Big Chute!

Big Chute Marine Railway, the only operating example of its kind in North America, is one heck of a thrilling ride. Along with the two Hydraulic Lift Locks, Big Chute was the feature I most looked forward to on the Trent-Severn.

It did not disappoint.

The railway started life in 1919 as a temporary lock until a traditional lock could be built.  The original version could only carry a boat 35 feet long and did not hold the boat level during the lift.  Plans for the traditional lock were cancelled and in 1923 the carriage was upgraded to handle craft 60 feet long.  In the 1960’s plans were again made to put in a traditional lock, but another problem became apparent: lamprey eels were devastating fish in the lower pool and a way was needed to stop them moving upstream.  A traditional lock would allow eels to move up with the boats as the lock filled, so that was out.  A railway lifts boats out of the water and does not carry an water upstream, so any eels stuck to boat hulls quickly fall off on the trip up.  Thus, a new version of the railway was designed and put into service in 1978, capable of transporting boats up to 90 metric tons, up to 24 feet wide and 100 feet in length!

We, along with Serenity, decided to spend Monday evening chilling and watching other boats go through.  On Tuesday morning we were first in line for the trip.


Although the railway can handle multiple boats in one trip, the lock masters decided to take Endeavor and Serenity through separately.

Endeavor, with her swing-up keels, was able to lie flat on the wood carriage deck with her stern just off the rear of the car. This allowed her rudders and motor to hang over the edge.

Serenity has fixed keels, so she was moved completely onto the deck and slings were used to support her bow and stern while she rested on her keels.  Jim will post video of Serenity’s ride here.

Note:  if you pause the video at the winch room scene you can see the massive mine shaft winches used to pull the carriage up the hill.  On the circumference of the winch drums are the beefy disk brakes that control the carriage as it is let down the hill under its own weight.

Endeavor going over Big Chute Railway Lock video

​The secret to keeping the carriage mostly level throughout the trip lies in these dual tracks.  The eastern carriage wheels ride on the lower inside track, while the western wheels ride the upper outer track.

The cables that pull this massive structure, and its load, up the hill are attached to the carriage as this central point.  Sure seem like small fittings for such weight!  There are actually two completely separate winch/cable systems, either of which is capable of operation independently.

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Boats like Endeavor, jet skis, kayaks and rowboats rest on the wood deck during the trip.  Boats with rudders, propellors or keels underneath are supported by a clever, adaptable system of motorized slings.

Another interesting gadget is this control line winder, visible in the middle of the video. The crew on the carriage need to send control commands to the winch room. To do this a long control cable connects the carriage to the control building. This device acts like a big extension cord spool, laying out the control cable as the carriage moves away and picking it up again on the trip back.

Pulleys below lay the cable into a narrow channel.

After safely riding the Big Chute Marine Railway I thought we were in the clear.

However, my favorite distraction is gracing our bow, making it tough to concentrate on missing the rocky islands.


Our 23 mile trip today covered the section between Couchiching Lock (shown as Wahsago below) and Big Chute.  We are now 8 miles from completing our trip through the Trent-Severn Waterway.


This section of the river has many narrows where the current is normally fast.  With the intense rainfall Ontario has experienced the sections have become rapids.  Endeavor and Serenity saw 10+ mph several times.  And swirly currents.  And other boats coming the other way.

Side note: Peg discovered that in June Ontario received 130 inches of rain!

Time for total concentration.  And time for quick action to correct a couple of stupid mistakes.

We knew from our navigation charts that there was a railroad swing bridge 2.4 miles after the lock.  Stupid mistake #1 was assuming the bridge tender would be able to see us coming.  Wrong.  The bridge was around a corner, hidden from sight. Just before the corner was a sign instructing us to blow our horn 3 times to alert the bridge.

I grabbed our trusty air horn and pressing the button 3 time got one horn blast, one half hearted brap, and a sigh.  Out of air!

This would not normally be a problem, except this was the scene after the corner:  lots of current pushing us along and a bridge not open.

Big Chute (7 of 11)

Our air horn runs on air pressure and can be re-charged with a bicycle pump.  I had not checked the pressure in a while.  My bad.

