Brokentooth Takes On The Trent Severn

A look back at where the Jolly Codger and I were a year ago, and how we've progressed on our attempt to retrace the 400-year old route of Samuel de Champlain.

I'm tied to an empty transient dock in Bobcaygeon, looking out across the harbour, as the wind tears my little black tarp from the Jolly Codger. There’s lightning in the distance, though it feels close. The electric heaven crackles and whips about. I'm instantly soaked—bone deep.

It’s 3:34 am. 

For most of us, the Labour Day weekend is that final joyful punt at summer, before the discipline of school and work take hold of life's order. However, in this black moment, as my tarp flutters off into the black night, I consider Labour Day 2016 my aeon of gloom. 

Thirty-two hours later, the orange orb is coaxed from behind the horizon to reveal an ethereal mist about a metre or so above this ancient river highway, all the way to Fenelon Falls. Once burned off by the sun, the air returns to its wonderfully hot and heavy summer weight, which will dominate the daylight hours of the next four days. 

There are pangs of guilt that come with the knowledge that most of the people I’ve passed on the river that day were experiencing the death of play, as authoritarian figures were about to swoop in, deciding their fates for eight hours of each day, five days of each week, for the next nine months. I am keenly aware of the fact that I too will soon be assimilated back into this march of productivity, but for now, I can savour my temporary freedom like a fistful of wild blueberries.

For now, I'm not caught up in the mournful crawl of traffic on the 401. For now, my sleeping bag still rustles, my outboard still hums, and my fishing reel still clicks. On this, the unofficial last weekend of summer, I'm not suffering from that ominous sadness we feel upon hearing the click of the last gate at the closing of the CNE. No sir, quite the contrary: less than two weeks into my three-month journey, I'm just getting started. 

Balsam Lake is the high point of the Trent-Severn Waterway. At the Kirkfield Lift Lock, water flows in two directions, with the Trent heading towards Lake Ontario, while Lake Simcoe, Lake Couchiching, and the Severn River meander out to Georgian Bay.

A sizable weather system has me hunkered down at Trent Talbot Marina on the east side of Lake Simcoe for a couple of days. I might as well affect repairs and maintenance on the drive unit, as repeated contact with terra-very-firma has left a ding or two on the prop. It’s not a reflection on the navigational markers, as they are precisely located as per the charts, but rather my insatiable inquisitiveness of shoreline flora and fauna that has caused me to randomly modify my propeller’s pitch. There’s no getting around it: the bottom end needs attention before I try to cross the lake to Orillia.

It has been repeatedly impressed upon me that Simcoe is one of those bodies of water that can turn on you if you don’t respect it. Specific care must be taken on the north end, where shoals combined with inconsistent waves can quickly become treacherous. Summertime boating on the lake is often as calm as elevator music; however, now that I'm travelling during the fall weather pattern, it's a bit of a crapshoot.

Not yet knowing the absolute capabilities of my top-heavy little Banana Boat, I decided to make the “Little Venice of Ontario,” a.k.a. Lagoon City, my port of destination for the day. There were two reasons for this: one-metre waves were about as high as my rattled psyche could handle, and my fear-cramped sphincter would fight for attention and not allow me to concentrate on sailing. (I can say this with pride now, but at the time didn't know all that clamping would eventually give me the strength to open beer bottles—which is a story best told by campfire). 

But I digress. 

Under the guidance of new friends I made, Eric and Leslie, who often summer at Trent Talbot, I plotted a safe route skirting the southern edge of Strawberry Island before tacking north into Lake Couchiching and the friendly Port of Orillia. I'm told Pope John Paul II once spent time on Strawberry Island, and wonder if he might have left behind a bit of mischievous mojo. This may seem a preposterous theory to you, but it was significantly more plausible to the Codger’s captain as he emptied the contents of his stomach over the starboard pontoon into a confused sweetwater sea. 

Tying up at Bridge Port Marina gives me the opportunity to refill the hollow vessel that is my aching tummy at Flippin Eggs, just down the road. Greasy, delicious fried everything is my drug of choice, so the wait has me jittery with anticipation. Once done committing the deadly sin that starts with G, my face lost its green pallor and settled into a more typical jaundice-yellow.

I now had the strength to drape my wet, dog-scented cape over my shoulders for a walk down to the Champlain monument in Couchiching Beach Park. As it turns out, I would be among the last to see the statue in its current state, as it was slated to be removed, repaired, and "rejigged" to better reflect our modern, enlightened understanding of Champlain’s exploration goals. This will likely be no small feat, as it is a rather large and imposing monument to the man. 

The Severn begins at the top end of Lake Couchiching and is, in my opinion, though only 30 kilometres long, the more interesting of the two main rivers on the waterway, by virtue of its more remote and rugged topography. There are also two locks of distinction, the first being the highest conventional lock on the system, Swift Rapids, while the second, Big Chute Marine Railway, is one of only two lifts of this type in the world (the other is in Russia).

From here, it's just one more lock to Port Severn, passing underneath Highway 400 and on to the big waters of Georgian Bay. Although it wasn't planned, I turned out to be very last person on the very last day of the lock season to pass through old number 45. 

Bye-bye, lock 45

On Thanksgiving Monday, the Jolly Codger and I had a lot to be thankful for indeed. Nearly 400 kilometres of the Trent-Severn Waterway was completed by yours truly, an inexperienced captain in an untested craft floating questionable cargo, without a single Mayday call. Though my torso was still the colour of pale, bleached laundry, my neck and arms were the shade and grade of rough leather any farmer would be proud to flaunt.

Even my thus far dainty gastrointestinal fortitude had adapted to life on a giant, top-heavy, inflatable bobber, cruising on 10 feet of waterline. Where once the mere thought of ripples in the pool’s shallow end was enough to heave chunder, now it only takes a quick look up to the horizon to ease queasy knees when the waves get boisterous. Come to think of it, I suppose it’s time I learn a river shanty or two…

Faintly as tolls the evening chime 
Our voices keep tune and our oars keep time. 
Soon as the woods on shore look dim, 
We’ll sing at St. Anne our parting hymn. 
Row, brothers, row, the stream runs fast, 
The Rapids are near and the daylight’s past!

"A Canadian Boat Song," Thomas Moore

I think I'm just going to hang out here in Port Severn for a day or two to gather up supplies and prep for what I'm sure will be an interesting ride up the eastern side of Georgian Bay towards French River... 

In October.

Stay tuned. 

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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