Learning the locks

Many people are amazed when we tell them that we use the lock and dam system on the rivers for our canoeing.  Even people who live along the river are surprised to hear that we go through the locks.  Usually it comes in this form:  “They let a little boat like yours through the locks!???” The lock system is supported by our tax dollars and we are all welcome to use it.  We were told that the barges always take first priority if there are recreational boats out as well.  That’s more than fine with me.  I don’t need to fight for a spot with a 15 barge tow!  Once we did have to wait a bit for them to “lock through” a tow because, even though we were using a different chamber, they did not want us approaching the lock when the tow was coming out. 

 The Army Corps of Engineers is most often associated with floods and the mistakes that we like to pin on them.  But I find them truly amazing.  Were I a bit younger and a veteran of the Armed Services, I would apply to work at one of the locks.  We learned a year or two ago that most of the people who work at the locks are veterans so my hopes were a bit dashed. 

But back to the locks.  We were locked through three locks on this trip.  Each time we called ahead to let them know we were approaching.  The big barges use radios to contact the lock masters and we learned from one that we really shouldn’t call them by phone.  However their numbers are published on the navigitional charts so we figured it wasn’t a matter of national security!  What was good about this system was that generally the lock chambers were full and ready for us when we got there because they knew we were coming.  On the Allegheny River, we often had to wait for them to fill the chamber.  This new method got us through much faster.  Since the rivers were higher than usual and there was a lot of debris on the river, the locks themselves held a lot of logs and garbage.  One of the locks could not even be opened because of the debris. 

Each lock and dam is just that:  a dam and a double lock along side of it.  One of the chambers is larger than the other but both are large enough for many barges so our little canoe always felt a bit like a bathtub toy.  While the chamber is filling, the yellow light is blinking (it is red when they are not ready for you).  When the chamber is full, the gates open and the light turns green and a horn sounds to signal it is safe to enter.  We paddle into the chamber and tie up to a floating “pin” on the side of a lock.  I can’t remember the technical term for it but these were new.  Previously we had only tied up manually when the lock master hooked our line and put it over a pole above.

Once tied on, the water is slowly let out of the chamber.  If we were lucky, we would get to talk to one of the guys working the lock.  Sometimes we just sat and waited for the water to lower, the gate to open and the horn to signal it was safe to paddle out.  The experience never ceases to bring me joy.  The concept not to mention the reality of a lock is awesome.  Many of our locks are old and creaky and the guys who work them remind us how out of date they are.  But they are fairly simple mechanisms and so they seem to hold up indefinitely.

On this last trip, we were locked through and the gates opened and we paddled our red canoe out of the huge lock to the amazement of some fishermen along the bank who were undoubtedly expecting a huge barge, not a little red canoe to with two women paddling to New Orleans to appear.  We ended up chatting with two older gentlemen who thought we were kidding when we said we were paddling to the Mississippi.  They believed us by the time we were done…and they wished us well and told us, as so many did on the river, to be safe.


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