Into the Land of Tugs and Locks

Wabasha, Minnesota
August 20, 2019

Dear Family & Friends:

“I don’t think I’m in Kansas anymore.”

On August 17, Theo picked me up at MMC at 9am, and I was on the water just below the the St. Anthony Dam at 10am. No more portaging around dams for the rest of the trip.

The weekend shore scene was fun, with lots of families lining the River picnicking,  laughing, swimming and throwing tennis balls in the River to be fetched by their dogs. When I arrived in St. Paul, everything changed dramatically, as the scene changed from urban to heavy industrial. Huge barges lined the riverbanks ready to be picked up by tugs. Smokestacks belched smoke in the air. River traffic picked up, and I even saw some old style riverboats.

Since tugs and barges will be a large part of my future, here is some useful information.  These barges can hold 1500 tons of cargo consisting of grain, coal, oil, chemicals, salt, cement, scrap metal and building material. A single tug can push up to 15 barges up and down stream. This is the equivalent of 870 semi-trucks or a train pulling 225 jumbo hopper-cars. Don’t get in their way because the tug captains have limited vision ahead of them. I was warned to beware of the tugboats because of the huge wake they throw off. These wakes can easily capsize a canoe or kayak. I did not find this to be true. They travel very slow, and their wake is insignificant. The pleasure boats are the worst because they travel fast (sometimes recklessly fast) and leave a trail of wakes that can be 3-4 feet high. Many times,  I was tossed and turned and felt like a cork in the ocean.

August 17 was significant for another reason. I encountered my first lock and dam.  There are 29 locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi River starting in Minneapolis and ending in St. Louis.  Below St. Louis, the River is naturally deep enough so there is no need for locks and dams. Here, a tugboat pushes up to 40-60 barges! The drop in elevation from all 29 locks is 420 feet.

I approached Lock and Dam No. 1 with great fear and trepidation. I was sure I would pull a Clark Griswald and mess up River traffic for hours. But, everything went perfect. I paddled up to the Lock and pulled the cord, which activated a horn to notify the lockmaster that I was ready to enter the lock. He talked to me via a speaker system and told me the wait would be just a few minutes. Sure enough, after a 10 minute wait, the giant steel doors began to slowly open and I could see the lock. Then, the red signal light turned amber, signaling me to approach the lock slowly. Amber turned to green, and I paddled into the lock, trailed by other boats. Once we were all inside the lock, the steel doors closed behind us and we held tightly to ropes that hung down the lock walls. Through a system of underground tunnels and filling and emptying valves, the water level decreased and we began our elevator ride down. As we moved down, we allowed the line to pay out through our hands. Once we finished the 38-foot ride, the lock doors opened and the lockmaster sounded one short blast on a horn and we moved out of the lock onto the River. All very short and easy.

I paddled to a Marina at Inver Grove Heights and enjoyed a great taco salad. After dinner, I paddled 6 more miles down River and set up camp in an inlet. The paddling on this day was tough because of the stiff headwinds. When I reached camp, I was pretty tired. In the wee hours of the morning, a thunderstorm rolled in and and it rained hard for four hours. My total distance traveled was 28 River miles.

On August 18, I broke camp and was on the River by 8am.  That’s when I began my race with the John D. Nugent tugboat. The Nugent, pushing 9 barges, had a good lead on me to Lock and Dam No. 2. I decided to get there first, so I would not have to wait for the Nugent to lock through ahead of me. I paddled really hard and had a good 45-minute lead when I reached Lock 2. I proudly pulled the cord to signal my arrival. The lockmaster’s response: “sorry, but the Nugent has the channel and you  will have to wait 1-1/2 hours.” All that effort for nothing! I pulled my canoe onto the rocks and waited. But, in the end, I was glad because I was able to see and film how these giant tugs and barges manage to lock through to the lower River. First the barges are pushed into the lock and lowered. Then, the tug does the same thing. All very interesting and ingenious. I took a photo of a young tug employee from Georgia, and he asked me to text it to him for friends and family. I gladly obliged. Over two hours later, I was riding the elevator down.

I decided to make it a long day by locking through Lock No. 3. During the one-hour wait for a tug to lock down, I met two really nice Iowa Hawkeye families on a pontoon boat. They offered me beer, which I gladly accepted, and we had a nice conversation. Thanks to the Hubbard and Brown families. I paddled down to Red Wing and had dinner at the Harbor Bar.  The owner of the bar, Brad, is a River Angel, and he allowed me to camp in front of his bar. He also gave me access to his showers.  I logged 32 miles for the day.

August 19 was Lake Pepin Day. Lake Pepin is the largest lake on the Mississippi River. I spent the whole day crossing the lake. Fortunately, the lake was calm and placid, with no waves or wind.  Still, it was a very long and hard day. I do not like lake travel, because of the lack of current. Also, the distances on lakes are deceptive. A target point will appear really close, when, in fact, it is 5-10 miles away. That can be very demoralizing as it feels like you are making zero progress on the destination. Once I cleared the lake, I paddled to Wabasha and set up camp in a public campsite. I had a great dinner at Slippery’s restaurant, which is famous as the site of the filming of Grumpy Old Men.  My distance travelled was 30-miles. I plan to take a whole, or partial, rest day in Wabasha.

Everyone I have met has been so friendly and nice.

Bill

ps: I finally entered another state: Wisconsin is on the left bank of the River and Minnesota is on the right bank of the River.

Lock & Dam No. 1

Swing Bridge

Taco Salad dinner

Gaining ground on the Nugent

The Nugent at Lock 2 and my friend from Georgia

The Nugent

The Nugent

The pull cord to signal arrival at the Lock

The hold cord

Lock doors opening signaling my exit

The Hubbard & Brown families at Lock 3

Brad & Bill at the Harbor Bar

Lake Pepin

Slippery’s in Wabasha