The Trent-Severn Waterway

The Big Chute – Second to Last Lock on the Trent-Severn

Recently I’ve been trying to post roughly every week, but for some reason, I have been avoiding writing up our time in the Trent-Severn. I don’t have a reasonable excuse for this because we loved the 10 days that we spent working our way up, and then down this canal system going through 42 locks. The entire time we had amazing weather – almost too hot at 85 degrees almost every day, and it’s a unique experience for us to be boating in fresh water, meaning afternoon swims don’t result in salty-stickiness.

One note through all of this is that we took two weeks off work to do the Trent-Severn and some of the following Georgian Bay/North Channel. We knew the locks would be time-consuming, as well as that the Trent is supposedly one of the most fun parts of the great loop, so we wanted to enjoy it. At the same time, with Canada waiting this long to open its borders, it’s already getting late in the season, and most Canadians have already finished their summer cruising. Marinas are empty, and weather can turn foul on a moment’s notice and stay bad for days. We wanted to enjoy what we could, but we knew we didn’t really have time to linger. We had the Trent-Severn, Georgian Bay, North Channel, and all of Lake Michigan to get through before we got back to protected river waters. With fall rapidly coming, we knew we only had time for a cursory overview of the area, so we tried to make the best of it, enjoy it, but still get a move on.

Backing up just a little, since our last post ended with us crossing the Ontario into Canada. Our border crossing went relatively smoothly with the exception that since we declared all our alcohol (a lot!), due to not wanting to lose our NEXUS status, we were boarded and ended up “surrendering to the crown” all the beer on board. Luckily we were able to keep almost all of our wine and liquor. We finally tied up in Trenton after sunset and decided to order take-out Thai from a restaurant down the street from the marina. Hands down the best Thai food we’ve ever eaten.

After provisioning in the morning, we decided to get under way and headed towards the first lock of the Trent-Severn Waterway. If there’s only one thing to say about our experience in the locks it is that the lock attendants are some of the friendliest people we’ve met on this trip so far. In the Trent, once you go through the first lock of the day, all of the locks communicate with each other regarding incoming and outgoing traffic, so largely your day is orchestrated for you.

The first couple days of the locks are called “the ditch” by the locals. It’s mostly boring narrow rivers in semi swampland, with no towns or really anything nearby. It’s not very pretty, it mostly has 10 kph speed limits, and you just need to get through it. The first night we stayed on a lock wall that wasn’t near much.

Our first night in the Trent

One of the locks we went through on the second day was a double lock – where the first lock top gates open into a second lock for a second rise.

For our second night, and almost every night thereafter, we ended up on anchor on a lake in between the locks where we were able to jump in the fresh water after a long sweaty day of docking, un-docking and managing lines.

Second night’s anchorage

The next day, we finally broke out to a fairly large lake, Rice Lake, and had a pretty lovely afternoon crossing it. David took out the drone half way across and got some pictures and video of us under way as well.

Crossing Rice Lake

On the third night, we stayed in Peterborough, one of the larger towns along the way. We found an escape room in town and did two of their rooms and had a lovely meal, as well as bought some repair supplies from Home Depot and found the best butcher we’ve seen in months. This was the first town where we noticed that the homeless situation in at least this area of Canada is just as bad as in many parts of the states these days. The pandemic has not been kind to folks.

The next morning, we headed back into the lock system and encountered the most famous lock in the system – the Peterborough Lift Lock. This lock is a 65ft hydraulic boat elevator. You drive forward into the lock, a gate rises behind you and you are lifted 65ft (quite quickly!) in a sort of bathtub. We had previously been traveling on week days, so we had yet to encounter any other boats in the locks with us. However, we left Peterborough on a Friday with a several other boats trailing us. Since the locks in this area are quite close together, we ended up spending the morning in several locks with the same group of boats (4 of us!). Once you are tied up in a lock, there is not much to do, so we ended up making friends as we worked our way through the system. I took a video of our ride up the lift, but discovered at the top that I hadn’t hit record!!

After Peterborough, we headed up into the prettiest section of the Trent-Severn, starting with Clear Lake/Stoney Lake. The navigation was a bit treacherous, with rocks everywhere, above and below the water, but it was very well marked, and we followed our charts carefully and made it through unscathed.

Picking our way through the rocks on Stoney Lake

We anchored in a nice little corner of the lake and swam around in the warm evening after a long day on the rivers/lakes.

