The Trent Severn Waterway the Hard Way

ADV daredevil Oliver "Brokentooth" Solaro manages to turn the usually tranquil cruise up the Trent Severn lock system into a harrowing struggle for survival. It's just the beginning of his attempt to retrace the Samuel de Champlain route on a bike strapped to a raft...

Update: The Discovery Channel is covering Brokentooth's efforts:

Is this how CHamplain did it?

By this point I'd given up trying to puke over the side. The boiling waves were enough to wash the vomit from my feet, two crashing crests at a time. My trembling lips curled into a pale green smile at the decision to have had canned ravioli instead of trail mix for lunch. 

What was now painfully obvious about my plan to follow the route of 17th-century explorer Samuel de Champlain is that I started too late. This smack in the chops occurred as I dropped my wallet on the floor in front of a dozen or so strangers at the Trenton Canadian Tire, whilst purchasing what can only really be described as a one-and-a-half-pound Barbie anchor. Underestimation number four of 383. Summer was now on the wane, yet my contraption of tubes, tires and the 14-foot inflatable bananas I'd hope would see me float thousands of kilometres had yet to see water. Truth be told, I had no idea at this point if it would even float. 

None of this personal turmoil and trepidation was of consequence to the customers shifting back and forth on their heels staring, while at the same time trying hard to avoid eye contact with the red-caped, kilt-wearing, white cavalier-feathered "musketeer" in motocross boots. 

Day 2 saw the sun pierce haphazard rays through the red morning clouds, hinting a "sailor take warning" note. Today would see the Jolly Codger (as I've named the "boat") and I metaphorically and physically taste the tea-green waters of the Trent-Severn Waterway system. Today would be the first bit of forward motion on a project unlike anything I've conjured to date. Today would be the first of many tests of my sphincter's clamp force capability. Today was the day.

Sink or Swim

Tim from nearby CFB Trenton graciously came to help bolt, strap, tie, heave, and otherwise grunt the Codger into something vaguely resembling a seaworthy craft. Morning morphed into late afternoon, and the Codger was still drier than a Nevada summer as more good folks, friends and others, arrived to help.

With menacing clouds rolling in across the bay, we pushed the whole kit and caboodle off the launch—and just like that, another scheme of mice and men was set adrift. I lowered the shaft responsible for the transfer of six screaming horsepower worth of Japanese-engineered fury into the waters of New France with all the pomp and ceremony befitting the auspicious moment. 

A cough, a sputter, and the heart of the wee beastie clatters to life amongst the collective cheers of all ashore. Though I know not yet the parameters of capability, it's time for this caped hobo and his boatercycle to go afloat down two-parts hydrogen, one-part oxygen, until I've more or less made one big honkin' circle. I snap the lever on the motor down, and holy sh*t… it's moving—forward, even! It works! I guess that getting my boat license three days before leaving wasn't such a waste of time after all.

A few tentative circles in the bay prove my theory that this thing’s gonna steer like three sheets of plywood with a motor hanging off the back. That's OK; I've still got some nice pics of me looking all noble and such for next of kin.

Tipping my hat to mes amis, I roll on the throttle, unleashing the maelstrom below as the Codger wails forward at a blistering 5.5 km per hour. A few hundred metres away is the first of 45 locks that make up the 387-km waterway between Lake Ontario and Georgian Bay.

Shame I missed the last opening of the day.

I tie up to the wall and quickly drag the nearest picnic table down to the Codger. Tossing my tarp over it as the sky unzips a torrent of rain and thunder, I clamber to get my gear under the plastic before the deluge turns it all into one very expensive anchor. My first night of the journey has me sharing the underside of the table with half a dozen dock spider nests, while my socks dry on the barely discernible warmth of the LED lantern. It isn't all bad, though—I still have half a box of a sassy Chilean Cabernet to ease the discomfort of it all. If only the tarp had been long enough to reach the ground on both sides, the wind pushing around six-degree night temps would have been easier to enjoy in a wet $49 sleeping bag. Alas, c’est la vie.

Morning kissed my ear like a dog's wet tongue... actually, that was a dog

I'd forgotten to fill up the camp stove with fuel, so my breakfast and coffee were precisely two spoons of freeze-dried Nescafé sprinkled on naan that was first smeared with peanut butter from a packet stolen from the nearby greasy spoon. At least it wasn't raining.

The incredulous Parks Canada lock operators gawking from their perch high above the staging wall cast long shadows onto glassy water below, as I wrestled with the very un-sailor-like knots I'd tied to the wall bars. I'd never been through a lock before and had no idea what to expect, so as the boil of draining water rushed out, I caught my heart as it tried to exit my throat. My fears were tempered by the "lockies" once inside, as they are well versed in the art of coaching newcomers to the system. 

As it turns out, it's quite simple, really: you just move forward until you reach the loop off point assigned. That's where you hold/rope onto a sheathed metal cable that allows you to move up and down with the fill/drain cycles of the lock. You don't want to tie on tight, though, as a jam might cause you and your craft to dangle or be pulled down into the green as the water changes vertical direction. Like some other gifts of existence, your best bet is keeping a loose-but-confident grip on things, and it should all work out fine.

The doors at the top open up and I move forward on what is—without question—the most epic endeavour I've embarked on to date. My thoughts briefly flash back to a conversation with a couple I met this past summer, who said two things that now trouble me. First is that I should not even consider crossing the dangerous water that is Lake Simcoe on something so top heavy with a 9-foot waterline. Second, is the suggestion that I might be carrying some manner of "spherical brass." Now, this early in the trip, Simcoe was something I had the luxury of time to contemplate, but given I can't swim, the combination of six mercury fillings and a ballast of brass henceforth gave me worry. 

