• Roberta Rathert

Locking Through. Part 1.

Looking Ahead: My Kayak Facing Downbound End of Lock & Dam 8 with Closed Gates.

Most people haven’t gone through a local lock and dam but may have done so on a tourist boat into bigger waters while vacationing. I once went to Amsterdam and wanted more than anything to be on the North Sea. I arranged for it, then eagerly arrived on time for the boat. I immediately fell asleep and stayed that way the entire length of the North Sea trip, never seeing the sea itself, or the canal that got me there. I couldn’t say now whether there was a lock-through to reach that sea, but it is likely. Other touring places have locking situations, for example in Chicago where the Chicago River and Lake Michigan meet. Tourist and commercial crafts are frequently locking back and forth there to accommodate the varying heights of the waterbed.

Locking through our local Mississippi River lock and dam structures is an enriching experience. I have been asked what it is like - difficult, scary, or just what.


I was uneasy the first time, not about water or the chamber or even other boats, but about not speaking properly through my marine radio to request the locking. When I initially did it, no one answered back which caused me worry. Did I forget to say ‘over?’ I pushed the radio button again and said, ‘over,’ adding, ‘roger,’ just in case it was needed for a reply. Maybe they heard me but just did not answer. Did they hear me and answer, but I did not hear? Or did my message reach no one? I was concerned now, was the radio broken? While bobbing on the water eight hundred feet out, I asked myself these questions. But then I heard the voice come back with instructions buried in static, wait ten minutes while the chamber is prepared. “Wait for the green light,” it said. Green light? I didn’t see a green light. I was tempted to paddle closer, another hundred feet or so, but what if a barge is in there and comes jetting out when the gates open? A barge could also come from behind, me unable to hear for several reasons, including my deep focus on lock details.


During an air and water show at Chicago’s North Avenue beach, I was on a blanket staring up through the trees, ready and waiting for the event to begin. I thought I was dreaming when I saw a large black shape moving slowly just over the treetops above me. Its movement was just about undetectable as it floated across like a ghost. Yet I knew it was real and not a UFO on this special day in Chicago when the whole city was there on the lakefront. It was when the aircraft had passed over me that I heard its thunder. This was the Stealth Bomber and all its sound was sacking out the rear. Barges are like this, having the only motorized sound discharging from the tail of a tug pushing from much further behind, its silent approach leaving the noise for last. A tow pilot can’t see over the front edge so it’s the kayaker who needs to know if it’s underway. During the wait at the lock, I repeatedly held up my rearview mirror to be sure I was alone. I bobbed around and acted blasé while watching for the green light. Rabbits do this, appearing relaxed in the grass but with all senses alert, they don’t want to get caught in a lethal situation.






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