Engineering Soo Locks

It was engineering weekend in the Eastern UP, starting with a class on e-bike dynamics and ending with a 3 hour course on fluid mechanics and the Soo Locks system.

Brimley State Park was about 150 miles from Munising in the middle UP, still in the Hiawatha National Forest but only 15 miles from Canada. These Ontarian boys grilled Eric on how the Comos work before racing around the parking lot to see if they could catch him. No shot.

Brimley was the only RV park in the Sault Ste Marie (pronounced Soo San Marie) area with an opening. It was a fine example of border harmony where Canadians and Americans camp in family unison. Kids ride bikes, play cornhole, fly kites and swim in the 60 degree Lake Superior waters. Families flip burgers and drink Bud Light while Eric roasts marshmallows and studies set-ups and tow vehicles. It’s right out of a Hallmark movie.

Since hwy 28 had no shoulder, Betty took us into the greater Soo area to check out Soo Locks which are two canals and four locks that allow vessels to traverse the 21 foot drop in elevation of the St. Mary’s River between Lake Superior and Lakes Michigan and Huron.

Even though we were a thousand miles from the Atlantic Ocean on the east coast, the vast iron ore mines of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Canada along Lake Superior transport their raw material around the world onships.  A series of locks along the water highway gradually lowers the Great Lakes freighters to sea-level.  The 800 feet monster ships sail right through the middle of Sault Ste Marie on the Soo Lock.  Besides eating white fish, watching lock activity is the primary pastime of folks in town.

We joined the modest crowds for a trip through the lock circuit on the touristy Bide a Bee. Similar to one of those ‘harbor tour’ boats in any city with waterfront, the leisurely float gave us a close up look at the Army Corp of Engineers lock system. Rob, at the helm and on the mike, had copious notes on the history of the waterfront and the technical details of the locks.

The lock system is free to use, as long as you are in a boat, which is a strange concept in this day and age when you pay big bucks just to drive in the left lane of a beltway. You don’t even have to schedule it, which is another thing you cannot find today where even an iPhone store makes you go online a set up an appointment.  Just float on in and the good folks in the Army COE will pump tens of millions of gallons of water around to raise, or lower, your boat 21 feet.  It was so cool, Eric felt like just going up and down over and over until someone in the control house said something.

The Canadians have a tiny little lock that can fit about a dozen ski boats which we used to head up into Lake Superior.  We were joined by five families in small(ish) runabouts who had been partying and having a good Sunday on Lake Heron but heard that the really good times were happening 21 feet higher in Lake Superior, so they jumped into the lock for the ride up.  Like a roller coaster stuck on walking speed, the whole thing happens silently in slow motion.  Sometimes we would close our eyes for a few minutes and rest, then quickly open them so that we could be surprised by the progress the lock had made.

Once on the Lake Superior side, we had some time to kill waiting for a big freighter to come out of the lock we wanted to use to headback down.  Rob took us on a tour of the steel mill on the Canadian side that was busy turning the Great Lakes iron ore into rolls of custom steel.

Train cars looked like toy trains next to dump trucks the size of suburban McMansions as the raw material was moved off the ships. In a world where techo-magic happens on an iPhone in our hand, it was fascinating to see the scope and scale of real heavy industry manufacturing.

Eric quietly sang Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘The Wreck of theEdmund Fitzgerald’ for the tenth time as the big freighter cleared the channel out of our down-lock.  The American locks are super-huge and do all the heavy lifting.  I guess they are a lock-like metatphor for our geo-political relationship with our northern neighbor.  Everyone seemed super-cool with the disparity in the size of the two countries locks, so we did not bring it up.

Because of science, or shipping, or something that we could not figure out, the two hour tour stretched into its third hour.  Rob started reading from the owners manual of the ferry to pass the time.  Little children, who had gotten fidgety watching nothing happen, began to really lose their little minds as parents pointed out that if they payed closer attention they could have seen that the water level had changed by almost a foot in the past 20 minutes.  Large viewing stands onthe side of the lock were cramped with tourists who must have been disappointed with our little ferry being lowered 21 feet after watching the 800 feet monster pass through.

Once out of the lock, Rob gunned the throttles in an attempt to get us back to the dock as the 3 o’clock tour had been lined up and waiting for an hour.  We enjoyed the extra time on the water.  It was relaxing and a great way to see the two sides of Sault Ste Marie.  Picking up the Comos, we paralleled our water journey on land back into town to try some more white fish local fare at the Lock View restaurant on Portage Ave.

Just as we were finishing really delicious lake perch in an awesome batter, the distraught family from the lock cruise took the table next to us.  The second floor dining room overlooked the Soo Locks.  A large ship slowly moved into the American lock which must have brought back terrible memories for the children because they immediately started bawling again. Check please.

Engineering Soo Locks