Please welcome Tom Pink as this week’s guest blogger!
Before I moved to Sault Ste. Marie, my paddling time was limited to the many hours my brother and I spent rowing a fishing boat when we were kids. We preferred the boat to a canoe. Kayaks were few and far between, back then.
It wasn’t until the Great Lakes water levels dropped drastically a little over 15 years ago that I bought my first canoe, a purchase driven by necessity and not a newfound love for paddling. When the water was low, the best way to get out to hunt or fish in some places was by canoe or kayak.
The first time I paddled my canoe before sunrise into a St. Marys River coastal marsh, I was hooked. Instead of listening to the drone of an outboard motor, I could hear the marsh coming to life, with waterfowl and shorebirds calling out of sight in the darkness, and the wind rustling through reeds and cattails.
Some years later, I sold that canoe to help finance my first stand-up paddleboard (SUP). My love for paddling increased, and I counted myself among the thousands who have discovered the pleasures of being on the St. Marys River in a canoe, kayak, or SUP just for fun. I suppose the fun could be counted as a necessity if you, like many others, consider it vital to get outside to unplug from the craziness of everyday life and reconnect with what is simpler. There are few better ways to experience the benefits of what nature has to offer than dipping a paddle into the St. Marys.
Last year, Bird’s Eye Outfitters opened as the Sault’s first river outfitter, offering kayak and SUP rental, excursions and more. This year, the Chippewa County Community Foundation, based in Sault Ste. Marie held its first fundraiser that focused on the region’s popularity as a paddling and outdoor fun destination – the Soo Ultimate Paddle Day.
“Here in the Sault, we have this unique mix of history, an active harbor, the presence of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Soo Locks, use of the river for hydroelectric power, and two countries where the river is integral to their existence,” says Ken Hopper, who owns Bird’s Eye Outfitters. “You take all of that out, and you’re still left with a pretty cool natural resource. At Bird’s Eye, what we’re trying to do is celebrate all of those components in a paddling trip.”
The St. Marys surrounds Sault Ste. Marie, making an arc around the city that starts in the southwest at the Shallows – a large sand flat on the upstream side of the Soo Locks. The arc winds northeast through the Locks and Soo Harbor before turning east and south and flowing through a series of islands. These are becoming a favorite spot for paddlers.
Years ago, the Corps of Engineers blasted through one of the islands to make room for a larger shipping channel. Today, the channel provides up-close-and-personal views of freighters headed to and from Lake Superior. New docks at Rotary Park and on Voyageur Island make it easy to launch paddle craft and take a break while watching boats and the area’s abundant wildlife. Paddlers who stop on Voyageur Island can see a variety of songbirds, waterfowl, and raptors, including bald eagles and osprey, as well as deer, snowshoe hare, and the occasional moose. Nature lovers will also like the upper St. Marys, where it’s just a short trip upstream from Sherman Park and the Shallows to Izaak Walton Bay, which hosts a good variety of migrating and resident waterfowl.
The river attracts more than those interested in watching birds, wildlife, and lake freighters; it’s becoming known as a good place to challenge oneself while improving paddling skills. Trey Rouss, owner of The Power of Water, a Lansing-based paddle sports outfitter, brings his crew to the Eastern U.P. to offer training a few times a year.
“The St. Marys offers a unique blend of current, freighter traffic, navigation and deep, strong eddies in a very compact area,” Rouss said. “It represents many of the challenges we see out on the ocean here in our own backyard.”
Rouss noted that the Straits of Mackinac – a short drive from the Soo – is another great place to train because of the waves and dynamic conditions that are present just about every day.
Paddlers looking for a multi-day adventure can follow the Lake Superior water trail, which includes stops in the Twin Saults, or the lower St. Marys, where Potagannissing Bay’s islands and coves have attracted paddlers for centuries. Launching at Raber puts you within three miles of Lime Island State Recreation Area, a good place to spend the night in a tent or a cabin.
The St. Marys River is certainly an ideal place for paddle sports, but it’s not the only place in the Eastern Upper Peninsula that attracts paddlers. Dip your keel in Lake Superior at Brimley State Park, where it’s just a short paddle up to the Waiska River, a quiet, calm spot with little current. Further west and north, but still within reach of the Soo, wildlife lovers and fishermen who want a little more flow enjoy the Tahquamenon River, which winds through Tahquamenon Falls State Park and empties into Superior just south of Whitefish Point.
There are several inland lakes and rivers within an hour’s drive of Sault Ste. Marie, including the Munuscong River and the Manistique Lakes. Fishing can be very good at many of these spots, so it pays to pack some fishing gear along with your paddle.
It’s worth noting that 38 people died in recreational boating accidents in 2016, the largest number in Michigan since 2000, and the U.S. Coast Guard attributes some of the increase to the growing popularity of paddle sports. Always wear a personal flotation device, share your route with friends and family on shore, and be alert to changing weather conditions to ensure that you’ll have a safe trip.
Remember to be safe, and have fun in Sault Ste. Marie! Tag your paddling photos with #ILoveTheSoo.