We spend several weeks cruising down Canada’s Trent Severn Waterway in Ontario.
Click the Google Map button below to open the map in a separate window. There you can zoom in/out, and click on the icons to see pictures and more info on the various places along our route.
The Trent Severn Waterway — one of the most talked about aspects of the Great Loop. This year it was one of the most anticipated legs as well because it had been inaccessible to US Loopers for the past two summers, and it has some very unique locks and towns along the way. We took almost three weeks to do the length of it, with near daily travel of short distances and many stops.
Trent Severn Waterway (TSW) Facts
- Connects Lake Ontario and Lake Huron
- Built as random individual small segments of locks and canals between smaller lakes for local needs.
- First lock 1833, last lock completed 1920 to make the full waterway
- 44 locks over 240 miles
- The mechanics of the locks ranges from old-fashioned hand cranking to hydraulic to the engineering marvels of two lift locks and the Big Chute Marine Railway
- Managed and maintained by Parks Canada, the national parks service
Kingston to Trenton, ON
We first had to travel from Kingston to the Trenton on the other end of Lake Ontario, where the TSW begins. Part of the way was in the open water of Lake Ontario, and after so long in the protected waterways of rivers and canals it seemed a little weird. Along with our travel boat Inconceivable, we overnighted at a peaceful anchorage about halfway in Picton, arriving at Trent Port Marina on a Saturday.
The Trent Severn Waterway
Aug 1 - 25
First on the blue line of the first lock when it opened at 9! To give you an idea of the pace, the first day we traveled 4 ½ hours, through 7 locks—but only moved 14 miles. Each lock takes at least 15-20 minutes even if the doors are open when you arrive and you go straight in. If you don’t get in because the lock is full, then you tie up on the blue line and have to wait for the full cycle in your direction, then the cycle in the other direction. There’s not a lot of open water over the course other than a few lakes, so our average speed was 6-7 mph.
The locks can be work, both for the boat driver (Dave) and the line handler (me). The locks are every mile or few so I was always either coiling lines after a lock or setting up for the next one. By the time we tied up somewhere for the day, it felt like we had put in a good day’s work.
There is also a major social aspect to the locks that makes locking enjoyable. On any one day, you frequently are moving from lock to lock with the same two or three boats, and while waiting on the blue line or hanging onto lines in the lock there is a lot of socializing. Local boaters are wonderfully free with recommendations for places to stop, restaurants, what to see along the ways, etc. Plus the Parks Canada lock staff are a lot of young college students working a summer job, and they are very friendly and fun to talk to. The more senior lockmasters are also a wealth of knowledge about the area and lock system and happy to share it. They would frequently even call ahead to wherever you said your planned destination was to see if there was room on the wall for us. Then there’s the spectators, both the casual passerby and the ‘professionals’ who set up their chairs and umbrellas and bring a picnic lunch to watch the boats go through the lock. It was always kind of fun to be going up in a lock, and suddenly come eye level with feet and start a conversation. Being the odd boat that we are, we had lot inquiries about it along with where we were from, and The Loop.
The locks are numbered sequentially, but commonly referred to by their name. Dockage at the locks is all first-come-first-serve, so we tried to arrive by midday. Most are in a park setting, with shade trees, picnic tables, washrooms, and some even have fire pits. We liked the remote, park settings the best, but also enjoyed the few towns along the way. In some cases, it seemed like the town had thrived because of the lock. We always tried to stay on the side of the lock after going through it, because then we were not constrained the next day by the 9:00 lock opening schedule. What is really sweet for us when we stayed on a lock wall is that grass for Roxy was just a few steps from the boat.
We loved the more remote Parks Canada locks for their variety of scenery and local flare; no two locks were alike. They are quiet and peaceful, the sunsets spectacular, and the stars came out at night. Okay, so the biting bugs came out also – but it just made it even more like camping. At Glen Ross (#7) we had ice cream as soon as we tied up and later were entertained by kids jumping off an old swing bridge. Hastings lock (#18) had ice cream and a very small town with bagpipers practicing in front of the LCBO store (the provincial liquor store – even the smallest towns have one).
