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Anatomy of a Lock Toss

Navigating the Columbia and Snake River Locks, Tossing, Calling, and the Art of the Toss

overcast 67 °F

Each week, I travel up and down the Columbia and Snake rivers from Portland, Oregon to Clarkston, Washington. Along the way, I pass through seven different lock and dam systems that the US Corp of Engineers has constructed for hydro electrical power. The dam is for electricity. The lock is to allow easier navigation for shipping between upper and lower parts of the river.

The Columbia used to be a wild river, full of treacherous bars, sand shoals, rocks, waterfalls, rapids, narrows, not to mention salmon (I‘m not going to get into that topic). The late 1800’s was a golden era along the Columbia with steam powered paddle-wheels navigating these attention demanding waters, carrying cargo and people upstream and back down. I have seen pictures of these stern wheelers out in the middle of a series of big rapids, and it is impressive to see such shaky looking boats handle the rapids. I would love to see this with my own eyes, but alas, those days are long gone. Nowadays, a large portion of the Columbia and Snake rivers has morphed into a series of lakes with water levels controlled by the corps.

While I long to see what this river used to be like, and curse the “progress” of man, I must admit, I enjoy the challenge of navigating through the locks.
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Every deckhand running up and down the Columbia River needs to be skilled at “lock tossing.” Lock tossing, is an acquired skill that involves making a loop of heavy mooring line and throwing it cleanly over a floating bollard. This line is then whipped around the bollard another time, and made fast, thus securing the ship to the side of the lock. The water can then be pumped in, or out depending on where the ship is headed. Since the bollard floats, and is secured to the wall, the ship rises or falls along with the water level.

I first started lock tossing about a year ago, when I first joined the Seabird, and it is one of my favorite parts of this job. I like the challenge of relying on my judgment and athletic skill to get the job done. Not very many people get to do what I do, and this is another example.

The Anatomy of a Lock Toss

There are three people involved in successfully navigating a lock. The watch officer, who is driving the boat. The caller, who gives the watch officer distances to the bollard. Finally, the tosser, who is strictly focused on throwing the line around the bollard.

After setting up three fenders on the bow of the boat that protects the hull from the concrete wall of the lock, the caller and the tosser go to their prospective starting points. The caller starts out directly below the wing station which is where the watch officer will be operating the boat from. This station allows him to see the entire length of the side of the ship. This helps them maneuver when getting close to a lock, or a dock. The watch officer lets the caller which bollard they want, and navigates as close to the side of the lock as they can.

This is not easy. There are all kinds of factors involved in putting a ship right next to a lock wall: the wind/direction, the water currents, the speed of the ship, the skill of the watch officer. As you might imagine, it doesn’t always go according to plan.

Usually, the officers get us within about five feet of the wall, give or take, and it is up to the tosser to decide if they can make that distance. I like the challenge of a long toss, but I can appreciate the skill of the driver who puts us within six inches of the wall without touching it.
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When the target bollard is inline with the caller, they hold out there hand and walk with it, calling distances to where the tosser is waiting. This is usually mid ship at the number three cleat. The caller calls out, “30 feet, 20, 10, 5, 3, 2, 1, and Abeam,” meaning we are dead even with the bollard. When the bollard gets close, the tosser must decide when to go for the toss, and again, that is not easy. If the ship is close to the wall, it’s easier to make that toss then when it is nine feet away.
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There are different techniques used when tossing. The most popular is to hold two coils of line one in each hand with a “tongue” of line to throw over the bollard. Tossing is not about upper body strength, it is about technique, and the better throwers will have their technique down. You want your tongue to land over the bollard, which is roughly two feet wide, and two feet tall. In order to do this, you must throw the line not only outward, but spread apart to land over it. It takes practice.

I don’t use the popular method of coiling my lines. I hold two long curls of line in each hand between three fingers with the tongue hanging down. I don’t really think about the toss too much, I just let my judgment and athletic ability do its thing, and most of the time I’m successful on my first toss.

