There’s something quite magical about passing through a lock. First you’re on a river or a lake. Then you go into this industrial box or bathtub. The water sinks around the boat. For a brief period of time, you can see the upper waters higher than your boat. Then you’re below the waterline even on the uppermost decks of the boat.
Then you head forward, and you see the doors part. Daylight shows through the gap in these massive gates. It’s like watching the gates of Mordor open. Except that instead of hordes of orcs pouring through, it’s daylight and the natural world.
The Pacific Northwest probably has more dams, and more cheap electrical power, than anywhere else in the world. That power comes in part from the extraordinary ruggedness and beauty of the landscape — these steep-sided gorges filled with rushing waters left over from the melting glaciers of North America’s last ice age. It’s hard to believe that these dams, which are some of the largest concrete structures in the world, may one day run out of water.
Yet as we pass through these locks on the way downstream, it’s hard not to see the opening gates as a metaphor, a symbol, a road-opening spell. Rivers are only temporarily tamed. Steel and concrete locks and dams work with the river’s flow to allow ships to go up and down stream, and to generate and regulate electricity — but they don’t work without acknowledging the river as the source of the power that makes these things possible.
Road-opening is pretty powerful, don’t get me wrong. But a lock opening carries another kind of inevitability to it. They’re largely mechanical, these massive bathtubs of water with full pipes and valves from the upper river, and drains to the lower river. But they can carry you up or down stream, to a higher or lower elevation, simply by allowing the water to do what it wants to do. Hold the water back in a controlled way…. water rises. Let it go in a controlled way, water falls. Whether you seek the sea or the summit, the lock opening spell takes you there.