Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan
by Cyndi Perkins

Regionally known as “The Soo,” the shipping crossroads of the Upper Great Lakes is a must-see for any boater. Whether you arrive by land or sea, the history, scenery and recreational opportunities on the shores of the St. Mary’s River make this a superb vacation destination. The historic and scenic attractions of Michigan’s oldest city - the third oldest city in the United States - offers something for all ages. And the boating facilities are first class in value for dollars expended.
In our case, a stop in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan proved a welcome rest stop after Chip Ahoy’s 35-hour premiere leg of America’s Great Circle Loop.

Packing and provisioning, not to mention countless bon voyage parties, left us exhausted but exhilarated as we unplugged and untied from our seasonal slip at Houghton County Marina in the western Upper Peninsula on the morning of Friday, Aug. 30, 2003. After more than 10 years of planning and working our keisters off, we were finally taking our 1977 bluewater cruiser where she was built to go - on a long, open-ended voyage ultimately leading to salt water and weather where the butter melts.

Bleach the cat, aka “Bleachy Mon,” attends one of Chip Ahoy’s many bon voyage parties at our slip in Houghton County Marina. After a decade of work and planning, the dream to take an extended cruise was coming true.

By 2:29 p.m. Saturday, we were wearily celebrating Chip Ahoy’s marathon blast east across Keweenaw Bay and Lake Superior to Whitefish Point. Ahead of us lay Whitefish Bay and the St. Mary’s River, which feeds into Great Lakes Huron and Michigan via the Straits of Mackinac. The Soo was still four to five hours away.

From more than 20 miles offshore, sand beaches and dunes rimming the shore floated hazily, a tan ribbon on the distant horizon. The unclouded sun lent an illusion of warmth. In actuality, long underwear, wooly caps and gloves were necessary.

Landlubbers are always curious about what we do on such long offshore passages. We read, listen to music and tend to boat chores. Scott messes with sail configurations, making minute adjustments to get the most out of the wind. We also spend hours simply watching the water and the sky. If that sounds boring to you, you are probably not cut out to be a cruiser.

Our night passage across Lake Superior is something I will always remember for its clarity, beauty and discomfort. The planet Mars outshone the moon, laying a thick glade on the black, foam-licked waves. Earlier, at dusk, our last Superior sunset for the year produced an amazing red sky that lingered behind a fingernail moon. The pretty show in the sky provided some consolation for the damnable beam seas that had kicked in around Point Abbaye as we left the shelter of Keweenaw Bay. In a rude, long goodbye, Lake Superior flung us about all night in five-to-eight footers. We were never in danger, mind you, it just wasn’t pleasant.
I managed a 9 p.m.-12:40 a.m. watch and Scott woke me at 5 a.m. - actually I had to wake up my hand and other assorted tingling parts before I could lurch off the salon settee. Now I understand why lee cloths are essential to hold the sleeping sailor in her bunk. Temps were 39-40°F but we dress for the cold all the time on this lake so that was nothing new. To starboard, Marquette shown brightly, with dimmer glows marking Munising and Grand Marais. We decided not to beat ourselves up with any more all-nighters for a few weeks. You tough them out and tend to forget how much it took out of you - something both sailing and childbirth have in common. Thank God we had tied up for a few hours to eat brunch at the lower entry before we went out on the lake. We were also able to scarf down some outstanding smoked salmon with Brie and crackers in the lee of the Huron Islands before the 5-8 footers started cracking us from the north again. Referring to my log I notice I had to stop recording information during this part of the trip because even with seabands on I was getting queasy. Waves subsided throughout the afternoon and we motored with the headsail up in more comfortable conditions.

In late afternoon Saturday we entered Whitefish Bay, where huge and natural wave action combined with freighter slop creates an unpredictable, often powerful wake that demands respect and constant attention at the tiller and charts. Spotting markers can be difficult in certain light and wave conditions and first glances can be deceiving. Water and radio towers ashore add to the confusion.

George Kemp marina is a first-rate reasonably priced facility with all major attractions in walking distance.

We looked behind us for one more glimpse of “our” lake. It would be harder to say goodbye to Superior if it wasn’t so cold, and if she’d been kinder.
My anxiety rose as we passed from the wide-open bay into the shipping channel in early evening. Scott is familiar with the locks. In fact, Chip Ahoy was the first pleasure vessel to pass through the locks in 1997, on her April inaugural journey from Bay City, Michigan in the Lower Peninsula to her new home in the Upper Peninsula. The confounding vista of belching stacks, the towering International Bridge linking the United States and Canada, the concrete tunnels and metal gates was new to me.

The traffic on the waterway is intimidating and thrilling. Even with our guidebook and chart diagrams, I felt a little panicky about which lock to go into. There are four locks on the American side: The Davis, Poe, MacArthur and now-closed Sabin locks. We radioed the American Lockmaster on Channel 14, which is used by both the American and Canadian locks, to receive instructions. After a half-hour wait idling near the lock entrance the green light signaled us into the MacArthur. Lock workers handed us two lines, fore and aft, affixed to cleats on the sidewalk/lock platform. As the water was lowered and Chip Ahoy dropped 21 feet we paid out the lines.