Fortunately we keep the bike pump nearby and a few quick pumps produced a working horn.  Bridge tender notified, bridge opened, embarrassing situation averted.  (I prefer the air type over freon units because I can check and recharge the air pressure.)


High water on a river often creates an illusion that the safe boundaries of the river have widened.  Previously visible rocks may be submerged and as the water rises it spreads faster across the shallows at the shore, while the actual deep channel does not change.  One experienced local captain got caught by this trap last week, running his 42 foot trawler into a rock near shore, tearing a hole in the hull, and sinking. Luckily all 7 passengers and a dog were rescued.

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We passed the wreck shortly after the bridge, putting both crews on high alert.

The swift passages really kept us focused and our heart rates up all day.  Here is Serenity navigating a tight chute while dodging a fishing boat.

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The waterway in this section is dotted with hundreds of quaint summer homes, “cottages” in the local vernacular.


Big Chute (2 of 2)

On the way we passed through the 47 foot lock at Swift Rapids.  The churning river water left a foamy mess in the lock.

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Exiting the lock we viewed the hydroelectric plant and dam.

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Our destination for the day was Big Chute, home of the only operating railway lock in North America.  More on that tomorrow as Endeavor and Serenity will be riding that train in the morning.


Roar of the Crowd

The Canada 150 celebration continues!  Like our 4th of July, this is a long weekend for most Canadians and thus a good excuse to hit the water.  The Trent-Severn was clogged with pleasure craft enjoying the day.

Couchiching (2 of 3)

We departed at 5:45 am to motor 18 miles across Lake Simcoe.  A mild wind kicked up choppy waves for the first hour then the water smoothed.  We arrived at our stop for the day, Couchiching Lock, about 10:30 am and tied up to watch the boat traffic.  We are now 87% through the waterway.

The energetic lock masters played a game of aquatic Tetris all day, fitting the maximum number of vessels per lockage.  Everything from Kayaks to the Kawartha Voyageur passed by.

Couchiching (3 of 3)

Weeds, Wife and Woo Hoo!

Picture driving your boat through a bowl of Pork Lo Mein.  Or, for those who don’t like Chinese food; spaghetti.  That’s the best description I have for the trip Endeavor and Serenity took today.

The lakes in the west end of the Trent-Severn Waterway are choked with weeds. Long, stringy, floating weeds that wrap around anything below the waterline.  On Endeavor, that means the rudders and motor.  Such volume is accumulated that the boat speed drops 3 to 4 mph.  Steering quickly becomes sluggish and the motor speed drops due to weeds wrapped around the propellor shaft.

The dense weeds also fool the depth sounder, making our instruments think we are in 2 to 3 feet of water instead of 6 to 12.

On one especially clogged lake, we had to stop 5 times to clear the mess.

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Endeavor’s shallow water features, kick-up rudders and electric tilt outboard are again an asset in these conditions.  By tilting up the motor cleaning is easily done from the rear deck with a boat hook. Manually raising the rudders (pull one line to raise, another to lower) causes the weeds to slide off.

Other boats, with fixed rudders and under-hull propellors have additional challenges. To restore steering, the Serenity crew had to stop, drop anchor, and swim under the hull to clear a monstrous weed clump off their rudders.

Today is Canada Day and the pride is showing.  Everyone we’ve met is in a festive mood and even though we are at a fairly remote dock wall, the locals kept us entertained.

Not that I needed it:  everyday is a celebration for me.  This gal is the center of my universe.  Occasionally we get wrapped around each other’s rudder, but a little effort puts us back on course. She’s more fun than a brick of firecrackers, and after 36 years, we still have fireworks!

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Downhill Slope

It’s all downhill from here, so to speak.  Today we crossed Balsam Lake. At about 600 feet above Lake Ontario it is the highest point of the Trent-Severn Waterway.  From here we slide back down about 300 feet to Lake Huron, then let the rotation of the Earth push us west through Lake Superior to the Apostle Islands.

We are 71% through the T-S and are glad we took our time.  The scenery is stunning, the towns cute and the people exceptionally friendly.  We will be back to visit again.

Leaving Fenelon Falls in the rain, we motored west through some of the narrowest canals to date.  Blasted out of solid rock, the banks are solid and unforgiving.  The rocky bank shelf is visible to the right side of this photo.

