Trip of a Lifetime

THE BLUE LINE

When you’re ready to pass through a lock, pull up to the Blue Line — a strip of seawall painted blue — where you tie up and wait your turn to go through. Lock staff monitor the Blue Line constantly, but if you feel you need to get their attention, three quick toots of your horn or a whistle is the standard signal that you’re waiting and ready to go.

If the chamber gates are open, the lock staff may simply wave you straight in. If the lock gates are closed, you’ll need to allow boats that are already inside the lock to exit before you will be allowed to enter. It’s generally best to remain tied up along the Blue Line until lock staff direct you to move. If you’re locking through with other traffic, boats are typically loaded with a view to the most effective fit, without regard for who was there first. Normally large boats are loaded first, with smaller vessels following and filling the spaces between.

Have your fenders, lines and a boat hook ready as you enter the lock chamber. You do not tie up to the inside of the lock chamber, but simply loop your bow and stern lines loosely around cables hanging inside. Shut down the engines and keep the boat hook ready for unexpected surprises. When locking up, for example, you may find your boat suddenly being pushed by winds as it rises in the air and becomes more exposed.

Most of the lock stations have washrooms on site, and many have picnic areas where you can stretch and get out on solid land for a while.

YOUR KEY TO THE LOCKS

It’s impossible to think of the Trent-Severn without thinking of the locks. There are 43 of them on the main route, plus one more on a side route connecting the community of Lindsay for a total of 44 locks in all. So why is the last one in Port Severn named Lock 45? When the former flight lock in Burleigh Falls was modernized in 1968, it went from a double lock configuration (Locks 28 and 29) to a larger, single-chamber design. The new facility opened as Lock 28, and Lock 29 no longer exists. Today, sneaky parents promise their kids ice cream if they can behave themselves all the way to Lock 29.

Conventional Locks
Most of the locks are of the standard gravity-fed type, and are manually powered. A few electrically powered locks exist though, and one or two that have had partial upgrades over the years are manual on one end and electric on the other.

Flight Locks
Where the height difference between the locks is considerable, double locks — consisting of two back-to-back chambers — are used. There are two flight locks on the Trent-Severn: At Ranney Falls, where Locks 11 and 12 lift boats a total of 48 feet, and at Healey Falls, where Locks 16 and 17 raise boats by 54 feet.

Hydraulic Lift Locks
The Trent-Severn includes two hydraulic lift locks, the only two in North America and two of only nine in the world. They’re also the two largest, with Peterborough being the tallest on the planet and Kirkfield a close second.

Big Chute Railway
Though it’s called Lock 44, the marine railway at Big Chute is a massive dry dock on wheels that drives boats over a long, steep hill. It’s hard to say if it’s more fun to ride it yourself or watch other boats make the passage.

Resources

  • Parks Canada Trent-Severn Waterway National Historic Site 705-750-4950 pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/on/trentsevern
  • TrentSevern.com Online resource includes current water levels, lock info, marina info and more. TrentSevern.com
  • Ports Cruising Guide to the Trent-Severn Cruising guide covers the entire system in tremendous detail, but you’ll have to snag a copy while you can, as the publisher has gone out of business. 800-463-9951 Nauticalmind.com
  • Feature Video 76-minute “Cruising The Trent Severn Waterway” video. Takes the viewer through the entire 240 miles of the waterway. Thewaterway.ca

Trip of a Lifetime

By Craig Ritchie
01-Jan-2018
Linking Lake Ontario with Lake Huron, Canada’s Trent-Severn Waterway offers such exquisite views and unique experiences that it’s been described as one of the top cruising routes in the world.
One of the best parts of cruising the Great Lakes is getting off the big water to explore new paths and fresh horizons. Sometimes we journey for the day, other times for a long weekend. But when it comes to enjoying a longer cruise, it’s hard to resist the allure of Ontario’s Trent-Severn Waterway, described by many as one of the top cruising routes in the world.

Originally conceived as a military lifeline and commercial superhighway, the Trent–Severn Waterway meanders through a system of natural lakes and man-made canals. The waterway cuts through pastoral farmlands and the rugged Canadian Shield as it bisects southern Ontario from the town of Trenton, on eastern Lake Ontario, to Port Severn, on Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. From end to end, the Trent-Severn is a 240-mile (386-kilometer) run stitched together by no fewer than 16 lakes, 44 locks, 17 swing bridges and the only functioning marine railway in North America. Boaters who have experienced this magnificent waterway often describe its transit as the experience of a lifetime — even if they do it every year.

