Photos by Laura K. Cooper
Peggy descending into the lock chamber. CLICK ON IMAGE TO START SLIDESHOW
At Large in Ballard: Tie Down Your Lines
No one died during the construction of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. That was also a goal for a recent media tour during the annual two-week closure of the big lock chamber. Not only did the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) want all the visitors to survive; they didn’t want to perform any rescue operations. It once took two hours to remove a claustrophobic visitor from a tunnel 55’ below surface and they are on a very tight time schedule.
Although exact figures vary as to whether visiting the Ballard Locks ranks as the 3rd or 4th most popular destination for out of town visitors, there are many unchallenged facts. The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks are the busiest in the United States, moving the most boats. They are managed by ACOE and their budget is part of the Executive Branch, subject to Congressional approval. The Carl S. English Jr. botanical garden is the only one in the U.S. managed by the Army Corps.
Dru Butterfield, Asset Resource Manager, has led many such media tours. He is in charge of any public interface with the gardens, from Congressional staffers to wedding planners. He was full of facts, stories and safety warnings. “Do not touch the barnacles. They will rip your hands.” Between discussions on hydraulic features, Butterfield recalled accompanying a man who had waited eight months until annual closure to search for a gold bracelet that went overboard (found). Every year the empty chamber yields a mix of garbage and treasure; one year that included a gun.
Inside the surprisingly elegant administrative building on the Ballard side of the Locks Butterfield issued hard hats and checked for appropriate footwear. “Stay away from the walls,” he said. “And you don’t want to fall on scaffolding. We don’t want to have to get a crane to haul you out.”
It’s that short turnaround issue again. Large commercial vessels, such as barges that haul sand and gravel, have to plan ahead for the disruptive closure. Personnel who normally work the Locks are given the option of using vacation/annual leave, or else manually scraping the barnacles from inside the 9.5’round filling tunnels with ice scrapers (loud). The flat bottom of the Locks will be scraped by Bobcat; a favored activity Butterfield described as playing in a really big sandbox.
If the barnacles were just a media deterrent they wouldn’t be a problem but they can seriously harm the salmon during their passage through the Locks. The annual closure also allows for crucial safety inspections, such as those that ensure the cantilevered doors can withstand the pressure of 240 tons of water. This year the east end gates have been removed off-site for the first time in 20 years to have their bearings replaced.
Butterfield described a time before automation and a control tower, when operators performed “a sort of ballet” in opening and closing the locks. The water level has to be maintained at 20-22’ feet exactly; with every effort made to prevent even the smallest percentage of salt water from contaminating the freshwater ecosystem upstream. While passing through the locks, boaters of all sizes must perform their own ballet, the combination of commercial and pleasure crafts making for strange dance partners.
“Tie down your lines,” are probably the words shouted most frequently to boaters. Novices often don’t understand how water pressure will send them spinning towards other craft if they loosen their lines too early. “The locks are sort of a fish bowl,” Butterfield said, admitting that watching the inexperienced can be very entertaining for the workers and crowd.
Our tour group consisted of four guys with expensive video cameras (Seattle Times, Q13, Associated Press, MyBallard.com), me and a photographer friend, three people from Congressman McDermott’s office, two representatives from the King County Executive’s office and Jean White and a colleague from the Salmon Recovery Effort. As White said about the importance of seeing the Locks up close, “Salmon recovery in Lake Washington depends 100% on the Locks.”
For the county and federal government representatives, seeing the inner sanctum helps them to understand the importance of funding for maintenance, especially because the Ballard Locks move fewer goods, which is often a determining factor for funding.
Then the tour turned adventurous. I was wearing borrowed boots which is probably the only reason I wasn’t one of the water casualties. We entered the south filling culvert, basically a cold, wet, slippery tunnel covered in barnacles.
My photographer friend Laura Cooper, who used to fish in Alaska, passed someone who was struggling to ascend without ripping his hand open or swimming like a salmon. I followed in Laura’s XtraTuf footsteps. No one else emerged behind us. “They’re having trouble in there,” Laura told Butterfield outside the culvert.
“Do you have a rope?” I asked him.
“I don’t.” Butterfield replied, taking the question seriously. “But you two made it. Tell the others to man up.”
We returned to the tunnel and formed a human chain to pull others up the slope. It was particularly hard for the camera men, and a wet experience for a staffer who slipped into the flowing water. On our heels one of ACOE’s crew trudged up behind us without problem. Our place of adventure is simply their workplace for the next eight days.
The tour group took the place of boats in the fishbowl of the locks, allowing the hardy ACOE workers to watch the media spin. Perhaps we should all be put similarly in our place from time to time. We live and work close to the busiest locks in the United States, and for the most part, we take them for granted. Being inside the concrete chamber reveals that would be an enormous mistake.
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