ALL travel literature looks inviting in the gray days of January. In a blink, I sent a deposit for a week's rental of a houseboat on Ontario's Trent-Severn Waterway - despite a limited amount of boating experience. The week arrived and true to the literature, the outfitter gave our party of five the full audiovisual show on the operation of our craft - this Winnebago-on-the-water - in a room ominously decorated with damaged propellers.
We started our cruise on Pigeon Lake near the town of Omemee - roughly an hour's drive north of Toronto. It took almost two hours to get checked in, get ice and fishing licenses, and to stow all of the food and gear. As we awkwardly backed away from the dock, the trees were casting long shadows on Pigeon Lake. Just 15 minutes up the lake, we nosed slowly into a large area of cattails and tossed the anchor. It was time to unfold the chairs on the upper deck and watch a true Canadian sunset accompanied by the calls of a pair of loons.
This was the moment I saw in my January fantasy. The gentle rocking motion of the boat set the tone for a very relaxing week.
The Trent-Severn Waterway is a connecting system of 238 miles of lakes, rivers, canals, and locks. Interest in an inland water route began as early as 1785. Area settlers and lumbermen petitioned the government for a direct water route so that ships, rafts, and barges could proceed quickly to markets. In 1833, the government passed a bill to survey a route and construct locks. After the survey, money was allotted to begin construction.
The first lock was completed in 1835. More were built over a period of many years, with work starting and stopping because of money shortages or lack of government interest. July 1920 marked the first complete passage from Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay on Lake Huron.
The waterway, which was originally to serve commerce, is today attracting thousands of vacationers like our family. While the waterway once carried grain barges, log drives, and graceful steamers, today it is used by all types of pleasure craft. Large cruisers, small runabouts, sailboats, and numerous houseboats ply the waters through this area, rich in history and natural beauty.
We were supplied with a copy of ``Trent/Severn Waterway Boating & Road Guide.'' This book, along with navigation charts supplied by the boat rental agency, helped us choose which lakes to visit. The book also provided historical information, locations of marinas, and descriptions of the locks.
One sunny day, we visited one of the provincial parks along the waterway. It offered a good swimming beach but no overnight mooring. We usually moored on the lee side of an island for the night. We would carefully nose up to shore and toss over the anchor or tie a line to a tree.
For another of our overnight moorings we selected the town of Lindsay, which had a riverside park and summer theater - an appealing midweek change from our usual remote moorings. The meandering way up a reed-filled river made us feel as if we were on the African Queen. On arriving at Rivera Park, we found two yachts already moored. Our three parties spent the night enjoying the lovely park facilities. A short walk into town produced tickets to the Kawartha Summer Theatre presentation of Neil Simon's ``Brighton Beach Memoirs.'' This summer theater changes its program weekly from early July to early September.
Each of the locks along our route also offered some overnight mooring. Most of the locks are in small towns. They provided an excellent opportunity to stretch our legs and look for an ice cream store. The locks themselves are quite different in construction and operation, varying from wooden hand-operated locks to metal locks, to hydraulic locks, to a railway where the boats are lifted in a cradle. The lock system operates from mid-May to mid-October.
We became quite sharp at the lock routine. To signal the lockkeeper that you want to move through, you tie up along a blue painted line. When your side is opened, the lockkeeper tells the crews in which order the boats are to enter. With one person at the helm, two other crew members loop lines under the lock side cables to hold the boat while the lock is filled or emptied.
Houseboats such as ours are known to the locals as ``Harvey Wallbangers'' for the scars they leave on the lock walls. There was always a gallery of onlookers watching the boats lock through.
While in the locks, we were able to check over boats from other outfitters and found a few differences. The Ontario Tourist Council supplies a list of boat rental companies along the waterway. Houseboats range from 24 feet to 44 feet, with berths for four to 10 people.
You might want to make a list of questions to ask the rental companies, such as:
Does the boat have a refrigerator or an icebox?
Does it have a shower?
Does it come with a dinghy, or do you have to pay extra to rent one?
July and August are the busiest times on the waterway, and outfitters frequently fill those weeks during large midwinter boat shows. Rental fees range from $300 to $1,300, depending on the season and size of boat. Lock and docking fees are paid to outfitters.
We enjoyed the swimming and sunshine of mid-August, but part of our crew, hoping for walleyes, were somewhat disappointed to settle for smaller perch, bass, and bluegills. Cool fall or spring weather might bring more action from the large fish.
Reading became our joke for the week. We brought lots of books along, but as soon as one of us stretched out on a bunk with book in hand, the others would bet we wouldn't last a page. The low hum of the Volvo engine and the rocking motion produced heavy eyelids. The evenings were livelier as games and musical instruments appeared from under the bunks.
Houseboating was a perfect way for us to relax and enjoy the company of a son ready to leave for college. Houseboating could also be a nice way to take a multi-generation vacation. Some previous boating experience is helpful but not required.
If you go
For information on fees and permits, individuals with their own boats should contact the Trent-Severn Waterway, Box 567, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada K9J 6Z6; (705) 742-9267. For information on boating in Ontario and a comprehensive listing of boat rental agencies, contact Ministry of Tourism and Recreation, Province of Ontario, Queen's Park, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M7A 2R9; or call 800-268-3735.
``Trent/Severn Waterway Boating & Road Guide'' is available from Ontario Travel Guides, 100 Helena Ave., Toronto, Ontario, Canada M6G 2H2; (416) 653-3419. This source also has guides for two other interesting boating areas, the Rideau Waterway and the Thousand Islands area.