With the weather still near perfect, and several interesting prospects in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we opted to continue our stay (first for one day, and then for a second day).
On Monday, we decided to go to the town of Sault Ste. Marie (the Sault is pronounced “Soo”). It’s about a 75-minute drive from Log Cabin RV Park to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. There is also a Sault Ste Marie just over the International Bridge (over the Saint Mary River) in Canada, but we didn’t get that far.
Our first stop was the Soo Locks that allow shipping between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. When I first heard of Soo Locks Visitor Center, which is presented by the US Army Corps of Engineers (big Bentley Systems user), I thought it was probably just some historic display about locks that had since been rendered obsolete by rail and truck shipping.
Nothing could be further from the truth than that. As it turns out, shipping on the Great Lakes is not only alive and well, but absolutely essential to our national economy. Over 11,000 vessels pass through the Soo Locks each year, carrying 90 million tons of cargo. The cargo is primarily bulk solids like iron ore, coal, stone, and various types of grain. The largest ships that ply the Great Lakes routes, known as “Lakers”, are sized to fit through the larger of the two main locks, the Poe Lock. It’s 1200 feet long, and the longest ships are 1013 feet (for reference, the Titanic was 883 feet long). They have 2 ½ feet of clearance on either side while going through the 110-foot wide lock.
We learned all that after watching the locks in action. We walked from the parking area to the Locks Park, and saw a ship moving slowly into the Lock. In our ignorance, we figured that was a rarity, so we decided we better go watch while we had the chance. Another tourist right next to us on the three-story observation deck told us that it was the longest boat on the Great Lakes. It was the Paul R. Tregurtha, and it turns out that it shares that “longest” title with many 1013-foot ships on the lakes.
Not knowing that, we figured we were in for a rare treat, so we watched it pull into the Poe Lock (very slowly), and in the meantime another big, but not-quite-so-huge boat pulled into the 800-foot MacArthur lock, so both were operating simultaneously!
As it turns out, that isn’t remarkable at all – both locks are going pretty much continuously for the 42-week “season” from March 25 through January 15th of the following year. For the other 10 weeks there’s too much ice, and icebreakers are used in March to get the locks open again.
Lake Superior’s surface is 21 feet higher than Lake Huron’s so the job of the lock is to lower the boats going towards Lake Huron and raise the boats going to Lake Superior. No pumps are involved, the lock is filled from the Lake Superior side when raising a ship and empties into Lake Huron when lowering one. The Poe Lock thus moves 22 million gallons of water from Lake Superior to Lake Huron with each cycle (one westbound ship and one eastbound ship can traverse during a cycle). It is quite interesting to watch the process. I didn’t time it exactly, but from the times of my pictures, it looks like it takes about 25 minutes to raise or lower a ship – more or less a foot per minute.
After watching the locks in action, we went into the Visitors Center, which has a lot of very interesting information about the locks – how they are scheduled, how they work, when they were built, etc.
There was a video with good content, but it needs to be upgraded to the 21st century – it was approximately ancient VHS quality. The Poe Lock is particularly important because if it was disabled by an accident or attack, it would severely impact the economy, particularly the steel industry and users of steel, since most of the iron ore used by our steel mills goes through that lock. Estimates are that as many as 11 million jobs would be affected, with a consequential dent in the nation’s GNP. There is an approved plan to build a second equal-sized lock, replacing the current, undersized Davis Lock, but it has yet to receive funding. Overall our stop at the Soo Locks was very educational, and we spent about three hours there, much more time than we had planned.
We ate a late lunch at the Locks View Restaurant, right across the street, and then walked the ¾ mile or so to the Museum Ship Valley Camp, which is a maritime museum housed on Great Lakes freighter “Valley Camp” built in 1917 and retired to become a museum in 1968.
We didn’t get there until about 3:30, and it closed at 5:00, so we only had time for a cursory look at the many exhibits. Part of the cargo hold had been converted into the museum area, and part of it was left more or less unmodified (although obviously greatly cleaned up).
The fore and aft quarters and work areas for the crew could be seen through the doors. It looked to me like the hardest jobs were with the “Engineering” department, which kept the two huge steam engines fed with coal, oiled, and maintained. The temperature in the work area was 120-130 degrees, so they worked 4-hour shifts.
The front of the boat housed the officers – Captain, First, Second and Third Mates, etc. The captains quarters were by far the nicest, but it would never be mistaken for a luxury cruise.
They had an interesting exhibit on the Edmund Fitzgerald, one of the Great Lakes largest freighters, that sunk on November 10, 1975, with 29 hands lost. There was an interesting timeline of the storm that damaged and eventually sunk the ship,
and a lifeboat that was found after the sinking (empty).
We had only about 10 minutes before closing time to look through it. I’d say you could spend four or five hours in the Museum Ship easily, particularly if you are interested in maritime and Great Lakes History.
When they tossed us out of the museum, we spent another 20 minutes or so watching the continual stream of ships on the Saint Mary River.
The electric power generation station, which takes advantage of the 21 foot elevation difference between the two lakes, is right next door to the Museum Ship.
We then walked back to our car for the drive back to the campsite. The weather was absolutely ideal – mid 70’s and clear blue skies, so we did what I described to city-girl Therese as “real camping”. We gathered some kindling, and fired up a campfire using the generous supply of wood that some previous occupant of the site had left there. Unfortunately (and unusual for a campfire) the smoke was directed away from our lawn chairs, and I wasn’t able to ask Therese to around the park to see if anyone could lend us one of those proverbial left-handed smoke-shifters. That would have been entertaining.
We were enjoying the campground so much, and the weather was forecast to stay warm for one more day (mid-70’s, before falling precipitously to the mid-50’s on Wednesday) that we decided to extend our stay yet another day, through Tuesday, September 26. After another leisurely morning start, we went to Tahqaumenon (rhymes with phenomenon) State Park. It is a large (50,000 acre) and very nicely appointed state park. The big draws there are the Upper and Lower Falls, so we went to those first. The Upper Falls are among the largest in the US (again, who knew there were such things on the Michigan Upper Peninsula), at 200 feet wide by 50 feet high. The USGS monitors the flow rate and pronounced it to be 3706 gallons per second on the date of our visit. The record, set back in April of 1960, was over 52,000 gallons per second. That must have been some flow! There are two walkways – one leading to a view at the bottom of the falls, and one leading to the brink of the falls. We took both and enjoyed both viewpoints.
The water was a kind of weak-tea brownish color. An informative display revealed that the color was due to tannic acid, which comes from cedar and other evergreen trees in the Tahquemenon watershed. There is also some foam at the bottom of the falls, which is also naturally-occurring from the soft water.
After visiting the Upper Falls, we drove to the less-crowded Lower Falls and found a very nice picnic spot about 20 yards from the river.
The river divides above the Lower Falls, so there are multiple, lower, cascading falls. They are thus less spectacular than the Upper Falls, but also scenic.
Rain was threatening, so we decided not to take the longer hike around the Clark Lake Loop that we had planned. Instead, we headed back to Log Cabin RV Park, with hopes that the rain would pass without getting our firewood too wet to enjoy some more “real camping”.
(Added later) As it turned out, the rain didn’t amount to much more than light drizzle, far too little to stop dedicated outdoor campers such as ourselves from having another campfire. Umbrellas came in handy.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula wasn’t even on our radar when we started at the beginning of September, but we had a great four days here. We got a great combination of low crowds, since late September is past the end of the traditional season, and what was probably the warmest late September they’ve had in a long time.