• The lumber industry played an important role in the early history of the Trent-Severn Waterway. Timber slides, such as this, enabled the log drives to reach the mills located along the Waterway. (Courtesy: The Trent-Severn Waterway Archives)

  • In April in 1935, a survey of the waterway predicted that to build a canal from Lake Simcoe to Rice Lake would require 32 locks and 13 dams at a cost of $1,310,340. Private contractors eventually built the Trent–Severn Waterway in stages over 87 years using both human labour and machine power like that shown in this view of the work at Campbellford. (Courtesy: The Trent-Severn Waterway Archives)

  • Living conditions for the labourers who did the pick and shovel work were often difficult. Italian workers lived in these sod huts at Frankford in the early 1900s. (Courtesy: The Trent-Severn Waterway Archives)

  • During the heyday of logging, log booms such as the one shown here in the lock at Bobcaygeon, competed with boats for use of the canal. (Courtesy: The Trent-Severn Waterway Archives)

  • Early survey plans, such as this one at Hastings, show the development of an extensive milling establishment at individual lock stations. (Courtesy: The Trent-Severn Waterway Archives)

  • Engineers who designed the Trent-Severn were innovators in canal technology such as the use of concrete for lock construction. This allowed them to build what is still the world's highest hydraulic lift lock in Peterborough. (Courtesy: The Trent-Severn Waterway Archives)

  • Many of the lock stations were ideally suited for producing hydro electricity. The generating station at Healey Falls was privately built and later acquired by the Ontario government and operated by Ontario Power Generation. (Courtesy: The Trent-Severn Waterway Archives)

  • Lockmaster's residences like this were built when the Waterway operated 24 hours a day during the boating season.  Today, lock staff use them as offices. (Courtesy: The Trent-Severn Waterway Archives)

  • A tour boat disembarks the locks beside the lower wharf at Fenelon Falls. (Courtesy: The Trent-Severn Waterway Archives)

EARLY IN THE SUMMER OF 1882, Don Jory travelled with his family from St. Catharines in southern Ontario to a lake region northeast of Toronto. They took a train to Toronto at sunrise, another train east to Port Hope and yet another north to the village of Lakefield. Next, the Jorys hauled their trunks onto a steamboat moored at the Lakefield steamer dock. By the time the Empress had passed through the lock at Youngs Point, the long solstice sun was waning. Enough light remained to safely transfer vessels in the middle of Stony Lake, using an island “taxi stand,” but darkness likely fell during the final leg.

Stopping to drop passengers off at private docks, the Islinda didn’t deposit the Jorys at their own cottage until 10 p.m. Sixteen hours, door to door: quite an ordeal, even before the parents unbolted the shutters and cracked open the windows to air out rooms unstirred since the previous September.

But the Jorys probably didn’t find the journey taxing. They were settling in for a long stay on Stony Lake, with no plans to return home until Labour Day. Affluent Americans from Cleveland and Pittsburgh comprised a significant number of these early cottagers, and they were likewise committed to uninterrupted summers.

Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic

No canals yet linked Stony Lake with Lake Ontario, but the Grand Trunk Railway made access easy enough to convince the American Canoe Association to hold its first-ever regatta outside the United States on Stony Lake the following year. Grocers-on-water pulled up at docks with supplies. At resorts were rooms for ladies to take tea, and halls for weekend dances. Men were expected to wear suits and ties, women dresses and hats.

Jump ahead more than a century. An entire regional history has come and gone in this watery patch of central Ontario. The Trent-Severn Waterway, conceptualized back in 1833 and finally built between 1879 and 1920, did link Lake Ontario with Georgian Bay. But aside from a period serving the lumber industry, it never had much chance to function as a commercial waterway. Completion of the 45 locks spaced along 383 kilometres of rivers and lakes coincided with the rise of railways and, especially, automobile travel. Any Jory descendents, for instance, could make the drive from St. Catherines in about five hours. Out of the few dozen summer homes on the Stony Lake of the late 19th century grew a busy cottage industry in the 20th, spread over all 15 of what were later dubbed the “Kawartha Lakes,” and ranging from one-season shacks to the million-dollar mansions that emerge, often eerily, along the shores.

But the waterway, now a national historic site, has left a pleasing legacy. Along with the post-Second World War rise of better roads came more leisure, and income, for holidays. For decades now, excursions have been popular with intrepid boaters, who have the seven or eight days needed to enter and exit the entire system, as well as vacationers content to rent a houseboat for a long weekend and cover a stretch. With either crowd, the pace is slow and the scenery a waking dream of the Canadian Shield at its most welcoming — before snow and ice suspends the landscape for another winter.

IN THE FINAL WEEK OF LAST SEPTEMBER, I set off from Happy Days Houseboats on Pigeon Lake to experience the Trent-Severn. Co-owner Jill Quast issues basic waterway instructions for the 40-foot vessel, a kind of floating RV vehicle, complete with kitchen and, notably, a set of maps. Downstream, she explains, the driver keeps the green buoy on the right and the red on the left. Upstream, it is the reverse. Water lanes do more than avoid collisions; the lakes aren’t deep, and patches of exposed or barely submerged rocks can be treacherous.

My itinerary is all downstream, and I will shortly have an expert on board. His name is Bob Johnson, and he is the lockmaster at Buckhorn. Before I meet up with him, I must first pass beneath the bridge at Gannon Narrows and travel north of the Curve Lake First Nation Reserve. The reserve, which occupies a peninsula and several islands, is home to 2,000 Mississauga Ojibwa. A half century ago, when locals, hoping to market their region as successfully as the nearby Muskokas, went looking for a name, they approached elders at Curve Lake. Ga-waategamaag means “shining waters” in the Anishhinaabe language. From a phonetic rendering of the word “Ka-wa-tae-gum-maung” came the anglicized “Ka-wa-tha,” or Kawarthas.

