BOATING ABROAD PART TWO
The Ainsworths move on to Canada and two very familiar-souding canals – but, of course, their Severn and Trent are very different to ours
At the northern end of America’s Great Loop, a 4,000-mile route through the waterways of the eastern United States and Canada, there’s a choice. We decided that, instead of following the Erie Canal all the way to Buffalo and into Lake Erie, we would see what Canada had to offer with the Trent- Severn Waterway, Georgian Bay and the North Channel which leads into Lake Michigan. This meant leaving the Erie Canal at Three Rivers and crossing Lake Ontario from Oswego.
We landed in Canada at Prinyers Cove in Prince Edward County, Ontario, and spent a few days cruising to Trenton, where the waterway starts.
We had wondered about the customs formalities, since Prinyers Cove was a hamlet consisting of a small marina and not much else. But it turned out to be simple. Ian just had to phone the Canadian Customs with details of the boat, how long we were going to be in Canada, our passport numbers, and how much alcohol we had on board. We were allowed to import two bottles of wine, or 12 cans of beer each. Ontario is quite strict about alcohol, which can be purchased only at Beer Stores or LCBOs – outlets of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, forbidding, windowless places that appear not to invite custom.
At Trenton, we had our first meal out in Canada and noticed that many people were consuming a murky brown liquid garnished with sticks of celery. The drinks were Bloody Caesars, a cocktail invented in 1969 by a Canadian chef called Walter Schell. A Bloody Caesar consists of vodka, clamato (tomato juice with clams), Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce, pepperoni and celery. Apparently, 350 million are consumed each year in Canada. Oddly, the drink is almost unknown anywhere else.
The next day, we started the 240-mile passage through the Trent-Severn Waterway, a series of canals, rivers and lakes which link Trenton in the southeast with Port Severn in the northwest.
The Trent-Severn has a quite different feel from the Erie Canal. It has a different history too – whereas the Erie Canal was built for a specific purpose, to improve trade for America’s Mid-West, the Trent-Severn was gradually developed over 90 years and not finally completed until 1920, when its potential for providing hydro-electric power for Ontario was realised. It’s also a great and well-used recreational resource and holiday destination, promoted and marketed by Parks Canada.
The waterway reaches 870ft above sea-level, so there are quite a few locks to negotiate. They are all manually operated, but not, as in England, by the boaters. Each is staffed by two or three people, many of them students doing a summer vacation job, but all welcoming and helpful. The lock surroundings are well kept, with little gardens and picnic areas, and facilities for boaters to tie up overnight on the lock walls. The lockkeepers phone ahead to the next lock to let them know boats are on their way, so locks are usually ready when you arrive.
After leaving Trenton, the waterway starts as a wide river, but narrows into a channel as it rises steeply through a series of six locks only about a mile apart, so our first morning was quite
‘Throughout the waterway, the water was crystal clear, thanks to Parks Canada’s strict rules about what can be discharged from boats’
busy. At the first lock we had to tie up and pay for our seasonal one-way permit and for the lock-keeper to give us tips and information on good places to stay – like which lock walls got busy, which had power and so forth.
Below Campbellford, there is a deep ravine in the limestone where the Trent River goes into the Ranney Falls. Below the falls, the canal takes a sharp left into locks 11 and 12 – these form a double lock, so that as soon as you emerge from lock 11, you are straight into lock 12 without any intervening ‘pound’. Both the locks are deep, so that from the top there is a dramatic view of the surrounding country.
The next day we intended to anchor somewhere quiet and peaceful, but it had become so hot (described as a ‘heat event’ on the local weather forecasts) that we decided to go all the way to Hastings. This meant we could stay in a marina with a power supply and have the boat’s air conditioner on. On the way, we anchored in Seymour Lake and swam from the boat. Throughout the waterway, the water was crystal clear, thanks to Parks Canada’s very strict rules about what can be discharged from boats.
The municipal marina at Hastings is next to Pisces Park, a community development that was opened only on 30 June 2016. The vision is ‘to create Pisces Park as a cultural space with a series of fish sculptures of the types of fish found in the Trent River’. The first of these, Pisces Pete, by Canadian artist Bill Lishman, has already been installed.
From Hastings, the river widens into Rice Lake, and halfway down the lake it takes a right into the Otonabee River, which leads to Peterborough. The town is actually on Little Lake, a bulge in the river.
At Peterborough we had a challenging time docking. Just as we arrived, the winds suddenly became very strong. The marina staff asked us to go to a finger dock, which involved Carina making a sharp 90° turn to starboard.
Carina does not do 90° turns. She has a single screw engine and no bow thrusters. She stops at 45° and won’t do what she’s told in reverse, either. In strong winds, she goes into toy-throwing mode.
The young marina staff were polite and encouraging, but after several futile attempts at docking, with other boat owners looking on with trepidation, they gave in and let us go on the end of a T-dock, which involved only driving up to somewhere near enough for mooring ropes to be thrown to the waiting staff.
