So we’re getting ready to check out in the morning and head to Sault Ste. Marie, and the woman at reception says, “Did you make it to the dam?”
Dam? what dam?
She tells us that there’s a really lovely area not far from the alvar we visited the day before. “Is it marked?” I asked.
“No,” she says. But Steve remembers the road. That guy is really good at directions.
Off we go.
The Wildlife Flooding Area, aka, Dam
So there is this sign:
And wildlife flooding doesn’t exactly sound like anything one would want to see. I imagine a bunch of animals, paddling around listlessly, and a waterlogged car. (I still don’t know what wildlife flooding means, by the way, and I’m too busy writing to google it.)
Yet it’s a lovely deserted place. I of course imagine some sort of massive concrete structure, but it’s a small little dam, like a baby step up from a culvert. And you know, how can you turn down a local tip?
Off we head to catch the ferry, looking anxiously for coffee all along the way. We manage to miss the turn going to the dock, which adds approximately 5 minutes to our trip. We get there, only to see the boat mere feet into the water.
I am tempted to leap out of the car, waving my arms and yelling desperately, “Come back! Come back!!,” like that kid in A Christmas Story when his tongue is stuck to the flagpolie.
The boat does its impression of Ralphie’s passive aggressive, “But The BELL RANG!!!”
Hey, if the worst thing that happens to us today is having to sit in the car waiting an extra 20 minutes for a ferry, life is Darn Good.
Sault Ste. Marie, aka Mask-gate, and Hemo the Magnificent
It takes us about an hour to drive up to Sault Ste. Marie. Everybody calls it The Soo, and that’s how they pronounce “Sault,” which is actually the French word for falls, as in the water variety, and in French is prounced “So.” But it’s a lot more fun to say the Soo than the So. So I get it. Or perhaps that should say “Soo I get it.” Ha! Cute.
Well, this is where, desperate for coffee (me more than Steve), we pull over to the Cafe that Shan’t Be Named, read the stupid sign, get unsatisfactory coffee, tainted by my grouchy attitude. But then I hear the guys talking in the street about how wearing masks is cool, and I feel better.
We head to the Tower of History. And that name right there should tell you immediately that you are in for a little Hemo the Magnificent type of propaganda.
If you haven’t logged a good half century, you should be mercifully unaware of Hemo the Magnificent, but if you know what I’m talking about, then you, my friend, are of a certain age like moi. Congratulations! A huge number of people will never see 50 in their rearview mirror. We are all quite, quite fortunate.
Hemo the Magnificent was an educational movie of a particular era. They all featured this Exciting Orchestral Music of Discovery and try to hammer a square storyline into a round attention hole. It’s kind of like porn where, instead of just getting to the sex, they supply this narrative and a back story, As If You Care. Because everybody just wants to get to the sex.
(If you don’t get the reference and feel you need to, just watch the YouTube video. It’s 50 freaking minutes long, but about 3 minutes is Plenty.)
Chippewa, Iriquois, and the Washington Football Team
Well, before ascending the 20 story elevator to get an overview of the Sault Ste. Marie canals and locks, there’s a video you can watch. And, just like Hemo, it starts off with this Exciting Music of Discovery and that guy who narrated everything from about 1941 through 1975.
I’m a history geek, and I really am interested, so I don’t mind. But about five minutes in, we have our first reference to the war-like Iriquois. And up until then, we were dealing with the nice, kind, cooperative Chippewa. But according to Mr. Narrator, the Iriquois would torture you in various nasty ways as soon as look at you.
Now the Washington Redskins have just decided to drop their stupid racist name, and this is a few days before they come up with the awesome new name of The Washington Football Team. Which I actually love, because a) well, it’s super accurate, and b) they’re not going to pull some new name out of their butts. They’re actually going to give this some thought.
And as I watch the video, I realize how obnoxious my own initial thoughts were, because I, like probably a million or so other people, though, oh, how about the Warriors? And I had read that Native Americans were really anti-Warriors or Braves or anything else that stereotypical, and just thought, well, ok, I’m clueless.
But watching this little movie, I suddenly get it. I mean, I’m getting offended with the umpteenth reference to those Savage Iriquois and those Docile Chippewa. It would be like if, finally, after decades of petitioning, a team called the Krauts was re-christened the Wurst Eaters.
And meanwhile, the whole construction of the Soo Locks (Soo is so much easier to write then Sault, so to hell with it) is really interesting. They were originally not even rapids so much, but this dramatic, rocky, and super dangerous water staircase from Lake Superior in the west, down to the St. Mary’s river in the east. Also, Lake Superior was called Gitchie-Gumi in Ojibway, just like in that poem, and Michigan is a Chippewa word for flowing waters. And Steve didn’t even know that and he grew up here.
