Nearly every visitor to the Soo makes a pilgrimage to the locks, right in the heart of downtown Sault Ste. Marie at the end of Ashmun Street (Business I-75). The city has smartly dressed up this area with lovely Locks Park. Blue freighter signs mark the Locks Park Walkway, which wanders along Water Street and is dotted with interpretive plaques that explain the city’s heritage and other objects of historical interest. These include a former U.S. Weather Bureau Building, a Japanese torii (ceremonial gateway) and an obelisk commemorating the 1905 dedication of the Soo locks.
In the heart of this rather formal park, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages the locks and a visitors center (906/253-9290, 9am-9pm daily mid-May-mid-Oct.) next to a raised viewing platform that lets you see the locks in action. Start at the visitors center to get some background on how the locks work. A moving model shows how the locks raise and lower ships by opening and closing the gates of a lock chamber and allowing water to rush in or out. No pumps are required; the water simply seeks its own level. Other displays explain the construction of the locks. A knowledgeable staff with a PA system, along with video cameras upriver, notify you about approaching vessels. In summer months, you can usually count on a ship coming through about once an hour. You can also call the visitors center to get the day’s shipping schedule, but times can change depending on weather conditions and other factors.
It’s easy to while away an hour or two watching the ships as they crawl through the locks with seemingly just inches to spare. Summer evenings are especially pleasant, when you’ll likely have the platform to yourself to watch the illuminated ships. If you’re lucky, you might see a “saltie,” an oceangoing vessel that’s likely hauling grain to foreign ports. Overall, the three most common Great Lakes shipments are iron ore for steelmaking; limestone, which is a purifying agent for steelmaking and also used in construction and papermaking; and coal for power plants.
The locks and viewing platform are open through the Great Lakes shipping season, March 25 to January 15. Those are the official dates when the locks terminate operations for winter maintenance. Ice buildup on Lake Superior often affects the length of the shipping season as well.
After viewing the locks, you can “lock through” yourself on the extremely popular Soo Locks Boat Tour (800/432-6301, early May-mid-Oct., $25 adults, $11 ages 5-12). The two-hour trip takes you through both the American and Canadian locks and travels along both cities’ waterfronts. Also offered are lunch, dinner, and various special cruises to see lighthouses, Fourth of July fireworks, etc. At busy times, you’ll be in the midst of freighter traffic, dwarfed by their enormous steel hulls. The large passenger boats have both heated and open deck areas. Boats depart as early as 9am from two docks on Portage Avenue.