Morale was restored later when we had drinks with some other ‘Loopers’. They had a Marine Trader just like Carina and said they wouldn’t have even attempted trying to put the boat into a finger dock. Instead, rather than waiting for marina staff to tell them where to dock, they tell the marina staff where they want to go. A lesson learned.
Peterborough is famous for its Lift Lock, still regarded as an engineering marvel. Two adjacent holding tanks simultaneously move in opposite directions, to take boats up and down the lock. No electric power is used and the lock works simply by the weight of water in the upper tank being greater than that of the lower one. The lift is 65ft – at the time it was built, in 1904, it was the largest structure in the world to be built from unreinforced concrete. It is very quick, too – the ascent took only a couple of minutes.
The Kawartha Lakes area is reputedly the most beautiful part of the waterway. Over the next few days we travelled through sparkling lakes and rivers, stopping at Lakefield, Buckhorn Lake and then Fenelon Falls.
Something that had puzzled us since we arrived in Canada was the frequent reference to ‘loonies’. We imagined that they were some sort of token, as there would be notices saying ‘loonies only’ in places like laundromats. At Fenelon Falls Laundromat, a lady enlightened us. Loonies turned out to be dollar coins, with the Queen on the front and a loon, an aquatic diving bird, on the back.
“Of course, we have toonies too,” she told us. “The two-dollar coin. They have a bear on the back, so we say they have the Queen on the front, with a bear behind.”
We had also been wondering what peameal, which seems to feature on all breakfast menus in Canada, might be. I had had a best-forgotten experience with grits in Charleston, and suspected that peameal might be something similar. But we went out for breakfast in Fenelon Falls, and discovered that it was lean Canadian bacon, thick-cut like gammon, and delicious.
The stretch of the Trent Canal beyond Mitchell Lake contained the Kirkfield Lift Lock, which is the highest point on the waterway. The lock was built to the same design as the Peterborough Lift Lock, but the height is only 49ft. It was still quite awe-inspiring though, to see the land, and our westward journey, stretching away from us as we waited for the lock to descend.
The next big thing was Lake Simcoe, a few miles further down the straight stretch of the Trent Canal. Although not as large as Lake Ontario, Simcoe is subject to capricious weather patterns and comes with a serious health warning. So we had to wait for a suitable weather window to present itself.
By now, it was sweltering. Strong winds and thunderstorms were forecast and we tied up at Lock 39 to sit it out because
‘Two adjacent holding tanks simultaneously move in opposite directions to take boats up and down the lock. No electric power is used’
crossing Lake Simcoe in those conditions wasn’t an option. A hot, sticky night passed rather uncomfortably. The next day the winds and heat persisted but the thunderstorms didn’t materialise until the middle of the night, when we woke to the sound of heavy rain and a welcome drop in temperature.
Although it was grey and raining, the winds weren’t too bad the next day, so we took a calculated risk and set off. The area around Portage Lock was agricultural and the scene not unlike many wet mornings on English canals.
It was a good move. The 15-mile crossing of Lake Simcoe took only two hours with the wind was behind us. We skirted around the northern shore, passing through the Atherley Narrows before tying up at Bridgeport Marina, near Orillia, feeling rather guilty at the sight of the dockhands getting drenched as they helped us moor.
Above Orillia, the waterway passes through Couchiching Lake and Sparrow Lake and on to Big Chute.
Big Chute is the most awesome thing on the waterway. It is not technically a lock, but a railway which transports boats up and down the rapids of the Severn River. The boats sit on straps and are maintained in a horizontal position by a cunning two-rail system which means that the Going down Big Chute front of the boat is supported and moves down independently of the back. It was originally constructed as a temporary measure, pending a proper lock being built, but construction of the definitive lock was abandoned because of cost.
There were prominent notices about Parks Canada not being responsible for damage to boats, which was a bit worrying. But the experienced park staff told us exactly what to do and Carina was soon settled in the cradle. There were some slightly alarming noises as we descended, but all went well and we were surprisingly quickly out into the pool below the rapids.
Below Big Chute we entered Little Chute Channel, a narrow, rocky pass with a strong current. Ian had to call ahead on the VHF to advise upbound boats of our presence. Although as a downbound boat, we had right of way and, as the Waterway Guide put it, ‘Upbound boats may not know this, or act accordingly’. But there weren’t any upbound boats and after the channel, the landscape opened out into the lovely Gloucester Pool, with its many islands.
The waterway ends at Port Severn, and suddenly we were through the last lock and out into the vast expanse of Georgian Bay, which occupies the north-eastern part of Lake Huron. The bay is almost as big as Lake Ontario and contains 30,000 islands which festoon its northern shore. We had plenty more challenges ahead.
One of the beautiful Kawartha Lakes
View from top of Campbellfield Locks
Gateway to the Trent-Severn
One of the unwelcoming LCBOs
Below Campbellfield Locks
Approaching Peterborough Lift Bridge
PiscesPete by sculptor Bill Lishman
Route the Ainsworths took
The River at Lakefield
Hastings Pisces Park
The awesome Big Chute