The route that defines today’s Trent-Severn Waterway was first traversed by Samuel de Champlain in 1615. As European settlement pushed deeper into North America, the desire for a second water route connecting Lake Ontario to Lake Huron rapidly grew — partly out of growing commercial need and partly out of concern that war with the newly-formed United States could cut off access to the upper lakes at Detroit or Port Huron, isolating important trading posts farther up the system. Royal Engineers surveyed Champlain’s portages and determined that a series of locks could make it possible to run barges from Lake Ontario clear through to Georgian Bay. 

Construction began in 1833, but was quickly bogged down in political quagmire, with multiple competing interests pulling strings to try and directly benefit from what was, at the time, one of the most ambitious construction projects in the world. Decades of political intrigue, rebellions and war brought endless delays, and it was not until 1920 that the final leg was completed, enabling the first complete transit from Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay. From a commercial perspective, the Trent-Severn was obsolete years before it opened, having been designed for ships that were no longer large enough to be economically viable. Today, it’s the exclusive playground of recreational boaters. 

Transiting the full length of the Trent-Severn Waterway takes about five days, or a full week if you take your time and wander slowly. Because it’s a comparatively linear route, turning around and returning in the opposite direction still yields something new to look at every inch of the way. Depending on weather and water levels, the system normally opens in late May and runs until early October.

The Trent

The historic community of Trenton, Ontario marks the starting point for an upstream tour. Leaving Lake Ontario behind, you officially enter the system as you pass beneath the sweeping arc of the Dundas Street Bridge, where it’s impossible to miss the “Gateway to the Trent-Severn” lettering adorning its south face. With a population of about 20,000 people, Trenton is a great port to explore.

 The first class Trent Port Marina situated on the west side of the river, just south of the downstream bridge, is the perfect stopping point to provision and prepare for your trip farther north. This friendly city-run marina offers every amenity and is within walking distance to town where you will find waterfront restaurants, unique shops, groceries/supplies and year-round events. Fuel and pumpout can be found adjacent to the marina at the Trent Port Fueling Station.

At normal water levels, the minimum bridge clearance on the Trent-Severn Waterway is around 22 feet; if you’re in a sailboat with a taller mast, Trenton is your last chance to have the mast stepped and stowed for the transit.

Water depth through the southern end of the Trent-Severn, from locks 1 through 19, is generally maintained at about 8 feet in the main channels. From locks 20 through 45, things shallow a bit to an average depth of around 6 feet. Some areas just off the channel are quite a bit shallower than that, so unless you have local knowledge, make it a point to stay within the navigation markers at all times and keep those charts handy.

As you continue upstream on the Trent River, you’ll soon come to Lock 1. Transiting the locks is a big part of the Trent-Severn experience, especially if it’s your first time. It’s a fairly straightforward procedure, and the friendly lock staff are more than happy to help boaters learn the ropes. The lock chambers are at least 84 feet long and 23 feet wide, so it’s not unusual to make the trip through the lock in the company of several other boats.

Most of the Trent-Severn locks are still original equipment and are manually powered, so once you’re inside the lock chamber don’t be surprised to see the staff take positions at large steel handlebars protruding from the ground and begin pushing them around in a circular motion to open or close the lock gates. Once the lock is secure and the staff ensures all boats are ready, the lockmaster throws a lever and gravity takes care of the rest. At Lock 1, your boat will rise a total of 18 feet. After a few moments, the upper gates open and you proceed on your way. 

The lower Trent River flows alongside peaceful farmland and rolling hills. You’ll pass through several locks in short succession as you bypass a number of dams once used for hydro production and flood control. If you care to wet a line, you’ll find walleye, smallmouth bass and muskie are relatively abundant here, along with bluegill and yellow perch. 

The first community of any size that you’ll come to as you slowly wander upstream is the village of Campbellford, a little more than 30 miles and a full day’s cruise from Trenton. You’ll know you’re getting close once you clear the flight locks at Ranney Falls — two large locks constructed back-to-back in order to manage the 48-foot difference in water level there. Once an extremely wealthy community, Campbellford is still known for its stately Victorian homes and tree-lined streets. It’s also home to a craft brewery, Church-Key Brewing Company; a chocolate factory, Blommer Chocolate Company; a butter tart bakery, The Butter Tart Factory; and one of eastern Ontario’s few remaining rural cheese factories, Empire Cheese. 

Old Mill Park, in the center of town, is an ideal spot to tie up for a while and go exploring. There’s room for about a dozen boats on the seawall here, making it a popular spot to stay for the night. Campbellford is a popular stop for cruisers, boasting a vibrant downtown all along the water with several shops and restaurants.

