GRAN’S CANADA HIGHWAY – EPISODE 5: THE SOO by Jaimie Vernon


The Ojibwa called the area Baawitigong, which roughly translates as place of the rapids, and was used as a central gathering spot during the region’s whitefish season on the St. Mary’s River which has rolling rapids and feeds the city that now stands there.


Following a visit by French explorer Étienne Brûlé in 1623 – who had spent his time racking up Frequent Lecher Miles infiltrating and earning the trust, and then ripping off, many native tribes all through the Great Lakes – he repaid the Ojibwa by having the area renamed Sault de Gaston in honour of Gaston, Duke of Orléans, the brother of King Louis XIII of France.

But in 1668 French Jesuit missionaries, realizing that the ungrateful bastard Gaston had never once visited the place, renamed it Sault Sainte Marie, and established a settlement on the present-day site of Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan originally on the south bank of St. Mary’s River. Both sides of the river’s rapids were settled as fur trading posts – crossroads of the 3,000-mile Mass Extinction Fur Trade Route, which stretched from Montreal to Sault Ste. Marie and to the North above Lake Superior.

The Soo, as it’s affectionately known by the lazy-assed out-of-towners, was incorporated as a town in 1887 and graduated to city status in 1912 thanks, in no small part to Angelina Napolitano, the first person in Canada to use the battered woman defense for murdering her husband in 1911 which made international news and turned the town into a bustling urban centre filled with reporters looking to purchase brimmed hats so they could sport tiny hand-lettered signs in the brim that said “PRESS.”

The Soo canal locks were defended by the RCAF 51st Regiment in both World Wars. I real threat was discovered in the middle of 1939 when 136 pieces of dynamite were discovered at the locks as a true threat of sabotage. However, in early 1942, only months after the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor, the paranoid faction that thought an Anti-Japanese highway should connect Alaska to Edmonton, turned their attention to the locks and shipping channel that was being fed by Lake Huron to the south and Lake Superior to the west. The advent of long-range bombing capabilities by the Nazis led military worry-warts to determine that the distance from Norway to New York was the same as Norway to the Soo and this could be a target by Nazis who had nothing better to do than hop across the arctic circle’s 3000 vacant air miles to bomb a small seaport which is over 1000 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean.


The Permanent Joint Board on Defense of Things No One Would Ever, In Their Right Minds, Attack instigated the installation of an anti-aircraft presence in a joint venture between the United States Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) to defend the locks. 900 US soldiers took up residence in and around the Soo manning radar stations. However, in January 1943, most of these facilities and defenses were deemed excessive and removed or shut down. Ya think?

Following the war, the region became the hub for a global steel industry due to the clever manufacturing of metal things that people were convinced they needed by Algoma Steel – thus, making them the biggest employer in the land.

At the time of our visit, the city itself was still fairly small and dominated by a frustrating set of one way streets that made navigating down to the waterfront, and our lodging at the Canadian Motor Hotel, a comic Keystone Kopps adventure; and caused us to miss the last scenic boat tour of the day which we had to catch on the way back through Sault Ste. Marie on our return trip from out west. The hotel turned out to be a two storey motel and still stands today under the name The Knight’s Inn.

And a visit wouldn’t be complete without a boat tour of the Soo Locks so you can “oooo” and “aaaaah” in unison with fellow boat passengers while passing the smelly, dirty, gargantuan factory facades which dominate the city’s shoreline and ride the impressive locks themselves which spill you out into the glorious bridge cluttered bay. This was a shipping lane and wasn’t meant for cruiser and scooner tourist traffic. More typical were the ships like the legendary Edmund Fitzgerald, and the one I saw during my visit called The Carol Lake, an ore carrier, which continues to sail the Great Lakes to this day.

THE SECOND LEG

The final assault around the perimeter of the overwhelmingly expansive Lake Superior requires a continuation on Route 17 out of Sault Ste. Marie toward Batchawana Bay as the elevation gradually begins to reveal the first glimpse of a mini-mountain terrain overlooking the near touchable American border. Past that comes the first quarter of this leg, from Montreal River to Marathon, which wasn’t completed until 1960 – having been forged westerly starting in 1923 from North Bay to feed the expanding mining industry – making it one of the most desolate sections of roadway with few towns in between. So, don’t hitch-hike out there boys and girls. You’re most likely to starve or be eaten by any number of mammals – including the local residents.  However, the payoff is the most stunning, picturesque scenic lookouts of the whole journey west save the Rocky Mountains themselves.

Montreal River empties into Lake Superior at Agawa Bay which also happens to be the southern tip of the cleverly named Lake Superior National Park (you can bet there was a government employee with a Masters Degree in charge of naming it). The park is one of the smaller ones in Ontario and leads travelers uphill directly into the grip of the former mining community of Wawa.

Although it is known for a steady stream of gold, iron ore and other mineral deposits dating as far back as the 19th Century and its appearance as the locale for the Alan Rickman/Sigourney Weaver off-beat film Snow Cake in 2006, Wawa’s biggest claim to fame has been its 28-foot-tall metal statue of a Canada goose; the only goose in all of Canada that doesn’t crap on people’s lawns.

Wawa takes its name from the Ojibwe word for “wild goose” (wewe) as declared in the Songs of Hiawatha. That, of course, never stopped people from renaming it Michipicoten City and Jamestown before the residents got fed up with having to continually repaint the town’s ‘Welcome’ signs. Alas, in recent years the town has been hard hit, economically, due to the collapse of the mining and forestry industries. I recommend to anyone traveling this way to stop and purchase local goods and take a ride on the historic Algoma Central Railway scenic tours as a way to help the 3,000 inhabitants maintain their livelihoods.

Continuing the drive through White River, the road moves out of the mountainous hills and heads due west once more on a flat terrain into Marathon – best known as the final stretch of the late Terry Fox’s heroic “Marathon of Hope” cancer awareness/fundraising run in 1980.

With nearly 180 kms between Marathon and Thunder Bay, the views become spectacular as coastline and mountains do a geological dance forcing Highway 17 up through high passes to avoid Lake Superior’s rocky shores.

NEXT WEEK – EPISODE 6: THUNDER BAY TO KENORA

=JV=

Skip Prokop’s “Sunny Days” is available as a 325 page book from Bullseye Publishing
http://gwntertainment.wixsite.com/bullseye-records
Or Amazon
https://www.amazon.com/Sunny-Days-Skip-Prokop-Story/dp/1698098464

Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 41 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 24 years. He is also the author of The Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and editor of “Sunny Days: The Skip Prokop Story.” Available through Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/s?k=Jaimie+Vernon

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