May 31st, 2011 by OutdoorsFIRST
Modified May 31st, 2011 at 10:43 AM
No matter if you are coming to the area specifically for the AIM Pro Walleye Series Bay Mills Invitational, or visiting later, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan – known as “The Soo” – is the center of all activity in Michigan’s Eastern Upper Peninsula.
The first tourists to the area were European explorers. They gazed upon the rapids of the St. Mary’s River where Lake Superior fell 28 feet and flowing into Lake Huron downstream. Father Jacques Marquette arrived and founded the community in the mid-1600s, making it Michigan’s oldest city (even though Marquette, Michigan to the west in the U.P. carries his name.)
Settlers immediately saw the problem: how to get freight-carrying vessels from the lower lakes into the big lake the Ojibway natives called Gitche Gumee. First, they rolled them down on greased logs along what is now Portage Street, hence the name. Then in 1855, the first crude lock was built, followed by newer versions.
The Soo Locks remain the world’s busiest lock system. Visitors can start their tour in the Soo Locks Information Center where they will learn how the locks operate. Then stroll to the Soo Locks Park Historic Walkway next to center to the observation area. Watch as ships are lowered and raised without pumps.
A series of massive steel doors close behind the ships. Ships traveling upstream are then lifted more than 25 feet as water is allowed to flow into the lock. When they reach the height of Lake Superior, the doors open and the ships continue on their course. Huge ships bearing iron ore from Duluth, Minnesota – up to 1000 feet in length – are lower to the level of Lake Huron in the opposite manner. The doors close behind them in the lock, and then water is allowed to drain out lowering the massive ships to the lower level.
Visitors who are in the area for the AIM Bay Mills Invitational should be sure to be at the observation walkway by 8 a.m. daily to watch many of the fleet of tournament boats “lock through” to fish the lower St. Mary’s River system. The boats must return in time for the 3:30 p.m. check-in at Bay Mills Resort & Casino in Brimley.
From the lock observation area you will see tour boats entering and leaving the locks. This is your chance to experience the locks up close. The Soo Locks Boat Tours offer trips through the locks hourly in summer starting at 9 a.m. You will learn that the Soo Locks are the world’s longest, capable of handling the biggest Great Lake freighters 1,000 feet long. Tours also travel through the smaller lock on the Canadian side of the river system.
Near one of the two boat tours docks is the giant freighter Valley Camp, now a museum. The SS Valley Camp Museum is your chance to see what life is like aboard a lake freighter. In its time on the Great Lakes, the Valley Camp made countless trips from the iron ore mines of Marquette and Minnesota down the lake to steel mills in New York and Pennsylvania.
Tour the ship from stem to stern to see how sailors lived and worked, some of whom labored in the sweaty confines of the superheated steam engine room. You can also view major artifacts from the sinking of the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald, including battered empty lifeboats found on shore after that 1975 wreck. The ship sank in a violent storm on Lake Superior before it could reach the safety of the St. Mary’s River.
On the tour you will also learn that the St. Mary’s Rapids fished so long ago by the Native Americans that Marquette observed is still a prime fishing spot. The system abounds with fresh water species – including walleye, the target of the AIM tournament fishermen. But the system is also now home to salmon.
These salmon were reared and planted by a fisheries research station inside the world’s longest hydroelectric power plant, the quarter-mile-long stone powerhouse on the U.S. side of the river about one mile downstream from the locks. The plant’s turbines are fed by a power canal blasted through solid rock right through downtown Sault Ste. Marie.
If you are hungry stop by local eateries like The Antlers, one of the most unusual eateries you’ll ever encounter. Canoes hang from the rafters, mounted animal heads line the walls, and a snake even slithers up a tree built into the bar. Some of the collection was brought in by sailors and others bartering for meals, or found at estate sales. Or you can watch as freighters pass through the Soo Locks from inside the Freighters restaurant at the downtown Ramada Plaza Ojibway, a restored 1928 hotel.
Still more things to do while visiting the area.
Day trips you can easily make from The Soo include Mackinac Island about one hour south via St. Ignace ferries. Or drive west to Whitefish Point and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and view artifacts from hundreds of wrecks on the Great Lakes. You are also just 20 miles from Upper and Lower Tahquamenon Falls, one of the U.P.’s favorite natural wonders. Hungry travelers will be happy to learn that there is a pub and brewery restaurant at the Falls.
Oswald’s Bear Ranch near Paradise puts you face-to-jowl with big black bears. Further west at Seney, you can learn at the tiny Seney Historical Museum about that town’s colorful lumbering past, and also see the exhibit on author Ernest Hemingway, who camped on the Fox River here and used that experience to write one of his most famous short stories, “The Big Two-Hearted River,”.
For more information, contact the Sault Ste. Marie Convention and Visitors Bureau or call them at (800) 447-2757.