By Sherri Telenko
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario is not exactly a tourist town. It’s one of those places I had little desire to visit until I did. In the spring, fortunately. Outdoors is what this region is about and cool spring or fall temperatures make touring the forest, fauna, and waterways most comfortable.
This city, directly north of Mackinac Island in Michigan, embodies classic Canadian associations: Native heritage, outdoor adventure, and a scenic landscape that inspired The Group of Seven painters. Leave your fancy clothes at home and bring your hiking shoes, you’ll need them to experience this city and surrounding region.
As for children? Unless family camping is your thing, most visitors to this area are couples pre- or post-kids. Sault Ste. Marie is about walking along the waterfront, dining on hearty fare, smoked whitefish and sweets, taking a river tour through the locks, and hiking in surrounding provincial parks (including shimmying along a pictograph-covered rockface, which should be on your bucket list).
Steps for Enjoying the Soo (as it’s known locally):
First, check into the Delta Waterfront Hotel near the Roberta Bondar Pavilion, host to many outdoor concerts and events. Yes, there are several brand-named hotels, bed and breakfasts, and even a KOA campground in town, but the Delta is the only waterfront hotel and it gives you easy access to the new boardwalk, which is likely where you’ll want to spend a significant time. I did. Granted, I was with my dog and walking, walking, and walking is always on our itinerary.
From the Delta, it’s an easy and scenic stroll past individual locals fishing from the boardwalk landings to the Parks Canada Lock Park and the Superintendent’s Residence. This historic house is open for tours and afternoon tea (on specific summer days). The canal locks are open daily, still operating but mostly for pleasure crafts and tour boats weaving through St. Mary’s River.
Waterfront Tour and Historic Lock Park
Originally built in 1895, the Sault Ste. Marie locks became a game-changer for the region, providing a connection between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. At the time, they were the world’s largest and first electrical. Today, the same technology still opens and closes the solid metal lock doors, and the mechanics of the system are visible through glass windows. About 15 minutes is all you need to watch a Soo Lock Tours’ boat filled with waving tourists rise and fall with the water draining through the lock doors and continue its daily sight-seeing route.
At this National Parks site, you can either rent wide-tire bikes to tour around or walk across the lock bridge to Bachewana White Fish Island, a level hiking opportunity you shouldn’t pass up. Gravel paths weave through the remarkably peaceful 22-acre island where only the sound of river rapids or wind through wildflower fields interrupt your thoughts. Plaques orient visitors about native species on this property that was returned to the Bachewana First Nations of Ojibway in 1997. Medical herbs have been gathered for centuries on this small healing island.
If you’re near the locks area on a Wednesday or Saturday, pick up lunch at the nearby seasonal Mill Market, a small red barn-like building along the waterfront and home to local produce producers, butchers and white fish vendors (a staple in Sault Ste. Marie).
In the evening, check out the Mill Steakhouse & Wine Bar located inside the refurbished stone former industrial Machine Shop building. The Mill Steakhouse (and adjacent Gelato Mill café) is within a five-minute drive (or longer walk) from the Delta Hotel, and a Gateway casino on the way back if that’s your thing.
Bushplane Heritage and the Group of Seven Inspiration
Next, if you love planes and more planes, check out the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre celebrating the primary source of Northern transportation before Highway #17 double-laned its way from Sudbury to the Soo: Bushplanes. You can walk around (and occasionally in) reconditioned historic Bushplanes responsible for fighting Northern forest fires and transporting supplies to otherwise remote areas. The museum also celebrates Canadian astronaut Dr. Roberta Bondar, a hometown hero.
Finally, the beauty of Sault Ste. Marie lies in its location: lush acres of lakeside hills and forest. Pancake Bay Provincial Park is within an hour drive of the Soo. But keep driving another hour to Lake Superior Provincial Park, the gem less travelled. Here you’ll find the Agawa Rock Pictographs–35 if you can find them all–drawn in red ochre by travelers centuries ago along Lake Superior’s shoreline rockface.
To see them, you’ll need a boat or some bravery. Most curious visitors park at the pictograph parking lot then head downhill along a rock path through the dense forest to the water’s edge. Park employees guide visitors–best barefooted–along the smooth slippery rock platform clinging only to a chain bolted into the cliff side. Behind you, hundreds of feet below, the aggressive waves of Lake Superior slap the shore. The experience is a bit rattling, but worth it.
A short jaunt down the road, Lake Superior Provincial Park has a museum quality Visitor’s Centre–your first stop for park orientation, map, and admission ticket. Yes, there are campsites and many hiking trails including entrances at Old Woman Bay (ideal picnic location) and Sand River along the Pinguishibi Trail. Even a day visit is worth the drive.
Along Highway 17, between Lake Superior Provincial Park and Sault Ste. Marie is the Voyageur’s Lodge & Cookhouse in Bachawana Bay, a seasonal motel, restaurant and gift store designed in the log cabin spirit of the voyageurs. Stop for gas and a ‘world famous’ apple fritter, or even better stay for a pancake breakfast or white fish dinner, locally caught and fresh before heading back to the creature-comforts of the Soo.
– Photos courtesy Sherri Telenko
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