Planning to go on a summer cruise? Did you know that in Central Ontario, there exists a waterway where you can experience nature at its finest?
The Historic Trent-Severn Waterway, which officially opened 101 years ago, runs for 386 kilometres via 45 locks from Bay of Quinte (west of Belleville) to Georgian Bay (at Port Severn). Now a National Historic Site, the waterway, operated by Parks Canada, includes North America’s only marine railway, and the top two of the highest hydraulic lift locks in the world.
The lift locks of Trent-Severn Waterway are truly Canadian marvels of engineering. The water bodies of the Trent-Severn between Lake Ontario’s Bay of Quinte to Georgian Bay are at different elevations and the locks work like an elevator transferring the watercraft between water bodies of various elevations.
The construction of the lift locks started in 1833 and was completed in 1920. It was initially designed to move military goods and personnel away from the Great Lakes and out of reach of the United States Army, but soon became an avenue to move out of the Kawartha Region and bring tourists and goods in. It gives great access to the stunning lakes and rivers for a day, a week or longer! In 2018, 122,400 boats travelled through its lock system.
Trent-Severn opened up Central Ontario. By boosting the early timber and related businesses, it led to the settlement of people in the area which in turn led to the creation of a series of railways between the various towns, building the communities and tourism even further. Many families who discovered the region back in the 1930s still have descendants who return today.
If are thinking of going on a boating trip on the Historic Site, here is a short guide to planning a trip on the waterway. For in-depth and up-to-date information, see the Parks Canada website.
- Road Trip: Drive the Trent-Severn Waterway
- A Guide to Planning a Summer Boating Trip on the Rideau Canal
- Road Trip From Ottawa to Kingston: Drive the Rideau Canal National Historic Site
A Beginners Guide to Planning a Summer Boating Trip on Trent-Severn Waterway
To explore Trent Severn National Historic Site, you may drive along the route, go on a luxury cruise, guided boat tour, or navigate your own canoe or boat.
1. Guided Lake Cruises
If you want to be a passenger along the waterway and do not want to navigate your own way around, there are several companies who will take care of the driving for you:
1. Canadian Canoe Museum’s Voyageur Tours – Paddle along the Trent Canal and ride up and down the Peterborough Lift Lock in a Voyageur Canoe. The boat holds up to 20 people so it can accommodate families and work teams looking for a bonding experience. You ride together for 90 minutes for $25 each per adult and $19 per youth.
2. Lift Lock Cruises – Take a tour north or south from Peterborough, with options for lunch or dinner. You can go south on the Otonabee River for $64, including dinner, with a cash bar or do a private charter with a group for fun or a fundraiser. During the day, you can ride up the lift lock while having for $52.50. They also offer an autumn colours tour for $36.50 up to Trent University and back.
3. Stoney Lake Cruise – Ride the Spirit of the Kawarthas out of Woodview (north of Peterborough) and see the fabulous homes and scenery where an increasing number of celebrities are retreating. One of the highlights in the Glass House built right into the rock. Lunch cruises cost $60 per person with a Friday barbecue package for $80 and prime rib on Saturday nights for $90.
4. Kawartha Voyageur – Tour the waterway between Big Chute and Peterborough in luxury with a comfortable room, meals and snacks, without lifting a finger for $2,400 over six days. Evening activities range from bocce ball, skits, readings, guest speakers or a quiet night with a book or your tablet.
Watch the video below for an overview of Trent-Severn and Rideau Canal Historic Sites and Kawartha Voyageur cruise:
2. If You Want to Be Your Own Captain & Do not Own a Boat
If you want to travel the waterway and do not have a boat, you can rent a houseboat or a boat. Be aware of all safety information, visitor regulations, and weather warnings, especially if your trip crosses Lake Simcoe or Lake Couchiching. Also, carry a nautical chart.
Rent a houseboat – Happy Days Houseboats in Bobcaygeon trains you to operate your rental boat and only requires a driver’s licence and a signed waiver. You can explore the waterway or just moor up and enjoy your cottage on the water. Bring your own lifejackets, bedding and toiletries.
You can also rent kayaks, canoes or a stand-up paddleboard to take on your journey. Rental rates range from $1,300 to $1,700 for the long weekend or $1,780 to $3,380 for a week depending on the size of your party and the time of the year.
