Sault Ste. Marie is pronounced Soo Saint Marie. Its eponymous, Canadian twin city is five times larger, and some people still speak French there. Both cities form a dot on the map that you may have seen in your fourth grade social studies book. On Day Eight of UP08, Dan and I actually went there.

We’d camped at Tahquamenon Falls the night before, then checked out the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum with a bunch of Amish tourists. At the museum, we explored some eerie artifacts from the Edmund Fitzgerald, a lake freighter that sunk mysteriously in 1975, killing all 29 aboard. Our daily quest for American ghosts satisfied, we cruised narrow forest roads, passed through a few Indian casino towns, and arrived in Sault Ste. Marie for lunch.

We expected to blow through town, then hit the road toward Ann Arbor. But something about the city kept my attention … and Dan’s. It wasn’t the waitress who didn’t flirt back or the really excellent Reuben I had. The gaudy neon motel signs all over town helped hold our attention…

…and the owner of this masterpiece came out to question the weirdos shooting her sign. She didn’t know much about its history, but instead suggested that we head across the border to party on the Canadian side of the St. Marys River. But Dan didn’t bring his passport. The motel owner didn’t have one at all. She’d lived in Sault Ste. Marie all of her 40ish years but had never crossed the bridge into Canada.

So why did we spend all afternoon in Sault Ste. Marie? The same reason a lot of people hang out there: the ships.

Even a non-nerd can admit that the sight of an 80,000-ton laker threading its way through the locks without any assistance from tugboats is pretty cool.

And we saw some pretty cool ships that day. For instance, there are only twelve thousand-footers that transport coal and ore on the lakes. They’re actually too big to make it through the St. Lawrence Seaway to salt water. Two of them happened to show up when we did:

Indiana Harbor


Edwin H. Gott

A fellow nerd informed us that the Arthur M. Anderson, the last ship to have had radio contact with the ill-fated Fitzgerald, was to arrive. Sure enough, the then-56-year-old laker rounded the easterly bend in the St. Marys River, sidled up to a bulkhead wall and tied up to wait her turn through the locks. The Anderson‘s crew found no survivors where the Fitzgerald went down in 1975. But for the Anderson itself, life had gone on for more than 30 years.

With our day in northern Michigan weirdly complete, we hit the highway, hoping to find a good time in Ann Arbor. It was the peak of the gas crisis, and it cost us $85 for one tank of gas. Sadly, Ann Arbor in the summertime would not live up to our expectations.

Photos are from the UP DAY EIGHT set on Flickr.

Text & Photos: Rob Bellinger
Originally published May 22, 2009