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  • Writer's pictureRoberta Rathert

Locking Through. Part 2.

Looking Behind: My Kayak Stern Facing Upriver Toward

Lock & Dam 8 Gates Closing with Houseboat Idling in Distant Chamber.

From a half mile out, it’s difficult to distinguish the structure’s direction and layout. Distance flattens and distorts, like a mirage, my friend Ellen recently said. Most important to get correct is the dam itself, over which segment of the river it runs, and on what side the lock chamber is positioned.

I use a laser monocular rangefinder because it is easier one-handed with a one-finger focus wheel. Isolating the lock location is essential, and studying the chamber area takes significant concentration.

I look for these things straightaway: a motionless tugboat on the landside of the lock; a small, green-roofed building – either the lockmaster’s structure or the visitor viewing deck because either one marks the correct side for entry. The last thing a paddler wants is to misinterpret this. They could paddle up to what appears to be the chamber, but suddenly realize it's the dam itself. There would be no recovery from this situation.

Next, I look for two large yellow patches on each side of the chamber’s opening. A massive wall follows one of the patches which is the route to the interior of the chamber. The green-roofed structures and this enormous wall are always on the same side together. With all these identifiers seen through my scope, I begin looking for the light with a naked eye.

A blinking red light, similar to a roadside stoplight, is standard lock equipment. The view of it is intermittently obstructed because the light fixture is set to the level of a tug captain raised high on the water. The light’s position isn’t considered for the low level of a paddler who is only a couple feet off the water yet needs to see the light just the same. As I bob in the water, the light comes and goes behind parts of the lock structure and parked tug. If I blink, I’ll lose it from my sightline completely. It’s this light, when seen, that makes the whole system work together like the period at the end of a sentence.

If I paddled up on a red, I’d risk being drawn into the suction of the gates as they open against the water’s pressure. If I miss the green while bobbing at six hundred feet, I’d miss my go cue. Could this set off the lockmaster who prepared the lock on my behalf, then I went absent? Missing the go light would also cause an intense and rapid paddle to catch up to the process started without me.

Paddling six hundred feet to reach the entrance wall, then paddling along the long entrance wall to the inner chamber, and finally paddling behind the lockmaster who casually walks along the upper wall to point where I should settle, this all takes enormous sustained energy. Most paddlers want to be ready as the red goes green.

Inside the chamber, I am led to the last five feet before the downstream gate which is always closed. I have felt uneasy getting so close to these gates but I know it is for my safety that I'm placed there. The unspoken purpose a paddler is moved to the front is to keep us from the wake of other motored craft at the rear. A tail vessel must idle slowly with a distance between us even when released from the lock. If a paddler had to fight the wake of any boat along with the extreme turbulence directly outside the gate (caused by the discharge of chamber water), it would be these moments that require frantic paddling to reach a safer river current.

I have been in the lock chamber alone most of my lock-throughs but, when accompanied, it has been a controlled and respectful situation. Nothing has varied from these details through all my locking events. It is as though I am going through the same lock over and over. The only different situation was at Lock and Dam #8 Genoa when the hundred-year gates were replaced. An announcement was made that the lock would be closed on certain dates to accommodate pulling out the enormous old gates and replacing them with equally immense new gates.

I locked through just as this job was completed. I was fortunate to see the century-old wooden gates set against a crane waiting for a barge to take them away. The new gates were magnificent, painted steel blue still without any mar only days since installation. They moved quietly and smoothly against the pressure of so much water. I hollered up to the lockmaster, did he notice a difference? He shouted back, “Oh yeah!” It was this once-in-a-life experience witnessing these gates changed out that made this a remarkable day on the river.

Any vessel can go through the locks while observing the required rules and good manners. One basic regulation is no one locks through on top of anything, like a stand-up paddle board, sit-on-top kayak, or a raft made of tree limbs on floating steel drums. To lock through, a person must be inside a water vehicle like a kayak cockpit, a small fishing boat, a canoe or in a larger cruiser or tugboat.

If anyone in my local area would like to experience locking from the waterside, I am willing to lock through with you at Lock and Dam 6, 7, or 8 when I return from my river trip down the Mississippi River where there are 27 locks to navigate. I have an extra kayak if it’s needed.

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