Hulabaloo at the Soo

Let me just say right off that when it comes to Homeland and border security, I’m all for it.

When it comes to appreciating how essential shipping is to the Great Lakes, I’m right at the head of the line.

When it comes to being in awe of the engineering feat that is the Soo Locks I am so in awe I can’t stand it.

The Soo Locks.  From Left: MacArthur, Poe, Davis, Sabin

So when I got back on my turf last week and read in our local paper that an investigation into a possible bomb threat had closed the locks just days after the spring shipping season opened, my first instinct, naturally, was to blame Gov. Snyder and the Republican legislators and then the Koch Brothers and the Mackinac Center. (Because they’re to blame for so much around here it’s hard not to blame them for everything.  I’m sure you can understand.)

But here’s what happened:  At 7:30 AM on the morning of March 29 a mailroom clerk at the Soo Locks was gathering up mail to be delivered to the boats scheduled to go through the locks on that day.  (It’s a most efficient mail delivery system, given that the boats are girdled into the narrow lock and mail bags can be cast onto their decks as they wait out the raising or lowering of the water in the lock.)  This person heard beeping in one of the packages and thought it might be a bomb.  He called the Army Corp of Engineers who then called the Chippewa County central dispatch, who then sent out the police to check things out.

The police set up a command post at the guard building at the Locks main gate.  From there (and I’m quoting here from the St. Ignace News, April 4, 2013 – not yet available online) :

“Sault Ste. Marie Fire Department, Army Corp of Engineers, Coast Guard, Customs, Border Patrol, Immigration, the U.S Post Office and staff from the International Bridge were also on the scene.  Police on the Canadian side of the St. Mary’s River were also advised of the situation.

The Coast Guard temporarily closed traffic on the St. Mary’s River and established a ‘limited access area’ in the vicinity of both the locks and the International Bridge while the investigation was in progress.

A Michigan State bomb disposal unit was brought in from Gaylord [A full 115 miles to the south of the locks, it should be noted] before both it and a MSP K-9 unit searched the mailroom, where no explosives or other hazardous material were found and no packages were heard to be beeping.  Several small packages were then removed from the room where the beeping originated and checked using a mobile scanning vehicle.

Following the scan the packages were opened with one providing the source of the beeping:  an alarm clock.”

It seems the alarm clock was set to go off at 7 AM (35 minutes before the mailroom clerk first heard it) and someone packing the thing either forgot to turn it off or neglected to take out the batteries.  (Admonition from Sault Ste. Marie police chief:  “Because of situations like this, the public is reminded not to include batteries in packages that are being sent through the U.S Mail.”) So in the course of that few hours of shut-down, 11 lakers and salties (ocean-going vessels) were laid up –six upbound and five downbound–anchored far away from any threat of explosion.

Every boat, big or small, heading into or out of Lake Superior has to go through the Soo Locks System.  In earlier times it was possible to portage around the rapids (there is a 21-foot height difference between Lake Superior and the St. Mary’s River) but nobody does it anymore.  Now we depend on the locks.  (Another note:  A new and bigger lock has been approved since 1989 to replace the obsolete Sabin and Davis locks but guess what?  The approval didn’t come with funding, and even though they finally broke ground for the thing 20 years later, in 2009, that apparently wasn’t impetus enough to free up some cash for it. (I would say that’s like promising a congressman an annual salary of $174,000 a year without actually providing the funds to pay it, but it isn’t.  It’s nothing like that.  So never mind.)

But back to the story:  Beeping from a package is a big deal.  (A thought here: Would a bomber really create a bomb that beeps?  Yes.  In the movies. How else would you know to be terrified that there was a bomb in there? Otherwise, probably not.)  Our locks at the Soo are a big deal.  So while I do admit that the Keystone-coppishness of that story tickled my funny bone, I’ve wondered at times about the vulnerability of the locks.  So I felt pretty good knowing our law-enforcement agencies are sort of on top of situations like these.

In this video (not mine), taken from the public observation deck at the Soo Locks Park, you can see how close the public is allowed to get to these boats.  The observation deck is glass-enclosed but there are other areas in the park where fences might keep humans out but bombs could easily be dispatched.  After 9/11, security was tight and we could only enter the park through one entrance, where guards with wands checked us through.  Now we can meander through unguarded gates at any time during open park hours without fear of bodily wanding.  Since that whole color-coding plan went bust, there is, it seems, nothing written in stone about Homeland Security.

A few of my own photos from the Locks:

MacArthur Lock in foreground; Indiana Harbor in Poe Lock
Algoma Transport downbound in MacArthur Lock
“Saltie” Whistler entering Locks channel downbound.  International and railroad bridge ahead.
Locks tour boat upbound in MacArthur Lock.  International Bridge in background.
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About constantcommoner

Ramona Grigg. Freelancer, blogger, essayist, photographer, dreamer,
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