Kirkfield (3 of 22)

Material removed to create the canal is stacked up along the canal, forming a tall berm.

Kirkfield (1 of 1)

Loons were our companions along the way, seeming much less shy than those we see in the Apostles.

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The banks are dotted with tiny waterfalls.

The narrow channel does not leave much room for passing.  We saw this fellow coming from 1/2 mile away, allowing time to chat on the radio.  We established that each knew how to drive a boat and slid over to our respective sides for a very slow pass.  Our starboard side was brushing the trees!

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Kirkfield (9 of 22)

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No clue.  But cute.

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The 16 mile, 2-lock day brought us to the Kirkfield Hydraulic Lift Lock.  Very similar to the Peterborough Lock, this one let us down 49 feet rather than up 65.  However, entering this lock was more exciting: we were driving Endeavor out into a tub suspended in space.  The only thing separating us from a major boo-boo was the gate at her bow.

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This gull rode down with us.  Maybe they find it entertaining also.

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Kirkfield Lift Lock Video

When the lock was modernized, in the 1960’s, this tunnel under the canal was added…

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… the ceiling of which is growing stalactites.

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The lock controller sits between the lifts, high above the action.

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The lock engineering is fascinating.  Each tub (caisson) lowers into a dry well that is below river level.

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The well gate has to keep the river out, then swing out and down to allow boats to enter or leave the caisson.  When the gate is down the caisson seals the well.

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Each caisson is lifted on a 7.5 foot diameter shaft that telescopes out of a casing sunk deep in the ground.  The water pressure that drives the ram upward is held inside by 13 rings of packing (think massive o-rings).  The Up caisson presses down on its ram, forcing water through a pipe connecting the two rams.  A valve between the two controls the water flow.

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We were curious about the stands laying on the well floor (above).  They are used to support the caissons for maintenance.  To stand them up, the crew loops the chains over the wood beam in the slot shown below.  The caisson is then raised, pulling the stands to their feet.  The caisson is then lowered onto the stand.

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I was curious if the hydraulic system between the rams leaks.  If so, when the heavier caisson reached bottom there might not be enough water in the rams to lift the other caisson to the top.  The lock master told me that it does indeed leak and they have to pump in additional water every other lockage or so.  While simple in concept, the locks are a very complex machine to manage.

The job was even more complicated prior to the 1960’s modernization.  The system had no electronic controls and was operated with water pressure through valves and equipment like this intensifier pump.

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The two hydraulic lift locks are amazing machines and have satisfied my inner nerdness.


Peg is the queen of packing.  I’d put her up against anyone in the art of stuffing stuff into spaces so tight that the underlying molecular structure is compressed.

On a boat this is a good thing, except that she has not figured out how to reduce mass, thus creating dense pack rat modules.

The most interesting boat we’ve seen on the Trent-Severn is also good at stuffing into small spaces.

Meet the Kawartha Voyageur, a 45 passenger, 13 crew tour boat built specifically for this waterway.  She has a few tricks for getting herself into small spaces.

Fenelon Falls (5 of 6)

Passengers take 5-day trips from Peterborough to the Big Chute Railway lock, stopping along the way like any cruise ship.  She tied up a few spaces behind us for a couple of hours today here at Fenelon Falls.

Fenelon Falls (3 of 6)

A comfortable foredeck, with retractable awning, lets passengers watch approaching scenery.

Fenelon Falls (1 of 1)

To shorten up and fit into the Trent-Severn locks, that bow section flips up against the forward bulkhead.  The solid canopy at the stern also lowers on parallelogram legs.


In her normal mode, she is too tall for many of the T-S bridges.  So, like a turtle, she pulls in her head by collapsing the wheelhouse and lowering the radar arch.  The top of the wheelhouse, edged by the lip just above the steering wheel symbol, slides down over the bottom portion, covering the symbol.

Fenelon Falls (4 of 6)

The Captain then sticks his head out a hole in the top and steers the craft.  With the current high water levels, they told us they had just 4″ clearance on some bridges!

Solid engineering, that.

Almost Hump Day

Two more Locks and we’ll be at the highest point on the Trent-Severn, almost 600 feet above Lake Ontario.  On the far side of Balsam Lake we begin descending toward Lake Huron.