Rent a boat – Several boat dealers offer rentals, including Buckeye Marine in Bobcaygeon, Rosedale Marina in Fenelon Falls and Peel Marine in Lakefield. The rental fees could include a tank of gas, cleaning fees, a surcharge to prepare it for you, and a ramp fee for launching. Expect to pay a refundable damage deposit as well. You can only get a TSW permit for boats under 84 feet in length. Most companies will also deliver and pick up the boat, so you don’t need to backtrack along your route.
How to Plan Your Trip:
Every trip’s length is determined by how many locks are on the stretch of waterway you are visiting and how much traffic is going through the lock at each location. It is best to add a buffer of time and enjoy the scenery while you wait. Even better, you can find yourself ahead of schedule so you can linger longer over lunch at a familiar haunt or a newly discovered diner.
Here are some suggestions:
For a three-day trip:
If you only have a long weekend or a few days to explore, treat yourself to the stretch between Peterborough and Lindsay and take your time. You’ll get a chance to explore the small towns in between and still have hours of open water ahead of you.
The other great shorter run is from Port Severn to Kirkfield. There are fewer locks and more quiet routes if that is what you are seeking.
For a longer trip:
For a relaxed five-day venture, you can easily get from:
- Trenton to Campbellford;
- Campbellford to Young’s Point ;
- Young’s Point to Bobcaygeon ;
- Bobcaygeon to Orillia (Couchiching); or
- Couchiching to Port Severn.
You can cover the entire route in a motorized boat within five to seven days, going one way, without any tourist stops. However, to truly enjoy the ride, Parks Canada suggests booking 7 to 10 days for a full tour. This accounts for the time to navigate each of the 45 locks, which is a fun adventure of its own.
If you are planning to travel the entire length, you will be travelling from (or to) the Bay of Quinte (Lake Ontario) along the Trent River and Canal, onto Rice Lake and the Otonabee River. After passing through the many Lakes of Kawartha Region like Stoney Lake, Buckhorn Lake, Pigeon Lake, Sturgeon Lake, Cameron Lake, Balsam Lake, Mitchell Lake, and Canal Lake, you will enter Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching. From Lake Couchiching, various smaller lakes and the Severn River will take you to the end at Georgian Bay (Lake Huron).
If you are planning to paddle (canoe/kayak), the trip would take a minimum of two weeks.
How to lock through Trent-Severn:
Due to the changes in topography along the route, you will often find yourself in one of the locks, rising or lowering your boat before you can continue on your journey. This could mean staying in a canal while water levels are changed or riding into a lift lock chamber that works like an elevator.
There are four steps each time:
- Approach the lock slowly so you don’t create a wake (waves). Respect other boaters that are coming and going. Blow your whistle three times for five seconds each to request to enter. Wait at the blue line until waved in.
- Enter upon seeing a green light, following the staff’s instructions at all times. Loop your vessel lines around black drop cables so you will rise or fall with the water level. Keep your life jackets on and push away from the walls with a hook, not your hands.
- Once inside the lock, turn off your boat and all appliances, but leave your bilge blower on. Stay alert to your lines and your boat’s position. Show your lockage permit or buy one here.
- Depart slowly after getting a signal to start your boat and exit. Collect all vessel lines back into your board and go slowly.
How much does it cost:
In addition to the cost of food, boat rental and fuel, you will need a Transit lockage permit which permits you to travel one-way through the entire Trent-Severn Waterway.
A day transit lockage permit costs $4.75/foot (of your watercraft). Alternatively, you can buy Seasonal lockage for $8.99/foot, which provides unlimited passage through locks at seven national historic canals across Canada.
A mooring permit is required if you want to stay at the lock. Day and overnight mooring cost $0.92/foot. A seasonal mooring and lockage permit allows overnight mooring and lockage at seven national historic canals, two national parks and one national marine conservation area and costs $19.01/ foot.
See detailed cost and fees on the Parks Canada website.
Where to stay:
If you need to stay overnight aboard your boat, you can do so as long as you purchase a mooring permit. You can stay at Locks 1 through 18 for up to five days while the other locks limit you to 24 to 48 hours. You cannot return to the same spot for another 48 hours after you leave. Mooring fees are based on your boat size so see the website for details.
Camping – You can camp at any of the lock stations, except Hastings (Lock 18), Scotts Mills (Lock 19), Peterborough Lift Lock (Lock 21) and Young’s Point (Lock 27). Public washrooms are located at all lock stations where camping is available. Some lock stations also have picnic tables, firepits and paddle docks. Camping fees apply.
