The Soo Locks Of Sault Ste. Marie

The Soo Locks of Sault Ste MarieMichigan’s Upper Peninsula is an often overlooked travel destination. Sandwiched between three of the Great Lakes, the U.P. is a remote and rugged wilderness that features hundreds of miles of trail, incredibly dense forests and more solitude than anyone could ever ask for. Outdoor enthusiasts will love the options for hiking, camping and backpacking, while other visitors will enjoy the scenic beauty and laid back lifestyle.

That vast expanse of wilderness is occasionally broken up by quaint and inviting Midwestern towns populated by friendly and accommodating people. The largest of those towns is Sault Ste. Marie (pronounced Soo-Saint-Marie), which is located on the southern banks of the St. Mary’s River on the eastern side of the Peninsula, just a stone’s throw away from Canada.

You wouldn’t know it while passing through the sleepy little town but Sault Ste. Marie (Pop. 15,000) is home to the busiest lock system in the entire world. Completed in 1855, the Soo Locks connect Lake Superior and Lake Huron, allowing ships to safely traverse the 21-foot drop that separates those two bodies of water. Each year more than 10,000 vessels pass through the locks, despite the fact that they are closed between January and March, and in 2008 alone, the locks saw more than 80 million tons of cargo come and go.The Great Lakes have served as shipping lanes for centuries and the Soo Locks are vitally important in keeping that traffic flowing today. As such, most of the ships that pass through Sault Ste. Marie are freighters, barges and tugboats. Some of those vessels are capable of steaming straight out of the Lakes and directly into the ocean itself, delivering as much as 72,000 tons of cargo to the rest of the world. It is not unusual for the locks to see the occasional tall sailing ships, cruise lines or even military vessels too.

During the summer travel months the Soo Locks are amongst the most popular tourist destinations in all of Michigan. Visitors actually come from around the world to take in the sights of a large ocean-going vessel passing through Sault Ste. Marie. The transfer process between the two lakes is a fascinating one and watching the locks in operation is a unique experience. That process can be observed from a lovely park that sits alongside the locks, which is the perfect place for spotting the large ships as they approach. Better yet, visitors can actually pass through the Soo Locks themselves by booking a local boat tour.

The Soo Locks Visitor Center is also a great place to learn more about the locks while visiting Sault Ste. Marie. The center provides a contextual history of how and why these modern wonders were built while also offering a large observation deck for watching the ships “lock through.”

When you’re finished enjoying the locks, be sure to spend a little time exploring Sault Ste. Marie as well. As Michigan’s oldest city, it has plenty of unique aspects to discover. And whatever you do, don’t leave town without trying the fudge!

5 Great Lakes Destinations: Explore The Outdoors Through Beachside Forests And Islands

A thick streak of teal striped the water as we crossed over it on the Mackinac Bridge. The Mackinac Bridge connects Lower Michigan and Upper Michigan. The waters I marveled at as we crossed were to my right, making up Lake Huron. Lake Michigan was to my left. I never suspected, until then, that I could see Caribbean blues in the Great Lakes. The drive I made from the Mackinac Bridge to Houghton, Michigan, was filled with detours. I pulled off the road a handful of times to take in the scenic Lake Michigan beaches along the way. The core beauty of the Great Lakes and surrounding areas seems to lie within the pristine nature of the outdoors. If you want to plan an outdoor adventure near one of the Great Lakes this summer but you don’t know where to begin, here’s a list that should help get you started.1. Isle Royale

Lake Superior’s Isle Royale is a rugged National Park. It’s the largest island in Lake Superior at 45 miles long and 9 miles wide. Comprised of 400 small islands in addition to Isle Royale itself, the park’s above-water land is still relatively small at 209 square miles. Wolf and moose populations make Isle Royale a popular destination, particularly because this is the only known place where wolves and moose coexist without bears. The largest trail is the Greenstone Ridge Trail. At 40 miles long, this trail is generally a four- or five-day hike. The island boasts a total of 165 miles of hiking trails. Visitors can also canoe or kayak around the area. A lodge and 36 designated wilderness campgrounds make Isle Royale ideal for a backpacking trip.

2. Hiawatha National Forest

The Hiawatha National Forest is an 880,000-acre forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. With over 100 miles of shoreline, this forest is a great destination for water activities. Steep rock walls create dramatic landscapes alongside tall trees, streams, rivers and waterfalls. Nestled alongside three of the five Great Lakes (Michigan, Superior and Huron), this forest is filled with campgrounds. What’s more, lighthouses, Native American artifacts and archaeological sites make this forest worth the visit for outdoor fun.