With cloudbursts about every 30 minutes, the day has been moist.  After a 24 mile, 2-Lock trip we settled in at the popular stop of Bobcaygeon.  A nice, welcoming little town with a proliferation of black squirrels, a proliferation of goose poop, the largest shoe store to ever grace a small town and a high number of rental houseboats.

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Bobcaygeon also boasts one of the most specific eateries I’ve seen.  After eating at the place in Peterborough that offered 107 varieties of Poutine, I was eager to see if this place offered dozens of grilled cheese variations.  Sadly, not open, but the reviews on Yelp look promising.

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Houseboat watching has become a sport for us.  Here at Bobcaygeon we watched an almost doozy.  A boat, like the one beyond the swing bridge below, was motoring up the channel toward the Lock (behind camera).  The driver was oblivious to the fact that the closed bridge in his way was shorter than the roof of the boat. A lot of screaming from boaters on the docks got him to stop just shy of hitting the bridge.

I really need to start wearing our Go-Pro camera all the time.  I’d look like a dork but the number of views I’d get on YouTube would be awesome!

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Dam Machine

The hits just keep coming. It could be that we attract chaos, but we’ve seen 3 houseboat accidents in 2 days.  The latest was today as I waited to catch dock lines for an approaching rental boat.  The elderly man drove straight into the end of the lock entrance wall, bashing in the port bow and almost knocking his wife off her feet.

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We have about 62 miles to go before we’re out of the rental zone.  Fingers crossed and eyes open!

We went quickly from moderately beautiful River region to stunning Lakes region.  Within a mile we were surrounded by rocky islands, minimal current, interesting zig-zag courses with narrow gaps…

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…babbling rapids…

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…and even St. Peter’s On-The-Rock church.

After a 10.3 mile, 2-lock day we tied up at Lock 30 on Lovesick Lake.

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The lock is in an ideal setting for rock lovers like us.

This lock is unique in that the only access is by water… the lock masters come to work by boat.  Until the 1960’s the lock master and his family lived here each season without benefit of telephone, indoor plumbing, or electricity.  Dang, Canadians are a tough breed.

Interesting Machine Department:  Newer dams have sliding gates that regulate water flow.  The dam at Lovesick Lake is an older type.  Water flow is reduced by dropping heavy timbers into a slot in the dam.  This machine is used to add or remove the timbers.

Dam Machine Video

Crossing the island we found another old machine…

I have an almost maniacal urge to start pushing buttons on the lock control board.

We’re settled in for the night with one other boat, Stephen and Michel on True North III.  We had delightful docktails with them, learning about each other and swapping travel tips.

Michel is a retired psychotherapist.  Maybe she can cure me of this newfound fear of rental houseboats!



Current Events

Cruising, it is said, is long periods of monotony broken up by moments of sheer terror.  We had one of those moments today when Endeavor came within inches of being smushed.

Heavy rains continue to push water levels on the Trent-Severn Waterway higher.  Dams spill more water and river current between the locks increases. In some spots we battled upstream against a 3.5 mph current.  In those areas even the buoys were fighting to stay upright.

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Our 14.5 mile, 6 lock trip today brought us to Lock 27 at Young’s Point.  Endeavor is now 523 feet higher than Lake Ontario.

There is talk at the locks of possible closures, but hopefully those should be behind us.  By reaching Lock 27 we are now entering the Kawartha Region and will be traversing a series of lakes not much affected by current.  Cruisers behind us on the “River” section are more likely to be affected.

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The waterway was not designed for large barges and has a decidedly cozy feel.  During the trip today we passed through some of the narrowest canals to date.

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Lock 27 (2 of 9)

By the time we passed Lock 26 we were racing not only possible river closure, but also oncoming thunderstorms.  Moments after Endeavor tied up below Lock 27 the skies opened up and we got pounded.  Wind currents over 45 mph, torrential rain and hail.

In the middle of this came the almost smushing.

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On the western half of the Trent-Severn rental houseboats are popular.  That’s one of them ahead of the Kawartha Voyageur, a local cruise liner in the picture below.  The houseboat, 52 feet long, is dwarfed by the Voyageur.


