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Pickwick Lock & Dam

Tuesday, January 1, 2019. Pickwick Dam on the Tennessee River.

Today was encouraging, even fun by the time I was done. Several firsts accomplished with little pain or embarrassment. The only real problem was I was ready to celebrate when I pulled into Pickwick State Park Marina, but most people had done that last night. Not for the first time I regretted starting so late that my first full week on the water fell between Christmas and New Year’s.

The Tennessee River is running 234,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) and is 23 feet above normal level. To put that in perspective for my western friends, the Colorado was running at a bit over 100,000 cfs when it almost took out Glen Canyon Dam in 1983. It’s been mild torture to fight what probably is close to a 6 mph current and a fair amount of debris (logs and trees) as Kentucky Lake transitions to a real river before the next lake formed by Pickwick Dam – Pickwick Lake, duh.

As I planned the day, I thought about powering LT up a bit to put us in a good position to get through the lock at Pickwick Dam by mid-day tomorrow. Leaving my quite eddy next to Eagle Nest Island I ran L.T. up to 5,000 rpm. She seemed quite happy to get loosened up and I adjusted my navigation technique from checking off every buoy to wider spaced daymarks and looking out for logs.

No time for pictures and not much for looking through the binoculars to check out either the McMasions or the trailer shacks – the range of housing I’ve seen along the shores is another story. I did slow at Savanah, TN, the first town that may have been big enough to have expresso but couldn’t stop because the ramp to the public dock was underwater. The dock floats, so it was fine, but where the ramp anchored to shore was well under water.

I’m learning to cut the bends in the river and finding the best speed just off the eddies along the shore but inside the strong current – about 50 feet offshore. I didn’t have to worry about shallow ridges protruding from the shoreline like they did on the lake. According to the GPS, LT was doing 18-20 mph – not bad against this current. And still not wide open.

After 29 miles, I stopped at Wolf Island in another eddy for lunch. Pickwick Dam is another 11.3 miles. Rain is forecast for tomorrow and the river isn’t forecast to start dropping for another 5-6 days. I’m in a good mood and decide to lock through this afternoon.

I spend an hour or so reviewing my Coast Guard Auxiliary course notes on radio etiquette. I’ve had my VHF radio on but there’s so little traffic on the river I’ve not used it yet. I even wrote out a little message: “For what’s it worth, this is my first lock. Feel free to call me out if I do something stupid.”

About a mile below the dam I broadcast my well rehearsed “Pickwick Dam, Pickwick Dam, Pickwick Dam this is L.T. Looper, over”. Nothing. Again, “Pickwick Dam, Pickwick Dam, Pickwick Dam this is L.T. Looper, over”. Nothing.

Panic slowly starts building. Is my radio not working? Is anybody home? Has the government shutdown taken out lock operators too? At the current flood stage, the turbulence below the dam is bouncing L.T. around like a cork, reminding me that just like class 7-10 rapids in the Grand Canyon, there are times when you want to have things stowed or tied down well. My good mood is heading south.

I’m on channel 16, the standard channel for initial contact. I check my river chart. It says they also monitor channel 13. Bingo! Contact!

I immediately notice my practiced etiquette is a bit much. I get a soft southern chuckle for my first timer speech which I hope I delivered somewhat calmly. Once I get into the calmer waters of the lock, I settle down a bit and work to get LT tied up. These tie ups are not little cleats that you can throw a couple quick half hitches on. They’re floating round mooring ‘bits’, a misnomer if there ever was one, the top well above my head and so big that I can hardly get my arms around them. They weren't designed for L.T. So much for looking graceful. At least I had remembered to put out my bumpers.

I look around the 1000’ x 110’ lock chamber. The lock wasn't designed for L.T. either. We feel like a speck. I don’t even notice my soft spoken lock master has closed the gate behind me and the water is rising. The heartbeat settles down.

As we leave the chamber, I strike up a conversation with the lock master about the flood level. I’m getting more comfortable on the radio. He keeps calling me “Captain”*. I think he might even call his wife Captain. I tell him I’m not sure I merit the title yet, but I’m trying. He replies, “You picked a pretty tough one for your first” and wishes me a good trip.

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*For the boaters among you reading this, I have of course learned that “Captain” is a standard greeting regardless of ability, though the tone in which it is said often indicates what is thought of your ability. I’ve let this stand because, well, it’s hard to hide everything I didn’t know when I started.