By: Steven J. Bull, Host - Water Ways TV
The Welland Canal is as much a living organism as it is an efficient shipping route. There have been four major canals since the mid-1800s with the current one operating since the 1930s. However, the Welland bypass - a 13.4-kilometre stretch dug over five years - altered that fourth canal in 1973 bypassing the town of Welland entirely.
The purpose has remained the same since the first iteration opened for shipping in 1829 -- to lift boats 100 metres (326 feet) from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie to get around the pesky little navigation risk known as Niagara Falls. Shipping is the focus, but pleasure craft are welcome to use it, and hundreds do every season.
I’ve been lucky enough to explore waterways all across North America and plenty in my home province of Ontario. But unlike the Trent-Severn Waterway, the Rideau Canal, or even some of the one-off locks that link a small chain of lakes, like the Brunel Locks in Huntsville that link Fairy Lake and Mary Lake, the Welland Canal is not one you can just dip your toe in. If you do this, you’re all in.
If you begin the transit you can only finish the transit. You can’t do a lock to see what it’s like and then turn around. However, if you need to get from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, like I did, this is a much more exciting and affordable option than trucking a large boat - especially one like mine with a 13-foot beam that requires oversized load permits and all that rigamarole.
But don’t let that stop you! It can be intimidating, but it's far from impossible. First of all, the Seaway staff are helpful in telling you in advance which side you’ll be on in the locks and if you’re rafting off. You'll also likely have a few boats with you. And, you can always hire a local guide - a pleasure craft version of the captains that big freighters use to navigate the locks. You generally pay them by the hour and they'll get you through the 7 locks and hop off. In fact, three of the four other boats we went upbound with had done just that.
It takes a minimum of 6-7 hours, it’s speed controlled, and 7 of the 8 major locks and their 46-foot lift take time to fill, so even if things go perfectly you’ll be spending the bulk of the day doing this. Not to mention if you run into freighter traffic that is incredibly, but understandably, slow-moving, you are not the priority and may be asked to pull over, tie up, and wait for the all clear (My first three transits averaged 7 hours, but the last two averaged 10.5 hours with some extended waits).
So even if it goes smoothly, most people are spent when they exit into Lake Erie at Port Colborne.
Luckily there is the massive Sugarloaf Marina right here. As you exit past the final lift bridge with the Municipal Docks to your starboard, which is where your downbound journey begins, you’ll see a couple of still active cargo buildings and silos. A hard turn to starboard to curve around those and you’re there.
Sugarloaf Marina has 700 total slips, 200 of which are for transient boaters and guests. But, many of the visitors use this as the boating equivalent of an airport hotel. Something close and convenient, but simply a place to rest their head before continuing the journey. To me that’s a mistake.
Port Colborne is one of the best kept secrets of Ontario’s boating scene, as far as I’m concerned. I got some serious Florida-vibes here! When I first did the Welland it was to do a video shoot simply of transiting the Welland and then a couple days later we went back. I barely explored the region, but what I did enticed me to come back. So I did.
This summer, my wife, father-in-law and six-year-old son tackled the Welland’s unbound journey and I spent a full week in Port Colborne exploring by land and water. I was not disappointed.
First of all, let’s get the main Lake Erie pros and cons out there right away, both of which are tied to its depth.
This is, by far, the shallowest of the Great Lakes. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Lake Erie’s average depth is only 62 feet (19 metres). Its maximum depth of 210 feet (64 metres) is almost the same as the average depth of the next shallowest: Lake Huron.
That means there’s a lot less water to warm up so for swimmers this is fantastic news! However, the shallow depth means things can whip up in a hurry. The wind can turn this from glassy to whitecaps quickly, so keeping an active eye on the conditions and marine forecast is important.
On days where the weather gods smile upon you, I recommend heading east to the beautiful Point Abino Lighthouse. Built in 1917, it was only decommissioned in 1995 and has been maintained by the Town of Fort Erie since 2003. Ironically, its beauty causes boaters like me to do the exact opposite of its intended purpose, which was to serve as a keep-away beacon. But remember, it was built for that reason and the shoreline hasn’t changed even if our navigational requirements no longer utilize lighthouses, so go very slow, keep a careful eye on the water depth, and don’t get too close. You’ll save money by investing in a better camera lens than replacing your props or getting towed. But this is one of those sights you can only really see by boat. The community around it is gated and the town only facilitates ticketed access to the lighthouse a few times per year.
Nickel Beach is a popular spot for landlubbers as it’s one of the few in Ontario you can drive your car right onto for a small fee. Here I got some serious Daytona Beach vibes! But it, too, is gated, so when they close the gates at 8:00 pm during the summer it’s an empty two kilometre stretch of sandy beach with dunes and trees behind it. In other words: an idyllic anchorage!
My sister lives not far from Port Colborne, and seeing that Mother Nature and, thus, Lake Erie was in a good mood meant I could invite them for a swim. Gravelly Bay, the water that Nickel Beach surrounds, has a sandy bottom for anchoring and is plenty deep even relatively close to shore.
If you’re here on a Friday, be sure to wander into town or - if you want to practice your docking - take your boat to the Municipal Docks and hit up the weekly Farmers’ Market downtown. When you’re there you’ll find a great selection of quality restaurants. Too many for me to sample them all but Archie’s Subs & Eatery was recommended by a local (“if you find a better sub in the world I’ll buy your lunch”) and phenomenal - but filling! Canalside Restaurant & Inn was a favourite for dinner and drinks for our crew after shooting (and where our cameraman stayed for the week). To be honest, he wouldn’t stop talking about how comfortable the rooms were. The lobster mushrooms, burgers and five cheese chicken (don't let the pickles throw you off!) were all fantastic. If you’re into pizza, The Lock Wood Fire Pizza was a favourite of my 6-year-old and mother-in-law. For something a little fancier we also hit up San Marco’s Ristorante and feasted on phenomenal pasta. The good news about a small town like this -- basically everything is within walking distance from the marina. And even closer from the municipal dock.
Of course, I would be remiss not to touch on one - if not the - prime appeal of the eastern basin of Lake Erie. Fishing!
This is an anglers paradise. And a quick glance at the collection of boats at Sugarloaf Marina, or it’s well-kept and busy boat launch, you’ll see a lot of fishing boats of all sizes. The locals even have an organized Walleye League they compete in so Thursday nights is a bustle of activity.
If you’re like me and enjoy fishing but your knowledge of how to catch them ends roughly around the “I know they are in the water” point, you’re best to team up with a pro. There are a couple of fishing charter options in the region. On a day that would have inspired the Group of Seven to whip out their paints, we met Captain James Hall of Hall’em In Sportfishing bright-and-early and headed out a good 10 nautical miles, just about up to the Canada-US border.
The beauty of going with a charter business is they have the gear, the know-how, and the understanding that you’re out here to have fun and catch fish so they make your time as enjoyable as possible without any of the hassle. You just show up with clothes to wear and a good attitude and they do the rest.
We didn’t even have our lines in the water for an hour when we were on our third walleye, all of keepable and eatable size. On the way back, Captain James cleaned our catch so by the time we were stepping off his 31.5-foot Tiara he handed us a freezer bag with ready-to-cook walleye fillets. He does offer a fish fry service as well if you want to hand off the cooking aspect as well.
From historic landmarks best viewed by water, to warm waters perfect for kids to perfect their cannonball, to some next level fishing and incredible dining, Port Colborne is a gem in Ontario’s boating crown. And one that too many people simply rush through. But hopefully I’ve convinced you to give it at least another look.
You can watch Episode 4 of Water Ways and the Welland Canal below: