Sault St. Marie / The Soo Locks

July 26-27 — The St. Marys River is the only water connection between Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes, but Lake Superior is 21′ higher than these lower lakes.  The Soo Locks sit on the St. Marys River and enables boats to make this drop all at once.

I haven’t been here since I was probably in junior high school, and what I remember about this place is that everything was BIG – the vessels, the lines, the anchors… everything!

Fred and I made it here Saturday mid-evening after our great hike at Pictured Rocks, and we enjoyed watching a couple of freighters passing through – a Polish ship heading down the St. Mary’s River and another one heading up river into Lake Superior.  We came back, then, after breakfast on Sunday morning to see some more action.  Candidly, I couldn’t get enough and could have spent the entire day here watching these freighters come and go.

The Soo Locks are among the busiest lock systems in the world with something like 80 million tons of cargo – mostly iron ore, coal, grain and stone – passing through this system every year.  They are open and operational 42 weeks a year; they close in winter due to the ice, and during this time needed maintenance is performed.

Some facts I learned that I thought were fun about the Soo Locks:

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  • Over 22 million gallons of water move through the lock every time a boat is raised or lowered – 22 million gallons every time!
  • The channels through the St. Marys River are maintained for a maximum draft of 25.5 feet.  When lake levels are above low water levels, larger ships take advantage of the deeper water and load up to an additional 200 tons of cargo per inch of additional draft
  • 90 million tons of cargo moves through the Soo Locks every year
  • Boats traveling though this system pay nothing to transit through the locks
  • Nearly 150 million kilowatt hours of energy are needed to run the system every year; it’s produced by a hydro electric plant next to the locks
  • The Poe Lock at 1200′ long is the largest of the four locks here; it was rebuilt in 1968 to accommodate 1000′ vessels
  • Boats traveling from Duluth, MN (the westernmost Atlantic seaport) can make it out to the Atlantic Ocean by traveling through four of the five Great Lakes and a series of rivers and locks – it’s 2,342 miles to the sea from Duluth
The Mesabi Miner - she's 1004' long and 105' wide - carrying 63,300 tons of iron ore

If you’re a boating enthusiast like I am, you may want to check this out: – it’s a real-time Great Lakes & Seaway Vessel Shipping map that shows all the cargo ships, where they are, where they’re heading, what they’re carrying, etc.  It’s so cool!

Big… yes, even as an adult, this place impressed me as big….