Boating Ontario’s Big Lifts, Locks and Rocks

Traversing the Big Lift and Big Chute to Georgian Bay

The hydraulic Big Lift Lock at Peterborough, Ontario

We were headed to Ontario’s Big Lift and Big Chute Locks en route to Georgian Bay from Peterborough. Most of us Loopers were concerned about how to maneuver our boats in these enourmous lift bridges. In the city of Peterborough, on Little Lake, the Otonabee River Trail runs along the waterfront and parallels the main street, which is lined with all the stores and restaurants anyone could want, including a Boater’s World. The marina was filled with Loopers, many of whom, like us, were anxious to get a look at the hydraulic lift lock. We heard plenty about boating Ontario’s Big Lift and Big Chute Locks to Georgian Bay.

Close quarters as we make our way in the Big Lift Lock
Looking down from top of the lock

We all hiked or biked to the Big Lift Lock at Peterborough and then climbed the stairway to get a view of the giant elevator, which raises boats sixty-five feet in a water-filled carriage that looks sort of like an extra-long dumpster. We watched as cruisers pulled their boats into the chamber and secured their bow and stern lines. When the lock was full, the door at the end was closed and, without any fanfare, water was added to the upper chamber to make it heavier. This counterweight then swung downward while the lower carriage and its full complement of boats rose skyward. Seeing Ontario’s Big Lift and Big Chute Locks is believing.

On our way back to the boat we sampled beer and barbecued ribs at a festival in a nearby park. We had a laugh when we ordered a couple of Church Key beers, a local Ontario brew whose motto is “Drink religiously.” Later that night we joined a crowd toting bag chairs into the marina park to see a free concert of the Stampeders, a local 1960s rock-and-roll group. The show was topped off by an impressive finale of fireworks.

The next day, we were happy that we knew just what to expect at the hydraulic-lift lock, and our passage was a non-event. Once we secured our lines, we were just passengers. The shoreline simply disappeared and when we reached the top, a gate swung down into the water, the front end of the elevator opened and off we went.

Making friends with Canadian boaters

It was pouring rain as we approached the Lakefield marina, and the dock attendants were busy. So, we found our own slip and pulled in. Bill and Kate on the houseboat Sultana caught our lines and asked where we’d come from. When we said Peterborough, Bill responded, “Anyone who has run five locks and only traveled eight miles in a day needs a drink; come on aboard.” We were happy to oblige.

Bill and Kate were just the latest of many cruisers we met along the way. Later, we visited Sea Time and Just Enough, 31- and 27-foot Sea Rays, respectively, also on the Loop cruise. We had affectionately named them the “Bullet Boats,” because they always blew by us (after a gentle pass). For dinner, we joined the crews of Katie Sue, Island Fever, and Easy Livin’ at the Thirsty Loon Pub in town to celebrate the long, tedious day.

While our days were “locked” into a schedule dictated by distances and destinations, socializing along the way was totally spontaneous. As we visited with our many new friends, we were surprised to learn that circumnavigating the Loop was the first extensive cruising many of the others had done. And the size and scale of their vessels was impressive, most being in the thirty-six- to forty-five-foot range. Several of these people were first-time boat owners.

Beautiful lake country and bountiful boating

As we traveled further west, we saw more rocks, many with a striking spread of orange lichen carpeting their surface. Some had cottages perched on top, while others were barren. Such outcroppings became even more of the landscape as we made our way to Bobcaygeon, between Sturgeon and Pigeon Lakes. At night we marveled at the cobalt blue dark skies in Canada often studded with stars for as far as we could see.  We used our binoculars to see the amazing panorama above us.

Approaching the narrow entrance of the Bobcaygeon Lock, we were startled to see a low swing bridge we hadn’t expected, just as quickly, we were relieved to hear the lock tender say, “Approaching trawler, let me swing the bridge for you and then come on in.”

As we progressed through the lake region, we stopped periodically to throw the engine into reverse and then forward to spin off the grass that kept winding itself around the prop. We eased into the second hydraulic lift lock at Kirkfield, and as we exited, noticed that the navigation markers had switched because we were now locking down to Georgian Bay.

The shoreline changed to one of Christmas trees and stands of cattails, and when we reached Lake Simcoe, we were struck by the crystal clearness and color of the water—it was Canada Dry green. Just before reaching Port Severn, we maneuvered through a run of narrow, rocky cuts, where many of the ledges were covered with purple, gold, and white wildflowers.

The last of Ontario’s big boat lifts the Big Chute at Port Severn

The Big Chute, or railway lift, at Port Severn was the last lock. Picture driving your boat onto a marine railway, then being lifted out of the water, traveling over a road and being lowered down a cliff into the water. We waited at the blue line until we were called, and then the transit happened so fast and efficiently, it was over before we realized what was going on. And we entered the Small Craft Route to Georgian Bay and the North Channel.

Where have you been boating in Ontario?

Do you use binoculars when you’re boating?

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