The Locks and the Lox

The Locks, more correctly known as the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, or locally as Ballard Locks, operate as, among other things, a pair of elevators for boats.


It’s very cool.  We went there our first full day in Seattle.  (I’d told Alex not to make a goofy face when I took the picture below.  This is what he came up with as an alternative.)


Boats coming from the freshwater areas of Lake Washington and Lake Union (fresh water) going out into Puget Sound (salt water) must pass through one or the other of these locks as they move from one body of water to the other.

So, say you’re docked in Lake Union or Lake Washington, and you decide you want to go salmon fishing in the Sound.  Back home in RI, saltwater boats are docked in bodies of saltwater, and if you were going fishing (for stripers instead of salmon, for instance), you would just hop in the boat, start it up, and go.  But out here, you are docked in fresh water, and you need to go out to salt water.  AND, the fresh water you’re in is at a higher level than the saltwater your heading out to.  So what do you do?

Well, you have no choice.  You go through the locks.

You slowly sail your boat into a sort of holding pen that’s in between the (higher) lake and the (lower) entrance to the Sound.  You tie up to the side, with the help of the people that operate the opening and closing and raising and lowering at the locks, and wait as other boats join the group.  When there are a bunch of boats thus assembled, the workers close off your holding pen from both the salt and fresh water areas, and then – as if by magic, the level of the water you are floating in goes down.

Down, down, down, until you are level with the water in Puget Sound.  Then the huge gate at that end slowly opens, and, one by one, the boats are untied and you head out into the open water.

Here are a few images I took of this end of things…

First up, this is the gate between the lake and the lock as it closes in preparation for the lowering of the water.


The gate also serves as a bridge from one side of the lock to the other.  Here are Bill and the kids standing on the bridge.  Bill is pointing to the level of the water, which is starting to drop.


Several minutes later (it’s much faster than you might think) the boats are at the level of the Sound.  See how low they look in comparison to the walls?  Moments ago, they were high enough so you could, if you needed to, step off the wall and onto the deck of one of the boats.  Pretty cool, huh?


And now the gates are ready to open, the fasten seatbelt sign is off, the boats are free to move about the salt water.



And when you come back, the whole thing operates in reverse – you sail on in, tie up, the water level rises, and you motor back to your dock for the night.

And that, basically, is part of what the locks are for.

They also keep the levels of the lakes around twenty feet above sea level, and serve to prevent salt water from flowing into the fresh water.

AND, (now comes the “lox” part of our story, sort of) there is also a fish ladder built in with the locks, so that the salmon and other migratory fish can…well…migrate.

And there were plenty of salmon out there.  We could see them jumping in the lake, but all the pictures I tried to get of them at that point, as we crossed both bridges/gates to get to the fish ladder observation room looked a lot like this one:


And this one.


Trust me, the fish are out there.  I just kept missing them.

The kids enjoyed the fish ladder way more than the locks, which is certainly understandable.


Here’s a view from inside…

Yes, Julia, that’s a BIG fish.


These big guys are Chinook, or King, Salmon.


This one is (by Bill’s estimation) around twenty pounds.


We’re lucking out because the Chinook are migrating right now, which means they’re close by and catchable.  Bill and Alex are going salmon fishing today (they’re on the boat as I type), and Bill expects (doesn’t hope, he expects) to catch big, huge fish.  I’ll let you know.

The smaller salmon in the picture below are Sockeye (Red) salmon.  Not as massive, but definitely just as tasty.



Besides watching the fish struggle up the ladder, or hover at the bottom psyching themselves up for it, we had plenty of salmon-related artwork around the room to look at.

This piece was my favorite:


And there was this chart (below) that you could read to find out which salmon would be migrating at any given time of the year.  (Sorry it’s so dark – had the flash off.)


Once the kids (and Bill) had had enough of watching the salmon, we headed back outside and looked down at the water, hoping to see a salmon or two.

Instead, we saw several white blobs in the water – high enough in the water so we could see them, but just low enough that we couldn’t tell for certain what they were.


Some people nearby had speculated that it was a jellyfish, others had suggested octopus, and while we were all kind of hoping for the latter, you can see in the image above that it is, indeed, a jellyfish.  A pretty big one, but, sadly, just a jellyfish.

Ah well.

A few more pictures….

 IMG_3733 IMG_3734 IMG_3735 IMG_3740 IMG_3741 IMG_3743 IMG_3744

That last one is a cute little tugboat coming into the smaller of the two locks.

We crossed back over and headed up toward the lakes more, to try and get a better look at the salmon we’d seen jumping.

By this point (actually, well before), Julia was kind of over the whole “locks and lox” thing.  She wanted to go back to the house, or back to the car, or somewhere, anywhere, other than the torture of the locks and the horror of the salmon ladder.  Really, this is how it seemed.  I had to carry her at one point.

Alex, on the other hand, was especially excited about the salmon.  Especially when they jumped.  He was walking ahead of us at this point, and any time he saw a fish jump he’d shout out “Woah!” and HE would jump.  It was pretty cute.



So here we go, looking for those salmon.  Alex in the lead, Bill (now carrying Julia) and Nina next, and I dropped back so I could take the picture.  We ended up walking way up to where the entrance to the lock was.

And yes, we saw some salmon jumping.


I think, at various times, we all said it, though I think Alex was the only one to jump at the same time.

After a bunch of pictures in which I just missed the jumping salmon – they all pretty much looked like this:


I finally caught one:


Pretty cool, no?

I was happy.

And after watching a little while longer (and me taking a bunch more pictures of water with little ripples on the surface and no fish to be seen), we headed back, much to Julia’s great relief.

In addition to the locks and the fish ladder, there is also the Carl S. English, Jr. Botanical Garden on the property.  The locks were built by the Army Corps of Engineers back at the beginning of the 1900s, and after they were done, Mr. English, who was a landscape architect with the Corps of Engineers, turned the rest of the site into numerous beautiful gardens.  Apparently he tended them for a total of 43 years.

The place is beautiful, and well worth spending the time to just wander around, looking.  Many of the plants and trees are labeled, and there are all sorts of varieties of flora from all over the world.

Unfortunately we didn’t have a lot of time to meander – Julia was still a bit whiney and we had to get back to the car before our paid parking was up – but I did manage to take a few pictures while we were there.


Above?  That’s dill.  A HUGE dill bush, going to seed.

Below?  A thistle.  For my mom.


And the next one down?  No idea.  I forgot to look for the name.  But it’s pretty interesting, isn’t it?  Kind of makes me think of a sea anemone. IMG_3761

Julia, however, wasn’t impressed at all.

So on we walked.

After this?

We went to the place I’ve been wanting to revisit since I was here nearly thirteen years ago.

One thought on “The Locks and the Lox

  1. The last picture is of a Passion flower (from which you get passionfruit). Stunning flowers and fruit as well!

Leave a Reply