Locks & Boats At “The Soo” – Sault Ste. Marie, MI
When we started this year we couldn’t have predicted it would turn out like this. We had plans, bold and crazy plans that included several months exploring the Northern Rockies from high in Canada all the way down to Glacier NP. In fact, had all our plans turned out we would be there right now.
But life happened not just once but three times (isn’t it always three?) and here we are. I have zero complaints mind you. What we’ve experienced so far has been amazing despite it all, but I was a tad bummed that we wouldn’t make it to the border with our northern neighbors.
All that changed when we decided to stop over in Sault Ste. Marie.
“The Soo”, as everyone calls it has the interesting designation of being the oldest city in Michigan aaaand Ontario. It crosses borders in several ways, not just between Canada and the US (half in one, half in the other), but also between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. And as a key gateway it’s got hundreds of years of history. First with the Native Americans (specifically the Ojibwe (Chippewa)), later with the Europeans (specifically the French missionaries who founded a Jesuit mission here in 1668) and even later with the massive growth of shipping and iron ore mining in the area.
This makes The Soo the third-oldest European city in the United States west of the Appalachian Mountains, and the oldest permanent settlement in contemporary Michigan state. That’s a lot of history for a town where the average winter highs are just over 20F (brrrrrrrrrr!!)
“Welcome To Canada”
These days what most folks come to the Soo to see are the boats going through the locks…oh, and to wave to Canada of course. We arrived n a sunny afternoon and headed straight for the water-front site we’d reserved at the local Elks**. Situated on a little peninsula next to Soo Locks Boat Tours it’s an awesome spot to watch activity on the water, plus it’s literally right across the river from Canada. In fact we were sooo close our phones texted “welcome to Canada” right as we drove into camp. We may not have made it physically over to our neighbors this year, but I figured this was pretty darn close.
As soon as we’d settled in (and turned off data on our cells) we headed over to nearby Soo Locks Park to watch some of the activity through the canal.
It’s All About the Locks…
The strategic location of Sault Ste. Marie between two Great Lakes means that folks have been creating man-made navigation across this water passage since the fur trade days. The first locks were crude canoe passages created in 1798, and they’ve gone through many iterations to the modern 21-foot drop (1,200 and 800 feet long) passage we have today. These days over 7,000 vessels pass through the Locks annually hauling 86 million tons of cargo. Interesting little side-fact -> 90% of the world’s iron ore moves through the Soo Locks (who would’ve known?).
The locks are operated by the Corps Of Engineers and there’s a nice museum (free!) and very cool (free!) viewing platform right above them for folks like us to enjoy the process. For anyone who’s even remotely interesting in engineering this just can’t be missed.
On our visit we didn’t catch any “big boats” but we enjoyed 2 of the Soo tour boats going through and watched the entire process from entry into the canal, gravity dumping of 22 million gallons of water (the amount it takes to lift or lower a boat) through to exit on the other. Frikkin’ awesome!
BRING DOGGIE? NO. Sadly, no dogs allowed inside the visitor center or within the surrounding (gated) park.
And The Views..
Apart from the locks there are a few cool views which are well worth seeing, as long as the weather cooperates. The “Tower of History” is a brutalist-style building that literally dominates the water-view less than a mile east of the locks. At first look it seems like some kind of enormous 70’s concrete experiment, but it was actually built in 1968 by the Catholic Church as the Shrine of the Missionaries. Look closer and you’ll see a modernistic representation of three crosses.
For visitors like us the real attraction is its height. It soars 210 feet above ground and on clear days you’ll get a panoramic 360-degree view of The Soo from the viewing platform. It costs $7 to visit and there’s an elevator right to the top, but if you’re able I actually recommend climbing up the 29 flights of stairs. It’s an interesting experience and makes the views at the top even more worth-while once you get there.
VISIT NOTES : The Tower costs $7 to visit. If you’re also visiting the Museum Ship you can buy a “combo” ticket for the two attractions for $18. In summer months it’s open Monday to Saturday 10AM to 5PM, and Sunday, 12PM to 5PM. For more info click HERE.
BRING DOGGIE? NO. No dogs allowed in the tower.
And Of Course There’s A Lighthouse!
You can hardly spit in Michigan without hitting a lighthouse, and of course The Soo is no different. There’s not a ton of lighthouses out here, but there is a rather gorgeous girl just 20 miles away in the smaller town of Brimley. Point Iroquois Light was first illuminated in 1857 and guarded the busy entrance to the St. Mary’s River and the Soo Locks for over 100 years.
The 65-foot tower and adjoining house are now owned by the Forest Service and provide a delightful little visit for both humans and paws alike (the grounds are entirely dog-friendly!). It was grey, dark and humid when we visited, but both Polly and us enjoyed the trip and it was fun to hike up to the tower and see the view.
Any day you get to see a lighthouse is a good day, right?
BRING DOGGIE: YES, if there’s two of you! The grounds around the lighthouse are all dog-friendly and there’s a lovely little hiking trail to the shoreline too. You can’t enter into the tower/museum with doggie, but it’s a self-guided tour so if there’s two of you it’s easy to swap out and visit individually while the other person walks the grounds with pooch.
We enjoyed a few other outings around town including a nice brew and a burger at The Wicked Sister pub as well as walking around the grounds of the historic hydroelectric plant and a few of the water-front parks (none of which are dog-friendly, sadly). But the best part of everything was simply sitting at home watching the slew of cargo ships crossing the river by our campsite at the Elks. The Great Lakes & Seaway Shipping Online Vessel Passage Map (say that one really quick 10 times) manages a real-time map of every shipping vessel on the Great Lakes. It’s actually quite fun to follow the map and see the ships pass by on the river right in front of you. Oh and waving to Canada too, of course 🙂
This is as far North as we’ll go, at least this time around. Up next we find a castle and enter the fairytale land of a girl from far, far away….wonder where that’ll be?
**Where To Park The RV
If you come to Sault Ste Marie I really recommend paying for a waterfront site so you can enjoy the shipping activity on the river. If you’re an Elks Member the waterfront Elks (Lodge 552) is in a superb location, but it is more expensive than other options in town. It has 4 reservable sites (electric/water) that cost $35/night. Soo Locks Campground is just one block west of the Elks and offers water-view sites for $30/night. Aune Osborn is a few blocks east of the Elks and offers water-view sites for $32-$40/night. For those that want to save some $$ and don’t mind being away from the water Kewadin Casino offers both electric hookups ($20/night) and FREE parking (no hookups) in their lot.
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