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Sault Ste. Marie Michigan - Locks, Gambling and Good Food

Author: sightseeingsue (More Trip Reviews by sightseeingsue)
Date of Trip: April 2006

Sault Ste. Marie was my first stop in my exploration of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and winning big might pay for my trip expenses. In fact, if I played my cards right, then this trip could be a freebie!

We planned to make our first stop at Kewadin Casino while staying in Sault Ste. Marie. Sault Ste. Marie, or the "Soo," resides at the northeast corner of the Upper Peninsular about 1 hour north of the Mackinaw Bridge and is home to about 16,500 residents. It's noted for being the oldest city in Michigan, and the third oldest in the United States. Just by taking a drive down near its waterfront, it is clearly evident by this. You'll see rows of unchanged businesses and tourist shops appearing like you would have imagined them in the '50s, and with it's abundance of industrial businesses sprawl everywhere. This town could use a slight transformation to be more appeasing to the tourist's eye, but it's still a nice place to visit.

Being home to the man-made marvel the "Soo Locks" is the main reason while tourist comes to Sault Ste. Marie, but that's not its only draw. Other reasons might be wanting to try their luck at its Indian Casino, visiting town for a hockey tournament, visiting Lake Superior College, needing to cross the International Bridge to reach Canada, or for excellent fishing experiences. It's an ideal location, being less than an hour's drive from two other major Upper Peninsular attractions known as Tahquamenon Falls or White Fish Point Museum. This is yet another reason people make this Michigan's Upper Peninsular most popular tourist destination.

There is some debate over the exact meaning of the "Sault" as some translators say it means a place where one needs to "jump," while others say it means "put into" both referring to the treacherous rapids and cascades that fall over 20 feet from the water level of Lake Superior to the lower water level of the St. Mary's River. The Locks make safe boat/ship travel possible by raising the different water levels of the connecting waterways. A prominent Native American culture is present and celebrated here, and for obvious reasons they settled here first. They also adapted to the climate well, and stayed due to its richness in natural resources. Average summer temperatures are only 75ºF, while winter temperatures hover around 20ºF, and its annual snowfall of 115 inches makes this a snowmobilers paradise. Autumn is also a wonderful time to visit this area.

First thing to remember when going to any town in the "UP" is everything is done a little slower than usual here. So, your meal will be served when it's good and ready, and not at a snap of a finger. It's their lifestyle up here, not an indication of poor service or lack of consideration on their part -- just how they live. Don't let the aging or unchanged buildings scare you, as some are home to some of the best eats in town.

Directly across from the Soo Locks is a two-story restaurant that looks like something right out of the '50s called the Lockview Restaurant. Don't miss an opportunity to stop in for some grub there. We ate breakfast here one morning and wasn't disappointed with the price or the quality of food, and you can't beat the view of the huge ships sailing through the Locks across the way. This place also specializes in Whitefish that is caught and served the same day -- can't get any fresher than that.

Bringing a jacket or coat when traveling regardless of the month is advisable. At night in the summer temperatures can easily drop in the 40ºs or 50ºs, with it being on the frigid waters of Lake Superior. If you plan to cross the International Bridge to Canada, now several forms of identification are required. I would recommend bringing your birth-certificate or passport, as well as your valid drivers license or ID. The drinking age is 21 in Michigan, and to gamble at the Kedawin Casino in town you also must be at least 21 years of age. Soo Sault Marie, Ontario, also has a casino, and the age limit for gaming and drinking is only 19, making it a popular stop for college students not yet legal.

Sault Ste. Marie is located at the northern end of I-75. Exit 392 enters onto the I-75 Business Spur at the city limits, and Exit 394 enters onto Easterday Avenue in downtown Sault Ste. Marie. Traveling by air, the nearest airport to Sault Ste. Marie is the Chippewa County International Airport, located in Kinross, Michigan on the grounds of the former Kincheloe Air Force Base. Regular flights from Detroit and many other spots land at Chippewa International several times every day. Buses from the Indian Trails bus line service Sault Ste. Marie regularly. The Mackinaw Shuttle Service also offers bus and limo service from its headquarters in Mackinaw City to Sault Ste. Marie, Chippewa International airport, casinos and other Upper Peninsula destinations. So, your best method of travel to get around town is by car or truck.

Experience of the Soo Locks

I couldn't help it! The song "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot kept buzzing in my head as we stood standing on a steel platform some 25 feet from the ground, looking down onto the Alcocen freighter as it glided through the Soo Locks. This vessel had come up river from the St. Mary's River, and had a load of cargo that needed to be delivered that would take him on a journey through the sometimes treacherous waters of Lake Superior. But in order for him to do this, he needed the engineering marvel of the Soo Locks to make this voyage possible.

All boat traffic regardless of their size that flows into or out of Lake Superior must move through the locks of the St. Mary's River at Sault Ste. Marie. The St. Mary's River is the only water connection between Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes, but with it's 21 feet difference in water levels makes it impossible for boats to maneuver through the rapids without the help of the locks.

In the beginning, Ojibwa Indians would stop here, carry their canoes around the rapids just to reach Lake Superior, as these waters were crucial to their health and livelihood. The long hard winters took a toll on them and food was scarce, fish were plentiful here and was needed for their survival. Early pioneers arriving in this territory were also forced to carry their canoes around the rapids and later when settlement of this area brought increase trade as well as larger boats, wagons became necessary to haul cargo around the rapids to load onto other boats to Lake Superior. Therefore, the need for the Locks became apparent and opened in June of 1855.

Today the "Soo Locks" have the distinction of being the busiest locks in the world with an average of 12,000 passages each year. All different size boats pass through the locks from small passenger boats to large freighters, some as long as 1000 feet. This facility is operated and maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The locks operate most of the year, but are closed from January 15th to March 25th for yearly maintenance.

We could see the freighter entering the locks from the river side, and quickly ran up the stairs of the steel platform for a better view. As it rose to the level of Lake Superior, the ships magnitude seemed to explode right in front of our eyes. We were now standing directly in front of this enormous vessel and ready to see it off on it's journey towards White fish Point. It only took a few minutes for the locks to fill up with water to the level it needed to allow the Alcocen to continue on its way. We even got a friendly wave from the crew as it headed out.

On the grounds there is a very informational Visitors Center which has lots of fascinating material regarding the locks, such as it construction, navigational charts, maps, artifacts, photographs as well as a working model of the locks. There is also a video that provides a historical perspective on the need and use of this maritime marvel that is very interesting to watch.

If you arrive and there is no ship currently using the locks then head to the Visitor Center to see the posted schedule of arriving ships, which also provide some general information about them as well like there size, the cargo it's hauling, and its destination. TVs are also mounted on the walls so you can watch the vessels as they approach the locks from the St. Mary's River. The Visitors Center is open from 7am to 11pm from mid-May to November.

There are many park benches around the park to sit on and enjoy the ships as they sail on in, so don't feel like you have to climb the steel platform to witness them. However, the observation platform will give you the best perspective and almost a birds-eye view. The grounds also offer several permanent outdoor artifacts as well as a model-size exhibit of the locks that we especially liked.

Also offered is a Soo Locks Boat tour that will take you through the locks, exactly like the huge cargo ships do. We didn't do this, due to a time crunch, but my husband's cousin worked his way through Lake Superior College by being one of the narrators on these cruises years ago. He said to take the tour if you get an opportunity -- you'll experience first hand how and why these locks are so impressive.

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