The concrete walls steadily encased us, as if the boat was in the throat of a giant. Stationed at the bow, my hardest task was pushing Chip Ahoy away from the wall with a boathook to prevent the mast spreaders from striking the lip of the sidewalk. Locking down is less turbulent than locking up, and we fell smoothly in a matter of minutes. It was weird to see all the tourists on the observation platform gawking and taking photos after our two days of complete solitude on the lake. Plus we had a triple-decked tour boat in front of us in the lock. I was happy we weren’t required to lock through with a freighter, although it was a treat to be up close and personal with our neighbor in the next lock, the freighter Bourland, which we have often crossed paths with (never this close!) in the shipping lanes off the Keweenaw Peninsula.

We kept our starboard bumpers out and deployed fenders on port as well to be prepared for any docking situation at the George Kemp Downtown Marina, a short distance from the locks and easily recognized by the adjacent Valley Camp museum ship. The harbormaster came out to meet us on the fuel dock and assisted us in entering our slip. Wow, it was great to arrive somewhere. We’ll have no watch schedule and no trouble sleeping on this night.

The tolling church bells woke us Sunday, and after sausage and eggs over easy we decided to walk around town. The marina is in the heart of the downtown tourist district and Ship Canal Park is close by. The weathered historic homes include a little red house occupied by Bishop Baraga, “the Snowshoe Priest,” who ministered to Native Americans across the region. Back in the Copper Country, his giant statue and shrine attraction is a familiar landmark and it was nice to see a little touch of home in a strange place.

Out front of the marina, dozens of salmon fishermen jockeyed for position in a tournament, trolling off boats and casting from the spacious public boardwalk and adjoining riverbank. We witnessed several good catches and can attest to the high quality of fishing.

Chip Ahoy idles in front of the American locks, awaiting permission to lock through. In major shipping areas, commercial traffic takes priority over recreational vessels, so waits are common. The green tour boat ahead of us is also standing by for the green light.

The shopping district on Portage Street near Locks Park is very Mackinac Island/Wisconsin Dells, a street carnival overflowing with kitschy knick-knacks, fudge, t-shirt shops and nautical trappings. It’s a great place to browse and nibble. We stopped at a convenience store where Scott bought a lotto scratch ticket and won $40. We blew his windfall on a restaurant dinner. The majority of the time we cook on the boat. Scott enjoys whipping up gourmet meals and I enjoy consuming them. But part of the cruising adventure is tasting the local specialties. We weren’t disappointed at Goetz’s Lock View Restaurant. Scott’s walleye and my perch were excellent, as were the sourdough rolls and friendly service. We decided we owed the harbormaster a thank-you for his recommendation.

Labor Day Monday, Sept. 1, marked the first Monday in a long time that we didn’t have to travel back where we came from. Moving forward was wonderful. I don’t know how many times we’ve wished aloud “Let’s just keep going!” We can hardly believe we are finally able to sail our bluewater cruiser into waters new to us.

We pulled out of Kemp Marina around 8 a.m., skirting dozens of salmon fishing boats. The St. Mary’s is lovely, and blessed be, well marked. I am reminded of the harbormaster’s rhyme “Green to green and red to red, all is cool, proceed ahead.” Our next stop is the village of Detour at the far eastern end of the Upper Peninsula, leading to the Straits of Mackinac and Lake Michigan.

Cyndi Perkins is a freelance writer and full-time cruiser traveling with her husband, Scott, aboard their 32-foot DownEast sailboat Chip Ahoy. The couple completed America’s Great Circle Loop - a nine-month 6,000-mile journey - on June 4, 2004. In summer 2005 they will be leaving their Upper Peninsula homeport of Houghton, Michigan to explore Lake Superior’s Canadian north shore before heading south again on a cruise with an open-ended destination. Cyndi will be sharing top northern and Midwest destinations with readers in her regular “Cruiser’s Notebook” feature.

The Soo Locks area celebrates 150 years of operation in 2005, making for an eventful summer. Expect a lot of company if you visit during the Sesquicentennial “Lockfest,” a week of celebrations leading up to spectacular Independence Day fireworks on July 1st in Canada and July 4th in Michigan, not to mention the colorful and awe-inspiring grandeur of a Native American powwow on July 3rd.

For more information on exhibits, festivals, historical sites and other coming attractions, visit the website.

George Kemp Downtown Marina 906-635-7670, 866-635-7670, on the Internet. The well-run, immaculate marina has 56 slips as well as one mooring for a 75-90 foot vessel. It is a Michigan State Waterways sanctioned marina offering a reasonable state-set fee schedule. Our slip rate in August 2003 was $30 per night. Rates have probably gone up a bit, but nothing shocking. Please note that the Charles T. Harvey Marina, a shallow-draft facility farther down the river, will no longer be serving transient vessels.

Boat Launches Ashmun Bay Park is listed as the only major boat launch into the Upper St. Mary’s River. There are two small-boat launches at Aune-Osborn Park as well as 100 camping sites with electrical hookups. Contact the Kemp Marina if you are unsure about where to launch.

Transportation There’s dial-a-ride, cab, Rent-A-Wreck and airport auto rental service available, as well as shuttles to area casinos. Marina guests may use one of the courtesy bikes, available on a first-come first-served basis.

Locking through You can observe the entire locking process at the visitors center, but there’s nothing like doing it yourself, at least if you’re a boater. If you wish to lock through, just so you can say that you have, hail both Canadian and U.S. locks on VHF Channel 14 and await instructions. Locking through is toll-free and you can pass through the Canadian lock without dealing with any customs issues.

Other essentials The marina has an extensive list of frequently called numbers including marine service, repair and equipment outlets. If you need groceries, you should plan on traveling by motor vehicle.