Can You Take a Canoe Through a Lock ?

Locks can seem scary, especially if you have a small canoe surrounded by giant walls. However, by following the rules and instructions, you can safely enjoy this unique experience.

You can take a canoe through a lock as long as you follow the operator’s instructions and procedures to make the navigation safe. Navigate through the lock slowly, and stay away from dams and boating traffic to eliminate the danger.

Continue reading as I discuss tips to follow when approaching, entering, navigating, and leaving the lock in your canoe. You will also get answers to commonly asked questions on taking a canoe through a lock.

Approaching The Lock

As you approach the lock, alert the lock operators that you are around and would like to use the lock. This enables them to prepare the lock for you. There are three ways to alert the operators:

Pull The Cord Located on The Wall Near The Gate of The Lock

You will find a cord near the gate and a sign above it that says ‘pull cord for lockage’. After pulling the cord, wait for directions from the operators on what to do next or for the gate to open so you can go through it.

Call The Lock Operators

You can get the lock numbers online. Also, you should pick up the lock number based on the river you are in. Call the lock operators on the phone to alert them that you need to use the lock.

Use a Marine Radio

When you reach the operator, ask ‘how do you read’ to ensure that they can hear you and that your transmission is clear. They will then instruct you accordingly. After reaching the lock operators in any of the above methods, always inform them that you have a canoe and your direction. That is, whether you are headed up or down.

Entering The Lock

Once you have informed the lock operators that you are approaching, wait for the all-clear sign to enter, which is a flashing green light. If there is a flashing red light, stand clear and do not enter. In addition to these traffic lights, the lock operator will signal you using an air horn.

They blow one long blast, lasting about four to six seconds to signal you to enter. A short blast that lasts about one-second signals you to leave. In case there are four or more blasts, this means danger.

Navigating Through The Lock

After entering the lock gates, an operator will give you a line to hold on to when in the lock. Hold this line with your hand, and do not tie it to the canoe. Some locks also have mooring blocks that will follow you up and down. Hang on to them as they help you float away from the edges. Additionally, everyone in the canoe should have a life jacket.

When navigating through the lock, the lock operators have the same power as traffic officers have on the road. Therefore, follow their instructions for your safety and the safety of your canoe.

Leaving The Lock

The gates open when you are at the level of the river you are transitioning to. After the gates open, wait for a horn blast to signal you to leave. The water at the other end of the gate could be turbulent due to winds and currents.

Navigating through this is easier if you have a motorized canoe. You can thank the operator over the radio or with a wave when leaving.

Here is a YouTube video on how to enter, navigate and leave a lock:

Lock Etiquette When Navigating in a Canoe

Safety in the lock is prevalent when you follow instructions. The main dos and don’ts to keep in mind when in the lock are:


  • Avoid the restricted areas when approaching locks
  • Watch out for commercial craft as they have the right-of-way
  • Understand all instructions, and speak up if anything is unclear
  • Go slowly without fear that the gates will shut or the water will come in
  • Steer away from the lock walls
  • Follow the operators’ instructions to the letter
  • Stay behind others since your canoe is likely smaller than other boats
  • Leave gates open if there is another boat coming in as you go out
  • Follow the locking order if you are not alone in the lock. The expected order is vessels by the government, passenger vessels, commercial vessels, rafts, then cones and kayaks


  • Anchor in front of a channel or lock
  • Cut in front of other boats to be the first in the lock. It annoys other people using the lock.
  • Tie off to a navigation buoy

Frequently Asked Questions ?

Here are answers to some of the commonly asked questions on taking a canoe through a lock:

How Long Does It Take To Get Through a Lock?

It takes about 15-20 minutes to lock through in a canoe. However, you may take longer if the traffic is high and there are other boats that have the right-of-way. Patience is needed at the lock to avoid causing a commotion.

What Does a Red Light at The Lock Mean?

A red light at the lock means that you should not enter the gate. Probably there is another boat approaching, or there is a reason why the instructor asked you to wait before approaching. You can get in when the light turns green, and you hear a horn.

Can You Overtake Commercial Craft When in a Recreational Canoe?

You can overtake commercial craft in a canoe if the lock is big enough for both of you. Nevertheless, you will need the operator’s instructions to do this.

When Should You Call The Lock to Inform The Operators You Want to Navigate Through a Canoe?

Call the locks at least 30 minutes before you get to the lock. If you don’t like bringing your phone to the river, you can use a marine radio.


Are you feeling anxious about going through a lock in a canoe? If yes, relax. Many people have successfully done it before, and you can do it too. Follow the instructions of the lock operators or watch what other lock users are doing in case you are unsure what to do. With the right equipment and proper preparation, this can be one of the most amazing experiences you have.

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