RIVER CRUISING THE CANADIAN WAY
I have always been excited by the mysteries of river travel. Voyaging aboard a large cruise ship across the ocean has never held must fascination for me, but a slow boat down a meandering, well-travelled waterway stokes my imagination. After reading Mark Twain, what spirited youngster has not dreamt of being Huck Finn, drifting down a river’s wide expanse, the changing scenery, passing vessels, the bustle of activity and the characters you meet lead to new adventures and fresh discoveries around every bend?
This river magic has led my wife and me to a week-long excursion through Ontario’s Trent Severn waterway. Well, that and the fact that Parks Canada, the waterway’s guardian, is offering free lockage this year to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. Our journey will cover 386 kilometres from Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay, and has us passing through 36 conventional locks, two flight locks, two twin-level lift locks, and one marine railway, all engineering marvels built some hundred years ago.
Although you are never really far removed from civilization, at times you feel worlds away. The Otonobee River from Rice Lake to Peterborough is a wonderful stretch, hedged by wetlands and home to a great variety of birdlife. Great Blue heron, Bald eagle and osprey take flight at our approach. We see a mother loon with two chicks tucked beneath her wings. One of the youngsters climbs onto its mother’s back for a ride. Gnarled willow trees lean out over the banks creating a canopy, while cattails and wild rice spring from the wetlands. It is as I imagine a meandering river through the everglades would appear, minus the gators.
At other times you feel front and centre, in the middle of the summer excitement, concerts, and festivals that mark the charming towns along the route. Peterborough is the electric heartbeat of the waterway. We spend a night at its downtown marina to enjoy the Kawartha Craft Beer Festival. We had planned to dally an hour or so sampling the best in local brews and feasting on oven-fired pizza, but the entertainment was so good that we closed things out. The next morning it was breakfast at the Silver Bean Café and then the colour and pageantry of some Dragonboat racing on Little Lake, just off the main channel.
Unfortunately, we had to move on, through the amazing Peterborough Liftlock, the highest of its kind in the world. Ed is the lockmaster, who bustles around the station keeping everyone in order. He gives us a quick tour of the inner workings of the lock, and even allows me the opportunity to play lockmaster for a brief time; his only instruction was not to press the “red” button. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself, so we were immediately ordered off again, onwards to Lock 24 and the wonderful Parks Canada o’TENT’iks, glamping at its finest. We pulled our bikes off the boat and cycled the trails to the charming little hamlet of Lakefield, for a cold pint and some appetizers at the Canoe and Paddle pub. Afterwards we headed back to our o’TENT’ik to throw some steaks on the grill and watch a dazzling sunset over the water.
The Trent Severn Waterway was not originally constructed with us, the casual, fun-loving cruiser, in mind. Its completion in 1920 marked the realization of a century-and-a-half-old dream, born out of a fear of American expansionist interests and spurned along by commercial transport desires. However, by the time the motor launch Irene made the first passage of the system that summer, logging was in decline and railways were burgeoning as an economical means of moving goods. By the 1940's, there was not enough traffic on the waterway to warrant keeping it open. The post-war economy saved the system, as people found they had the time and money for pleasure boating. Locks which handled some 2,000 vessels in the early 1950's now see over 250,000 each summer.
Today the Parks Canada locks each have their own particular personality and charm, and stand as the centrepieces of the delightful towns along the route; Cambellford, Hastings, Lakefield, Bobcaygeon, Buckhorn, and Fenelon Falls. “We are really just the keepers of our lock,” says Scott, 12 year lockmaster at Lock 32 in Bobcaygeon. “Still, it is hard not to make the lock our own. We take a real pride in its appearance and its upkeep, and also a pride in the town that we represent.”
One of our favourite nights is spent staying in the new Lockmasters Cabin at Lock 35 Rosedale. It is a replica of the Lockmaster’s Watch House, circa 1920, built at Bobcaygeon, but ours is built for comfort, with a beautiful view back along the channels and wetlands that stretch towards Cameron Lake. After biking around the Dewey Island Nature Reserve on which our cabin is situated, we enjoyed a peaceful bonfire, and were treated to an amazing light show courtesy of hundreds of fireflies.
