The Soo Locks

In 2007, my dad and I got up before sunrise and headed down to the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. We got there just in time to see a lake freighter leaving the MacArthur Lock. It was so exciting to see a laker so close – just on the other side of the fence!

Lake Freighter in the MacArthur Lock
Lake Freighter in the MacArthur Lock at the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan
The Jon B Aird lake freighter
The Jon B Aird lake freighter

The Soo Locks are a way for ships to travel to and from Lake Superior to Lake Huron and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Before the Locks were built, the St. Mary’s River system was a series of rapids. The water level difference between Lake Superior and the St. Mary’s River is 21 feet. When a freighter goes through the Locks, water is either added or taken out of the lock so that the ship is either raised or lowered to the level of the waterway it’s entering.

They have observation decks overlooking the Locks. Growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, I spent many hours watching t he boats come and go through them. But on this day in July 2007, we had just enough time to get to the fence to watch the freighter exit the MacArthur Lock.

When you live in the Great Lakes region of the United States, you often see the ships on the horizon. You don’t realize just how large they are until you see them going through the Locks. It’s awesome to be so close to these huge ships that are moving slowly through the water while you stand on the sidewalk. It was better to view this ship from my vantage point on the ground because it really illustrated its size.

Just After Sunrise at the Soo Locks
Lake Freighter (also known as a Laker)

The freighter was the John B. Aird, and it was owned and operated by Algoma Central in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. According to the ship log inside the Visitor’s Center, the John B. Aird was 730 feet long and was 75 feet wide.

From the upper observation decks, you can better see just how tight the quarters are for a ship of this size to enter the lock. The length of the MacArthur Lock is 800 feet, so it easily accommodated the 730-foot-long freighter. But the width of the MacArthur Lock is only 80 feet wide – that’s a clearance of 2-1/2 feet on both sides of the freighter once it enters the lock. For a ship of that size, it’s not much.

MacArthur Lock

In this photograph, you can see the stern of the John B. Aird as it leaves the MacArthur Lock. The International Bridge between the United States and Canada is in the background.

Once a freighter leaves the lock, the main gates are closed.

MacArthur Lock Closing

There are several gates inside the lock that are opened and closed as ships enter.

Only seven minutes passed between my first photograph and this last photograph. We got there just in time. I felt fortunate to have been able to see this freighter leave the lock. The sounds of a ship going through the lock was familiar to me. There are all sorts of mechanical sounds in the air, coming from both the locks and the ship. Bells and buzzers and the sound of heavy machinery and clanking gears. Since it was so early in the morning, there weren’t any other park visitors around. The only voices we could hear were the occasional shouts and calls of direction from the crews on the boat and on the ground.

John B Aird Stern

To read more about the Soo Locks, check out this article “Things You May Not Know About the Soo Locks“.

If you ever have the chance to visit Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, a trip over to the Soo Locks is a must. During the summer months, they have boat tours that take you through the Locks and it is a whole different experience and a fantastic view!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Steven Heap says:

    Interesting! Locks are such simple yet physically complex devices that have no trouble in lifting the largest of ships. We went on a cruise along the Douro river in Portugal and going through the locks always got people up on deck watching the action! I wrote about that trip here:

    There is a Viking cruise now through all the Great Lakes – one on my list I think!

  2. I have gone through the locks from the Chicago River to Lake Michigan. It’s a neat experience to watch the water level go up & down.

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