Trent-Severn 101

Join us, says Parks Canada, and so we go to the Trent-Severn Waterway, where one hundred and one years of navigation is being celebrated. Purist readers, please don’t be too disappointed with us! Weather events force us to skip two sections of this 387-kilometre route, which connects Port Severn (Lake Huron) to Trenton (Lake Ontario). (map) We fall a bit short on the distance, canoeing 360 kilometres in four weeks, but we encounter enough speed bumps to qualify as an adventure.

Why and wherefore

This is a spur-of-the-moment trip for us. We feel a bit lost after our family canoe trip on the Kootenay River this summer. Will another family trip be possible, with the grandchildren growing up and us getting older? The cure is to get outside again, as quickly as possible.

The logo attracts us. Perhaps we should join Parks Canada as they celebrate a century-plus-one of navigation on the Trent-Severn Waterway. At this moment we have the energy, the time, and the Aeroplan points to do this. Why not?

The Trent-Severn Waterway can be paddled in either direction. We begin in Port Severn, because that’s where we started last time (in 2006) and because we enjoy the brain exercise of reading the route descriptions back to front (most cruising guides assume a start in Trenton, the Lake Ontario end).

We buy a modest green canoe (cheaper than renting) and launch from the Swift Canoe dock near Waubaushene on Georgian Bay. An easy eight-kilometre paddle brings us to Lock 45, the beginning (or the end) of the Trent-Severn Waterway. Four rivers and fifteen lakes to go!

Wakey wakey

Carousers and cottagers rule on the Labour Day weekend. Speed restrictions, no-wake zones, boating etiquette – suspended in an end-of-summer, thrill-seeking frenzy. We turn to face the wake (huge rolling waves of energy) of almost every vessel. It’s a bit tedious, but turning is the safest way to prevent a capsize due to powerboat wake.

The loons are friendly, but the dogs are not. Arched windows, chainsaw-carved bears, and inflatable swans are popular along the winding Severn River, which is lined with gigantic mansions called cottages. Every cottage dog barks at us, recognizing that we and our canoe are out of place. The loons, however, swim alongside us. Loons we have met elsewhere are timid, but these who live on a powerboat freeway are more outgoing.

After Labour Day the character of the Waterway changes abruptly. The boats are fewer and slower. Boaters are friendly. We chat about our boats, our grandchildren, and other aspects of life. For centuries this was a natural paddle-and-portage route, long before it became a commercial then a recreational waterway. The Trent-Severn is a National Historic Site, managed by Parks Canada, and there is a new effort to promote paddling. Of course we belong here!

The concrete story

“The Big Chute is something of a yawn,” according to The Rough Guide to Canada. Au contraire! Doug is fascinated with the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of the Big Chute Marine Railway, the two lift locks, two sets of flight locks, thirty-seven conventional locks, forty swing bridges, and 150 dams that encompass the Waterway.

The Concrete Story, Water-Powered Capstan, Intensifier Pump, First Reinforced Concrete Bridge in Canada: Doug reads every word on every explanatory panel. Cathy registers moderate interest in some turbine generator relics that are painted a pretty Art Deco blue.

The Whimsical Emporium

You can’t plan an adventure. The Whimsical Emporium is off-route, but it’s a detour that happens the day Lake Couchiching blows up in a sudden storm. After fifteen kilometres of brave paddling in Windy’s purple-zone wind speed, the wind and waves kick up a notch, and suddenly it is dangerous out here. All powerboats are scurrying to shore. We follow a trawler into Ojubway Bay Marina, shortly before the Narrows. As the wind howls, we sit on the grass for two hours creating an expensive and exhausting action plan that involves three taxis and a 26-foot U-Haul truck from the Whimsical Emporium. We skip the Lake Simcoe section. Three boaters drowned the gusty day we transited Lake Simcoe in 2006, and we choose not to argue with that lake when it’s in a bad mood.

We re-start in protected water at Gamebridge, on a section of the Talbot River affectionately known as The Ditch. We stop for the night at Thorah lockstation, where we are in the company of wild turkeys, a batch of toads, a muskrat, and a powerboat named Toy Story. Toy Story’s skipper adds a fourth mooring line and adjusts his canvas. He hops ashore and overturns all the picnic tables that could fly toward his boat. What’s this? A Tornado Watch! Following Toy Story’s advice, we re-locate our canoe and tent under the overhang on the leeward side of the concrete washroom building. At midnight the tent rattles, but the forecasted 100 kmph winds, toonie-sized hail, and severe lightning fail to appear; the tornado has gone elsewhere. It’s good practice, though, and we know how to prepare when the next Tornado Watch comes one week later.