So we ascend the tower, and get some pictures, and—well, this isn’t a great shot, but it gives you an idea.
To the west, we can see the bridge to Canada, which is currently not letting any Americans in. Man, the Canadians have just been waiting for an excuse to bar us from entry. If you travel in Central or South America, people get very touchy if you say you’re from America, because they say, we’re all Americans. But the Canadians are all, Nope.
Then we walk down along the park and you can get pretty close to the locks, other than for a giant iron fence. I think part of that’s due to COVID. But any park with a big walkway along the water is pretty awesome in my book. And there’s a lot of pretty cool info on how the locks work. Which has to be enough for now, because we don’t see any ships go through.
We’re not hungry, and decide to continue heading east.
Legends Are So Weird
Before we head to our car, we decide to check out this pretty amazing building. It turns out to be the Chippewa County Courthouse.
I notice a statue of Romulus and Remus, the babies who are nursing from a wolf. I say to Steve that we are a helluva long way from Rome. But then we notice this statue.
Accompanying the statue is a plaque. These two Chippewa lads were tended by a heron. When their mom found out—I think she was a really mean mother who had left them to die and was a witch or something—well, somehow, somebody ended up getting her head cut off. Or maybe the heron bit it off. And her brains turned into whitefish roe, and…yeah, it was pretty much a downer, that story.
Anyway, that’s how Romulus and Remus got there. Orphaned twins raised by an animal.
Then again, how much weirder is that than …. oh, fill in your own favorite myth here. You know you’ve got one.
Steve and I have a book called “Spectacular Drives YOU MUST SEE!!” or something like that. And one of the few drives in the US—because a bunch of them are in places like Bhutan and Kyrgyzstan, where we will not be driving Anytime Soon—was along Whitefish Bay. This particular drive begins in Brimley, just about half an hour from the Soo. Before we left, I visited Atlas Obscura, a favorite site, and looked up “Upper Peninsula” and it had this entry for Brimley: the Old Native American Burial Grounds.
The location doesn’t show up on any map I referenced, and that article was literally the only thing about the burial grounds that I could find. We got to Brimley, went right at the fork in the road, saw nothing, and pulled over at a quick-E mart.
This particular mart does my heart good: a strict mask policy, and a temperature reader at the front door! I’m bowled over, honestly. But there’s a man and woman near it, looking to be in about their late 70s or 80s or beyond. Try as the man and the very patient young woman at the temperature station might, they cannot produce a reading on the gauge.
I stand for about 5 minutes, and then the other clerk in the store finishes with her sole customer and walks over.
“Any chance you know of the Native American Burial Grounds?” I ask.
Boy, does she. It’s awesome. She tells me that they’re completely locked and have actually been moved to a different location. “I’m not tribal,” she says, “but people just weren’t respecting them.”
So no photos? I ask.
She shakes her head slowly. “Honestly, no. It’s a really sacred place. But you could go by and pay your respects. I’m sure that’s ok. And right opposite the new burial grounds is an amazing overlook, it’s surreal.”
It’s such a lovely, respectful reply. You know when you occasionally run into someone and your heart just wants to burst a little with love for the human race?
We have our moments.
The Original Native American Burial Grounds
Steve and I head up the road toward Whitefish Point, our ultimate destination. Sure enough, we see the ancient burial grounds on our way. I figure that a picture of the sign is not violating the spirit of the place.
I stand for a minute. It’s quiet, and feels a little lonely, but in a good way. Instead of tombstones, there are little houses, shaped like longhouses. I can’t say that I feel overwhelmed with some ineffable spirit or anything. But the place does feel calm and like a good resting place. I’m glad it’s fenced off.
A little further along the road, we see the signs to the newer cemetery, and begin climbing a road. About halfway up, it narrows to one lane. We pull over as a car barrels past us.
After about a mile, we pull over. There’s a sign that says, QUIET. FUNERAL IN PROGRESS. It’s weird. We see no cars, really don’t hear much of anything other than the trees rustling occasionally.
We walk down a forest path, and see a big peaceful cemetery. The funeral seems to have wrapped up. There are a few women and a few kids. There isn’t a pall of grief hanging over the place, so we don’t feel like jerks crashing a somber ceremony.
We find a few of the longhouse style graves, but they’re hybrids; they also have crosses. One even has a garden gnome.
So we head up the road farther.
