Source to Sea

A Tall Tale
by Mark Downey -- July 5th, 2012

This coming at you from the Industrial Mississippi. Between the Twin Cities and St. Louis, locks and dams, and the barges for which they were built, dominate the River.


We’ve been encountering occasional dams — many for timber and paper mills — since the headwaters. Up there, a dam meant a portage. We’d land upstream, unload our gear and haul it and the canoes over the dam and down to a safe put-in below. After Minneapolis, we’ve run into at least one dam a day. These ones have locks, though, in which we get to ride like the big boats. For this convenience, we’re grateful – sort of. Considering all the negative dam impacts on paddling, appreciating their locks smacks of Stockholm syndrome. Namely, dams fracture the River and make the water fat and slow for miles behind them.


Usually, passing through a lock is uneventful. We show up, ring the bell, and a green light flashes for us to proceed through the gates. Once in the locking chamber, the upriver gates close and the water drops. Some locks drop more than ten feet, but most are more like two. Once we’re level with the water downstream, the gates in front of us open and we continue on our way.


There are times, though, when we get stuck behind barges at the locks: “lock-blocked”. You can see trouble from miles out, a train of floating boxes queued up on one side of the dam. Usually there’s a pair of locks side-by-side at a dam, so two-way traffic is theoretically possible. Also usually, only one lock is functioning at a time. Often the wait for a locking barge can take two hours or more. This can be good nap time, but can also be frustrating when there are towns with lunch buffets just on the other side.


After siesta one day, we were headed towards a lock twelve miles downstream with a campsite beyond it. Our pace was leisurely and we were enjoying the afternoon. After a couple miles, we passed a barge several hundred feet long but immobile in the channel. A tugboat slumbered behind it, waiting to shove the load downstream. As we slid past the rig, we laughed to ourselves and said phew glad he’s not headed our way.


But a few hundred meters downstream, a foghorn from behind blasted through our whimsy. We turned around and saw the brown water piling into white foam higher and higher on the barge’s prow. The steel hull was lurching in our direction. Our collective heart sank. Collision was not the issue – we can dodge barges; the concern was hours of dam constipation at the end of a long, hot day.


“We have to race it,” said Jeff. Oh yeah? Beating the barge to a lock ten miles downstream would have been herculean even with a full crew. But we’d left our fourth paddler in Minneapolis and now had two canoes between three people – two in the seventeen-foot Rachel and one double-blading little Leah, kayak-style. The setup worked well enough though it wasn’t adapted for speed. Most likely we would burn a lot of energy trying to keep up with the barge and still lose in the end.


But that potential wait with empty stomachs and sore backs, in the heat, sounded painful. We weighed these considerations for several seconds then decided to make a run for it. Jon and I in Rachel, Jeff in Leah, the sprint began.


We knew we wouldn’t be able to beat the barge on its own turf, the big waters. On a lazy right corner, the inside shore slivered into islands. The barge veered wide left with the deepwater channel. Large ships can’t navigate these islands that dot the River, but our tiny canoes can shoot between them. So we aimed for the islands, hoping we could cut enough corners to reach the lock ahead of the barge.


A few miles in, as the barge is disappearing behind island trees, Jeff and I switch places – my arms are relatively fresh for the solo canoe. We pour BNUTS down our tanks — it’s our spinach — and keep moving. Mid-afternoon sun is glaring down. The current hardly moves. The barge is smashing through mountains of waves while we claw for every foot. Reach and dip, reach and dip, roll those shoulders, keep that head still.


When I ran cross-country in high school, my favorite part of races was the last kilometer. It’s there, after the pacing and controlled breathing, that I’d mash the afterburners and kick in everything left. I’d start running faster than I’d ever run before, faster than anyone has ever run, probably. Then, in one deep breath, I’d feel the chemical dump as euphoria flooded my brain. Everything faded but the fraying rhythm of muscles blasting out into rarefied air.


I found that place again in the race against the barge, and stayed in it for miles. Somehow. I imagined octane fire and lightning flaring from Leah’s stern.


Through the islands and trees, here and there, we glimpsed our opponent, now closer now farther away. Finally, after an hour, Rachel and Leah shot out from the island smatter well in front of the barge, the dam straight ahead.


We held the lead for the final two miles and cruised up to the lockmaster, tired but proud. He said, “You’re gonna have to wait. Got a barge coming behind you.”


“Yeah, I know,” I called back. “We just raced it for ten miles!” And then maybe I gave a wolf howl. He just repeated himself. All that effort, for naught. We’d beat the machine, and lived to tell, but he didn’t care about our mythical race.


“Just run the dam,” he offers.


“Haha… What, really?”


“Yeah, it’s open – water’s flowing straight through.” And it was. The water sailed fast but smooth through the yawning gates. Since they first barred our path way up in the headwaters, we’d been talking about riding over the dams. Transcending in some way their clogging effects. Finally, here was our chance.


“Tell your kids about us!” But he was already gone. We paddled over into the unimpeeded water and found our line. And as the tugboat rammed that second-place barge towards the waiting lock, we blew over the dam and disappeared down the River. Into the sunset, I believe.


  1. Peter
    Jul 6, 2012

    Faster than anyone has ever paddled before.

  2. Hal
    Jul 9, 2012

    I like it. An exciting tale, and so interesting to hear about the dams on the Mississippi which I had always known were there but had never really thought much about.

  3. ginger
    Jul 10, 2012

    Thanks for letting us ride your “coat tails” on this adventure- it’s been the best armchair travelling!

  4. Kevin
    Jul 17, 2012

    This is my favorite post for obvious reasons. Keep it up, boys.

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