A little hiccup, a lot of help

“What do you need most?” asks Lona. Lona and Jim of the boat Momentum are skilled problem-solvers, as well as being among the most kind people we have ever met. We see them first at the entrance to Balsam Lake, where Jim gives us excellent route advice, then again at Rosedale lock, where we are invited to their campfire. Now, in Bobcaygeon, we discover that one of our dry bags, containing our food and cooking equipment, has been stolen from our campsite during the night.

Calmly springing into action with her iPad and telephone, Lona locates a dry bag and cooking set. Jim’s sister Kathleen kindly lends her car, and Jim drives us to Fenelon Falls, the nearest Canadian Tire store, to collect them. Lona fixes us breakfast and Kathleen orders us a Swiss Chalet meal so that we can join their family picnic dinner. Jim gives us a skookum cable lock, longer and stronger than the little cable we have brought.

The week’s worth of food is easily replaced, but we are badly shaken by the loss of our tried-and-true camp kitchen. Every saucepan, dish, and utensil holds memories of expeditions passed. Tears are shed for the loss our grandson Nathan’s green cup and the salt and pepper shakers made from Doug’s last two 35 mm film cans. At the same time, we are ever so grateful to Jim and Lona and all the other boaters who provide sympathy and support.

Back channels

Our balance is completely restored by the back channels of Lower Buckhorn and Stoney Lakes. Little islands, the pink granite of Canadian Shield, windswept pine trees: this is the most gorgeous scenery of the Waterway, and we have the opportunity to explore where only ducks and canoes can go. Behind Fairy Lake Island we find a wilderness of lily pads, frogs, turtles, reeds. There is even a newly-constructed beaver dam to cross; now this is the type of challenge we enjoy!

At Lakefield (lock 26) we transition from iconic Canadian Shield to limestone, and there are two surprises: this lockstation has (1) a shower and (2) a raccoon, who sticks its nose into our tent vestibule at 6 am, a wake-up call we won’t forget.

On the Otonabee

Cameras are clicking as we follow the well-worn Liftlock Cruises sightseeing tourboat into the Peterborough Lift Lock, lock 21. With a lift of 65 feet, this is the highest hydraulic lift lock in the world.  

Where are you going? How long will it take? What do you eat? Questions are shouted down to us from the tourboat. We eat a lot of tortillas (less bulky, less crushable than bread). In towns we look for the Taste of the Trent-Severn specials, such as the Lock 32 Sweet Sundae or the Trail Town Pizza Special at Pizza Alloro, Lock 31.

The Peterborough lockmaster gives us a head start, as we will be traveling with the tourboat on through Lock 20, Ashburnham. We spend an extra day enjoying Little Lake and walking Peterborough’s trails before continuing down the Otonabee River, filled with small fishing boats looking for bass and muskie.

At the cottage

We gawk at many cottages on this trip, and on Rice Lake we get a chance to experience one. Lockstation camping is the convenient, affordable accommodation choice for paddlers, but there’s a 60 km gap between lockstations 19 and 18, too far for us to paddle in one day. Most of the gap is Rice Lake, the second largest lake on the Waterway (Lake Simcoe is the largest). The wild rice beds died out when the Trent-Severn was created, and today this shallow, weedy, often choppy lake is lined with fishing resorts and cottages.

Serpent Mounds Provincial Park has closed since our 2006 trip, but from the water we can see some of the burial mounds, one of which is in the shape of a snake. Air, our Timeless Cottage, is nearby, and we settle in for two nights. We walk to the small community of Keene, where we buy two ears of local corn and meet Romeo, mascot of the general store and pizza restaurant.

A rainfall event

Windy, Environment Canada, and Weather Network send warnings: Extreme Rainfall Event and Flood Watch. 120 mm of rain will fall, and believe us, 120 mm is a lot!

The next 48 hours will be miserable, but we go anyway. Four hours after leaving our Timeless Cottage, we arrive, mildly hypothermic, at Hastings lock. Seeing our shivering state, lockstation staff provide hot chocolate. This revives us enough to quickly pop the tent and crawl inside, where we remain for most of the remaining 42 hours of deluge.

How to occupy time when trapped in a tiny tent? Watch spiders vying for coveted web space between the tent apex and the fly, count Tylenol Arthritis tabs and predict whether there are enough for the remainder of the trip, study the construction of a plastic clamshell container (this occupies Doug for at least thirty minutes).

On September 24 the rain slows enough for us to depart. The current has increased noticeably, so our speed increases. Doug finds two substantial shortcuts, including one near Nappan Island which requires an unexpected portage, en route to Healy Falls lockstation. The turning basin here has the best canoe beach on the Waterway.

Moving water

We spend a splendid six hours exploring on foot the area around Ranney Falls, flight locks 11/12: the 300-foot-long suspension bridge 30 feet above the Ranney Gorge, the Drumlin Trail system of Ferris Provincial Park, the five-km loop trail to Campbellford, home of the 20-foot toonie statue that stands in Old Mill Park.

“I suggest you get moving – now,” advises the lockmaster, when we return from our lay-over-day walk. It’s 2:00 pm Sunday. At 3:30 pm Monday locks 1-27 will be closed to navigation for several days to permit “movement of water” (dam drawdowns) to address very high water levels, flows, and potential flooding caused by recent high amounts of rain. Our slackwater trip has just been upgraded to moving water.

We pull up stakes and pack in record time and make it Percy Reach, just as the lock is closing. Monday we paddle 30 km in rain and a headwind to Frankford, lock 6. We spend two days here, getting to know the local dogs and their walkers who promenade up and down the grassy berm.

With the Waterway now closed to navigation, we weigh our options.

  1. Wait until the Waterway opens, and it is safe to paddle. The cost to change our flight turns out to be shockingly expensive, and we are almost out of prescription meds (our spare supply was in the stolen dry bag). Addendum: as we post this, the Trent River section of the Waterway remains closed; they are “working towards re-opening navigation in this area for the Thanksgiving weekend.”
  2. Paddle anyway, against Parks Canada advice, and portage the locks. We would probably make it. Our canoe will happily bounce through the turbulence and flows below the dams, but even Doug is having nightmares about being sucked into a dam intake; we’ve already been feeling the increased pull since the rainfall event.
  3. Abandon ship here in Frankford, just 11.7 km from the Trenton finish line.

We choose the safe but sad option 3. There are two happy endings, though:

Eugen and Harold make it! These young men, as powerful and cheerful as voyageurs, paddle from Port Severn to Trenton (387 km) in just nine paddling days, and they portage the locks! Such a pleasure to meet these two at Percy Reach, where we all camp for the night. They are the only other through-canoe we encounter during our four-week cruise.

Our canoe finds a home at the non-profit Trenton Rowing and Paddling Club, where it will be used by those who do not have their own equipment and want to get out on the water. Our local canoe club introduced us to canoeing, and it changed our lives. What a good feeling it is to hope that this serviceable green canoe might change someone else’s life, too.

Last words

This has been a rambling report of an expedition that had a lot of ups and downs. For a more structured account of a Trent-Severn journey, see our 2006 story, which appeared in Kanawa Magazine.

Aren’t you tired of camping? This is a frequently-asked question. No, we aren’t tired of camping, but we are slowing down. In our first year of retirement (2002-2003) we camped for eight months straight.

“I feel strong,” says Doug (age 80) several times on this trip. The scenery is ever-changing, the actual paddling is a pleasure, making and breaking camp provides a good workout, many days are sunny and calm, the people we meet are friendly and interesting. But it is the challenges of outdoor living that keep us strong, together.

If you go

The Trent-Severn Waterway end-to-end is not a beginner trip. For novice paddlers, we recommend starting with the Rideau Waterway; it is half the distance and more paddler-friendly.

Too steep to portage

If you go, please write about it! More stories will promote the route and encourage Parks Canada to improve the paddling infrastructure.

One-third of the lockstations have a canoe-level dock or access point. The rest have concrete walls, some of which are very steep. Getting a canoe and gear up and down these walls can be a challenge. A boat hook is useful for hauling gear up. No boat hook? A tee-grip paddle is a good substitute.

A seasonal lockage permit for canoe or kayak  is a good value ($4.45 per foot, $71.20 for a 16-foot canoe). Yes, the frugal and fit can portage for free, but the long, steep concrete stairways make portaging risky for older paddlers with a heavy boat.

Make a plan for securing your gear at night and when away from your lockstation campsite. After our food/kitchen bag was stolen, we kept everything inside our tent or zipped vestibule. This is not good camping practice (food attracts bears, raccoons, and rodents), but it does deter human bandits. Lockable food caches would be ideal; perhaps Parks Canada will consider installing such, if and when the number of paddlers justifies it.


8 comments

  1. H iDoug and Cathy . What an all around great and gruesome trip! You two really do amaze us. We are not much different in age. Yet we are so damn decrepit. I need new knees. shoulder(s) ,Teeth and possibly a brain transplant would be useful. I congratulate you on the good choices you have made and your admirable perseverance.. You are our HEROES!!! Hugs Dorothy and Paul

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  2. What an inspiration you both are. My plan is to be somewhere near as active as you both at your age. It proves to me (at 63) that we need to stay active to enjoy the special places in the world! Good on you for doing the trip. I think you shouldn’t have to explain why weather precluded some parts….you were wise to err on the side of caution. Not much fun facing severe weather.

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  3. You two are certainly an inspiration. It was such a pleasure to meet you. We were more than happy to help. It was Jim’s sister Kathleen who was kind enough to lend us her vehicle and buy your dinner. She insisted. A small detail but I believe in giving credit where credit is due. Hope to touch base again soon. Take care
    Jim and Lona

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