In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at Sault Ste. Marie, traffic on the Great Lakes flows adjacent to the St. Mary's Rapids via the American Soo Locks. In terms of tonnage, it is the world's busiest canal. Smaller recreational boats use its sister lock, the Canadian Sault Ste Marie Canal. Parallel, the two work in tandem to enable ships to travel between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes and beyond.
Locals call the giant lake freighters "lakers" and the supersize ocean vessels "salties." Whatever type of vessel, all must idle in line to pass through a lock.
Inside the lock, the water either raises 21 feet to reach the level of Lake Superior or descends 21 feet to river level.
Both Lakers and Salties are referred to as "footers," in reference to the length from stem to stern. A 1,000-footer is longer than three football fields. While cargo varies, many carry ore from Minnesota or cargo from other stops in the Midwest, like Gary, Ind., Detroit, Chicago, or Pittsburgh, Penn. On the morning we stepped on board a Soo Locks Boat Tour, we passed two 500-footers heading east.
The captain of the boat shared the steps he was taking to get us through the lock and onto St. Mary's River toward Lake Superior. Our boat waited inline to enter the lock; there were three boats ahead of us. All of the vessels idled near the Soo Locks Visitors Center. The visitors center has all the bells and whistles that a tourist needs, plus both a lower and upper observation levels with protective viewing of the activities going on in the lock.
And he shared a few facts. Each year 5,000 boats use the locks and many more people take a tour of the operation. Most ships carry industrial cargo but many, like those from the Thunder Bay area in Ontario (located on Lake Superior), carry grain. Passing through a lock is called "locking through."
We locked through without a hitch, passing under the International Highway Bridge that connects the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan and in Ontario, Canada. We passed two 600-footers on the way to who knows where. It is all business on the huge ships, gliding bay without nary a whistle blow or ripple of a wake. Not so on the land, where children playing in parks lined up to wave at us.
Soo Locks Tours offers both luncheon and dinner sailings. The first floor, climate controlled area is set up with a buffet and tables. I can imagine how gorgeous the sunset is on all that water. It also offers lighthouse cruises, and fireworks cruises on July 5.
The gift shop in reception at the dock has an interesting and fun assortment of souvenirs. A few of the members of my tour group purchased colorful fleece blankets as they feared they would be cold on the water; bittersweet purchase as it was sunny and warm. Others picked up coffee mugs, Soo Locks hoodies and copies of the history books about the locks .Coffee is sold and one window in the waiting area offers free and freshly baked cookies — from chocolate chip to oatmeal raisin with pecans.
We headed to The Antlers for lunch; It is a local favorite. Family-owned, it gets its name from the taxidermy and displays of racks as light fixtures, on the walls, ceiling, poles and corners of the restaurant bar. We were told that patrons bring in the antlers and the taxidermy. As interesting as the decor is, locals dine at the Antlers for the food.
Famous for it version of Poutine (peu-tin), the national dish of Canada, the Antlers kitchen prepares its version with twice-fried potatoes, white and orange Wisconsin cheese curds, tossed with steaming homemade gravy. Some places add meat to its poutine; the Antlers suggests meat loaf. P.S. I skipped the Poutine and stayed with another "Up north" favorite, a burger from locally raised bison.
If you go
Soo Locks Boat Tour: In season, two docks board visitors for a 2-hour lower lock tour through the locks via St. Mary's River with the United States on the south and Canada on the northern banks. SooLocks.com
The Antlers: Fun place for a meal that also has good food. From Poutine to bison burgers and whitefish fritters, the Antlers is a local favorite. Lots of parking and good service. It was featured on an episode of A&E's My Ghost Stories. The owner can explain. saultantlers.com
Soo Locks Park: Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, inside the park find the information center and exhibits about the heritage of the Soo Locks systems. Films, too. Viewing platforms allow eye-level viewing of freighters (and at street level, tour boats) as they pass through the locks. saultstemarie.com, click through to Soo Locks Park.
Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, USA: Discover the history and lore of Sault Ste. Marie, the first settlement in Michigan.The Michigan city is a sister city to Sault Ste, Marie, Ontario, Canada, located across the International Bridge (I-75). saultstemarie.com
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada: Follow one of Parks Canada interpreters on a walking tour through the Sault Ste. Marie Canal National Historic Site. The area was settled 2,000 years ago. Passports are required when traveling into Canada. saulttourism.com