The following photos were taken by Clay Collins, and used with permission. You can follow his travels, at www.atlastrekker.com
Sequence Of The Toss
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If the toss is made, the watch officer will have you “make it” meaning securing the line to the ships cleat in a series of figure eight wraps, or will have you go for the second wrap. The second wrap is applied by pulling in all your slack on the line, and making a smooth wrap around the bollard making doubly sure that the ship will be secure to the bollard, and the lock wall. After the second wrap is on, I pull in all the slack and make the line fast.
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In adverse conditions such as high wind, or if we are locking with another vessel, it’s important to get the ship secured as quickly as possible. This added pressure sits pretty much on the tosser, and this is what separates the good ones from the average.

After securing the vessel, the deckhands stand by to make sure everyone stays away from the line, as there is an immense amount of pressure and strain on the line. If the line snaps, it is an extremely dangerous situation. A snapped line has been known to take peoples legs off or worse. I’ve never been around a snapped line, but I’ve moved far away from lines that have stretched.

The big doors of the lock will close, sometimes with a resounding BOOM! and the lockmaster will pump the water until we are at the right level to depart. It’s a good time to lean on the rail, and chew the fat. In the early morning, when the stars are out, and everyone is asleep, and I’m deep in the philosophy of the night, I realize that these are the moments I love about this job.

Posted by Rhombus 20:57 Archived in USA Tagged rivers ships columbia photography locks navigating Comments (4)

The Wonders of Palouse Falls, Washington

Working the River, The Enjoyment of Revisiting Old Haunts, Palouse Falls Hiking, and Loafing

sunny 70 °F

I’m back in the lower forty-eight once again, working on the boat that sails up and down the Columbia, Willamette, Snake, and Palouse Rivers. It’s a good gig. It is fun to travel a river that requires a lot of nautical skill, vigilance, and know how to navigate it. Our watch officers are busy, and it’s good to see them ply their craft. Baja and Alaska aren’t nearly as navigationally interesting or challenging as our Columbia River trips.

As for me, it’s good work. Each week we travel just under a thousand miles, making our way from Portland, Oregon to Clarkston, Washington, and returning down river to Astoria, Oregon, and finishing the trip in Portland. I know it sounds like a lot of illogical travel, but it is a good route that I will be traveling for the next six weeks.
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One of the stops we make along the way is on the Palouse River. I’ve written about the Palouse Falls area before, just about a year ago in fact. Palouse Falls is one of my favorite places in Washington State, and I decided to take advantage and hike down to see the expansive canyon and falls once again. I really like revisiting parks and natural places I’ve been to before. It’s kind of like visiting an old friend. I like to see if there are any changes, and find new nooks and crannies or views that I haven’t discovered yet.
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I caught the zodiac to shore well before the guests disembarked, and had quite a bit of time to compose some images in the strong morning light. Most of the land was tan, faded grass of late summer, but in contrast, there were large bushes of yellow flowers and sunflowers blooming along the hillsides. We anchor near a rock outcrop named by the Palouse Indians of the region as the “Heart of the Beaver.” The rock sits high above the river, and makes for a nice backdrop.
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When everyone else arrived on shore, we climbed onto the school bus and made our way to the falls.
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I knew exactly where I was going, so while everyone else went straight for the tourist view of the falls, I headed left to the trail that would take me down to the lip of the falls. I was surprised by the amount of birds around. There were many songbirds, warblers, sparrows and the like, and they were all eating seeds from the sunflowers.
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I slid down the gravel talus pile next to the railroad bed. I more or less crouched down on one boot and skiied it, using my hands as balance when I needed it, and I was down in under a minute. Sometimes, you just have to let yourself go.

