Lock usage on the Mississippi

Anyone know if I may use the locks on the Mississippi river using a canoe? Or how to get maps of locks/river/portage exits on the river?

locks and maps
Yup, you have as much right to use the Mississippi River locks as any barge. The lock operators deal with hundreds of canoes each year, so they’re really nothing new.

As for maps, the Minnesota DNR has maps online in PDF format:



It’s really simple
If your near St Louis you can buy chart books in the gift shop under the Arch or contact a Corps of Engineers office. To lock through contact them on a UHF radio or look for a sign and pull cord a 100 or so yards from the lock. They’ll light a white strobe on the traffic light when their ready for recreational craft. Commercial craft have priority but every 6th locking has to be for rec craft if theyre waiting. If in doubt call the lock on the phone for more info.

If your near St Louis contact me and we’ll go out it’s always easier the first time if your partner is experienced ;0)> Feb. was my first time too. Your welcome to boat with us anytime.



“pull cord a 100 or so yards from the lock. They’ll light a white strobe on the traffic light when their ready for recreational craft.”

Is this true for all locks on the Mississippi?

Also, when in the lock is their much turblance during closing, raising (or lowering), and opening? When waiting your turn do you stay away from shore or go on shore/ Those barges create quite a wave or two for a stationary canoe.

Finally, can a person portage around locks assuming no previous contact with the lock master/people?

VHF & Locks
We have a paddle-group going through the Ice Harbor Dam lock on the Snake River this April to promote a new section of water trail. It will be my first time.

The Corps is expecting us and will do a special lock through but I have a question on the VHF protocol. The information I have is that they operate on VHF channel 14. Do you hail them on that channel, or start with 16 and switch? Anyone have any idea? It may be a non-issue but I’d like to know. Thanks.

I’ve watched the barges go through two different Mississippi locks bunches of times. The degree of turbulence may be difficult to predict. It won’t be bad if you are on the “entry” side as the barges go through, but beware of the "exit side. Quite often, the tow boat (why aren’t they called “push boats”?) is working pretty gingerly to get the barge string angled in the right direction upon leaving the lock, but if they luck out with their maneuvers or if the trip from the lock to the navigation channel is a straight shot, the boat might be pouring on the power and kicking up the equivalent of Class III or IV rapids behind it.

In some cases you might be able to duck behind the wall on the side of the lock facing the dam, because the main dam current is likely to be farther out, away from the lock. Also, be on the lookout for a boat dock on the downstream side of the lock. There may be a little charter boat that ferries fishermen to and from an anchored barge on the main-current side of the dam, and if so, you can wait your turn at the charter boat’s dock.

Get the Corps of Engineers Charts
The Corps has great charts of the Upper Mississippi. $30 for the set, 638 miles of river, all at 2" per mile scale. And a CDROM is included so you can print out extras to take in the boat. It’s a great book for winter daydreaming. Includes most backwaters, recreational boat ramps, etc.

Ordering Info from St. Paul District:


The charts are downloadable as PDF’s from the Corps’ Rock Island District website.

Radio procedures are listed on Legend Page 2.

Locks 1 through 24 use Channel 14.

The rope for the small boat bell is halfway up the long wall above and below the lock, not right at the end. There is a sign above the rope.

If there are barges tied to the long wall you will have to wait, the rope will be blocked until the barges move on.

Portaging opportunities vary. Some locks have decent takeouts above and below (Lock #5), others are totally riprap. And there are fences around the working part of the lock.

Overall, very workable for kayaks to lock through.

We were lucky when we went thru
There were no barges around, it was turbulent going up since they’re dumping water into the lock (they threw us a line to hold onto). Going down was nice and smooth you could feel the boat dropping under you.

As for where they want you to wait and radio procedures, it can’t hurt to give them a call to see what they prefer. As for portages you’d have to look for yourself I doubt they have the experience to judge and it may depend on river level.



Waiting Time
I thought about this long after making my original reply here. Unless the locks where you are going are a lot longer than the ones along the Wisconsin border, a portage is likely to be preferable to waiting for barges to go through. Around here, it takes about 90 minutes for a string of barges to lock through, because they have to break the string in half and lock through twice, and then tie them together again before making final exit. Furthermore, the speed at which the first half of the string passes once the lock opens is painfully slow, even for the upstream passage, where a shore-mounted winch is used to get the barges moving. One person said that every third operation of the lock must be available to non-barge traffic, but even if you CAN fit in among the power-boaters who are waiting, you might wait three hours for that chance if barge traffic is there. Even if a barge set is half-way through, I’d go for the portage. You can carry a lot of gear an awfully long way in the time you’ll spend waiting.

Read about it
Going down the Mississippi? Write a book about it and I’ll put it in my bibliography.