Boating the Trent-Severn Waterway - Our First 'Big' Experience
By: Rick Layzell
When we acquired our Regal 322 Commodore Meant 2 Be in July 2020, a trip thru part of the Trent-Severn Waterway (TSW) was one of the dreams we were determined to pursue. The TSW is one of Canada’s National Historic Sites and a must see for all boaters of all types. As a lifelong Lake Simcoe boater, I had been through Lock 42 a couple times and had once done Locks 43 & 44. Making the run from Orillia all the way up to Georgian Bay excited me to the core!
The best research tool we found by far was Parks’ own website. Park’s Canada has loads of readily available answers –from hours of operation, details on types of passes and permits as well as pricing, navigational tools, safe locking practices, technical data and access to real time information for boaters. Facebook groups (there are a few for the TSW) contain conversation threads that are tremendously educational as boaters tend to be eager to share their experiences and knowledge. If you are planning a trip of any kind talk to your fellow boaters – at the marina or the launch ramp, there’s rarely a shortage of opinions or recommendations.
I’m an admitted planner with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. I found answers to the questions in my head on the Parks website:
Where would we dock at the locks? Answer – along the blue wall if locking through
How would we pay for the passes? Answer - either in the lock station or in the lock chamber from the comfort of your own boat!
Which pass would suit our trip? Answer – we bought one day passes, there are lots of options to suit every boaters needs.
Do we tie the lines to the black tubing in the lock or? Answer – just a quick loop around the tube.
What are my crew responsibilities in the lock chamber? Answer – use the lines to keep us safely close to the chamber wall.
It was 2020 and I was still learning some handling skills. How would the lock staff treat us? Answer – every single staffer we met was patient, kind and sincerely helpful.
The stigma that the waterway is geared towards the yachting crowd is simply not true, and the Parks Canada usage data definitively proves that small boats now rule the waterway. I found it shocking to learn that in the 2020 season, 85% of the boats going through the system are under 30’ and 71% of the boats are Day Trippers with vessels under 23’. This ‘day trippers’ category has seen explosive growth from only 54% back in 2013. When it comes to passes the TSW sells, it’s no surprise that their ‘Single Lock & Return’ is the top seller (49%) with the ‘One Day Pass’ representing and additional 28% of the 2020 season sales. Take note that each lock station has its own slate of unique facilities – all but Lock 37 have overnight mooring (there are only a few with shore power, water or showers).
Meant 2 Be is our first ‘big’ boat and our first trip to Georgian Bay was going to be ‘big’ – for us. We both felt the need to have at least one other couple with us, and boy was this ever the right decision! After chatting with some close friends, we made the decision – the 4 of us would depart Lake Simcoe early Friday morning on the August long weekend. This was the timing that fit all our schedules and we expected to see lots of fellow boaters in motion – so getting a jump start just made sense.
Together we came up with the following final plan for our voyage:
Day 1- Lake Simcoe (Marina del Rey) to Georgian Bay (Wye Heritage Marina)
Day 2- Wye Heritage to Parry Sound Marine
Day 3- Parry Sound Marine to Wye Heritage
Day 4- Wye Heritage to Paragon Marina in Honey Harbour
Day 5- Honey Harbour to Lake Simcoe
Our 3rd couple would join us at Wye Heritage for the Parry Sound run and our guests would depart when we came back to Wye. That would leave just the 2 of us for a night in Honey Harbour and the run back to Lake Simcoe.
We would experience 4 locks (Lock 42 - Couchiching, Lock 43 – Swift Rapids, Lock 44 – Big Chute, & Lock 45 – Port Severn). The proverbial best laid plans of mice & men (& women) had indeed been set in stone.
The run from Marina del Rey to Lock 42 is about 45 minutes with a mix of open water and a 10 km/h river run up to the lock. Our first and only whoops moment came as we approached the swing bridge before the lock. I was confident that clearance was plentiful and then suddenly realized my antenna was too high. Happy to say that my crew leapt to the rescue and lowered the antenna with lots of time to spare. We tied up at the blue line (thanks again to Parks website knowledge) and made our way up to buy our day pass. Buying the pass was safe, simple and contactless. The grounds around the lock were immaculate and the washrooms were spotless.
Meant 2 Be was still new to me (we took delivery July 9th, this was July 31st) and I will openly confess that my handling skills were a tad less than perfect. The Parks staff were awesome at using gaff hooks to help us safely get to the lock chamber walls so my (also novice) crew could set the lines. In the lock chamber we were pleasantly surprised to experience ’30 second friendships’ with our fellow boaters. Lock 42 was a great start.