I walked the familiar trail downstream to the falls. It felt good to be hiking, and I was enjoying the warm sunshine, the sounds of the river, and excited to see what awaited me just around the bend.
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I brought my camera, of course, but I didn’t have any expectations of taking photos I hadn’t taken here on previous trips. However, when I reached the gaping canyon I found myself working new angles I hadn’t done before, seeing the falls, and surrounding countryside in new ways. I was inspired, and pleasantly surprised, by my excitement. I was once again in my element.
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I love this place. I can’t wait to come back again in the next few weeks. In a moment of inspiration, I climbed up the thin rock fingers that sit like an audience above the falls. I found some shade, I found a perch, and that was all I needed. I sat on my rock throne, twenty feet higher than the rocky slope that sits atop the sheer cliff of the waterfall wall. Perfect. I looked out at the surrounding canyon, and took in all my senses could offer me.
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It was a good morning, and I want to spend a couple of days at Palouse Falls, not just a couple of hours. I wearily hiked back to the parking lot, stopping at the upper falls to dunk my head in the water. It was cool and refreshing, and I thought about jumping in. The thought passed, and so did I.
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Back on top of the bluff, I looked over the canyon and found more gorgeous views. The compositions of the Palouse are quite fetching. I finished off my day by loafing. Loafing is a wonderful pastime. Lin Yutang, writes in “The Importance of Living” that, “The first thought that the jungle beast would have is that man is the only working animal.” And this is true! Too many of us work way too hard, and would be far better off lying flat on a cool picnic table in the shade of a large copse of trees that are filled with the songs of birds. I did this very thing at the park, with my backpack as a pillow, and the warm breeze as my blanket, I fell asleep to the chirping of the birds. As I lay there I had the thought, that I should just stay here, and sleep away the afternoon. This was the good life, and I was enjoying it.

Alas, I didn’t make good on my pleasant thought (yet). Like the good american I am, I went back to work to live to toil another day.
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However, this little nap I had in the park has planted a seed of a plan in my mind. It won’t be long before it bears fruit, and this vagabond will be free once again.

Posted by Rhombus 18:14 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes waterfalls birds photography wildflowers Comments (0)

British Columbia by Water

An Ethereal Study of Reflection, Ocean Life and Fun

sunny 67 °F

These are my final observations of Alaska for the year.

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One: The Misty Fjords weren’t as misty as I expected them to be. To be sure, the morning was very misty, and very beautiful because of the vaporous water. Later in the day, they burned off, revealing the impressive rock faces that make up the landscape.
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Sometimes, incredible weather can happen in the most unlikely of places.

Two: Alaska was very good to me this year. Thinking back on all of the amazing things I have seen this past summer has been further encouragement, that I am indeed on the right path. Aye, life is good.

Three: I’m going to miss Alaska.
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Four: It’s been a fantastic trip. How lucky can one guy get?

These are my observations of British Columbia.

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One: British Columbia has amazing morning lighting, leading me to conclude it is an ethereal realm where the intense greens were mirrors on the surface of its protected narrow and winding waterways. Eventually, the mirrored images begin to form unique natural designs, and patterns. I was lost in brightness of the trees, the beautiful patterns repeating themselves, and the overall beauty of the mornings.
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Two: Kayaking is splendid activity to enhance the visuals of item one. I spent a morning floating on a placid surface, paddling hard when I wanted, but mostly taking it easy and exploring the intertidal zones along the shores of these lushly forested islands. I saw gigantic sea stars, and other invertebrates I hadn’t seen before. B.C. is a healthy place, the environments and ecosystems are strong, and flourishing.
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Three: The wildlife of British Columbia can be quite good. I saw pods of Orca, including a mother and calf pair that played in the tidal current lines just aft of our ship, not more than thirty feet away. We were out of gear of course and posing no threat to any wildlife. To find yourself surrounded by water mammals is a good situation to be in.
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To top it off, we found a pod of Pacific White Sided dolphins! There were several hundred in the group, and most of them were jumping in and out of the water with dolphin regularity. It’s hard to follow dolphins as they streak through the water. They are unpredictable. The best course of action is just to trust your instincts and keep shooting. For every fifteen bad pictures I take, there is usually one gem.
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The dolphins made my day. Just when you think there won’t be anything else to make a trip better, dolphins show up and spread that smile on my face just a little wider.
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Four: British Columbia has a lot to offer. Go check it out sometime. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
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I'm now back in the Lower Forty-Eight, about to spend six weeks travelling up and down the Columbia, Snake, Palouse, and Willamette Rivers.
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Posted by Rhombus 10:21 Archived in Canada Tagged trees reflections wildlife whales alaska canada dolphins photography orcas Comments (2)

An Evening With Alaskan Whales

A Beautiful Evening, Dead Batteries, Bubble Net Feeding, and A Remarkable Sunset

sunny 65 °F

On a placid evening in the midst of the most southern of the southeast islands of Alaska, a group of humpback whales came together for one of the most memorable whale shows I will ever see. They were working together to feed as one; bubble net feeding. I have described bubble net feeding in my entry on “The Feeding Habits of Whales and Bears”, so I won’t give you the full details of this behavior again. A short synopsis of the bubble net formation is thus: The whales dive in a row, blow a net of bubbles around a biomass of baitfish, and lunge through that net as a group, collecting mass amounts of fish in their gaping mouths.

