Angle to Key West: Lock 19 (10/28)

Upper Mississippi Mile 350 – October 28, 2012

“I heard you could fit 15 barges and a tug in here at one time,” I said to the lockman.

“Sixteen,” he said. “Sometimes they put an empty one next to the tug.”

Twice as big as the other locks, Lock 19 felt like a lake all its own. About halfway down the man directed me to a metal float embedded on a track inside the concrete.

“Just hang on to that,” he said.

The giant doors eased shut a few hundred feet behind me and the water began to drop, scraping the float against its track, filling the air with the sound of metal sliding against metal.

Deeper and deeper we sank, the walls growing from just a few feet into four-story buildings that towered over the pool. It made a thousand feet of water feel small.

No lock drops as far as 19 other than the first couple in Minneapolis. Some feel like they barely drop at all, but this one feels like you’re descending into a cave. The river has worn into the bottom of the walls, chewing away pieces of concrete, exposing bits of rebar. Shadows filled the depth, turning a mid-day sun into twilight before the water stopped dropping.

For a moment, everything was still and quiet, then light spilled through a crack in the doors as giant gears pulled them open like the gates of a medieval castle.

A moment later, Iowa disappeared, Missouri arrived, and I slipped south.

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