Locking Through The Soo

Many Great Lakes sailors make the pilgrimage to Mackinac Island at the junction of lakes Michigan and Huron. But those who want real adventure head north to the St. Mary’s River, the border between the United States and Canada, and check out the twin towns of Sault St. Marie, which lie in Michigan and Ontario and are known collectively as “The Soo.”

The St. Mary’s River drains Lake Superior into Lake Huron and isone of the busiest commercial shipping routes in the world.Though it has a two-knot current, it’s possible to sail uphill formuch of the trip. But be warned: you have to dodge Great Lakesfreighters carrying ore to lakes Erie and Michigan and seagoing ships, or “salties,” carrying grain to Europe. Halfway to the Soo, the up-bound and down-bound ship channels separate, and while you can go either way in either channel, it’s best to go with the flow. Turning a blind corner and encountering a steel wall with a bow wave closing at 15 knots is scary.

The American Soo has four huge locks that carry the big ships up to Lake Superior. Hike the trail to the locks—the first of which was built in 1840—and check out the restored 18th century fur trader’s houses along the way. Then drop into Maloney’s Irish Pub for a Guinness and a bowl of stew.

Sailors with more time like to take the Canadian lock (it’s free) and then run out to Whitefish Point on Lake Superior, the biggest and baddest of the Great Lakes. It’s a short walk to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, which pays homage to the Edmund Fitzgerald, the 730-foot ship that sank in 1975 and was later immortalized by the Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot.

Finally the real fun: sailing downhill. With the wind and current behind you it’s easy to make 10 knots SOG going downstream. Yes, Mackinac Island is a worthy goal, but a trip up the St. Mary’s River really takes sailors to another world.

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