The next day, we went quite a ways through the rivers, without too many locks in the way. We’d been traveling the system on weekdays up until now, which didn’t come with very much traffic anywhere we went. However, this was a Saturday, and we were back in civilization, and it was a different story. We went through the town of Bobcaygeon, which had a lock in the center of it, and the walls were completely jam-packed with day boaters. We got a few to move just far enough apart for us to scoot over to the waiting-area wall and get out of the way of the people locking through, and then got in the next very-full lock with a pile of boats and jetskis.

Later that day, we settled into the west end of Balsam Lake. We had a nice late afternoon in the waning sun when a huge cloud front quickly swept in and deposited a huge amount of rain and heavy wind gusts for an hour or so, then moved out as quickly as it came to a crystal clear night.

Evening over Balsam Lake

We’d heard from a few folks along the way that the upcoming “canal section” was narrow, shallow, and sketchy, so we’d hatched this plan of anchoring basically right outside the entrance to the section, and then getting up early enough in the morning to traverse the whole section before the lock opened up to let traffic through, to give us the best shot of not running into another boat coming at us. The section is literally too narrow and shallow for our fat catamaran to let anyone by, so it could be a super dangerous debacle if we did run into anyone.

The entrance to the canal section

The plan ended up working great, and after a nervewracking passage through the narrow hell, we ended up at the Kirkfield Lift Lock about 20 minutes before they opened, so we had a chance to tie up and walk down to check out the lock and the info boards around it, and only ran into a few tiny local fishing boats along the way.

Before going down the lock, this was the highest point on the Trent-Severn — 840 feet above sea level, 600 feet up since Lake Ontario. It doesn’t feel like a boat should be here. This spot is the highest above sea level continuously-from-sea-level-navigable waterway in North America. Pretty neat.

From here, it was all downhill. The canal section continue to have astonishingly shallow sections through man-made lakes, dragging boats where they shouldn’t be to get to Lake Simcoe.

Traveling through a particularly shallow part of Canal Lake

After a harrowing day, we ended up crossing Lake Simcoe and spending the night in a marina in Orillia, a fairly large town on the north end of the lake. We had a day of heavy wind coming up next, so we stayed put. Hannah worked, David did projects all day. We finally tore out the last of the old electronics, the Raymarine autopilot system, and replaced it with a new Garmin one. Later, after two long scooter trips to a Home Depot, David managed to hack the brackets enough to fit a new larger alternator to the port engine.

Now we look like a floating Garmin ad

We had a couple lovely meals in town, picked up a great pie and some groceries, and the next day continued on our way to finish out the Trent-Severn.

The last locks were pretty fun. We first hit the Swift Rapids lock, #43, with a 47 ft drop. It just kept going, and going.

Lock 44 is possibly the best of all — The Big Chute Marine Railway. This is essentially a train car that took us over land (including over a road). Since we had spent the morning encountering no other boats, we thought it would be safe to assume that we’d be riding alone, but 6 jet skis showed up as the train car was descending into the water to receive us. The jet skis boarded first, and then we were called forward. We assumed that we’d be held suspended in slings, much like a travel lift (used when we get hauled out), which is how they handle most mono-hull boats riding the Chute. However, since we are technically flat on the bottom (our propellers are inside our hull channels), they just lifted the car up until we were basically beached on the floor. This entire experience was AWESOME.

Finally, we approached the last lock on the Trent, to go out not with a bang, but with a whimper. It’s only a few foot final drop into the Georgian Bay, and the lock is the smallest one in the system, only 22 ft wide (4 ft wider than we are) — we basically occupied the whole thing!

Lock 45 – Port Severn

We were extremely glad that we had (for the most part) taken this time off work to make our way through the Trent-Severn. We had a lot of long days of back-to-back locking, and we appreciated being able to swim and chill in the evenings. Though we weren’t that entranced after our first two days of the ditch, once we made our way into the lakes that are interspersed between the locks, we started to think that this would be a place to re-visit. Since we were trying to make good time (wanting to spend some of our vacation time in the Georgian Bay after the Trent), we did end up skipping a few of the towns along the way that we heard from many people are worth a visit. Overall, though, we are so glad that we waited for the Canadian border to open so that we could have this experience.

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2 thoughts on “The Trent-Severn Waterway”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your journey. We have been following from the beginning. We heard of you from Rob Rhodes in Anacortes. He worked on our boat last year. We did the Columbia River locks last year. It was great seeing your different locks. We will be doing the loop in 2023. Pam & Chris from M/V Kachina

    1. Awesome! Glad to meet you and that you’ve been enjoying following our travels. Feel free to reach out to us if you have any questions about the loop/planning/etc!

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