Friday, June 20, 2014

Cruisin’ the St. Mary’s River

by Frank Boles

On June 15, I had the chance to cruise up the St. Mary’s River as part of the 17th annual “Father’s Day Cruise” sponsored by the DeTour Reef Light Preservation Society. The St. Mary’s River has always been a magical place - the link between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. My voyage on the St. Mary's River brought to mind a wonderful book written by Fred Dutton called Life on the Great Lakes: A Wheelsman’s Story (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991). In 1916, Dutton signed onto his first freighter. By the 1920s, he worked his way to the position of wheelsman, the crew member who actually steers the ship. He described his experiences on the St. Mary’s this way:

“It was always fine to steer a steamship up the St. Marys [sic] River on a dark, clear night – an exhilarating thing. Tonight it was at its best. A small north breeze rippled the water, humming in the rigging. The moon was settling over the dark pines to the west, while the northern lights flung their eerie banners flaring the northern sky. All else was dark, except for the line of buoys blinking on either side and the brilliant gleam of the range lights ahead and astern. You felt as though you were in another world. It was strong wine.”

The St. Mary’s River is an engineering marvel. Left in its natural state, the St. Mary’s drops twenty-one feet in about a half mile at Sault Ste. Marie, creating an unnavigable waterway. The river’s natural state, however, was changed long ago. To make navigation possible, the Soo Locks were built. Approximately 10,000 passages are made annually between Lake Huron and Lake Superior.

But the river’s engineering extends far beyond the locks. Over a 55 mile course, its many twists and turns have been straightened and deepened so that 1,000 foot long freighters can, very carefully in some places, maneuver through the channels. Cruising upriver, one can see the “rock cuts,” places where vertical cuts were made in solid rock to create deep yet narrow channels for contemporary ships

For all of the engineering marvels, it is Dutton who best captures the place. Dutton eventually became a very successful lawyer, but he had a unique idea of a summer vacation. He would sign himself up for a few weeks service as a relief wheelsman. Sailing up the St. Mary’s on a sunny summer’s day, one could catch just a bit of why Dutton’s vacations were always at the wheel of a Great Lakes freighter, and the strong wine he drank as a young man steering his ship along this course.