We returned to Sault Ste. Marie for a couple weeks. The “Soo,” as it’s called sits at the end of I-75 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It straddles the American/Canadian border. The Soo is a lovely place to escape from the dog days of summer. In August it’s brilliantly sunny and about 67 degrees. Our regular campground, Aune Osborn is situated on the bank of the St. Marys River (there is no apostrophe in St. Marys, just sayin’ for all you punctuation geeks) just beyond the Soo Locks that raise/lower Lakers (freighter ships on the Great Lakes are called Lakers) going to/coming from Lake Superior. I wrote about this a few years ago in a post called Shiver Me Timbers. The main attractions in the Soo are fishing and watching Lakers traverse the river. In some ways watching Lakers is much like watching semis on the freeway; that is, if the semi was seven hundred to a thousand feet long and floated on water.
When a Laker comes upbound (towards Lake Superior) or downbound (towards the Atlantic) it announces its presence with deep, mournful blasts of its horn. Their engines are remarkably quiet. By the time you hear that rumble and run to see the ship, the stern of the boat has already passed by.
One afternoon I heard train horns. LOUD train horns. There aren’t any meaningful train crossings nearby. It sounded like a ghost train was running through the middle of the campground. My neighbor came over. “Did you hear that?” She asked. I had. After a little investigating, we found out the train horns belonged to a family that had put together the ultimate Laker Fanboy tribute. They had a collection of big flags with various freighter’s ship country/company logos. As the ship approached, a boy would be stationed ready to wave the flag with the ship’s corresponding logo. A man in the group owned a full-on set of train air horns connected to a compressed air canister the size of a pony keg. As the ship passed, the boy would wave his flag and the man fired off the air horns in the direction of the ship. They. Were. Very. Loud. So loud that the sound bounced back off the ship and the buildings on the Canadian side of the river. The rest of the family helped by waving madly. I came to understand they were looking for some modest recognition from the Laker, acknowledgement for their efforts. Unlike semis who have responded to millions of kids’ fist-pumping with air horn blasts, Laker horns have specific meaning. For example, one short blast tells other Lakers and boaters, “I intend to pass you on my left (port) side.” Two short blasts mean, “I intend to pass you on my right (starboard) side.” Three short blasts mean, “I am operating astern propulsion.” For some vessels, this tells other boaters, “I am backing up.” One or two random blasts can result in serious miscommunication.
I got into a ritual of taking a cup of coffee with me when I walked Gumbo in the morning. He and I would walk out to the point of the campground and sun ourselves, watching the river and the ships roll by. Most of my mornings coincided with the Laker Fanboys. One day the wind blew fiercely. The boy was out there holding onto his flag with all his might. I broke the ice. “You must feel like you’re gonna blow away! Is it hard to hang onto that flag?” He allowed as it was. His name was Chris. His usual flag-wrangling technique was to wave with one hand and hold the flag with the other. Between gripping the violently flapping flag for dear life and watching the bridge of the Laker for a sign of recognition he was busy, so our conversation was brief. I also learned from Chris that the train horns were only good for one blast, then the canister had to be re-charged. They didn’t use them for every Laker, thank goodness. We also heard the train horns faintly when they moved to other parts of the city park that surrounds our campground. I wondered what the Canadians made of it. In all our time at the Soo I never saw a corresponding group of people waving at the Lakers. Makes me wonder if Canadians fist-pump at semis to get them to toot their horns. Possibly not.
I was lucky enough to be present on the morning when Chris’ flag-waving paid off. A door popped open on the bridge of the Laker, and a uniformed man stood at the rail and waved. A great cheer went up from Chris, his family and all of us who had been watching them wave at Lakers all week. I congratulated Chris on his perseverance. Chris was over the moon happy. Then it was time to switch flags and wait for the next freighter to pass. A real Fanboy is never satisfied with one success.
Chris and his family weren’t the only fan groups present. Cruise ships offered Great Lakes tours which stopped during the Pandemic. A large Viking ship caused quite a stir in the campground as it passed upbound. Ben and I caught up with it in the Soo Locks. The passengers crowded its decks and windows to wave at all us observers. On its way downbound a man we’d met in the campground was tracking it because his brother was on the ship. Traffic on the locks was fierce that day, so it was close to dark by the time the ship slid by the campground. The man and his wife parked their car at the edge of the river and flashed their headlights, to be rewarded with the tiny flicker of a cell phone light.
The last night of our stay I was walking Gumbo for his last potty break. At night Lakers look like small cities afloat. A thousand feet of running lights makes an impression. A group of about 15 people were clustered on the bank as a big Laker slid by. When it was directly across from the group, they fired up their phone flashlights and waved them at the ship. I was surprised when the Laker fired up its spotlight and swept over the little crowd, who whooped and hollered. I found out later that one person in the group had a family member working on board. The signal had been planned, as they hadn’t seen him for quite some time.
Watching these big vessels may not seem all that exciting. Regardless of how slow and safe it seems, there is risk involved as well as romance. Transporting goods via water is one of the most ancient modern methods of commerce. The beds of the Great Lakes from Superior to Ontario are littered with hundreds of years worth of shipwrecks. When those massive Lakers drift by on the St. Marys, they are on the way to crossing immense and treacherous bodies of water. Maybe a few more of us should stand by and wave as they pass by—no train horns needed.