Given that the canal was completed 80 years ago, the fact that extensive annual maintenance is needed should hardly be a surprise. Fortunately, the last few years have seen significant maintenance over the winter months, during which time the canal is almost completely drained of water, providing a unique (and interesting) exploration opportunity.
With the water drained, you can literally walk the bottom of the canal - provided, of course, you don't mind getting muddy. The hike is a bit easier later in the winter, when the cold weather has frozen the exposed mud, but it's also a much more frigid adventure. Regardless, walking its depths, imagining the 300 meter long ships passing overhead, each carrying as much as 78,850 long tons of bulk cargo, is just a bit humbling.
Walking the bottom of the canal is a unique (almost surreal) experience, providing a glimpse of things that even the ships traversing the canal aren't privy to. For instance, walking the stretch between the Locks 3 and 4, you can walk beneath the lift bridge and look up at the steel grating above, listening to the traffic rumble overhead. From that perspective, the heights to which the bridge must be lifted in order to allow the ships to pass is quite daunting.
Considering the amount of traffic crossing the bridge, and the amount of machinery required to raise and lower it, the rotten, crumbling concrete below is no surprise . . . although it does make you think twice about finding an alternate route home.
While the canal is kept clean throughout the season, with any large debris (such as the occasional crashed car) removed promptly, the winter months reveal sights along the bottom that are as perplexing as they are curious. What purpose these four pillars ever served is a mystery, but they definitely stand out amidst the kilometres of nearly empty dirt and rock.
Perhaps the most interesting view, though, is that of the pier which stretches out into the canal, against which ships can be tied when waiting for sister ships to pass the other way through the lock. Standing in the mud, looking 7.5, maybe 8 metres into the air, the rounded end of the pier appears almost monolithic.
Unfortunately, while the recent stretch of nice weather certainly made for a warmer hike, it's also made the underside of the pier impassable. The mud here is thick and deep, and making it back out with both shoes still attached requires as much quick thinking as it does quick footwork - pause to consider your next step, and you're likely to be stuck there for a very long time, waiting for help.