Another Cemetery Entrance
We hit what seems to be the end of the one-lane road, though there a dirt road leading off away from the bay. We’ve arrived at the overlook, and it is indeed lovely.
And the cemetery extends all the way over here, even though we’ve probably driven a mile. There are some odd bricks sunk in the grass, that, on closer inspection, say “Unknown.” And then I find this:
Remember that; it comes in handy in a minute.
The Shipwreck Graveyard
Our guidebook has mentioned some other spots, and we stop, dutifully, but quickly. We’re ready to move on to Whitefish Point and the Shipwreck Museum. I’m resigned to missing it, but we arrive at a quarter to 5, and it doesn’t close til 6.
The parking lot is full. The Museum is part of a sizeable complex: several active Coast Guard buildings, the Lighthouse and Lighthouse Keeper’s Quarters, and of course the museum itself.
Whitefish Point, due to a combination of fog, 200 miles of open sea that create crazy storms, and tons of traffic up until about 50 years ago, is apparently the Shipwreck Capital of the World. Its biggest claim to fame is that it’s very near the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. You know, that song that is seriously the longest song ever written, where Gordon Lightfoot drones on and on and has anyone ever listened to all those lyrics? You haven’t, have you. Of course not.
Also, doesn’t Gordon Lightfoot sound like this guy that your cool but single and aging and now slightly bitter aunt brought to family Thanksgiving and then ditched so that she could kill a few bottles of cheap wine with her sister who is your mom, and this sad guy picks up a guitar and starts playing this really sad song, and everyone just sort of pretends they have something else to do?
So that song is playing and I figure about the time it takes to circle the museum, the song will be done and then it’ll play again, because it’s like 20 minutes long. (It is really only about 5 minutes long and they play other stuff, and it does take about one cycle of the playlist to get through the museum. I’m being super mean to Gordon Lightfoot, but Canadians have already forbidden me from entering the country. Let’s just call it even.)
I dunno why, but I freaking eat up shipwrecks. This is awful, of course, because they’re tragic. But obviously I’m not alone in my fascination.
Steve keeps saying, man, these ships were wrecked for the Dumbest Reasons. He’s not wrong. For instance, one big massive ship effectively broke in half because it got too close to another ship in its same fleet in order to wave hello. I shit you not.
But there’s a display dedicated to the men who died in the shipwreck of the Steamer Myron. Being out here on Whitefish Point, where it’s chilly even in late July, the wind going at a good clip—the story sinks in, the awfulness of dying in that freezing water on a dark night gives me chills. I feel grateful that we stumbled on the actual gravesite. The lives lost feel real.
And the Edmund Fitzgerald part of the museum is the capper. It’s a great story, mysterious and tragic, and the exhibit is beautifully done. There’s a lot to read displayed next to a model of the ship, some of the very few artifacts that have surfaced, this crazy deep sea diving suit that’s been used to descend to the bottom of Lake Superior to salvage bits and pieces. Most moving is a slide show of the crew members. So many are so young. The ship wrecked in the 70s, so some of the guys have super groovy bellbottoms and paisley shirts—the photos tend to be cropped from prom pictures and family portraits. Other men look like confirmed old salts with a permanent roll in their gait.
This bell was attached by one remaining cable to some of the ship’s wreckage still at the bottom of the lake. In the 90s, they managed to cut the cable and the bell simply floated to the top. Family members of the crew had gathered for the retrieval. It’s a powerful scene to contemplate.
I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper
Of course, I don’t, but that daft little song from the movie version of Clockwork Orange pops into my head any time I have access to a lighthouse. The lighthouse keeper’s quarters are snug and adorable, and we wander through them. Look, we all know what a whimp I am at this point; I go into a bit of a snit when I can’t get my coffee the way I like it (or at least prepared with a mask on). So I would not a be a good candidate for lighthouse keeper’s wife. It would end up very Overlook Hotel, I fear. “Heeeeeere’s….NANCY!”
Perish the thought.
Steve puts a hand on my shoulder. “That guy’s got a wicked cough,” he says, sotto voce. “Stay back.”
It’s true. There’s a guy coughing up a lung straight ahead, the same guy who literally rips off his mask the second he’s outside the door (I saw this from inside the shipwreck museum). We keep a wide berth. When the coast is clear, we head to our car.
People Gotta Eat
We have miles to go before we sleep or eat, but we’re to our hotel in less than an hour.
Nothing is open. In desperation, we hit the Pizza Hut. It is the best meal I have ever had in my life.
Next up: Tahquamenon Falls. Rhymes with “phenomenon.”