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  • Writer's pictureBruce Tate

Night Lock

I rose to look in the mirror to see my haggard face. Tne events of the day before and the 6 foot waves had rattled me. We pride ourselves on making safe decisions based on our abilities, but we'd found ourselves unexpectedly in over our heads. With Maggie in the long, quiet process of waking up, I slipped out of the bathroom and V-berth and glanced out the front window. The flag was completely slack and the river's mirror-like reflections of dawn's first glow were stunningly beautiful, providing a much needed reminder of why we were doing this.

Sailing through Wheeler Lake presented a vastly different experience with good weather and nice conditions. We ran nice and slow, letting our Volvo engines purr deeply in appreciation for the respite from yesterday's adventures. We glided effortlessly along the surface, passing beautiful limestone cliffs and amazing mansions on the river banks. We saw pelicans, wintering from some distant frigid climate and the occasional heron that glided out, with a twin reflection mirrored in the placid waterway. Around noon, we got to Wheeler Lock, and passed through uneventfully, and called ahead to check the status of Wilson Lock, two hours downstream.

Scanning ahead on our Garmin, we could see a vivid collection of green triangles representing other traffic, usually commercial push boats that muscle the barges up and down the waterways of the Southeast. We counted seven vessels crowding around the lock, and that could mean only one thing. Commercial traffic takes precedence over recreational craft, so we wouldn't be getting through the lock for a good, long while.

We decided to tie up at Steenson Hollow Marina, where we encountered a picturesque slough cutting deeply into the Wilson valley. With depths of 50 feet or more, we could relax, We tied up the trawler and chatted with the manager for a while. We made arrangements to stay for the night. Then, we made the inevitable call to Wilson Lock.

Wilson confirmed their busy day, but told us if we could get to the area by 4:00, we had a chance to get through to the next marina, a scant mile or two downstream. We hung out for a couple of hours at Steenson before heading out to the lock.

Sometimes, high river conditions and crowds lead to snags. Today while tying up, a barge train managed to wedge itself sideways across the lock. As 4:00 turned to 5:00, we called, and the TVA lock master told us we would not get through in the daylight, and tomorrow would be worse. He offered us the option of tying up to a massive Army Corps of Engineers barge in their auxiliary chamber for overnight commercial traffic.

Pushboats do not usually start operations until daylight so TVA offered us the option of locking through before first light. By tying up at 6:00 AM, we could ride the lock down more than 100 feet over about a half an hour, and be on the river just as dawn was breaking. We gratefully accepted the offer.

After watching pushboats operate from our Panorama house, we had a front-row seat to a small part of this enterprise. We shared a chamber with other river boats and tied up to the massive cleats on a TVA river maintenance barge. We could hear the VHF radio chatter between the river captains and the lock master. We could see the infrastructure used to maintain the river. We could tie our tiny 5/8" lines to cleats used to handle cables and ropes many times that size. In short, our "misfortune" turned into a lifetime opportunity to get a small glimpse of life on a working river.

Welcome to the Great Loop.

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