Lift locks – engineering marvels
There are very few lift locks in the world. The TSW has two –Peterborough (#21) and Kirkfield (#36) — with Peterborough being the highest lift lock in the world. They consist of two side by side ‘bathtubs,’ alternating which one is up or down. Boats drive into and tie up to the tub, then they add a little more water to whichever is on top, forcing it to move smoothly down like an elevator and the other tub to move up. So while you’re being lifted up on one side to the higher water, you will pass the tub with boats riding down in the middle. Our trip up 65’ in the Peterborough lock took a little more than a minute, so it’s fast. The view is amazing, and it feels really weird to be on your boat, in water, but looking over the edge into…air.
Here’s a link to a Parks Canada time-lapse of the Peterborough Lift lock: Peterborough Lift Lock time lapse — Parks Canada
Arriving at Lakefield lock (#26) on a hot afternoon, we went swimming/floating first thing then walked a short distance into the small town for dinner at the only restaurant open, the Canoe & Paddle, serving English pub food on a lovely patio. One of our favorites was Lovesick lock (#30), on an actual small island and named for local folklore of the heartbroken lover who retreated to the island in despair. There was a trail to walk, and we had the first of several campfires with the Inconceivable crew. The lock house itself had beautiful landscaping, and even fresh cut flowers in the washroom. Surrounded by small rocky islands, we took a morning dinghy ride before heading off the next day.
Buckhorn (#31) was an interesting stop. It is considered the busiest lock because it is at the start of the Kawartha Lakes area, which has a ton of cottages and local small boat traffic. These lakes are also home to the houseboat rental industry, which are really just rectangular trailers on pontoons – and frankly most that we saw look questionably seaworthy — and are about as maneuverable as a rubber duck. They require no training or experience to rent, and Buckhorn is typically the first lock any of the crew has ever done. We happened to be there on what the lockmaster called Houseboat Tuesday because based on the rental companies Monday rental cycle they would pass through Buckhorn on Tuesdays. The lock staff handled it with aplomb and tact, shouting directions, alligator-wrestling boats into position, fending them off the lock walls and doors, and working to keep them moving so they didn’t have to dock and undock very often. There wasn’t much of a town at Buckhorn, but there was certainly quite a show.
Another favorite remote lock stay was Rosedale (#35). This was truly like camping, as we just hung out in the shaded park after our arrival. I even strung my hammock and took a nap, and it was another night for a campfire and s’mores after a beautiful sunset. Roxy especially loved this stop because she spent the whole afternoon off the boat, snoozing in the cool grass or in her chair, and there were even some of Ontario’s black squirrels to chase.
Leaving Rosedale, we crossed a glassy Balsam Lake, marking the highest point on the TSW. We would be locking down in the rest of the locks to reach Lake Huron. But first we had to traverse several very shallow and narrow stretches with no room for another boat to pass. We fortunately had the smaller Inconceivable as our ‘scout’ boat leading the way, and they would radio back if the way was clear or if we needed to hold off entering the narrow stretch until someone had passed. I was up on the bow to make sure we didn’t run over anything or get too far out of the center and hit a rock. At times I could look down and be able to clearly see beer cans on the bottom. The water was very clear so it may have looked shallower than it was, but I still didn’t tell Dave I could read the brand of beer until after we were through the stretches. Then there was The Ditch, a final not-so-scenic stretch of five locks close together along a straight, narrow, gravel lined man-made canal. We overnighted at the nice but spartan Thorah lock (#40), surrounded by an agricultural area just before big Lake Simcoe,which we would cross to get to the town of Orillia.