I suppose this is a good time to mention how I am deathly afraid of water. I'm not even slightly kidding here. Much like heights, the simple act of looking over the edge sends a debilitating shock up my spine, paralyzing me with irrational fears of a gasping death clutched by creatures of the deep dragging me to darkness. Or, the crushing horror of waves smashing my frail skin sack of organs onto jagged shoals. Then, there's the worst fear of all: falling over and drifting out, only to die alone in the vast pinpoint of a fading existence that cannot touch anything solid before the final ultimate quiet.

This is my headspace whenever I step onto those two grey, inflatable bananas that keep Aggie and me topside. I fight tooth and nail to reconcile these fears with my desire for adventure—and as you, the reader, get to know more about me than I generally care to divulge. The cape, the hat, the feather… these are my instruments of redirection, designed to make you feel comfortable with my… discomfort. The campfire bears witness to my darkest thoughts. It is my counsellor and friend, keeping the Bogeyman just outside my little circle of comfort. But just.

I blink... You blink... You reach for the rope... I anchor down

Just down from Campbellford is the first double (flight) lock of the trip, and its towering presence catches my breath. Black algae extrudes from my white-knuckled clench of the wall line, as the gates open to allow the turbulent flow to lift me and my insignificant little craft nearly 50-feet straight up. I am gobsmacked by this marvel of engineering and how something so massive and imposing is actually not much more than a simple arrangement of levers, doors, and valves, requiring only gravity to lift vessels the size of buildings.

There's no chance I'm going to make the last lock before Peterborough, as the sun seems to be in a hurry to bed down for the night. No worries. Otonabee River residents Dan and Debbie catch sight of my rig and offer to escort me to their sheltered dock, where they lubricate my parched throat with fine ale and feed my growling beast of a stomach with the best steak I've had the pleasure of gnawing on in years.

Laurie Brown’s The Signal resonates a tinny, though strangely ethereal, tune from my phone as I cross the dead-calm section leading to the Peterborough lift lock. The initial boat-culture shock of this new-to-me form of transportation has calmed somewhat after a few days of cruising the Trent River's soothing undulations. Pulling up just past the Canadian Canoe Museum, a brilliant symphony of hydraulic gauges, levers and valves come together to orchestrate a scale of balance that brings one massive container down so another can rise. This is hydro-mechanical magic, and I am drunk with awe at its precision. 

There's a transitional feel to this part of the Trent, where zebra mussels thin out with the river's increased clarity, meaning less worry each time the pontoons scrape up against the lock wall. I really should invest in a second set of fenders, as having only two means a mad scramble if they're set up on the wrong side when the doors swing open.

Smooth Sailing

I leave the supreme tranquility of Lakefield Marina after a tent-less night's snooze on the dock. The rhythm of life outdoors, unmolested by that unholy scourge on humanity we fittingly named the alarm clock, is aligning nicely with the sun. I also no longer eat when a buzzer sounds. Only when my growling stomach sings its beckoning song, louder than the idling motor, do I reach into my dry bag for a fistful of cleverly disguised birdseed/horse feed to satiate me till evening tie-up.

I have found something of a friendly stalker in… let’s call him “Dave.” After a long, hot haul across glass still water, he shows up with a bag of life-giving lemonade and Pringles. There will be more of Dave down the line but for now, let me just say a feather or two fell from his wings on that oppressively hot day.

From Stoney Lake on, my vitamin D approaches mega-dose levels, as sour sweaty clothes peel off to expose my pasty white meat bag to the sun's relentless beating. The mesh floor of the raft gives me a chance to take care of some laundry by sloshing clothes around at my feet, which improves their pungency quotient from rancid to just moderately distasteful.

In retrospect, it was an unusually genius move on my part to pack two pairs of underwear this time, as the pair I was washing got away from me, only to be Nutribullet-ized by the motor. It would be while yet before I could access the other pair, since the dry bag was on the opposite side of the raft with a rather imposing motorcycle in the way. I would just have to wait out the now strangely large number of passing houseboats before I could climb over to pick up the Fruit from the Loom and return to my place on the lake as the Prince of Decorum.

Klim waterproof socks
turned out to be a life-saver

Tying up by the gas pump after close at Gordon Yacht Harbour Marina meant I wouldn't find a covered slip for the night, but that suited me just fine. I scrounged a 6-foot by 30-inch piece of particle board I could lay beside Aggie to use for a sleeping pad, draped a tarp over the raft, and sauntered with cocksure flourish into town for a beer.

There weren’t more than a few steps to my gait before I felt uneasy about the way the night air changed its, for lack of a better word, mood. Jotting notes on the trip at the bar, halfway through my third IPA, I couldn't shake the uneasy feeling that someone was behind me about to tap my shoulder. Debra tells me this is the very spot The Hip scratched out their iconic song "Bobcaygeon," and for a moment I blame my queasy thoughts on karma, voodoo, spirit echoes, etc., before shaking my head at the absurdity of the notion. Walking back to the Codger, the dark feels like a curtain that needs to be pulled forward so I can wake up to the dream. The wind is silent. The crickets are silent. The water is silent. But…

My thoughts are a screaming child

At 4 am, a singular crack of lightning bathes my tiny floating island with a flood of plasma blue to reveal the tarp flapping wildly on the other side of the river as the sky opens its trap door.

To be continued...

About Oliver Solaro

Oliver is an adventure rider par excellence - having ridden over 8,000 km on ice roads from Owen Sound to Fort Severn on the banks of Hudson's Bay on a Kawasaki KLR. 

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