One of my favorite hobbies while traveling around the Great Lakes is watching and photographing the freighters that travel these waters, picking up and shipping out a wide variety of goods. One of the best places in the state for this activity is visiting several spots in the Upper Peninsula town of Sault Ste. Marie, which traces its roots to 1668 and the explorer Jacques Marquette.
Obviously, one of the biggest draws to the town is the world famous Soo Locks, which lift/lower vessels to equal out the difference between Lake Superior and Lake Huron on the St. Mary’s River, which once featured a large set of rapids.
A newly remodeled observation deck (handicap accessible) gives one of the closest views to these monster vessels available anywhere, the closest lock accommodates various sizes of vessels, while the next lock back is able to handle the 1000 foot freighters. It is truly an experience for any fan of maritime history to be this close to vessels that reach so many places. A visitor center (with numerous displays on the history of the locks)is open during normal business hours, and will have arrival times posted. After hours, a phone number posted on the observation deck will have a recording with the day’s traffic. International vessels (salties) visit here as well, so it is possible to see a vessel here that may weeks later be traveling across the Atlantic Ocean:
The Locks are located on West Portage Ave. in the heart of the downtown business district.
Another view of freighters can be had from a small park just east of the locks on Water St., near the remnant of old Fort Brady as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office (above photo).
A popular spot for fisherman as well as boat watching (it is the focal point of the annual tug boat race) is a park near the Edison hydroelectric plant, reached by traveling east of downtown on Portage St. then taking a left on Salmon Run Way.
All of these locations pale in comparison to my favorite place to view freighters, Rotary Park at the east end of Portage Ave. Located near the dock for the Sugar Island ferry, this small park provides wide open views of the freighters as they head up or down the river next to the island. Seeing these massive vessels as close as a few hundred feet away is amazing!
Another chance to see freighters is while dining at the West Pier Drive-In, located near the western end of Portage Ave. on Pier Dr. (under the International Bridge):
Vessels will often have to wait here for others to finish in the locks before they can enter. On a good day, it is possible to follow a vessel on both ends of the locks and watch them go through, due to the slower speeds they travel at in the area. Other great sites are the River of History Museum and the Tower of History, Historic Water Street and the downtown shopping district. I also highly recommend a copy of Know Your Ships if you are interested in learning about each vessel’s point of origin, ownership, length and type of cargo.