Our last planned lock stay (yes, the italics are there for a reason) was Swift Rapids (#43) after leaving a two day stay in the town of Orillia and doing the required penetance of waiting at the old CNR Railroad bridge for the legendarily cantankerous bridgekeeper to swing the bridge for the three boats waiting. Swift Rapids is the ‘modern’ lock from 1965, with a unique hydraulic pump system of its time to raise and lower the water level. It was a 40’ lock down, one of the biggest we had in a single lock, and was so smooth we could hardly believe we just went down 40’ in less than 8 minutes. We dropped the dinghy and the four of us went out to the Waubic Inn, a boat-only accessible restaurant a few miles down the cottage-lined way that has been there since 1913. They had a very dog friendly patio, so we brought Roxy and they even posted her picture on the Dogs Of Waubic Inn Instagram page. After returning to the boats, we toasted our last marshmallow at a campfire that evening with the massive doors of the lock as a backdrop
The Bigger Towns
If we didn’t stay at a lock, we stayed at a town dock. The bigger towns seem to view the TSW as a revenue source and thus maintain their own walls or marinas for cruisers, staffed by town employees who all seemed genuinely interested in showing cruisers the best of their town. The towns were quite conveniently spaced out along the whole TSW, so every three or four days would be in a town for two days to provision as necessary, maybe eat at a local restaurant, have a down day, and enjoy whatever the town had to offer.
Campbellford was right after its namesake Campbellford lock (#13), with the dock located in their big downtown park. Home of Doohers Bakery, a multi-time winner in Canada’s Sweetest Bakery competition, its famous for its fresh donuts, butter tarts, and all things fresh-baked. We prefer to judge for ourselves, and found we needed more than one trip to fully assess. Okay, so it was three trips. We went to a movie at a restored theatre owned and run as a co-op, and listened to a free Patsy Cline impersonator concert in the park from the boat deck. We also were pleasantly shockedto discover that the Canadian Tire chain is not just an automotive store chain like we thought, but rather a department store that we should have been shopping at all along for all kinds of necessary stuff.
Peterborough was the biggest town on the TSW, between locks #19 and #20, with a municipal marina. It was Pirate Weekend at the marina, and the local slipholders all dressed in pirate costumes and decked out their boats for an afternoon waterfight as they cruised around – fun to watch. There were two really big farmers markets, and we went to a creative adaptation and outdoor performance of Shakespeare’s King Henry Five.
Bobcaygeon (lock #32) was a favorite stay on the weekend in the heart of the Kawartha Lakes area, and historically the first lock built on the Trent Severn to connect Pigeon and Sturgeon Lakes (which has never had a single sturgeon). The town was the essence of quaint and charming, with colorful storefronts, lots of flowers, and a cottage-style on steroids. Kawartha Dairy with its famous ice cream is also a big presence, along with a whole block of Bigleys-owned shops. We got the kayaks down for the first time since starting the TSW and did some exploring on Lake Sturgeon.
Fenelon Falls (#34 is a popular stop for locals boaters and Loopers alike. We did a long booter ride along the lake, and finally found a marine store that had a fender to replace the one we lost in New York. And the grocery store had Old Dutch potato chips — Dave’s favorite that we thought were only in Minnesota!
Last big town along the route was Orillia, after crossing Lake Simcoe passing through The Narrows to enter Lake Couchiching (which has my vote for the Lake With the Most Fun Name to Say) and with only four locks left before Lake Huron . It was here I overheard a kid in a pontoon boat exclaim as we passed by, ‘Wow! That boat’s as big as The Titanic!’. Not sure I appreciated the analogy. At docktails one night and met several new Looper crews – who unbeknownst to us at the time we would be spending a lot of time with in the near future. We biked along the Gordon Lightfoot Trail past a lakeside refreshment stand that had been in the same family since 1920. Public art projects abounded, from giant guitars and painted metal sailboats to themed mission-style armchairs and murals, with what seemed like a different theme each year. There was also Mariposa Market, with floor to ceiling shelves of preserves, pickles, and other gourmet delicacies and an incredible bakery selection. We paused our Main Street perusal here to share our traditional cappuccino and fresh-baked pastry.