The casual run up the river after 42 is scenic and pleasant – don’t plan for a quick rip as it is a 10 km/h zone all the way up to Sparrow Lake. There is another swing bridge before Sparrow -- watch for big signs on shore directing you to honk your horn 3 times to advise the bridge operator that you are coming. We did so and passed through like champions. Sparrow is a fairly narrow lake with lots of easy to navigate markers and we quickly made our way up to Lock 43 Swift Rapids.
Swift is in an isolated area with a unique sense of wilderness all around it, beautiful grounds with lush vegetation, picnic areas and fire pits (a future overnighter needs to be on the next agenda). As the deepest of the locks it’s a long drop (or lift) in the chamber – the echo sounds are awesome.
Lock 44 is the one of a kind (in the world!) Big Chute Marine Railway. Here the lock staff determine how many boats the slings can carry in each lift – all boaters need to know their length and beam to assist in the loading. First to arrive is not necessarily first to pass at the Chute, be patient and enjoy this experience! The ‘Chute’ is a huge tourist attraction with lots of roadside visitors marveling as the boats cross the road while making their way up or down this incredible feat of engineering. Being on board is a surreal feeling, an adrenaline rush that you must experience to believe – it’s awesome!
That leads us to Lock 45 at Port Severn and the last lock before you head into Georgian Bay. We had found ourselves chatting with a couple of other boaters along the way and learned that we were all destined for Wye Heritage. So, while I had paper charts, an on-board GPS and the Navionics app on the iPad, I was somewhat nervous about the stories of shallow rocks on the Bay. I quietly breathed a sigh of relief when our new friends stated they had done the run multiple times and were happy to lead.
A mere 20 minutes later we safely docked at Wye Heritage, discovering that we were directly across from incredibly clean washrooms and only a 5 minute walk to the onsite restaurant. We settled in for a great evening and enjoyed a few laughs with our new friends we met earlier in the day.
I knew I had responsibility for the safety of my crew and had been tracking an incoming storm. When our second set of friends arrived the next morning, we collectively decided that the storm was a bigger threat that any of us were comfortable with. Sadly, the decision was made to call it and while they drove back home the original 4 made our way to Lock 45. Clearly our weather concerns were not unique as we found a log jam of over 2 dozen boats waiting to pass. This resulted in 2 hours of holding the boat in position, in open water, with lots of current, before we could safely get through. My handling skills were being put to the test!
Despite the incoming storm the day was sticky hot and once through the lock we were ready for a cool down – Gloucester Pool is a beautiful sight, and an open water swim was just what the doctor ordered. Moments like these I truly cherish as a boater.
Off to the Big Chute (Lock 44) for the trip up. We arrived to find many of the same crowd from Lock 45 was at the Chute. While we waited, we enjoyed more 30 second friendships with other passing boaters.
As the day was progressing and the wait times were eating up the hours, we knew there was a chance we could miss the last lift at Lock 42. So we kept moving.
We arrived at Swift Rapids for the giant ride up the lock -- just as the doors were closing shut. Whoops, missed it by that much!
Once through Swift we needed to hustle, not only to get to Lock 42 in time but also to catch the swing bridge operator after Sparrow Lake. Their shifts end at 6 PM (always check on your travel day) and we blew our horn at 5:45 PM. Whew, we were through.
With a speed-controlled river run in front of us, our chances of getting to 42 in time were slim…and we once again arrived just as the lock doors were closing. The overnight mooring wall was already full and as we tied up to the blue wall the staff called down to advise us that we would be there for the night. This unexpected and unplanned moment turned out to be incredible. We had plenty of food and beverages on board, we had the wall to ourselves, and we set up our chairs for what turned out to be an evening full of jokes and laughter.
The next morning our friendly lock staff returned, called down to say that we were first to go through and away we went. As we came up the chamber the lock attendant remembered us from the night before. We let her know that we were doing our best to outrun the incoming storm and she let us through as quickly as she safely could.
The return to home port decision turned out to be the right call. Halfway down Lake Couchiching the lake and the skies turned black and the storm opened up. I was eternally thankful that our home port is only a short run down Lake Simcoe as the 6’ rolling waves that greeted us made for some tense moments but certainly not enough to erase the wonderful memories of the trip.
Were we sad because we had to cut it short? Just a little, but we all must respect weather on the water. The TSW will be there for us and we are already planning Version 2 of our first run.
We are so very fortunate to have the Trent-Severn Waterway in our backyard. I highly encourage a trip for all who can. You will find truly wonderful staff, make lots of new 30 second friendships, and enjoy some of the best scenery anywhere.