By Tom Woodman
A little over eight years ago, Margaret Hawthorn spotted the cabin of her dreams. Set on a small island in the Saranac River beneath a canopy of evergreens and with a view across a marsh to Adirondack peaks, the home spoke to her.
“I was helping on the Ninety-Miler [canoe race], and I came through, took one look, and said, ‘I want this cabin.'”
As it turned out the cabin in the midst of the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest did become available. But there was one condition: she needed to hire on as a lock tender to operate the Upper Locks that sit in front of the cabin, providing passage for canoeists, anglers, pleasure boaters, and state campsite workers. New York State, which operates the locks in the Saranac River between Middle and Lower Saranac Lakes, provides the cabin for the lock tender, who would otherwise have a fairly epic commute. She says it’s about four miles by water from the Second Pond boat launch downstream and close to three miles over Middle Saranac to the South Creek put-in point. Her season generally runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and she lives in Keene when not tending her lock.
Remoteness wasn’t a deterrent for Margaret as she already had experience living in the deep backcountry while helping people enjoy Adirondack Wilderness. She had served for eleven years as a caretaker of the Lake Colden interior outpost in the heart of the High Peaks. Solitude suits her as does, maybe paradoxically, the chance to chat, instruct, and generally hobnob with people passing through.
So, the lock tender’s position became available, and she was hired.
“I didn’t even ask what the job entails,” she remembers. “I knew I would like it.”
With Thora, a seven-year-old Siberian husky of independent temperament, Margaret spends five days a week ushering boaters through the lock and five nights a week cocooned in the two-bedroom cabin with the nocturnal world of the forest to herself.
At sixty-one years old she’s wiry and tough as a riverbank alder. She shrugs off the physical chore of opening and closing wooden lock gates all day. On midsummer weekends, this can mean a lot of pushing and pulling. She had 124 boats come through on the Saturday before my visit. Her record is 144. She logs each passage—direction of travel, the number of people in each boat, and the boat’s registration number—on a clipboard hanging from a cedar by the west end of the lock. Thora curls on the ground beneath the cedar. This is her refuge when she tires of the boaters, particularly the eager kids calling for her attention.
The Upper Locks (though a single lock. it’s referred to in the plural) was built in 1898 as an aid to recreational boating. The river falls three feet past the island. While canoes and guideboats could be carried around the rapids, powerboats, which were becoming popular at that time, had to turn around. A second lock, the Lower Locks, provides a similar service where the Saranac River flows into Oseetah Lake.
The Upper Locks are a functional contrivance that few would describe as an engineering marvel.
“It’s so simple, you want to make it more complicated,” Margaret says. “I had a guy come through who was an engineer, and he’s looking around and asks, ‘Where are the pumps?’ I said, ‘There aren’t any.’ And he said, ‘Of course.’”
Signs instruct boaters how to operate the lock themselves if they should find themselves there when no lock tender is present.
The lock consists of a concrete enclosure large enough to hold two pontoon boats end to end, or several canoes at a time. Gates at either end of the enclosure are operated by pushing long wooden arms. Metal levers on each gate control the flow of water. When the upstream gate is closed and the downstream one open, the water in the lock is at the level of the downstream side. Boats can enter from downstream, then the lower gate is closed. Throwing the lever on the upstream side allows water to pour in and in a few minutes the water level within the lock is level with the upstream side. Margaret opens the gates, and the boaters wave goodbye. The process, of course, works in reverse as well.
The repetition of the work doesn’t bother her.
“It’s just great to be here and talk with people,” she says.
When dusk arrives and the boaters have gone, she occasionally has other visitors.
“I’ve seen a bear three times and watched a coyote chase a deer across the river,” she recalls. “I’ve never seen a moose, though.”
She has her books, CD player, and five-string banjo to entertain herself.
On the day we visit, the sky darkens and wind gusts through. The radio had talked about potential thunderstorms, and our paddle back across Middle Saranac Lake is on my mind. The lake is known for big waves in windy conditions.
Margaret eyes the conditions but doesn’t have much use for weather reports.
“I don’t generally listen to them,” she says. “They’re unreliable, and I’m going to be here all the time no matter what anyway.”