3. Apostle Islands

The Apostle Islands are a group of 21 islands in Lake Superior. These islands lie off of the Bayfield Peninsula in northern Wisconsin. Identified as the “spiritual home” of the Lake Superior Chippewa, the islands were originally named after the 12 apostles by historian Pierre Francois Xavier de Charlevoix, despite the presence of 21 islands. White spruce and balsam fir trees dominate the islands. Sea caves throughout the islands feature beautiful arches and chambers. Campgrounds are available on 18 of 21 islands. Scuba diving, kayaking and hiking are all popular activities on the islands during the summer.

4. Sleeping Bear Dunes

Covering a 35-mile stretch of Lake Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has been called the most beautiful place in America by many, including ABC’s “Good Morning America” in 2011. Forests, beaches, dune formations and ancient glacial phenomena attract visitors to this island destination. Primitive, rustic and even more luxurious (with electricity and showers) campsites are spread throughout the Dunes.

5. Chimney Bluffs State Park

Impressive clay rock formations drop into the shores of Lake Ontario at Chimney Bluffs State Park in New York. The park has only four miles of hiking trails, but the scenery is worth the short trek. Open daily from dawn until dusk, this park is not one for camping or multi-day journeying, but it is a great destination for a vividly beautiful day trip.

Learn About the Niagara Falls

Racing the wind on a frozen Michigan lake

Racing across a frozen Michigan lakeA frozen lake on Michigan‘s Upper Peninsula seems an unlikely place to hold a world championship event – particularly in February. Yet that is exactly where I found myself this past weekend as I watched more than 40 competitors from around the globe zip to and fro across the ice propelled by nothing more than the wind.

I made the trip to St. Ignace, a small town located on the banks of Lake Huron, to attend the annual World Ice and Snow Sailing Association (WISSA) Championship. The weeklong event pits competitors against one another in a variety of wind-powered races that mix grace, skill, and speed in equal measures.

The field of competitors came from across the planet just to take part in the event. The U.S., Canada, Finland, and Russia were all very well represented, as were numerous other countries including Cuba. The lone entrant from that nation acquitted himself quite nicely, finishing tenth in his division despite the fact that his homeland hasn’t seen ice or snow in quite some time. The male and female racers ranged in age from as young as 17 to well into their 50s, although they all shared a youthful exuberance and love for their sport.

The WISSA Championship features three divisions based on the type of apparatus that the racers use to capture the wind. Some competitors prefer the quick and agile wing, which resembles a small hang glider and is usually paired with a set of ice skates or skis to propel them across the ice. Raising the wing above their heads and turning it to catch the wind, they are able to generate quite a bit of speed, while still remaining very nimble. Steering is accomplished by constantly adjusting the glider in subtle ways to meet the changing breezes.The second division pits competitors against one another on sailboards that are not unlike something you’d find on water that hasn’t entered a solid state. Many of the entrants in this category have built their own sleds, merging a snow or wake board with a specially designed sail that is capable of harnessing the wind to generate impressive speeds. Sailboards are not nearly as nimble as the wings but they are still a lot of fun to ride and are probably the easiest of the three types of WISSA vehicles to learn how to control.

Racing across a frozen Michigan lakeThe third and final category actually uses large kites to pull the racers, who are typically strapped onto a snowboard or skis, across the ice. These kites are attached to the end of long cables and use a unique steering system to allow competitors to adjust direction on the fly. What they lack in agility, the kites more than make up for with pure speed, although they do require more skill to control than it would seem at first glance.

Each of the three divisions holds their own appeal of course, although the one that fascinated me the most were the kites. One of the racers let me control his kite while it was in flight and I was amazed at the amount of force it could generate. On more than one occasion an errant gust threatened to rip the handle from my grasp and at times it was all I could do just to hang on. That same racer confessed that he was able to hit speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour on larger, wide-open lakes, although all of that speed wasn’t exactly translating into wins for him in Michigan.

While the graceful wings and speedy kites were a lot of fun to watch, it was the competitors themselves that left me the most impressed. After spending the better part of two days watching them race – and interact – with one another, I was amazed at the level of camaraderie that was on display. While it was clear that they all enjoyed the spirit of the competition, it was even more evident that they simply enjoyed hanging out with one another. Many of them were old friends who had raced against one another in the past, and in between heats they were often seen sharing gear, testing out each other’s rigs, and sharing tips to improve their performance. There was a lot of laughter and good-natured ribbing as well and it was abundantly clear that for many of them the WISSA Championship was simply a great excuse to get together with acquaintances both old and new.

The St. Ignace edition of the WISSA Championship was the first to be held in the States. Next year it will return to Finland, which has been a frequent host in the past. But organizers of the event in Michigan plan to set up a North American competition, which will return to the region on an annual basis. They also hope to continue to grow interest in the sport, which has the potential to be a popular alternative to traditional winter sports.

Visit Michigan.org for more ideas on what to do in Michigan during the winter.