Yesterday morning I decided to take a ride to the other side of the ship canal.
I saddled up, crossed the Fremont Bridge, greeted the Troll (he remembered me and asked if I had lost weight … nice guy), cruised Ballard a bit, and then on a whim, decided to head over to the locks.
Now, I’ve passed the Ballard Locks many times from the outside, but I’ve never actually parked and gone inside to see what it was all about.
Because, honestly, I didn’t think it would be very interesting.
I was mistaken.
Note: Keep in mind that the Ballard Locks are actually called the “Hiram M. Chittenden Locks”, but I will use Ballard Locks for the sake of consistency.
When a boat wants to go from Lake Washington/Union to the Puget Sound, it drives to the Ballard Locks, ties up between to sets of gates, and the water within those gates is drained like a bathtub. Once at the bottom, the opposing set of gates is opened and the boat goes on its way. It’s an elevator for boats, if you will.
When the boat wants to return, this process is reversed, with the container filling instead of draining.
Locks are used all over the world for travelling between separate bodies of water, the most famous being the Panama Canal Locks linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
The Ballard Locks are quite unique, however. They are one of the few locks (only?) in the world that bridge saltwater (the Puget Sound) and freshwater (Lake Washington). In essence, it is a man-made device bridging two separate and unique natural ecosystems.
If you think about it, this is quite a marvel. The human animal can really do incredible things when we put our mind to it.
I stood on a small walkway directly over a couple of boats as they were being lowered into the Sound, and I was surprised by just how up-close and personal I could get to the action.
Before yesterday, I had never seen a real, working lock in operation, and watching it with my own two eyes while standing more or less inside of the container was a real learning experience.
After watching two ships get lowered, I walked over the spillway into Magnolia where I was able to observe the fish ladder — another interesting feature of the locks.
The fish ladder is exactly what it sounds like.
Fish swim back and forth between Lake Washington and the Puget Sound to spawn, and just like the boats, they need a way to navigate the elevation differential between these two bodies of water.
Enter the fish “ladder”. A series of stepped water containers that the fish can literally “climb up” in the summer and “climb down” in the winter.
Here again, the fish ladder is unique because it allows fish to cross into completely different aquatic ecoystems (from saltwater to freshwater and back again). There weren’t many fish “climbing” yesterday, but I was told that the ladder really gets busy during spawning season. I am going to go back and watch them when this happens.
Last but not least, the spillway itself (the platform from where the higher fresh water “spills” into the lower saltwater) is a sight to behold. You can stand on a narrow bridge over the spillway and literally watch millions of gallons of water from massive Lake Washington empty over a cliff into the Puget Sound. It’s a mini Niagra Falls that produces a roar and constant mist oddly reminiscent of the Canadian natural wonder.
At the end of my hour visit, I realized that I had underestimated the entertainment and educational value of the Ballard Locks. Visually, they are quite stunning, and this is a great place for families and the intellectually curious to spend an afternoon.
Also, aside from having to pay for parking (which is lame since this is a public park in a uncrowded part of town), the Ballard Locks are also free to visit.
Do yourself a solid and set aside a couple of hours to check it out. I think you’ll be glad you did.
Hiram M. Chittenden Locks
NW 54th St and 32nd Avenue NW