Saint Mary’s River transit demands peak performance by lake pilots

The journey north to the two Sault Ste. Maries, Lake Superior’s twin international cities, begins through DeTour Village, Mich., at the mouth of the St. Mary’s River.

Olympic Merit heads up the 63-nm-long river connecting Lake Huron and Lake Superior.
   Image Credit: Terry W. Phipps

Marked by the 63-foot DeTour Reef crib light, the 63-nm river welcomes thousands of ships from Lake Huron’s chop.

When traveling the 2,038 nm from the Atlantic Ocean to Duluth, Minn., vessels eventually encounter the mile-wide river between Drummond Island and DeTour. Here, the pilot boat runs headlong into the current alongside a moving salty while the pilot climbs the ladder.

After dodging the Drummond Island ferry and downbound freighters, pilots feel slightly more secure once on deck; however, their problems have just begun. The draft limitations, high winds and narrow channels produce a special set of problems, making the St. Mary’s at times a most unpleasant challenge.

As the Great Lakes continue to be plagued with lower water levels, the St. Mary’s becomes increasingly difficult to navigate. Even though the channels are maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at 25.5 feet at low water datum (chart data), a hydrological host of variables alters straightforward navigation.

Pilot Ed Harris, a member of the Western Great Lakes Pilots, navigates the St. Mary’s daily and knows all the eddies like close relatives. “When I come aboard, there’s usually [me], the captain and another pilot, because we’re changing pilots.” Before the first few turns, Harris checks out the equipment. “I make sure to see how much wheel it takes to get around the turn and make sure the heading marker on the radar is pointing in the right direction. I also make sure the gyrocompass is somewhat close,” Harris said.

Checking for a language barrier with the wheelsman is imperative. “I always point whatever way I want the rudder to go.”

Seventy-five percent of his jobs involve running the river. The rest take him across Lake Superior to Thunder Bay, Ontario, or Duluth.

Image Credit: Terry W. Phipps

Entering the MacArthur Lock that lifts ships 21 feet to the level of Lake Superior. About 10,000 vessels pass through the locks during the nine-month-long shipping season.

This trip out, the draw was Olympic Merit, a bulk carrier constructed in 1985.

Comparatively, the Greek carrier was in impeccable condition. The 9,500-hp diesel-powered carrier with a 29,670-ton cargo capacity was running light and high on its way to Duluth to pick up grain. Its 599-foot overall length and 75-foot beam dwarf some salties navigating the river, and its 35-foot draft could pose a challenge in the shallower sections of the river.

“We like to have 1 foot under the hull; the seaway draft is twenty-six three,” Harris said. “The river runs as deep as 28 feet, but the average is supposed to be 27 feet at datum.”

At this time the water was 12 inches below datum. Wind can lower the depths to 18 or 20 inches below datum.

“In below datum, you’ll see a lot of the big lakers running down with the 5-knot current, so they will not squat with engine speed,” Harris said, as he pointed to a 1,000-footer seeming to drift. “The lower water levels, it’s a little more difficult handling in the narrow channels; when you get near the banks, they suck. The ship squats, and it makes it harder to steer; you get more vibration because there’s cavitation from the propeller.”

From DeTour, Harris steered the Pipe Island course, north northwest at 330°, directing the ship to the 29-foot Lime Island Channel. Pipe Island also divides the up- and downbound freighter traffic through the DeTour Passage. After Lime Island, an old wood fueling stop for the early lake freighters, the channel turns north toward Round Island, port side.

Up the channel approximately a mile and a half between Point aux Frenes and Hay Point, Harris made another turn, north northwest 315° through the shallow Munuscong Lake. “There’s just grasslands on the left side as you go up the river,” Harris said. “If you’re loaded, you can cause shore damage, but then it’s a straight stretch.”

Neebish Island marks the northern limit of Munuscong Lake and splits the freighter traffic up- or downbound. The Munuscong Channel allows a direct route to Sugar Island and the Middle Neebish Channel. Just before the Mission Point turn, a ferry crosses between the point and Island One. Once past the series of islands at Sugar Island’s northwest side, the currents make it apparent that the rapids loom two miles ahead.

Image Credit: Terry W. Phipps

Olympic Merit’s spare anchor.

The west/east rapids of the St. Mary’s River are 0.3 miles long. Known as the St. Mary’s Falls, they are located 14 miles from the river’s head at Point Iroquois. To bypass the obstacle, the United States constructed canals and locks to raise vessels 21 feet in one locking from the St. Mary’s to Lake Superior. The 1.9-mile-long St. Mary’s Falls Canal takes vessels past the falls.

Both the north and south canals, split by a center pier with two parallel locks in each, are faced with revetment walls, piers and lights. The south canal is 304 feet wide and 28 feet deep. The MacArthur Lock, near the lower end of the canal, is 800 feet long, 80 feet wide and 23 feet deep. The Poe Lock, immediately north, measures 1,200 feet long, 110 feet wide and 32 feet deep.

The north canal is 282 feet wide and 23 feet deep. The Davis Lock measures 1,350 feet in length, 80 feet in width and 23 feet in depth. The identical Sabin Lock lifts and lowers smaller vessels.

North of the Sabin Lock, the U.S. power canal’s sluice gates and powerhouse add to current anomalies. Whitefish Island, and the Canadian lock and power canal lie on the Canadian side.

The chief lock master operates the vessel dispatch station from the administration/marine post office building near the Poe and MacArthur locks. On average, 10,000 vessels pass through the locks each year. The station operates on VHF-FM channels 14 and 16, with the call sign WUD-31 or Soo locks. A traffic light signals entry. The last upper lakes pilot exchange happens just west of the locks. Here, Harris passed Olympic Merit to a pilot who would take the ship on to Duluth.

On the return auto shuttle to DeTour, Harris explained that one of his greater concerns on the river is visibility.

“I think what scares me the most is poor visibility on these ships with the low water; when you’re going by radar and you can’t see the bow of the ship, and when it starts sucking the bank, you can’t react as quickly. Once you’re out of shape, and you’re trying to do it by radar, you can’t see which way the bow is going until it’s too late. The downbound channel through the rock cut is 300 feet. If I think it’s going to be foggy, I’ll wait.”

And if fog isn’t enough to contend with, the season often begins while ice floes are still drifting downstream and complicating navigation. “If there’s a lot of ice, we won’t transit the St. Mary’s at night because we don’t have spotlights. The buoys are under the ice a lot of times, and if the visibility gets poor, we can’t see the ranges,” he explained. “I can’t really tell if I’m in the channel. With the ice, you can sheer one way or the other. With a wind, you can easily get stuck in the ice. The ice floe will take you to the beach. That happened last week to a 1,000-footer.”

The St. Mary’s seems peaceful enough, with its scenic islands, soaring eagles and miles of silent wilderness. Looks can be deceiving. This six-hour pilot job can become a precarious passage. Getting ships to the Soo Locks and into Lake Superior challenges the best skills at the most unexpected times. Thanks in large part to pilots like Harris, more than 11,000 vessels navigate its waters in the abbreviated nine-month season, safely carrying more than 90 million tons of cargo bound for ports around the world.

By Professional Mariner Staff