Isn’t it odd how one person’s extreme northern frontier is another’s balmy southern coast depending on where you stand?
And so it is with Sault Ste. Marie. To Michiganders, the “Soo” is a northern outpost of trappers and mushers. To the Canadians, Sault Ste. Marie is a thriving little burg hugging, as many Canadian cities do, the country’s southern border. (Note: two separate cities; two countries; same name)
And that’s where we decided to cross the border, in order to lop off a chunk of Canada and head almost due east toward Quebec City. (See how naturally “we” rolls off the tongue, er, keyboard, even though “we’ve” only been traveling together for a couple of weeks now?)
Those of us who live in Michigan know the Soo as the city of locks. But that’s about all we know, so on this trip, I was determined to learn more about this cork in the maritime bottle, this tail-wagging dog, that governs a huge chunk of commerce that travels from the Atlantic up the St. Lawrence Seaway and into the Great Lakes. (And THAT, for the non-Michigan readers, is how we got our infestation of Zebra mussels in the Great Lakes–from the ballast water of those ocean-going vessels.)
Locks aside, Sault Ste. Marie on the US side is a nice little town for the most part, despite the troglodytes who sit outside the pay-per-hour motels roaring drunk before six on a Sunday night. “Look, there’s one for you and one for me,” says one gallante. Clearly he is too hammered to care that “one”of us is old enough to be his mother.
We make it unmolested to the very nice Army Corps. of Engineers site that will let us watch the boats navigating through the locks. Had we been lucky, we might have seen one of the 1000-foot “lakers” go through, but we weren’t.
Locks of one sort or another have been at the Soo for a long time, because our European forbears didn’t have the stomach to portage around the rapids in the St. Mary River that the natives routinely did. This river is the waterway connecting Lake Superior to Lake Huron. (And by a long and circuitous route, eventually to the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Atlantic Ocean.) But the river drops 21 feet between one lake and t’other. Thus the rapids; thus the locks.
In the early 1900s, the Army Corps had built two. The last one—the Poe Lock—was built in 1968, and it can handle the 1000-foot “lakers.” Even with today’s fancy-pants engineering, building a lock capable of accommodating a ship this size takes a long time. Right now, a new one is being built, and it might take 10 more years!
Although they’re tough to build, the concept is simple. Locks are like bathtubs with an underground plug and a gate that opens at either end. Open one gate and water flows in; pull the plug and open the other, and it flows out.
Here’s what the process looks like from the observation deck:
The good environmental news is that one 1000-foot laker (which usually carries inert stuff like iron and grain, not nasty stuff like oil or chemicals), carries enough cargo to fill 600 train cars each with a 10,000-ton capacity or 2308 trucks each with a 26-ton capacity.
Holy big booty, Batman!
Shipping on the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes is seasonal, however, and darned if I know what happens when the lakes freeze.
* * *
Now, before I hung up my trailer wheels for the winter, I was becoming very good at sniffing out guerrilla camping spots (where I can camp for the night for free), but after a cushy winter in New York, that skill has rusted up. After our long drive to the Soo, then a little sightseeing, Julia and I needed a cheap or free place to spend the night.
As I saw it, our choices were…
a). the Wal-Mart parking lot (Ugh)
b) a rest stop (uncertain)
And then I stumbled upon:
c) The Kewadin Casino. SCORE!
Casinos are usually good because they lure you in with cheap food and lodging and free booze, then they fleece you on the games. Don’t play and you automatically win! I called the casino, and a gravelly voice confirmed that, yup, for $10 I got an electric hookup, a shower, laundry machines, a dump station (very important), and access to water—all of which I needed.
I pulled in expecting a glorified parking lot, but this is what I got:
The evening got even better.
“Walk over to the casino and get your player’s card, and they’ll give you two free nights at the campground,” said Jack, who was the person behind the gravelly voice.
So I did, and they did. Plus I got a fancy lanyard with my name on it and a handful of coupons and $10 off certain games (which I didn’t use), and I got called “Sweetheart” a bunch of times by the woman behind the desk who didn’t recognize me 10 minutes later.
The casino usually has free Internet, which would have made for a perfect overnight, but it was down that weekend.
Still…first night free—can’t beat that with a stick!