River ride

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May 9, 2005 // UPDATED 1:54 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Jeremy Stratton
Jeremy Stratton

Tucked alongside its two gravel-filled barges, the Patrick Gannaway rises slowly on the 8 million gallons of water filling the Upper St. Anthony Lock. Minutes later and 50 feet higher, the barges slide out of the open upriver gates, Captain Dennis Lynch steering the tow back behind the barges to guide them out of the lock and on upriver at 7 m.p.h.

Fifteen feet above in the pilot's cabin, Lynch steers with one hand and smokes with the other. He looks like he could do this in his sleep. Sometimes, it's all he can do not to nod off.

"As many years as I've been doing this, it gets boring," he said. "But it beats anything else I've ever thought of doing."

Lynch's humor is delivered like his gravel: slow and dry. The voice message on his cell phone goes like this:

"I can't answer the phone right now, I'm making a lock or a dock. If you leave a message, I'll call you after I crash."

Actually, Lynch has had no major accidents in his 41 years on the river, 34 spent piloting a boat. Every day during the navigation season, he makes the 17-mile trip to and from Aggregate Industries' main dock near St. Paul's Gray Cloud Island. During the winter, he captains a front-end loader in the yard.

Lynch has a simple philosophy about his job. "Why does a truck driver drive [a] truck?" he asks. "He likes to drive, I guess."

He doesn't seem to consider piloting a position of prestige. Do they call him captain? "I suppose. I've been called worse," Lynch said.

He noted that deck hands Lud Leski and John Welch are both veteran barge workers and former pilots. Seniority, not rank, puts Lynch in the driver's seat.

Despite his humble remarks, Lynch likes the river. So much, in fact, that he lives on it, too - he and his wife Nola have docked their houseboat at a St. Paul Park marina since 1993.

"Some days it's so nice, I hate to even charge the company," he said of his job.

Lynch pointed starboard to the Minneapolis Queen, a new tour boat docked at Boom Island. It will tour the river starting this summer, but Lynch said he has yet to see it move.

Suddenly, the cabin resounded with loud knocking noises as the hydraulic cabin began to descend, seeming just to miss the underside of a bridge. Lynch was unfazed.

"We would have cleared that one; it's for the next one," he said, pointing ahead.

He continued evaluating his job.

"Other days, it's not worth anything," Lynch said. "The wind is blowing 90 miles an hour, the current is running"

That's when piloting gets tricky. The current that day, the last Friday in April, was an easy 17,000 cubic square feet per second, 2,000 fewer than the day before. (Locks are closed to recreational craft at 30,000, said Upper St. Anthony Lockmaster Steve Lenhart. At 40,000, the lock is left open "to prevent Northeast Minneapolis from flooding," he said. Nobody is let through on currents that fast.)

Leski slid open cabin window and hooked a thumb toward a half-beached houseboat on the riverbank. "Listing a little, ain't it?"

It was an understatement. The houseboat hung half off the bank, its port side submerged a couple of feet underwater.

"He's in deep," Lynch said, shaking his head.

He explained that many boaters used to congregate around the old NSP plant near the St. Paul High Bridge.

"Some guy bought it to put up condos or something," Lynch said, as if such land-lubbing affairs don't concern him. The boats were run out of the area.

"They're like hobos," Lynch said. "People have been living like that on the river since man found the river."

Ahead on the portside bank, two empty barges waited next to the Aggregate Industries dock. Lynch coolly guided his loads to the bank, where Leski and Welch secured them with heavy cables. A front-end loader would empty the loads of limestone and gravel while Lynch steered the empties back downriver twice as fast, the barges more than 8 feet higher in the water. Lynch would pass back through three locks before his shift ended around 2 p.m.

For all his years on the river, Lynch has never been farther than Dubuque, Iowa. When he retires in a couple of years, he'd like to take a trip down to Mississippi or Alabama, he said.

But in those years, Lynch said he's seen "just about anything you can imagine: dead bodies, people screwing, boats sinking."

Lynch said he once saw a towboat list on its side and fully submerge beneath a bridge.

"Funny thing is, it pops back up, and there's still steam coming out of one of the stacks," Lynch said. "Now how did that engine keep running underwater?"

Lynch has rammed a bridge or two coming downriver, but nothing serious. "You back it up and try to hit it as flat as possible, so you don't tear anything up."

Lynch had no trouble getting back through the upper lock. As the tow lowered slowly, John Welch juggled three yellow balls at the front of the downriver barge. He's passed time in his 27 years on the river juggling and playing blues harmonica. The Mill City Museum features a video of Welch juggling.

Once, Welch said, a woman brought her son to watch him perform from the Stone Arch Bridge.

"My mom used to bring me down to watch you when I was little!" she yelled.

Welch said he knew he was getting older.

Welch followed his father's profession of 30 years, despite a warning.

"My dad told me, 'Don't go on the river, son,' but I didn't listen to him," Welch yelled as the barge slid between the giant, open gates of the lock.

"He said stay away from it, but I didn't listen to him!"

Welch gave a last wave, and Lynch blew the Patrick Gannaway's horn as the barge disappeared under a bridge's stone arch.