It was a beautiful evening. It was calm, just before sunset. The light was warm on the skin, and brought out warm colors to the eye. The light was fantastic. We motored up on a large group of bubble net feeding humpbacks, and it was a good show. Everyone was on deck, setting up cameras, holding binoculars, or simply watching these magnificent creatures.

Notice the perfect circle around these whales. That is the bubble net percolating at the surface.
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I had ran down to my hook to grab my camera, and ran up to the lido (the highest deck of our ship) to get a good view. When I got there, I turned on my camera only to find, a low battery signal. I paid it no mind, and set up a perfect shot of the whales in the sun. Before I could snap the shutter, the camera died. Dead. I decided to run down and get my spare battery, before the next surge, and I found that this battery was dead as well. A photographer’s worst nightmare! I laughed. What else could I do? I put myself in this situation, and nobody but myself was to blame. So I ran down to my room, and put my batteries to charge, while I ran back up to the lido, to take in the evening.

I had to put up with my chief engineer Clay, give me shit about Nikon cameras (I’m a Nikon guy, he’s a Canon guy), but I didn’t let him bother me. I had whales to watch.

We were dead still, our mate didn’t dare move the boat as the whales had followed the herring balls right next to our boat, and they dove near us, heading in our direction. By law, we have to stay 100 yards away from all wildlife, but we can’t endanger the wildlife by moving if they come at us, so we held still. The whales had dove down, and as I looked over the edge, the tell tale circle of bubbles began to appear, making a small arc on top of the water. Then, there they were, not more than 100 feet away, bursting through the surface with their enormous mouths gaping open with herring pouring out of the sides of them. The seagulls were going crazy. Nine Whales had surfaced devouring a vast amount of herring in a single surfacing. It was AMAZING, it was AWESOME, and I’ll probably never see a better whale show than that in my life. It was a top five life moment, and the best part was, I had no distractions. My camera was safely tucked away on my bed, and I could simply live the moment. Sometimes things work out better than you could ever plan.

Forty-five minutes later, as the sky had turned pink in the west, and I was finally off shift. I grabbed my camera with a moderately charged battery and went back up to the lido to try to get a few shots before the light went away, and we continued on our way. The whales gave me several chances, but the light was bad.

Meanwhile, more whales had joined the nine, and they broke up into three separate groups of bubble net feeding humpbacks. It was fantastic! You could time them, and there was constant herring carnage going on. One group would erupt, and then another, then the last, but they had good timing so I didn’t have to wait long before the next group burst through the surface.
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I looked to the east, and the moon was rising through the scant cloud cover. It was beautiful atmosphere, a rising moon, to a setting sun, and a good spectrum of blue in between.

Finally, with my last chance, the whales and lighting cooperated; they were off in the distance, a couple hundred yards away. Behind them, the rich pink of the sunset afterglow was vibrant. A nice band of spruce from a nearby island formed well with the sunset. I waited, watching the seagulls begin to swarm to the surface. Seagulls are great indicators of where the whales will appear, as they want the stunned herring the whales leave.

They broke the surface as one, and I tracked them to the apex of their momentum, taking the photo you see here.
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I knew they would probably dive once again, and I composed the back ground so that I could time a whale fluke for my last picture of the night, once again they cooperated, and the shot perfect.
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I am a lucky man. In pursuit of my happiness, I keep finding in just around the corner.
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This marks the last of the Alaskan whale shows for the year for me. Next time, I’ll talk about my journey through the Misty Fjords, and the ethereal world of the inside passage of British Columbia.