A Journey Interrupted
Friday August 19 was anticipated to be the day we did the famous Big Chute Marine Railway (lock #44) and then the final lock to complete the TSW. The Big Chute lock actually loads the boats into a wooden cradle railway car that submerges into the water, then hauling you completely out of the water to travel a few hundreds yards up over a hill and back down into the water on the other side when we arrived before their 9am opening, some of our new Looper friends from Orillia caught our lines at the blue line and told us the lock had been closed since the 4:30 the previous day due to a hydraulic problem. They had been there overnight themselves. A little later the lockmaster came down to tell us it was broken and most likely would be days before it was fixed. We were, indeed, stranded at the Big Chute. Our adventure there is worthy of a whole separate blog post coming soon, so for now I will just say it was a six day wait on the blue line.
But we did finally get moving on August 26, and the 20 minutes on the Big Chute was a pretty cool experience. And then we were back in the water and floating off to continue down the Severn River. There were a few very narrow but short, ‘one-lane’ channels we had to pass through to get to the final Port Severn lock (#45), and then we were in Georgian Bay of Lake Huron. The Trent Severn leg of our Great Loop was complete.
Seen Along the Way
As for the scenery along our meandering 240 miles journey, I haven’t spoken much about it because is was so incredibly varied that its way easier to post a slew of pictures than try to describe it. The areas of natural beauty could be marshy, or could be rocky tree-lined cliffs and islands. My photos just can’t do it justice, but it rates up there with spectacular. Predominant throughout was the presence of cottages of all shapes and sizes. In some places (e.g. Kawartha Lakes area) they were thick and, and lined the shoreline, to the point that we started to think that all Canadian citizens are issued a cottage with their driver’s license. Yet it never seemed over-developed and there was a respect for retaining natural beauty and the environment.
Other cottages were lone structures on private rock islands in more remote areas; we enjoyed looking at these the most. Some looked like compounds that had been in a family for generations. Docks and boat garages accompanied the cottages, with an equivalent variety of boats and water toys and just about anything that floats. There was whimsical décor, beautiful gardens, lawns (who wants to mow up here???), fancy sculptures, handmade signs, wood-carved wildlife– even a totem pole. Muskoka Chairs (Adirondack chairs in the US) were everywhere.
People along the way always wave, as do other boaters on big and small boats. We saw lots of people fishing off docks, rocks, and locks — but never saw anyone catch anything. Kayaks, canoes, and stand up paddleboards were everywhere. Lots of swimming off docks, including dogs, grandparents out with the kids splashing and laughing and watching at the boats going by. It was a Lake Cottage Lifestyle of simplicity, unhurried and unpretentious, where everyone is welcome and extended families gathered out of tradition.
And with that, we are in the Great Lakes, with no more locks until we leave Chicago in October. We have one final leg of our cruising in Canada — Georgian Bay and the North Channel of Lake Huron. This brings big water and more weather watching and route planning. But it also promises breathtaking scenery and natural wonders. If we enjoyed the remoteness of some of the locks, then this is going to be great.
Pops’ Stats Corner*
- No of Days: 22 + 6 days at Big Chute = 28
- Travel Days: 17
- Miles Traveled: 331.3 (288.1 nm)
- Great Lakes Visited: 2
- Campfire nights: 4
- Swim Calls: 4
Cumulative Great Loop
- Started March 17, 2022 in St. Augustine, FL
- Travel Days: 73
- Miles Traveled: 2489.9 sm (2164.9 nm)
- States Visited: 11
- Provinces Visited: 2
- Great Lakes visited: 2
*Pops is what the family affectionately called Dave’s dad. He had a mind for sports statistics, earning him the nickname Numbers from the coaches of several Stillwater teams with whom he worked. This regular section of the blog is in his honor, because it’s the kind of thing he would love.