Discovering the Exotic Trent-Severn

Wednesday October 07, 2015 - 4:10 pm

Published By: Jonathan Lee

By Bruce Kemp
Photography by Bruce Kemp

Alexis and Berwick Duval were excited about getting started on the Trent/Severn Waterway. From Houma, Louisiana, the couple’s first Canadian port of call was Trenton and they wanted to see more. They had been living aboard their Mainship 430, Moondance, for eight months in the Caribbean and up the Intra-Coastal Waterway. Now they were finally starting the Canadian portion of “The Loop” and the Trent/Severn – along with Georgian Bay – what was for them, the most exotic part of their voyage.

For most eastern Canadian boaters, the Trent/Severn isn’t exotic at all, but simply enjoyable.

The Duvals planned to spend ten days travelling the 386 ‘klicks’ of the Trent/Severn from Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay. They weren’t in any hurry and hoped to see the start of the fall colour further north. Then they would follow the curve of the Bay around to the Straits of Mackinac and down Lake Michigan into the Mississippi and finally Mobile Bay carrying them home after their year-long odyssey.

I ran into them in Trenton and we chatted while they pumped out their holding tank at the Fraser Park Marina.  Both were happy to talk with a Canadian boater and to get a feel for what they were about to face. Aside from a restaurant recommendation all I could tell them was, “you’re really going to enjoy yourselves.”

I was just starting the up bound leg of the waterway myself. It had been years since I traversed the complete system and was curious to see if it had changed.

Trenton was my first stop and one of the things I wanted to see was the new Quinte West Marina I’d been reading about. It’s slated be open and fully operational this spring [2015].

I counted five backhoes waiting to start work on the marina’s basin. Quinte West had just received the necessary environmental dredging permits less than a month before I stopped in.

All the docks will be floating and there will be a new breakwater to prevent wake from smashing the boats about. There will be power, water and WI-FI, while a shuttle service to different points around downtown is being negotiated.

The new marina means some substantial changes to the Trenton waterfront, but most important, it means there will be more services for boaters.

The old marina – Fraser Park – will keep its fuel dock and pump-outs along with upgraded laundry facilities, but docking there will be day-use only for people wanting to get off their boats to walk into the city core.

One of the attractions to stroll to on Thursdays and Saturdays is the Farmers’ Market near the waterfront just north Fraser Park Marina. It’s a good place to re-provision and pick up in-season, produce.

Sail boaters making the trip up the waterway need to visit CFB Trenton to use the mast crane as none exist in Trenton itself, nor are there any planned. Fixed bridges along the system have a maximum clearance of less than 22ft.

You can always hook up with the waterway at any number of points. There are dozens of launch ramps where you can drop the family runabout in for a day trip or weekend’s fishing.

Despite the normal cautions, like staying within the buoyed channels, there are no big navigational headaches. It’s all line-of-sight. You don’t even need a GPS.  I like the Trent/Severn for this. Add to that the fact that it gives a fair sampling of Ontario’s landscape – from the low sandy shores of Lake Ontario, to the rolling Trent Hills, the northern feel of the Karwatha Lakes and finally to Lake Couchiching and the rocky outcrops of Georgian Bay – and you have a memorable cruise ahead of you from the moment you set out.  

Heading upstream from Trenton the first few hours of the journey eases you through gently rolling farmland. Fields sweep up and away from the shore and the fragrance of freshly mown hay is often on the wind. High points are dominated by traditional high-peaked Ontario farm homes.

At the Number 1 Lock I come to, a pontoon boat is down bound in the late afternoon sunshine. The crew consists of a woman handling the locking duties with the man driving and their son watching. They’re having a great time and smile and wave. Despite its commercially ambitious beginnings this is now the kind of traffic using the system.

Even before the first lock at Bobcaygeon was finished in 1833, the Huron used the interconnecting lakes, rivers and portages to get from the St. Lawrence fur trail to their homelands around Georgian Bay and it was the Huron who first showed Champlain its potential as a transportation route through the lower part of the province.

Grain producers and fur traders loved the idea. It meant shaving off more than 1,400 miles you wasted by shipping your products through the American Erie Canal system and it was 500 miles shorter than by the newly-opened Welland Canal.

Unfortunately politics soon stalled construction. Plans for the waterway made sense to everyone except the local lumber barons. They moaned and pissed about it, claiming dams and locks would interrupt the movement of their precious log booms. Local politicians, who received campaign financing from the barons, were quick to back-pedal and only those – like Sir John A. - with a national vision encouraged the system’s completion.   

But the roadblocks were firmly in place and it wasn’t until 1920 that the first boat travelled the entire system unimpeded.

At the beginning a false branch also led to Newmarket, but that was abandoned during construction and arguments arose over where the system should empty out. Various exits were considered including one at Wasaga Beach via Kempenfelt Bay and the Nottasawaga River, and another through Honey Harbour and a lock to be built between there and Go Home Bay.

The real killer, however, for those with commercial dreams was the opening of an enlarged Welland Canal carrying ships big enough to sail as far as Europe without unloading their cargos.