We passed through the second lift lock on the system at Kirkfield, which stands as the high water mark and watershed divide. From here everything flows west towards Georgian Bay. After slowly making our way through a series of locks, we were able to pick up speed across the chop of Lake Simcoe and the shallow expanses of Lake Couchiching to Lock 42 and the Severn River. Here, we meandered along in the early afternoon sunshine, enjoying the subtle beauties of marsh and meadows. Around every river bend new life emerged; beavers dove with a slap of their tail, muskrats sat on reed beds chewing on tender shoots, ducks scurried to safety with brood in tow.
After a leisurely day, we pulled into a picturesque campsite above the Swift Rapids Lock. We enjoyed a barbecue on the grassy lawns that hedge the river, and then joined a dozen other boaters around a roaring bonfire. The waterway’s frequent explorers passed on suggestions on where to get a great riverside breakfast (at Peterborough’s Silver Bean Café or Lakefield’s Nuttshell Next Door), the best camp sites (at the boater-access-only Swift Rapids Lock and the oTENTiks at Lock 24 and Lock 35) and the best riverside accommodations (Elmhirst Resort on Rice Lake, the new Lockmaster’s Cabin at Rosedale or, if you would like to enjoy some world-class bass fishing, at Three Castles Resort at Buckhorn).
We also heard horror stories of boaters who had tied their crafts solidly to the upper rings of Lock 43 and then struggled in panic as the water dropped beneath them, the irreversible mechanics of the lock set in motion. Another story had the cables letting loose on the Big Chute railway lift, sending a bevy of boaters on a roller-coaster free fall into Gloucester Pool below. Perhaps these were mere lock myths, but they would give us something to contemplate as we completed our journey through Big Chute the following day.
The Marine Railway at Big Chute is another in the series of engineering marvels along the system, a virtual roller coaster for boats, the railway wheeling vessels out of the water and down the 18 metre slope between the Severn River and Gloucester Pool. On this day, as I suspect is always the case, we are lowered slowly and gently down the grade, the massive cables holding firm.
We navigate the clear waters towards Georgian Bay, through the hidden shoals, pre-Cambrian granite gorges and rocky channels, past scenery that is delectably Canadian. On either shore we witness an amazing cross-section of cottage life, with every type of recreational home, bungalow and cabin on display. Cottages hug the shoreline and cling to every craggy knoll, rock outcrop and ragged cliff top, much like the towering, elegant pines, and bizarrely twisted conifer trunks and root systems that cling precariously to the minutest amounts of soil. Children swim off docks, or daringly leap off towering cliffs. Some are pulled around on bouncing tubes or ski in nearby bays. Adults relax with a fishing line in the water or lounge on their docks. We have fun just people watching as we drift along, there is adventure everywhere.
At our last lock we meet some cruisers in the midst of a six month circuit that takes them up the St. Lawrence, through this waterway and the Great Lakes, and eventually out the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. In comparison, our week trip seems nowhere near as ambitious, but it was a journey that allowed us to glimpse an enchanting part of small-town Ontario, amiable villages that thrive in a unique partnership with Parks Canada’s special waterway.
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IF YOU GO:
Parks Canada Website: www.pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/on/trentsevern/
Peterborough & the Kawartha’s Tourism is a great help through the heart of the waterway system, and can give advice on accommodation, restaurants and special events along the route. Visit www.thekawarthas.ca and www.peterboroughcanada.com.
Egan Houseboats: www.houseboat.on.ca
Parks Canada will offer free lockage in 2017 to celebrate Canada’s 150th on both the Rideau and Trent Severn Waterways. http://www.pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/on/trentsevern/
Photos by Jamie Ross
1. Travelling through Lock 32 at Bobcaygeon.
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