Water Ways

“By the shore of Gitche Gumee, By the shining big sea water…” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha.

Situated in the heart of North America thousands of miles from any ocean, Sault Ste. Marie is still, in many ways, a maritime city. Its location at a strategic juncture of the Great Lakes, and the innumerable smaller bodies of water surrounding it, have made the Sault a key centre of nautical exploration, commercial shipping and recreational boating. In all senses of the phrase, this is a community built by the water.

From the pre-Columbian age, the river linking those two vast inland seas to its east and west has defined the site of present-day Sault Ste. Marie. The native Ojibway tribes named the region, Pawating or Bawating, meaning “fast rushing waters,” after the rocky falls where Gitche Gumee poured downstream; later French-Canadian missionaries and canoe-paddling voyageurs designated the spot Sault Sainte Marie, or Saint Mary’s Rapids.

Arial bridge

As Europeans conquered and settled North America, and gradually defined the territorial extents of Canada and the United States, Sault Ste. Marie became both a chokepoint of travel and trade and an important border outpost – a sort of Land’s End in the middle of the continent.

The American poet Longfellow’s famous 1855 epic, Song of Hiawatha, is set in and around the forests and lakes of what became Sault Ste. Marie. Eventually, the abundant fishing to be enjoyed at the tumbling waters where Lake Superior emptied out became widely known; by 1920, no less an avid an angler than a young journalist, Ernest Hemingway enthused, “At the present time the best rainbow trout fishing in the world is the
Rapids at the Canadian Soo.”

Industrialization put the Sault’s waters to work, with the expanding fleet of Great Lakes freighters passing up and down the St. Mary’s River laden with grain, iron ore, and other foodstuffs and raw materials. During Sault Ste. Marie’s boom years, the town’s major businesses, Algoma Steel and Great Lakes Power, would have been inconceivable without the proximity of the Great Lakes, the St. Mary’s River and their waters. Still,
today locals use “the River” as a directional point of reference: the Sault has always been, and continues to be, a city inextricably bound to its primordial flows, waves, shorelines and currents.

That legacy is readily apparent in 2013. Stroll along the lengthy boardwalk that parallels the St. Mary’s River for a quick primer in just how much Sault Ste. Marie’s character is synonymous with the water lapping its shores. On any given day, you’ll spot multitudes of speedboats, sailboats, tugboats and kayaks, all weaving in and around larger pleasure craft, vessels of the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards, and giant cargo carriers from around the world.

Waterfront fountain
Three public marinas can be accessed within the city limits of the Canadian Sault alone. Seaplanes, too, take off from and set down on the river – crafts ranging from single-engine puddle-jumpers bound for an isolated northern lake to roaring water bombers headed out to douse a forest fire.

In the rapids themselves, under the shadow of the International Bridge, there are always a few fishermen (and women) casting lines as they follow in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway’s hip waders. Rainbow, brook, and speckled trout are among the choice local catches, but you might also snag a whitefish or a freshwater salmon;many of the small boats on the river carry fishing parties, while on the dry land of the boardwalk, you’ll discover even more clusters of rods and reels being held by outdoor buffs of all ages.

North of the Sault, in the sheltered bays of mighty Lake Superior or on one of the many named and nameless creeks that flow into it, there’s opportunity for canoeing, sailing, waterskiing, personal water crafting and, yes, ample sports fishing.

Fisihng on the boardwalk

This year, a seafaring past and present will come together on Sault Ste. Marie’s waterfront as the Tall Ships Challenge® – a tour of the five Great Lakes by an international flotilla of old-fashioned schooners, brigs, ketches, and sloops – puts in a mid-summer appearance on the St. Mary’s River. The Tall Ships Challenge® is a nonprofit group dedicated to showcasing the majesty of classic marine craft and preserving the aquatic ecosystems of the routes they sail; races, reenactments, and onboard tours are some of the attractions they offer. When the tall ships breeze into the area in July, locals and visitors alike will see the city as it was 200 years ago: then as now, “the Sault” meant both the growing community of people on land, and the bustling channel of seaborne trade and travel just offshore.

Whether driven by today’s modern engineering or yesterday’s elemental power of the wind, the armada of vessels plying its waterways are a reminder of Sault Ste. Marie’s importance on the map and within the course of history.

Plan to visit Sault Ste. Marie between July 19th and 21st, 2013 and enjoy the festivities as 3 Tall Ships will be docking at the Robert Bondar Marina. You can purchase your tickets online with an Agawa Canyon Tour Train package or with a participating accommodation. Look for more information? Call the Algoma 1812 office 705-949-1812. Their friendly staff will be more then happy to assist you.

About George Case

I’m the author of several books, as well as numerous articles which have appeared in newspapers, magazines, anthologies, and online.  My titles include Silence Descends:  The End of the Information Age, 2000-2500 (1997),Jimmy Page:  Magus, Musician, Man (2007), Arcadia Borealis:  Childhood and Youth In Northern Ontario (2008), Out of Our Heads:  Rock ‘n’ Roll Before the Drugs Wore Off (2010), Led Zeppelin FAQ (2011), Dumbing Down Dissent:  Fads and Fallacies in Political Discourse (2011), Calling Dr. Strangelove:  The Anatomy and Influence of the Kubrick Masterpiece (2014), and Here’s To My Sweet Satan:  How the Occult Haunted Music, Movies and Pop Culture, 1966-1980 (2016).

The essays here cover a wide range of cultural criticism and political observation, suitable for all readers (if not, I’ll warn you ahead of time).  Feel free to (politely) comment on or (fairly) quote from what you read here.

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