Recreational boating rescued the Trent/Severn from obscurity and it is now a National Historic Site administered by Parks Canada.

Surprisingly, there are only 32-kilometres of actual canals. The rest incorporates lakes and rivers linked by locks, lifts and a marine railway.

For its technology, the Trent/Severn borrowed some of the British Empire’s greatest engineers and their most radical ideas. Of the 45 locks 36 are straightforward single chamber operations. There are two sets of flight locks (double-chambered requiring two lifts) – Ranney Falls and Healey Falls.

Ranney Falls Flight Lock, just below Campbellford, lifts boaters a total of 14.6 metres. Healey Falls are overcome by three locks. Lock 15 is an individual lift and Locks 16 and 17 are a tandem flight lock. In total, you climb 23.1 metres into Rice Lake.

It’s best not to rush your trip if you can help it. Bordering most rivers and lakes, are great hiking trails. Most of these are rural while others take you back in time in towns like Campbellford.

Stop by the Campbellford-Seymour Heritage Society building and pick up the free walking tour guide. It takes a couple of hours, but will show you some of the best Victorian and Edwardian architecture in this part of the country. And if that doesn’t stretch your legs enough, hike over to the Big Toonie at Old Mill Park on the west side of the river. Campbellford was home to artist Brent Townsend who designed the polar bear-encrusted coin.
The most recognizable of the locks on the system is the lift lock (#21) at Peterborough. It’s almost unfair to call it a boat elevator, but that’s what it really is. You move your boat into a gated chamber, the gates close behind you and a huge hydraulic ram lifts you, your boat and 1,700 tons of water 20 metres to the upper exit.

Peterborough’s Lift Lock was not the first of this type, but it is the oldest in continual operation lifting boats since 1904. The first was built in Anderton, England, in 1875. But the lock at Anderton was eventually converted to a system of electric motors pulling cables to lift the chambers. It was restored in 2002 and now uses hydraulic fluid to drive its rams instead of river water.

Near the town of Kirkfield, on the Trent/Severn, you’ll encounter the system’s second lift lock.
At the low side of the Peterborough Lock I ran into the combined Morton and Shaw families who were spending the day riding the lifts in their small runabout. The Shaw’s were from Oakville but the Morton’s had come over from the UK and this is one of their favourite tourist attractions.

Aside from riding the lifts, just up the hill from the dockside is the visitors’ centre that describes the construction effort led by Richard Birdsall Rogers and how the entire system was put together.

After Peterborough, you begin to feel the fingers of the north extending down through the rolling hills. The trees in the Karwatha Highlands change from predominantly broad-leafed to pine, spruce and cedar.

Kawartha Lakes is more than just a collection of lakes, it is a rural city put together back during the mania for creating super cities in Ontario. It encompasses Bobcaygeon, Lindsay, Fenelon Falls, Coboconk, Rosedale and Kirkfield. Coboconk is the highest navigable point in Canada from which you can reach the sea.

These are all delightful little towns with a summer feel and ice cream stands to match near the lock walls.

Like all of the Trent/Severn, fishing here is brilliant. Although the river runs through it, this is spin-casting and trolling country. Kids will enjoy hours of drowning worms for rock bass, bluegill, crappie, sunfish and perch. With patience, mom and dad can put largemouth and smallmouth bass, pike and best of all, pickerel on the table.

Muskie fishing deserves its own special mention. This is the king of freshwater fighters and a senior muskellunge can grow upwards of 18 kilos. These aren’t fish you casually catch, although accidental encounters do happen. Successful Muskie fishermen are hunters. It takes skill and patience earned over years of pursuit and today almost nobody keeps the lunkers they hook. The fishery is almost totally catch and release.

The last small town on this portion of the system is Gamebridge, about 1½- kilometres from where the Trent Canal empties into Lake Simcoe.

Barrie, the largest city on the Trent/Severn (136,000 people), is up the Kempenfelt Bay arm of Lake Simcoe. It’s a bit out of the way if you don’t have a good reason to head up there. Orillia at the north end of the lake is closer and has just as many amenities.

Once you pass up the marked channel at Washago locals call “The Bowling Alley”, you’re into the final stretches of the waterway.  If you’re a wooden boat fancier, keep an eye out. You’re skirting the southern edge of Canada’s mother lode for classics.

The waterway is now the combination of Trent Canal and Severn River. The niftiest part of the system between Lake Couchiching and Georgian Bay is Big Chute’s marine railway.

It really is a railroad (of sorts). The system operates by driving your boat onto the slings of a carriage then the carriage is winched up an inclined set of railroad tracks by a set of four powerful electric motors, to the channel leading to the Gloucester Pool. There’s been a railway here since 1917. It was one of the last links that allowed unhindered passage on the Trent/Severn.  This one lift is worth towing your boat all the way up there just for the experience.

Once you’ve made the 18-metre ascent it’s a clear run to Port Severn and Lock # 45 - the final lock before you enter the waters of Georgian Bay.