“Buckhorn Bob” Johnson hails from Curve Lake. The 54-year-old helps tie-up the houseboat to one side of the Buckhorn lock chamber before the automatic gate is closed. Though the second smallest in the system — 31.4 metres long and 9.75 metres across, with a vertical lift of only 3.7 metres — the lock is also one of the busiest, in no small part due to the three houseboat rental companies nearby. On the job for more than 35 years, Johnson is adept at helping first-time boaters pass through safely. The days of reckless party boating may be gone — no drinking is permitted on any moving vessel — but 8,000 to 10,000 pleasure craft negotiate the Trent-Severn each season. Though the final days are quiet, attention must still be paid to breezes that can toss hulls inside the chamber, or crush hands against walls.

Johnson has offered to escort me down to Peterborough, a two-day ride covering four lakes and nine locks. He is amiable company, relaying tales of movies shot in lodges and cottages (Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and Jumpers) and of more prominent property owners from the hockey and music worlds (Bob Gainey and Ronnie Hawkins, both on Stony Lake). Johnson has been around long enough to witness the shack-tomansion evolution of the cottage scene, an expansion — or bloating, depending on your view — originating in the 1970s and showing no signs of abating.

Though a native of Orillia in those neighbouring Muskokas, another passenger I collect at Buckhorn, district station manager Roger Stanley, is similarly credentialed: decades on the lakes and rivers in the employ of Parks Canada, which manages the waterway. Stanley explains the water management aspects of his job. Next to the lock at Buckhorn is a control dam that holds back the second largest amount of any in the system. Some 12,000 hectares of water are regulated, dropping lakes by as much as a metre in the winter, to offset spring thaws. “We’ve become much more aware of ecosystems in the last 10 years,” he admits. Ecosystems and water quality, including drinking water for nearby towns, come under the care of the Parks Canada staff.

To reach our destination for the day we navigate a smaller lake called Lovesick. It boasts a pretty lock that can be reached only by boat, or on foot. Boaters tie-up for hikes in nearby Wolf Island Provincial Park, and the lockmaster mentions that a bear and her cubs have been regular visitors on the trails as well.

That night, having experienced the 7.3-metre drop inside the Burleigh Falls lock, I sit on the front porch of the Burleigh Island Lodge, reading about the efforts that went into constructing these water passages. The canal prism at Burleigh Falls had to be blasted out of granite. Photographs from 1885 show a giant pit, with crews of men doing much of the labour manually. A photo taken five years later lends the completed lock the stature of a Grand Coolie or Hoover. So it must have seemed to those who first passed through the manual gates, at least, and felt the astonishing rise, or fall, inside the chamber.

The lodge itself, while recently renovated, dates from the same era. A handsome, airy building, complete with pub and restaurant, spa and outdoor pool, it sits on a 4.5-hectare island where Lovesick and Stony meet. A modest inn for loggers who rode the waters en route to the lumber mills was first built in 1857. After it burned down, Burleigh Island Lodge emerged at the turn of the last century. Its only rival for seniority, Viamede Resort on Stony Lake, went up in 1870. But it, too, fell victim to a fire, with the elegant current version of the “Grand Lady” resurrected in 1909.

NEXT MORNING, beneath sky blue skies and a late-summer sun, Johnson resumes serving as houseboat captain. We settle on an itinerary involving riding down to Lakefield, collecting extra passengers — my youngest daughter and her grandmother — and, instead of negotiating the sequence of locks that renders the Lakefield-to-Peterborough leg of the journey a sequence of short rides and long waits, reversing back up to the lodge. As such, we’ll miss the spectacular Peterborough lift lock, with its hydraulic rams that drop an upper chamber, filled with vessels and an extra 30 centimetres of water, while simultaneously raising the lower one. But the lift lock, which boasts its own museum, is readily available for viewing by land; city traffic proceeds through a tunnel built into its castle-like base.

If a single outing on the Trent-Severn has left any one impression, however, it is of the magic of being on the open waters, and at the mercy of a slow boat. Johnson could retrace our first day’s route by car in an hour; driving from Burleigh Falls to Peterborough takes 40 minutes on the highway. But out on Stony Lake, or waiting at the lock at Youngs Point, travellers today are no different from the Jory family in 1882. Travel takes time and is slow. Slow time, in turn, allows the eye to register, and meditate on, both human-made wonders — locks and lodges, steamers and cottages — and those natural to the land.


Getting there

The Trent-Severn Waterway National Historic Site is easily reached by car. Most of its lakes can be accessed by Highway 400 in the west and Highway 115 in the east. If you’re feeling nautical, you can paddle, sail or motor into the waterway through its entrances at Trenton on Lake Ontario or Port Severn on Georgian Bay. But you can’t get there by rail anymore, and the Peterborough airport doesn’t handle chartered flights.

Staying there

If you want to stay on or near the water, your options include resorts, cottages and houseboats. The historic Burleigh Island Lodge is one of the Kawartha region’s oldest and grandest resorts. Built in 1857 as an inn for loggers running the rivers, it has evolved into a lavish resort complete with spa, pool and patio. For rates and bookings, go to www.burleighisland lodge.com. Cottages on Stony Lake are available for rent via www.stonylake.on.ca, and information about houseboat rentals can be found at www.happydayshouseboats.com.

Playing there

You’ll find hiking, kayaking, swimming and camping throughout the waterway. Wolf Island Provincial Park offers beautiful unmarked hiking trails. The rapids near Burleigh Falls are a popular swimming spot. And wine tastings are available at the family-owned Kawartha Country Wines at Buckhorn. Visit www.kawarthacountrywines.ca.