Lake Country

Leaving Campbellford behind and continuing upstream, peaceful villages and beautiful countryside will beckon you to slow down and enjoy the ride. Before long, you arrive at the village of Hastings, where you’ll say farewell to the Trent River and hello to Rice Lake, the first of many as you enter central Ontario’s lake country. 

Named for its abundant wild rice paddies, Rice Lake is a near 20-mile stretch of open water, and a nice change of pace from the previous day’s river travel. The second largest lake on the system, Rice is a beautiful boating destination in its own right, lined with numerous private cottages and cottage resorts, many of which offer a range of services to transient cruisers. 

Once you get about halfway down Rice Lake and approach the community of Harwood on the south shore, you’ll want to keep an eye out for the old sunken railway bridge that once spanned the lake there. A series of barely-submerged cribs extend well into the lake from both shorelines as you approach Tick Island, making it imperative to stay in the marked channel as you pass. A short while after clearing these cribs, you’ll turn north up the Otonabee River and continue on your way to Peterborough.

One of the largest communities you’ll pass on the Trent-Severn Waterway, Peterborough is a thriving city of about 80,000 people. As the first town in Canada to install electric street lights, Peterborough is known for its elegant homes and bustling local economy. If you need to shop or reprovision, this is the place to do so; you’ll find just about everything you need in town. It’s also a nice spot to get out of the boat for a while and enjoy a pleasant dinner.

By far the biggest attraction in Peterborough — both figuratively and literally — is the massive Peterborough Lift Lock, the highest hydraulic boat lift in the world and one of only two such structures found in North America (the other is in Kirkfield, a little farther along the route). Completed in 1904, the Peterborough Lift Lock consists of two parallel, box-like chambers, each 140 feet long, 32 feet wide and capable of holding about 274,000 gallons of water. Boats enter these chambers, which are then raised 65 feet straight up on enormous hydraulic rams. Once at the top, the chamber opens and the boats continue on their way. Designated a national historic site in 1979, the Peterborough Lift Lock is also the first lock in the world to be built from concrete, and it remains the largest structure in the world built from unreinforced concrete. A trip through the Peterborough Lift Lock is an experience not to be forgotten, and a highlight of any trip on the Trent-Severn Waterway.

Leaving Peterborough, the route continues north on the Otonabee River passing through more pleasant villages and farms. You’ll see more and more shoreline cottages appearing now, as the Trent Severn arrives in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes tourist region. 

The sheer beauty of this area is often astounding to those witnessing it for the first time, and you’ll find it impossible to simply plow through it — the pull of wanting to pause for a photo of this, or a better view of that, is simply too great. As you make your way through the lakes — Clear, Stoney, Buckhorn, Chemong, Pigeon, Sturgeon, Cameron, Lovesick, Balsam, Mitchell and Canal – it’s easy to envision yourself following Champlain’s path and imagine what the area might have been like when he first paddled through it more than 400 years ago. 

Today, the Kawarthas are vacation country. By all means, stop here for lunch or an afternoon ice cream; cottage resorts on the lakes offer everything from casual fare to fine dining. Wandering the small waterfront villages is a must, especially if you like to shop for curios or enjoy freshly-made pastries. If you’re a Tragically Hip fan, then you’ll definitely want to spend a night in the village of Bobcaygeon and watch the constellations reveal themselves one star at a time.  

Shortly after passing through shallow Mitchell Lake on the western end of the chain, you’ll arrive at the Kirkfield Lift Lock, also known as Lock 36. Second only to the similarly-constructed Peterborough Lift Lock in height, this massive structure raises boats 49 feet using similar parallel chambers raised on equally enormous hydraulic rams. Built in 1907, the Kirkfield lock was modernized in 1969 with fully electric controls. Given its massive height and its situation relative to the surrounding landscape, driving into the raised lock chamber can be a hair-raising experience; when looking straight ahead, you see nothing but sky. The sensation is a bit like you’re about to drive off a cliff. You miss this when traversing the lock in the opposite direction. That said, boaters traveling the opposite direction do face the same experience once they get to Peterborough. 

You’ll notice at the Kirkfield lock numerous signs reminding boaters that this location marks the highest point of elevation on the system — no matter which direction you travel from here, you’re now heading downstream. As a result, from this point on marker buoys will be reversed to what you’ve seen so far. Continuing on to Georgian Bay, you’ll now want to keep the red buoys to port and green markers to starboard. Make a note of this somewhere on your helm. It’s easy enough to remember within the confines of the canal, but when you reach an open lake, you’ll be glad for the reminder.

