Lock onto this Peterborough canoe ride


To enter the Peterborough Lift Locks, paddlers must steer their canoes through the canals and wait for the locks to carry them through the inland waterways. (Photo courtesy of Canadian Canoe Museum)

Story by Linda Barnard
Vacay.ca Writer

PETERBOROUGH, ONTARIO — Get a lock on one of the most unusual and fun things to do on the water this summer.

Climb into an 11-metre (36-foot) Montreal Voyageur canoe and paddle into some Canadian history along the Trent Canal by floating in one of two massive, water-filled tubs at the Peterborough Lift Locks for the 20-metre (66-foot) ascent.

A National Historic Site, the Trent-Severn Waterway features the largest hydraulic lift lock in the world, an elegant and efficient structure that opened in 1904 and through which you can paddle. Our group made the easy trip in a fibreglass replica of the birchbark canoe workhorses that kept the fur trade in motion across parts of pre-Confederation Canada from the 1690s until the 19th century.


Paddlers wait in their canoes while approaching the daunting towers of the Peterborough Lift Locks. (Linda Barnard/Vacay.ca)

No experience is required and anybody over 13.5 kilograms (30 pounds) can join the gentle, 90-minute paddling adventure.

Tours cost $20 for adults and $15 for kids and are run by the Canadian Canoe Museum, which has more than more than 100 canoes and kayaks on display. The selection includes watercraft belonging to singer Gordon Lightfoot and former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

Another 600 canoes are in storage but they’ll finally be on display when the new 75,000-square-foot, $65-million Canadian Canoe Museum opens opposite the Lift Locks in 2022. The Canoe Museum is a key part of a growing tourism push in the Peterborough & The Kawarthas region, a rural area of rolling hills dotted with 155 lakes about a 90-minute drive northeast of Toronto. With more than 300 signed bike trails and a growing focus on farm-to-table dining and craft-beer making and distilleries, the region is emerging as an ideal weekend getaway.

There were a dozen of us playing modern-day Voyageurs on our canoe tour. First, we had a dockside paddling lesson and learned the French words we’d need on board. With the Canoe Museum’s Sam Cuddy in the stern calling out commands as the gouvernail and Jen Burnard in the bow as the avant, we were off.


The canoe experience on the Trent-Severn Canal System recreates a journey made by fur traders centuries ago. (Photo courtesy of Canadian Canoe Museum)

But first, a show as we watched a tour boat make the 90-second trip to the top. It was fascinating to see the lock slowly lift the big vessel while holding it high above us. The locks work by water balance and gravity, so they move in silence.

When it was our turn to paddle into the bucket, lockmaster Ed Donald shared a few facts about the system from the loudspeaker in his booth at the top of the canal. We shared the space with a couple of cabin cruisers. It was a strange feeling to look back at the canal behind us dropping away as our bucket slid up along the concrete walls. Then the gate opened and we glided out into the upper canal.

Centuries ago, the Voyageurs paddled 14 hours a day, taking more than three tons of cargo in their canoe. When Burnard suggested we try to match their 60-strokes-per-minute pace, we followed her rhythm to give it an exhausting go.

It brought back a rush of summer-camp memories for me to be in a canoe again, feeling the pull of the water and listing to the swish of the paddles. Burnard led us in a Voyageur salute as we cheered and raised our paddles like the fur traders did in years past.

Hungry after our tour, we made a short drive to Peterborough’s Downtown East neighbourhood for lunch at Ashburnham Ale House, which has a sizable list of local and Ontario craft beers, including Beard Free Brewing’s Lock 21, named for the Peterborough Life Lock.

Also new to the scene is the area’s first winery, Rolling Grape Vineyard, located about 20 minutes outside Peterborough. Everything from picking to pressing is done by hand at the winery, which opened in June in Bailieboro with varieties including wild fermented Baco Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.

Among the newest craft makers in town, Black’s Distillery opened in March across the street from Ashburnham’s. Rows of shiny copper stills and vertical towers are the centrepieces of the airy craft distillery and tasting area. Copper-coloured chandeliers add just the right touch.

Owners Robert Black and Barb Matchet make “grain to glass” spirits, including a 100 per cent barley whisky, 100 per cent rye whisky and vodka distilled from Red Fife wheat, a heritage grain first developed near Peterborough.

“I really like authentically made stuff, good food. To me, spirits are like food,” Black said. He sees Peterborough undergoing a food and beverage renaissance, embracing “anything local” with pride.

Part of that pride also connects to the canoe. The Peterborough Canoe Company was once the largest manufacturer in Canada. Although the factory has closed, local craftspeople still produce canoes in the region.

Add to that a true bucket-list experience, done paddle in hand, in a travelling tub of water.

More About Peterborough & The Kawarthas

VentureNorth Visitors Centre: Located at 270 George Street North, Suite 101 (see map below), the centre provides tourist information for the region. Or go to thekawarthas.ca. for info on arts, culture, heritage, and food and drink-based experiences and accommodations.
Voyageur Canoe Tours: Email paddle@canoemuseum.ca or call 866-342-2663 (extension 218) for details and reservations.
Black’s Distillery: Located at 99 Hunter Street East, the distillery is open for tastings, tours and sales daily from 10 am to 10 pm (Sunday, noon-5 pm). Some of its products are available at LCBO stores.

Linda Barnard is a British Columbia-based travel writer who covers stories geared to energetic and experience-driven 45-plus travellers for Vacay.ca.

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