Posted by Rhombus 11:18 Archived in USA Tagged whales alaska sunsets life photography humpbacks Comments (0)

The Best Day in Glacier Bay National Park

The John Hopkins Glacier, Sea Scapes, South Marble Island, and Sunset

sunny 72 °F

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The day began innocently enough. When I stepped into the daylight, my first sight was that of the Margerie glacier. It was a good first look at the world, its jagged ice face holding fast in the early morning light. It was beautiful, but not in a picturesque way. It was beautiful to stand in the cold open air looking at the glacier still deep in shadow holding absolutely still, in muted pale blues of early mountain light. It was like standing alone in a beautiful ice temple, or standing knee deep in a forest watching the snowfall; it left me feeling good about everything.
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The day only improved from there. We motored across to look at the John Hopkins Glacier, which is one of the few glaciers in the world that is actually expanding. This was the first time I saw the John Hopkins, as thick sea ice blocked our passage earlier in the summer. The John Hopkins is connected to the eastern edge of the Gilman Glacier. The faces of the glaciers were lit up in bright morning sun, while the hanging glaciers high above them were still in cloud.
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The combination of sun, swirling mountain clouds, glaciers, mountains, and sea were a dynamic force to reckon with this day, and though I didn’t know it at the time, it was a reoccurring vision that made me very happy to be alive. This is my last trip into Glacier Bay for the year. The landscape and seascapes combined with the variety of wildlife made this among the best days I’ve ever had in Alaska. It was a splendid farewell, a final reminder to come back and explore again sometime, that Alaska is still wild and will forever be.
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Now, before I get lost into trying to weave poetic justice to the indescribable beauty I hold in my memory, I’m going to let my images speak for me. The point is, it was a beautiful day, and I’m glad I was there to live it. If I never see Alaska again, I’ll still have this trip to Glacier Bay National Park to hold dear.
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I saw four different glaciers. The Marjorie, the John Hopkins, the Gilman and the Hoonah. The Hoonah was probably my favorite, as it was high up nestled under the shoulder of a high mountain. The swirling clouds were sunlit white behind the piles of jagged ice. It was an easy composition and one of my favorites.
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As we cruised along, we saw a brown bear and a wolf sharing the same beach. They were both poking along the waterfront looking for food, or looking for fun, who knows? I focused my lens on the wolf, as this was the only wolf I’ve seen all year, anywhere. It was though it wanted to pose for me, and he walked out to the end of a small spit of rocks and held still, looking off into the distance, before poking around some more and disappearing into the woods.
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The sky was putting on a fantastic show of its own with playful variations on cloud, color and light. The sky would change its dynamic every twenty minutes, bending light through the heavy clouds, creating a masterpiece of living art. In every direction I looked, another seascape demanded my attention. I was in my element, in the elements, and loving every second.
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In the late afternoon, we sailed up to South Marble Island, and I don’t think it’s ever looked better. I’ve talked about the Marble islands in past entries (June 10th to August 6th), but my last views were my favorite. I loved seeing the crowded, noisy and stinky sea lion covered rocks and pastel skies one last time. The birds were still living there, the puffins, cormorants, gulls, jaegers, among many others flying in groups through many of the photos I captured. As we left, the sun came out, backlighting the most southerly outcrops in glinting sunlight, offsetting the heavy cloud cover off to the west. Intense sunrays burned through the gaps in the clouds giving the scenes even more layering than I though one scene could handle. In a word, gorgeous.
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Then as we traveled further south in the setting sun, the Orca showed themselves and we were able to match their pace as we cruised south. A male and female were traveling as a pair through the placid light blue water and with evening sun behind me, the whale and spruce covered island made for good memories.
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We docked into Bartlett cove for a couple of hours, and I took the time to finish my day with a little exercise. My buddy Luke had his slack line, so I borrowed it and set it up on the dock. We took turns practicing our craft, focusing on balance in the cold night air. Balance is the correct term, for as we walked the line, the sky turned golden orange in the west, the strong afterglow of the sunset. In the east, just peaking above the tops of the dark spruce trees was the pale yellow moon rising through the dark indigo sky.
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It was one of the best days I’ve ever had in Alaska, a cornucopia of landscapes, wildlife, oceans, visions, photography, and life. It had it all, and I hope there are more days like these in my future.
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Posted by Rhombus 20:30 Archived in USA Tagged wildlife whales ice alaska clouds glaciers photography portland wolves Comments (0)

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