Taking on the most unique stretch of the Trent by WaveRunner
By Steven Bull
The 386-kilometre Trent-Severn National Historic Waterway weaves its way from Trenton on the northeastern shores of Lake Ontario up to Georgian Bay. The 45 locks link man-made canals, lakes, and rivers and through dozens of fascinating communities. With a history dating back to 1833, when the first lock was built at Bobcaygeon. The militaristic history has given way to pleasurecraft, but the mystique and romance of the waterway are a constant.
Having said all that, claiming any one section to be superior in any way is, on the surface, patently absurd. How can you truly compare the iconic beauty of the interconnected Kawartha lakes to Lake Simcoe? How can you judge Peterborough versus Orillia? And how can you claim any one of the historic locks is greater than the last, especially the unique ones like the Peterborough Lift Lock put against the Big Chute Marine Railway?
However I’m not one to avoid controversy so I’m going to put it in writing: the most fascinating single stretch of the Trent-Severn, that can be done in a single day, is the run from Orillia to Georgian Bay.
Here’s why: in that 40 nautical mile run, you go through four locks which include the last lock completed (Lock 42, Couchiching), the largest single drop — or lift — of any lock on the system (Lock 43, Swift Rapids), the only marine railway in North America (Lock 44, Big Chute) and the smallest lock on the system (Lock 45, Port Severn).
You also get a mix of the best of everything. Small-to-medium sized lakes like Couchiching and Sparrow, river sections winding through nature that give way to cottages and homes, to finally end up in the wide-open water of Georgian Bay.
Still not convinced? I headed out on the water with the Waterway’s Manager of Operations, Chad Buchner to prove it. He started his career as a lock operator and now oversees the entire Trent — though his business card should read, “Parks Canada’s Walking Waterway Encyclopedia” given how readily he can spout facts and answer any and all questions.
In exchange for a few lessons, I provided him a sweet ride for the day as we launched a pair of Yamaha WaveRunners at the Port of Orillia. That, unto itself, is worth a day trip. The self-proclaimed “Jewel of the Trent” has 220 fully serviced transient slips and a recently rebuilt washroom and shower facility. It’s a short walk to restaurants and shops and, important to our adventure, it has an excellent double-launch ramp and decent parking.
Shooting north across Lake Couchiching we ran through a whack of channel markers, known by many as the bowling alley, before cutting into the Severn River channel entrance that’s just south of Washago.
Heading around one of the bends of the meandering speed-controlled river section, we came upon Lock 42 and Chad’s first class.
“This was, literally, the last link of the Trent-Severn Waterway,” he said as we pulled over to the side of the river to get our lines ready, waiting for the boats raising in the lock to be released.
“The construction was completed in 1920 so while it’s not ‘new’ it’s the newest for the Trent-Severn. And yes there’s a joke about the speed of government projects here because it took nearly a century for the entire system to be connected. The first lock constructed in 1833 in Bobcaygeon and then, 87 years later, we have the connecting piece to truly connect Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay and people around the world.”
History aside, Lock 42 is fairly standard in size for the system. It’s 9.7 metres (approximately 32 feet) wide and 47.2 metres (approximately 155 feet) long and features a rise, or drop, of around six metres (approximately 20 feet).
After a three-and-a-half nautical mile run along another speed controlled section, we reached Sparrow Lake. There’s a marina with fuel dock and small supply store here but, seeing as though we were ready to rock, we hit the throttles and flew across the water again.
After a cruise through mainly untouched nature and Group of Seven worthy shorelines is Lock 43, Swift Rapids.
With a drop of 16 metres (approximately 46 feet) this journey equals that of the Welland Canal freighter locks but here it only takes six minutes. It actually looks like a live-action timelapse.
Once out, a very popular local lunch spot is the boat-in-only Waubic, famous for its fish and chips. So obviously, in the name of investigative journalism, we had to stop there!
Five nautical miles later, we landed at the big one: the Big Chute Marine Railway. The only one of its kind anywhere in North America!
Here Chad challenged my historical knowledge and, luckily, I had done my research. The first railway was built in 1917 because, at the height of the Great War (now World War I) money, materials and expertise were in short supply and it was a lot cheaper to lay a couple rails than blast through rock.
I passed the initial test, but turns out I stopped the research a little prematurely because I was stumped when he asked why they kept the railway when they built the second one in 1978.
“At that time, there were concerns about the sea lamprey and what it was doing to the fishing industry,” he explained as we shut the engines off and the giant yellow cart started to inch out of the water, laying our WaveRunners on an angle.
“The sea lamprey was discovered in the body of water just below us as we come down the 60-foot height differential. And a biologist who had been observing the boats saw that a lamprey fell off within the first few metres. It just couldn’t hang on.”
That’s when the decision was made to keep the railway and the new lines were laid with an ingenious design.
The original cart which was used as a backup right up until the early 2000s was a standard-style railway that went down on a significant angle. Quite a spooky ride! The modern version is a dual track system on different angles so that it remains virtually level the for the entire ride up over and down.
It takes about 15 minutes and can handle as many as 180 boats in a day and is so unique it remains a popular tourist attraction for non-boaters. When you come here expect to be in a few photos!
The final eight nautical mile run weaves through islands and channels to Lock 45, Port Severn, the aforementioned smallest lock on the system. Why is it so small? Cue, Chad.
“We were committed to building the last part and this was a vital link — one of the last ones built — but it was 1914 and the war was raging,” he explained as the Parks Canada staff started manually closing the gates.
“And, again, labour and qualified people were really reduced so we built a smaller, temporary lock, that was only 7.3 metres (24 feet) wide and 25.6 metres (84 feet) long.”
A century-plus later it’s still used. That’s some temporary run!
It’s one of the busiest, too, with around 8,000 boat transits per year and, if you’re heading down and into Georgian Bay keep an eye on the water levels and adjacent dam. If it’s raging like it was on our cruise day the current can be churning like a washing machine and it’s a bit of a narrow squeeze to stay in the channel as you go under the Highway 400 bridge.
Once you’re out, you’re in another Group of Seven tapestry, the iconic and beautiful Georgian Bay! All in it’s about 40 nautical miles to get from Orillia to Port Severn. On WaveRunners this is something you can do round-trip in a day. Or, to better enjoy your time you can stay at one of the waterfront hotels in and around Port Severn or at a Parks Canada cabin on Beausoleil Island.
The rest of the Trent is beautiful and individual sections are as amazing, but for a collection of experiences in a one day, I think this is the single best stretch anywhere!