Tuesday, November 13, 2012

How to go through a lock on the Mississippi river as a paddler

Yellow bull noses
When you approach a lock you will notice two big yellow spots on the lock's bull nose - this is were you are shooting for. You have to get in between those two yellow marks. Usually the lock will have two lock basins and you are shooting for the land side one. The second basin is either not used at all or only used by big barges. You have to paddle past the yellow marker on the land side and halfway down before the lock doors you will find a ladder in the rock wall with a cord inside. On top of this ladder a sign will say "Pull cord in recess for lockage" and this is what you have to do. Approaching this cord in choppy conditions can be quite tricky.... Once you have pulled the cord you will hear a bell and soon the lock master will either appear on the lock wall or he will talk to you through an intercom. He will tell you then how long it will take to get through. Do not approach a lock when there is already a barge waiting outside. Never ever paddle between a barge and the levy/lock wall.

In the lock chamber
Once the lock is filled up the lock doors will open. Do not approach yet but wait till you hear the toot of a horn. Also the traffic light in front of the lock will now change from red to green. Do not get into the lock any earlier. Most locks require you to hold on to a rope during the lockage. The lock master will tell you were to go on the land side and will then throw you a rope. Do not tie your boat to the rope - just hold on to it. Some lock master are a bit lax and just let us sit inside the lock. As soon as the lock doors have been closed behind you the water level will start dropping. Stay away from the lock doors and you won't feel any turbulence - you will just be dropping smoothly.

When the final water level is reached the front lock doors will open slowly. Do not paddle out of the lock yet. Wait again for the toot of the horn and the change of the traffic light. If there is any barge waiting on the other side the lock master will inform you and usually radio ahead so that the barge captain is looking out for you. If the dam releases water when you are leaving the lock this will create huge waves. Be prepared to paddle fast to get out of the danger zone and don't get too close to the outside lock wall. The waves will calm down after a couple of hundred metres.

The most important piece of advice for paddlers regarding locks is to carry their phone numbers! You can find all the lock phone numbers here. If you don't have these phone numbers your only way of attracting the lock master's attention is by pulling the cord in the lock wall. But for various reasons you might not be able to get there. The water might be too choppy to reach or you might get stuck behind a barge. Also if in doubt about what to do always call the lock master and ask for instructions. For example you might approach the lock together with a barge. If in doubt do not proceed but call ahead. Commercial barge traffic always has priority over paddlers but usually the lock masters will try to squeeze you in - after radioing the barge for permission to do so.

If you arrive at a lock behind a barge you will be stuck. Single or short barges take only 20 minutes to get locked through, but the normal double barges have to be taken apart and the whole process takes two hours. The lock master will tell you where to wait and how long it will take. The lock masters and their assistants are usually very friendly towards paddlers - as long as you follow the rules.

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