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There is one crucial difference between the two:  The voyageur is piloted by a professional.

The only requirement for renting the houseboat is a valid credit card.  They don’t even require the “Pleasure Craft Operator’s card” needed by other boaters in Canada.

So, about the almost smushing: at the peak of the maelstrom the lock doors opened.  Rather than sit safely in the lock until the storm blew over, the houseboat driver decided to exit into the wind and rain.  Into the heavily flowing river current.  Into the narrow gap between Endeavor and the opposite wall (we were tied where the lock master told us to be).

The driver is at the bow of the houseboat. He steered so that the bow of his boat would go between the two objects, totally ignoring the fact that the wind was pushing his stern across the gap at us.  Peg and I were already at the bow to try and fend them off.

After loud screaming and animated gestures we got him to reverse his many ton craft just a few inches short of crushing our port bow.

One of his passengers came over later and apologized, saying the captain didn’t realize the wind could push like that.  I’m assuming the captain was too embarrassed to come himself.

The entertainment for the day was not over yet.  Once the storm passed and that houseboat moved safely on, we locked up and tied to the upper wall.  There we joined Stephen and Michel, of the boat True North III, watching the rental follies.

This heron spent the afternoon on a concrete pier just across the canal from us.  At first we thought is was fishing, but soon realized it had also found a front row seat to the follies.

Lock 27 (5 of 9)

Performers for the afternoon kept us in stitches. None of the incidents were caused by either current or wind… there was none at that point.  Among the finest:

  • Another houseboat got crosswise at the lock entrance, almost ramming the wall with its bow.
  • A Carver Motor Yacht smashed its stern into a concrete pier when its driver forgot which way forward and reverse worked.  Lucky for him actually: he could have hit the gap between the piers and gone over the dam.

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One event we did not see, but heard of through lock personnel:  a day earlier a houseboat got in trouble above Lock 26 and was stopped from going over the dam by safety cables.  The waterway operators had to shut upstream dams to slow the current enough so the houseboat could be pulled free.

Who needs reality TV with this kind of free entertainment?

To all you competent captains out there, I salute you.

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The rest of you captain wannabes, please stay away from us!

When in Rome

Poutine:  French fries smothered in gravy, smothered in mini cheese curds, smothered in melted cheese, optionally smothered with an entree of choice.

Poutine:  A sinful pleasure.  We are atoning for the BBQ Chicken and Pulled Pork versions.

Poutine:  See Whistle Stop Cafe, Peterborough, Ontario.  Purveyor of 107 varieties.

Poutine:  The reason Canada needs national health coverage. Locals tell us one needs to limit Poutine infusions to avoid shortening one’s lifespan.

Peterborough Hydraulic Lift Lock: Lock 21 is One of the niftiest, most efficient mechanical wonders ever. Introduced in 1904, the lock lifts and lowers two tubs of water (Caissons) on water powered vertical hydraulic rams that look much like those in a car repair garage.

The caissons have a watertight (mostly) gate at each end. One gate on each caisson is opened to allow boats to enter. The gates are closed and one additional foot of water is added to the upper caisson. That added weight causes the the upper caisson to move down, forcing water through underground tubes and pushing the ram of the lighter caisson up. Boats exit and the cycle starts again. One tub up, one tub down. This game of aquatic Whack-A-Mole happens with no external power needed, just weight of the water flowing from the river above. Vertical tracks in the towers keep the caissons stable.

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Peterborough Lift Lock Video

Lock 21 (15 of 19)

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Lock ‘n Paddle:  An event at the Peterborough Lift Lock where Canadians stuff as many kayaks and canoes into the two tubs as possible.  Then the tubs are lowered/raised to the midpoint, where the assembled mass sings Oh, Canada! and Happy Birthday (Canada) to celebrate the 150th year of this wonderful country.  They even let the odd Americans, like Peg and me, join with our kayak.  166 craft fit in our tub and 162 in the other.

Due to the event, they asked us to leave Endeavor at lock 20, 1/2 mile before, where we spent last night.  After the event we locked back down to her with a happy, chattering fleet of Canucks. Later in the afternoon we locked up through 20 through the lift lock.

Lock 21 (10 of 19)