Exploring the eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan: Part 1

By Michael Carignan

Recently my wife, Dawn, and I took a four-day mini-vacation with the primary destination of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, the third oldest city in the U.S. Dawn had never been there before and I have just traveled through the area as I entered and returned from Canada.

As with any other trip we take, we spent some time investigating what the area had to offer for attractions, food and lodging. Since we were only planning to be in town for a day and a half, that eliminated a couple of our top choices which were all day side trips on the Agawa Canyon Tour Train and The Toonerville Trolley Riverboat Tour’s Tahquamenon Falls Wilderness Excursion. We decided instead to take in some of the less time consuming attractions and leave the all-day trips for another visit.

The Sault is an eight-hour drive from home so we decided to leave on Wednesday after work and drive to Neenah where our daughter, Heidi, and her family live. After a good supper and a good night’s sleep we went for breakfast at the Queen Bee Restaurant on College Ave. in downtown Appleton. The restaurant is owned by a man from Afghanistan. Although the menu includes traditional American breakfast foods, on this day the special was either an Afghanistan omelet or an Afghanistan skillet. I ordered the skillet with hash browns on the bottom, ground beef, two eggs, Feta cheese and a cucumber sauce on top. It was delicious. Dawn ordered the omelet, which was similar but without the hash browns. She liked it a lot as well.

By 8 a.m. we were on the road. Our route began on US 41 north to Menominee, Michigan, then M-35 along the northeast shore of Lake Michigan to Escanaba. In Escanaba, my birthplace, we got on US 2, which travels along the top of Lake Michigan through Manistique to Engadine. In Engadine we turned on to H-40, which angles to the northeast toward the Sault.

H-40 was a pretty decent road with straight stretches that went on for miles. At one point, as we topped a knoll, I looked in my rear view mirror and I could see the straightest line of road I have seen since traveling the plains. The view had to go on for at least 15 miles, straight as an arrow. To finish the trip we got on I-75 and took that to Sault Ste. Marie.

Once in town we immediately headed for our motel, Budget Host/Crestview Inn. This mom-and-pop style motel lived up to the 4.1 rating it was given online. We got the deal through Expedia for a very reasonable price. We weren’t looking for anything fancy, just a place to call home long enough to sleep and maybe relax for a couple of hours. The room was basic, clean and well kept. There’s a television with cable, a reasonably comfortable double-bed, a refrigerator, continental breakfast, and a bathroom with a shower.

We checked in around 3 p.m. eastern time. Being a sunny, warm day we decided to find something we could take in yet that afternoon. First on our list was the Soo Locks Boat Tour and luckily the motel office had a flyer featuring its schedule of runs. The last excursion of the day was to leave Dock #2 at 4:30 p.m. There was a dinner cruise at 5:30 p.m. By the time we were moved in to our room it was past 3:30 p.m. The office lady gave me simple direction and off we went looking for Dock #2. Our intent was to get a seat on the dinner tour at 5:30 p.m. and kill two birds with one stone.

At the ticket window we learned we were too late to get reservations on the dinner tour. The last excursion boat was due at Dock 2 in about 10 minutes. We bought our tickets, two for $54. Dawn left to go park the car properly. She no more than left me, still getting tickets, and I realized a needed something in the car.

I hurried to catch up to her but to me the word “hurry” is at best half fast or slower so when I caught up she was already beginning to move the car. I caught her eye and she stopped so I could get a backup battery for my camera. As I dug for it the tour boat showed up. We were still quite a ways from the actual dock so by the time we got there we were, I think, the last ones to board.

As the name suggests the Soo Locks Boat Tour takes passengers through the U.S. locks in one direction and after exploring a few other attractions from the water returns through the Canadian lock back to its starting point.

The nearly 75-mile long St. Mary’s River connects Lake Superior to the north with Lake Huron to the southeast. At Sault Ste. Marie the river drops 21 feet over a rapids. Ships in earlier times would need to portage the rapids in order continue their trip between lakes. Depending on the size of the ship that portage could take as long as three weeks. Very large ships were unable to make to portage at all.

The first Soo Lock was completed in 1855 allowing ships of all sizes to easily make the portage in just 15 minutes. Three more locks were added over the years on the U.S. side but only one small lock was built on the Canadian side.

soo locks approach
As we approached the locks we were instructed that our tour boat should use the first lock on the far left. Two of the other three locks can be seen to the right. 

 

On our tour we waited for two small boats to exit the lock before we could enter. Once in the lock, the huge gate closed behind us and the water began to flow in to the lock. Filling of the lock is done by a series of huge pipes and the water flows by the use of gravity. It took nearly 15 minutes for the lock to fill, raising our boat 21 feet to the level of the upper river.

soo lock closing
Once in the lock, the huge doors closed behind us.
soo lock fill 1
The water level in the lock is shown before it began to fill.
soo locksfills 2
The water entering through the huge pipes made large circles in the water.
soo locks full
With the locks full, our boat was nearly level with the land surrounding the lock.

While we were making our way north through one lock, a freighter named Federal Biscay was making its way south through the next lock over. The Federal Biscay is roughly 700 feet long and 60 feet wide, but was not the largest ship we saw using the lock that day. Another freighter was about 815 feet long and 70 feet wide.

soo federal biscay
The ship Federal Biscay passed us as it headed south through lock 2.

The locks are closed during the months of January through March. During the remainder of the year over 7,000 ships pass through the 1.6 mile long locks.

After exiting the lock we cruised north for a stretch before swinging over to the Canadian side of the river where we were treated to a riverside look at the workings of a steel plant. From there we proceeded to the Canadian lock on the river.

As the gate closed behind us on this lock, the water level quickly began to drop. Our decent took only about 10 minutes to drop the 21 feet to the lower river level. Once out of the lock we proceeded down river to Dock #1 where half of our crew departed the boat. On the way back to Dock #2 we passed the hydroelectric plant built in 1902. At nearly a quarter-mile long it is the world’s longest hydroelectric dam.

soo hydro dam
The world’s largest hydroelectric plant is nearly a quarter mile long and lies on the St. Mary’s River just south of the locks.
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