Comfort Camping in oTENTiks – These cozy base camps allow you to stay along the waterside and enjoy the view and nearby trails. For $102 a night you get a little cabin with a verandah nestled under the trees at Rosedale (Lock 35) or Douro (Lock 24). The rate drops to $92 per night after Labour Day.
New for 2021, Parks Canada is introducing Ôasis at Lock 9 and 10, a tear drop-shaped ‘duplex’, with a convertible table/bed on the main level and suspended hammock loft above.
Hotels & Resorts: Since the Trent-Severn passes through Ontario’s cottage country, you can also find many resorts and hotels located on its shores.
Groceries and other facilities:
Parks Canada website’s lift lock station page details facilities available at each lock station, including washrooms, whether a lock station is within walking distance to groceries, and fuel stations along the route.
When to go:
Trent Severn Waterway is open for travellers from Victoria Day Weekend to Thanksgiving Monday (This year from Early June (due to stay at home order) to October 11, 2021). Hours of operation.
Summer is always a great time to travel, but if you are looking to enjoy the golden colours of fall, consider a trip in early October.
Must-see places or towns to stop and explore:
You can swim, fish and enjoy all normal fun water activities along the canal (Visitor guidelines). You need a permit for setting off fireworks. To truly make the best of your trip, explore nearby towns and attractions. You can moor your boat at locks or marinas along the way.
- The Big Chute Marine Railway at Lock 44 – This impressive lift removes boats from the water and carries them in individual cradles across about 60 feet from the Severn River into Georgian Bay. It’s the only marine railway of its kind in North America.
- Swift Rapids (Lock 43) – If you want to truly get away from it all, this is a great place to begin to recharge. Nestled in the forest, this stop has picnic tables and great views. It also has the deepest chamber of all the locks in the system, so you have no worries about dodging rocks.
- Kirkfield Lift Lock (Lock 36) – This 15-metre rise or drop is also a thrilling ride along the waterway. Stop for lunch at the diner or the picnic area, then walk up to the top of the lock to watch the boats load and unload.
- Fenelon Falls (Lock 34) – After you admire the famous step falls along the main street, stick around to explore the limestone walkways and unique shops. The Kawartha Store provides original Canadian gifts and you’ll want to try one of the village’s legendary butter tarts.
- Lindsay (Lock 33) – Get out and stretch your legs by touring this town’s picturesque and vibrant downtown. Trek a little further to the Olde Gaol Museum for a history lesson and reward yourself with a cone from the Kawartha Dairy’s drive-through shop. (It also has a walk-up window.)
- Bobcaygeon (Lock 32) – The home of the first lock in 1834, this town bustles with high-end shops and friendly service. Don’t miss the Bigley family of shoe and clothing stores or a chance to grab a Kawartha Dairy ice cream cone. Visit the beach or any of the cozy shops right next to the lock.
- Buckhorn (Lock 31) – When you stop here for supplies, make time to visit Adam and Eve rocks. This pair of large rocks, left behind by a glacier, comes with a romantic legend. Apparently, if a couple holds hand and touches them, their lives will be eternally blessed.
- Lakefield (Lock 26) – A pretty town with an artist’s heart, it offers a beautiful boardwalk along the Otonabee River and a lovely beach. Its shops’ specialities range from Celtic clothing to local scenery paintings to tarts and original ice cream flavours – all within a 10-minute walk from the locks.
- The Peterborough Lift Lock (Lock 21) – This engineering marvel was the first lock built out of concrete. It takes you almost 20 metres either up or down so you can continue to travel along the Trent Canal. Powered completely by hydraulics, it is the highest lift lock in the world.
- Campbellford (Locks 11 and 12) – You could almost do a scavenger hunt here of unique attractions, including a swing bridge, the Memorial Military Museum, and a giant replica of Canada’s two-dollar coin. It also has famous donuts, a cheese factory and a chocolate plant.
- Batawa (Lock 4) – Like Swift Rapids, this is a lovely refuge to stop and breathe near the start or end of your journey. To get a sense of the waterway’s history, visit the lockmaster’s house for a peek back in time.
- Murray Canal – This eight-kilometre canal connects to two bridges, one leading to Brighton and the other to Carrying Place. It connects the Bay of Quinte and Lake Ontario. It is a great shortcut to avoid boating around the outer limits of Prince Edward County.