There is always a guy in shorts and a tank top on any ride like this, and ours was no exception. Mr. Dressed-For-The-Beach seemed impervious to the cold but perhaps that was just hubris. Either that, or he was from Canada.

The stern of the freighter, showing the narrow margin of error on either side.

As we rode upbound through the lock we were lucky to have a freighter downbound enter the lock next to us. As you enter the lock upbound, it’s a weird sensation to see the closed gates ahead with the water level 21 feet above the boat. Once in the lock the boat is tied off (whether it’s a small boat or a freighter) to prevent excess movement in the lock and the gates close behind us, the water in the lock starts swirling as the water is pumped in. Slowly but surely we started to rise. Soon we were high enough to see over the lock gates. By the time the freighter entered its lock, we had raised up to Lake Superior level. We were still dwarfed by the freighter, but it was on its way down 21 feet to the level of the St. Marys river as we left our lock. The upbound gates opened and we were on our way. As we left the lock the tour boat took us around the stern of the freighter in the downbound lock next to us. The freighter was 1,000 feet long and had barely 2 feet of clearance on either side of the lock. To think I gripe about maneuvering the RV through construction zones. On the day we toured the lake and river were reasonably calm. I can’t imagine what it might be like to pilot any ship into the locks on a blustery day. We cruised around a bit after we went through the lock on the Lake Superior side. The huge Algoma Steel plant is situated on the Canadian bank. As we cruised past the factory, it was dark and almost steampunk-looking. It reminded me of riding with my parents as they drove past the big foundries in Cleveland. Back then when they poured hot copper or steel you could see the fire and the sparks for miles. These days in the interests of clean air that process is contained so there is no such fiery drama at the Canadian plant.

We turned downbound for our return. On the trip back we went through the Canadian lock. The lock is much smaller so it is exclusively used by pleasure craft and smaller commercial vessels. No passport is needed to pass through these international waters—until you wish to set foot on land, at which point you better have your papers in order. The process of locking is the same, but the lock management is very different. The American side is all military business with security, goose-minions and cement. There is a park within the boundaries, but it is removed from the actual locks. On the Canadian side, the lock is surrounded by a nature trail, where one can see the remnants of the once mighty St. Marys rapids. The gates are topped by a walkway where tourists may cross the gates (while closed) to walk the trail or take in the view down river. A few small historical buildings make up the offices. While we were locking through, there was pleasant chit-chat between the boat crew and the lock crew. Most un-military. I had the same weird sensation going through this lock. When we entered, we loomed above the St. Marys river 21 feet below. As the lock drained, we sank below the rim of the gate. When the gate opened, we cruised out on the river and back to the dock.

We bid our fellow passengers goodbye as we headed off to other adventures. It turned out that Mr. Dressed-For-The-Beach wasn’t from Canada; he was from the Michigan UP which is nearly the same thing as being from Canada. Everything here is about weather, water or winter and cooperating to survive a harsh environment. We coddled tourists see things in their optimal setting. There are pleasant summers and sparkling snowy winters for us. The rest of the people in the UP (I refuse to call them Yoopers) deal with the scary transition seasons that are the stuff of survival stories and cautionary tales in the UP.

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