Relax on a houseboat holiday

The afternoon sun reflected brilliantly off the calm water. After checking the nautical charts, we pushed away from the dock, aiming for the nearest channel marker. Easing the boat’s throttle up to full, we took off down Pigeon Lake at top speed — a blazing six miles (10 km) an hour. I swear the family of loons that watched our launch laughed as we crept by. Our houseboating holiday on Ontario’s Trent-Severn Waterway was not going to be rushed.

Stuck on a floating cottage with a Type A personality could have been a recipe for a mental meltdown or at least a prelude to divorce, but living on a houseboat turned out to be both fun and a wonderfully relaxing way to spend a few days in a unique part of the province.

A professor of journalism at Toronto’s Centennial College, my husband, Ted Barris, 53, is also an author and freelance broadcaster who plays year-round hockey and is deeply involved in community events in the small town northeast of Toronto in which we live. Slow is one of the nastier four-letter words as far as he’s concerned. But he loved captaining the 32-foot, two-room Seahawk we picked up at Egan Marine Houseboat Rentals at the south endf Pigeon Lake near Omemee.

We weren’t the only greenhorns watching the marina’s audiovisual training program that bright June day, nor were we the eldest. Ron Egan, who has been operating the business for 31 years, explained that in the spring, half of his customers are 50-plus while after Labour Day, the ratio rises to almost 90 per cent.

Fun for the entire family
“Houseboating is the only thing that everybody in the family likes, right from kids to grandparents,” he said. “You can go as a unit and everybody has a good time. I’m now getting people who came as children bringing their kids. They talk about it as the best family vacation they ever had,” adding that at least one family had told him their children preferred a houseboat vacation to Disneyland. After all, it’s hard to beat swimming and fishing, with ice cream in a different town every night.

Stretching 386 kilometres through lakes, canals and rivers from Trenton on Lake Ontario to Port Severn on Georgian Bay, the waterway offers urban pleasures, such as theatre and shopping, as well as a wilderness experience. Egan says some clients alternate nights on the houseboat with a stay in a town or resort,. “They get the benefit of both. They don’t have to cook all their meals. They can go to restaurants. I like to describe the Trent as ‘wilderness with first-class dining.’”

Now operated by Parks Canada, the waterway was originally intended to move supplies inland to settlements and lumber out to market. Fluctuating federal government interest prolonged its construction from the early 1830s but by its completion in 1920, logging in the area had waned, and commercial transportation had switched to rail and roadways. It quickly became a playground for cottagers, recreational fishermen and boaters.

“There isn’t any waterway like it in the world,” says Egan, “but we take it for granted.”

Relax and unwind
Half of his customers are Americans and some are European, often from Germany. “People come from a long way to vacation here,” he says. While most of his international clients embark on a two-week voyage to explore the system, others, like us, hire a houseboat for three or four days or a weekend. When the point is to relax and unwind, getting somewhere fast just doesn’t matter.

Next page: Boating in comfort

The truth is, we didn’t care where we went. We’d never had a boat, didn’t know even the simple rules of boating or how to go through a canal lock. Making up our itinerary as we went along would be an adventure. At least we’d go comfortably. The boat’s trailer-like interior had a bathroom with tub and shower and a galley equipped with an easy-to-use propane stove and a high-tech refrigerator. Its dining table converted to a double bed, as did a sofa next to the helm, while curtains provided privacy throughout. In addition to front and rear deck space, there was room to lounge or sunbathe atop the houseboat while Capt. Ted piloted with roof-mounted controls.

Learning the ropes
Before we set off up the lake, Egan made sure we knew how to handle the craft, understood proper boating procedures and how to go through a lock. The houseboat was also equipped with an informative reference manual and appropriate marine charts. We had practised tipping the propeller up to avoid damage in shallow water and knew how to clear it if it became choked by weeds. And we also knew if we had problems, someone from the company would reach us within an hour.

Bobcaygeon, where the system’s first lock was built in 1835 was 90 minutes from the marina. We marvelled at several new and beautifully landscaped homes on the water’s edge as we approached and tied up near the lock. The historic town is fast becoming a retirement haven for many who have vacationed in the area over the years. Our only other “urban” experience came later, at Buckhorn, a small town noted for its wildlife art festival, held every August.

Sheltering in the lee of Big Island on Pigeon Lake the first night, tied securely to a couple of trees, we felt both free and serene. We’d seen stately herons stalking the reed beds on our way up the lake and as we enjoyed a cocktail on the bow, one of the majestic birds flew past, so close we could hear the soft swish of its wings.

Then Canada’s national symbol took watery centre stage — rhythmically, without any fear of the humans watching its progress, the beaver swam within three metres and disappeared around a nearby curve in the shoreline. It was a moment of grace in the quiet twilight.

We fired up the barbecue in the stern and cooked a steak. Off a nearby island, fishermen in a small boat waited patiently for a strike. Dinner was ready just as evening deepened, and we retreated inside to eat, escaping the mosquitoes that had just begun their own hunt for a feast. Later, in the depth of the night, a loon called and was answered with giddy abandon by another not far from our mooring. The sound, so intensely joyous, made me wonder about the inner nature of those birds we treasure on our lakes. As moonlight painted the water with silver, everyday hectic life seemed far, far away.

Pterodactyls along the way?
Chugging east to Buckhorn the next day, we were puzzled by an oversized nest of sticks atop the centre of the steel bridge crossing Gannon Narrows. A nest for pterodactyls? An artist’s giant joke? We discovered later that it was home to one of the many ospreys that flourish in the area. 

Buckhorn’s affable lockmaster later talked us through our first “locking” experience. With Ted at the wheel, I walked along the lock holding the bow rope to guide the boat into place. Then I hopped aboard, looping the rope through a vertical rubber-covered chain fastened to the wall of the lock. I held the rope as the gates slowly closed behind us and the houseboat began its descent. When the gates in front of us opened, we released our rope, waved to the lockmaster and were off to Lovesick Lake.  

Gallery on the lake
Close to the shore, a loon rose out of the water, stretched its wings and began to flap them vigorously. Water droplets flashed through the air as the sun glinted off the bird’s iridescent necklace. Not long after enjoying that spectacle, we carefully approached the Gallery on the Lake, east of Buckhorn, where we’d find among the many paintings an artist’s version of the scene we’d just witnessed.

Although a number of white plastic bottles bobbled in the water warning of submerged rocks, we nevertheless had to take quick action to save our propeller. The gallery, one of the largest private galleries in Canada, was well worth the risk. Works by Ken Danby, Glen Loates, Michael Dumas and many others were displayed in several of its salons, along with pottery, glass and carvings. A tearoom offered a spectacular view of Lower Buckhorn Lake.

In a small cove on Lovesick Lake, we secured the houseboat for another peace-filled evening and the following morning set out somewhat reluctantly for the marina and home. Our houseboat adventure hadn’t been exciting but, to a large degree, that was its charm. We enjoyed it so much that we hope to do it again, this time with friends who frequently enjoy the outdoors from their canoe.