Locks and the Unlikely Vessels that Travel Through Them


The very first Lock and Dam we entered was Lock and Dam #2 at Hastings, MN, roughly 25 miles from where we started in St. Paul. Lock and Dam #1 just above St. Paul was closed a couple of years ago over concerns about invasive species making their way down river.

There are 29 locks on the Upper Mississippi alone and so far we have been through 18 of them. Locks on the Mississippi were constructed during the Great Depression with the last lock being completed in 1940, making the river navigable for commercial traffic.

Lock Gate

We had been researching these structures for months and were ready with our marine VHF radio to communicate with the Lockmaster like pros. The giant interlocking steel doors loomed in the distance with a long stonewall extending from it and a small office with a traffic light was posted above the chamber of water enclosed by the doors.

“Lock #2 this is the funny looking boat coming downriver. Are you clear for us to lock through,” said Emily.

Nothing. Complete silence. I got a little nervous because I told Emily this was the process and I immediately started doubting my research. I quickly looked for potential numbers to call. I found the number for Lock and Dam #2 and was patched through to Lockmaster Bryan. We were roughly three miles out so they couldn’t pick up our radio. He said we were in the clear for heading to the lock.

As we got closer, the light was blinking red, indicating they were not ready for us, but I had read somewhere not to be deterred by this and simply radio them to get a time estimate. Emily radioed again to make sure the lock was clear.

Bryan responded, “Copy. Come on down.”

Emily and I looked at each other after noticing that there were two chambers. Which one do we go to? Then I also remembered something about usually getting a number to pull up to, like a parking lot, and that you were supposed to get ropes. Do we go to that wall or that wall? Which space should we park the boat at? He didn’t mention any of this in our communication.

“Great. This is actually our first lock. Where should we go and can we have ropes to hold on to,” radioed Emily.

Lockmaster Bryan was patient and kind. He told us to wait for the green light and then go to the very end of the wall where he would drop down two ropes for us to hold onto as the water drains out. The giant steel doors slowly creaked opened. The light turned green and we puttered towards Bryan holding the rope out.

The doors lumbered to a close, Emily and I held onto a rope on either side of Michi Zeebee and the water gradually started to drain. It is like being on an elevator that moves at the pace of a turtle, which is great for two reasons. Number one, you have no turbulence. Number two, you get to hear stories from the Lockmasters.

They have seen it all. Everyone must pass through these locks. He looked at us and said, “Let me guess, you guys are going to New Orleans.”

We both nodded and said that’s the plan and asked about the other crafts that have passed through. After listing out all the dreamers, adventurers, river rats and so on Bryan concluded that of all the crafts he had seen he thought we were the most prepared and would likely make it to Louisiana.

This conversation continued through every lock, always petering out when we descend so far that we can no longer hear the Lockmasters from the bottom of the chamber. We heard about the woman who kayaked the whole Mississippi River. A couple of guys went down on a barrel raft. While two other guys had a raft built entirely out of soda bottles. One guy travelled on a paddle board and accidentally went over a dam; luckily he survived with just bumps and bruises and actually made it to New Orleans.

Soda Bottle Raft

The water leveled out. The doors opened and a loud horn sounded in the background, indicating that it was time to leave the lock. Bryan waved us on and wished us good luck on our journey.

Now we are on our way to Lock and Dam #19 where the water drops 38 feet. We are ready. We know the lingo and drill. Off we go.

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