Locking through at “The Soo”
© Becky Linhardt 2010
Can you name the busiest canal locks in the world – The Suez Canal? The Panama Canal? No, the #1 spot is held by “The Soo Locks” in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. During the shipping season, when the St. Lawrence Seaway is ice free, “The Soo” locks through more than 86 million tons of cargo – iron ore, wheat, corn, and other commodities.
Traffic in “The Soo” can be viewed from observation walkways at the Soo Locks Park in downtown Sault Ste. Marie. The Information Center there posts the expected arrival times for boats heading to the locks.
It is amazing to watch the big ore boats, most 105 feet wide, slide into a lock that is 110 feet wide. That’s a tight squeeze so most “Lake Boats” have bow thrusters to help nose into the locks. “Salties,” the ocean-going freighters, generally need the help of a tug.
Upbound, the boats enter at low water and are lifted 21 feet and seem to dominate the concrete locks before exiting into the higher water headed for Lake Superior. Downbound, the boats disappear 21 feet down into the locks to meet the lower water level and exit into the St. Mary’s river headed for Lake Huron.
Often they will resupply at Sault Ste. Marie as they exit and you can see the process in action as orders that had been called in ahead will be ferried out to the freighter as it moves down the St. Mary’s River.
The Museum Ship Valley Camp is moored nearby. Visitors can actually go deep into the hold of the retired ore boat or head up to the bridge to imagine what it would be like to have to captain such a large boat. Inside there are also displays related to shipping on the Great Lakes and reminders of the ships that have been lost – including a crushed lifeboat from the Edmund Fitzgerald that was lost in November of 1975.
If you want to “lock through,” you can do so on a Soo Locks Boat Tour. Their double-decked boats generally head upbound through the smaller, recreational locks on the Canadian side(no Passport needed) and then come back downbound through the Soo Locks – sometimes sharing the lock with a big freighter!
Sault Ste. Marie information: 800-647-2858 or www.saultstemarie.com
Museum Ship Valley Camp: 906-632-3658 or www.thevalleycamp.com
Soo Locks Boat Tours: 800-432-6301 or www.soolocks.com