From the Kirkfield lock, the Trent-Severn Waterway continues west through narrow Canal Lake and a short but fairly nondescript length of canal before emerging on the eastern side of Lake Simcoe, Ontario’s fourth largest lake.

Named for John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, Lake Simcoe is a large body of water stretching about 19 miles long, 16 miles across and with a surface area of approximately 280 square miles. It’s understandably a major boating area and home to several outstanding marinas, yacht clubs and yacht dealerships. The City of Barrie, on the western end of the lake in Kempenfelt Bay, offers every possible type of attraction, restaurant and shop, from t-shirt joints and hot dog stands to fine dining and haute couture. Boaters could easily spend a week or more enjoying Lake Simcoe alone, and many do just that. For those with the time to explore the Trent-Severn at a proper, leisurely pace, Simcoe is an absolute delight.

The Severn

At the north end of Lake Simcoe, you’ll pass through Atherley Narrows and into adjacent Lake Couchiching, where the town of Orillia soon appears on the western shoreline. Welcoming boaters with its outstanding marine facilities, great restaurants and still more shopping, Orillia is one of the most popular destinations on the Trent-Severn, with some sort of festival or event going on every weekend throughout the summer. About 10 miles away, at the north end of the lake near the town of Washago, the waterway continues on to Georgian Bay. Now passing through the magnificent Canadian Shield, the view changes yet again, dominated by enormous granite outcrops, weather-beaten pines and dark waters reminiscent of Tom Thomson paintings. That’s especially true once you clear shallow Sparrow Lake, enter the gorge and begin descending the Severn River itself. If you haven’t felt the pull of Samuel de Champlain yet, this area will do the trick.

All too quickly, you’ll arrive at Big Chute, home of the only functional marine railway in North America and one of only a handful in the world. Also known as Lock 44, the Big Chute Marine Railway isn’t a lock at all, but a patent slip; it's sort of a dry dock on rails that carries boats over a large, steep hill. You motor into the semi-submerged carriage, which then moves ahead up and out of the water, with your boat secured in place by slings as the water drains off. The carriage then rides on dual tracks over 600 feet of Canadian Shield, where it eventually comes to a stop in the water on the other side of the berm. As it settles into place, your boat refloats and you idle away. The railway you ride on today is actually the third one built on the site, completed in 1978 and capable of carrying boats up to 100 feet (the original, built in 1917, could only manage boats to 35 feet, while its 1923 replacement took those up to 60 feet in length). A ride on the Big Chute Marine Railway is an extraordinary experience and, like the lift locks, is something never forgotten.

Once the railway plops you back in the water in the Six Mile Channel, it’s a short and easy ride through an island-studded lake called Gloucester Pool to the little village of Port Severn. This is where you’ll find a number of excellent marina facilities, great restaurants and the final lock in the system (or the first, if you’re headed downbound). When the lower lock gates open here, your hull gets its first taste of Lake Huron as you glide slowly out onto Georgian Bay. 

If you’re continuing on into Lake Huron, take a moment to tie up on the lower wall and really study your charts since, depending on which route you take, the buoy situation can change yet again. Pass through the Potato Island channel and you’re considered to be traveling upbound, meaning you keep red buoys to the right. Pass through the Waubushene channel and you’re technically traveling downbound, so the reds stay to port. This whole area is loaded with rock shoals — especially the section around the Mary Rocks — so ensure you’re clear on the marker sequence before you go anywhere at all. 

You may also choose to spend a few days on Georgian Bay, then turn around and go right back the way you came, seeing the Trent-Severn again from the other direction. Hundreds of boaters do just that every year, happy to surrender again to the charms of one of the world’s greatest cruising routes. 


MORE INFORMATION

Permits and Fees: The Trent-Severn locks are operated by Parks Canada. You’ll need a lock pass to transit the system. Several options are available, including a full season pass. Permits can be purchased at any lock station. Mooring or camping overnight at a lock station also requires a permit, and these can also be purchased on-site. 

Charts for the Trent-Severn: All charts available from The Nautical Mind (Nauticalmind.com) and  the Canadian Hydrographic Service (charts.gc.ca). 

Chart 2021: Murray Canal To Healy Falls 
Chart 2022: Healy Falls to Peterborough
Chart 2023: Peterborough to Buckhorn
Chart 2024: Buckhorn to Bobcaygeon
Chart 2025: Bobcaygeon to Lake Simcoe
Chart 2028: Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching
Chart 2029: Couchiching to Port Severn 


South Shore JUN17
South Shore JUN17