Story by Leslie Hoyle
Photos by Bill Elgie, Leslie Hoyle
Map: Bill Elgie; Logo Art: Evelyn Elgie
A few days after the moving truck took the piano, furniture and other stuff of life to our new home, we left the piles of boxes behind and went back to start our 510 km odyssey “Paddle to Perth”. This is the story of our 28-day canoe trip as my husband, Bill Elgie, and I “moved” via canoe from Georgetown to Perth, Ontario.
We were asked “Why are you doing this?” many times. This is a familiar question for canoe trippers from the unindoctrinated. The short answer: because we could. At one point during a lockdown (you know, one of those winter days when one is fantasizing about the next season’s canoe routes) it occurred to us that it might actually be possible to paddle door to door from our old home to our new home. If it’s possible, we thought, we should do it. The long answer is that we thought that it would be a good transition journey. Slow travel would give us time to reflect on our twenty-two years in the old place, and look towards our new lives as we approached our new home. We would literally say goodbye to the land as we paddled through the Great Lakes Lowlands, and say hello to the new geography as we paddled through limestone into the Canadian Shield. Besides which, our plans for a big wilderness trip in the Northwest Territories to mark our retirements fell apart due to the Covid 19 pandemic so local adventure was the name of the game.
The second step of idea realization is to tell everyone you know what you plan to do. Much head shaking and many dire predictions about paddling Lake Ontario notwithstanding, we planned the route. Two days down the Credit River from the Norval Outdoor School near Highway 7 and Winston Churchill Blvd. to Port Credit, followed by eighteen days of paddling along the shore of Lake Ontario and through the Bay of Quinte. A day off in Kingston before heading up the Rideau Canal for a week, then veering off onto the Tay Canal, and from there up the theoretically paddle-able Jebb’s Creek into Otty Lake and a 1.5 km portage to our new home. It seemed simple enough.
The first big challenge was planning where to stay each night. We shamelessly took advantage of friends and colleagues situated advantageously along the way. For many, we were their first visitors in over a year, and our hosts were excited about playing a part in our journey. We also planned to camp when we could and make occasional use of B&B and hotel accommodations. We had driven this route on Highway 401 many times, but it is a totally different thing to experience by canoe. We looked forward to discovering urban and rural, rather than wilderness, Ontario.
Finally the big day had arrived! We walked our gear from the empty house down to the river and camped for our last night on the property. Dear friends came to see us off and, along with our two daughters (one headed back to Vancouver), sang The Old Irish Blessing – with harmonies! – as we paddled away. Bawling my eyes out for the first kilometer of a canoe trip was a first for me, as was paddling south of Norval. In all the years we lived in Norval we always went north and paddled downstream to home. It was a lesson about discovering one’s own backyard.
The first two days we paddled down the Credit River in our old ABS Mad River Explorer. Based on normal late July water levels, we had predicted walking much of the river 45 km from Norval to Lake Ontario but we lucked out with plenty of rain the week before the move and we paddled most of the way. By halfway through the first day I felt the stress of packing, moving, preparing the canoe trip and leaving our community fall away like rain off a tarp. The second day it pummelled rain which brought the river level up even higher.
We even had to scout rapids a couple of times, running easy moving water all the way to Port Credit. The nice thing about the Credit River is that you wouldn’t know you’re paddling through one of the most populated and urban parts of Canada. Kudos to Credit Valley Conservation for preserving surprisingly long stretches of beautiful natural spaces in Mississauga.
In Port Credit, thanks to logistical support from our daughter who had our car for the month, we switched the ABS boat for our 17 foot, Kevlar/carbon fibre Bluewater Freedom Tripper which has great lines for speed on flatwater. One of our concerns about the trip was the big water of Lake Ontario. We had paddled big lakes before but Lake Ontario is in another league with potential for ocean-like swell and big chop. Our strategy was to be on the water by 7 at the latest most mornings to beat the wind and the heat. We also had a spray deck but we only used it once – as we paddled around the Pickering Nuclear Power Plant where the wind fought the current of the plant outwash to create unusual waves in the weirdly hot water.
By paddling for about three hours in the still early morning, at about 5 km per hour, we put much of our distance for the day in before morning tea break. Another hour of paddling before a nice long lunch in a shady park, and then it wasn’t long before reaching our destination for the day. We were also very lucky not to have had daytime thunderstorms and big wind during the weeks we were on the most exposed sections of Lake Ontario. We had enough time in the overall plan to lose time for wind if needed. We paddled about 20 km per day, on average, which didn’t feel rushed.
We were advised by an experienced sailing friend to go around Centre Island and avoid paddling through Toronto Harbour. Possibly made cocky by our success thus far, we thought we’d like to see the city skyline close-up from the water and disregarded this wisdom. Warning: even if the big water seems pretty calm the Western Gap which leads into the harbor will be a disaster from the wakes of fast motor boats bouncing off the hard sides of the narrow passage.
Between the ferries, water taxis, pirate theme boats and huge yachts, all of whom slow down for no one, and the planes taking off and landing from the Island Airport; not to mention the sinister feel of gathering rain clouds, it was quite a stressful ride. We were still married at the end of the day, but the GoPro video was un-postable.
One of the most interesting places we stayed was a floating purple house in a neighbourhood of floating houses tucked under the Scarborough Bluffs. We had no idea such a place even existed! We spent one night on a friend’s sailboat, and one night camping on a bit of rocky shore at the bottom of a cliff when other plans didn’t work out. At our age we didn’t need the stress of “stealth camping” every night but it was fun to do once. Two shoreline Provincial Parks were en route on Lake Ontario: Darlington and Presqu’ille. The Parks were very busy but it was nice to have predictable amenities and good swimming.
A most unusual thing about this canoe trip was that we had internet and cell reception for most of the journey. We used a cell phone to map and track our distance travelled and checked email. At our grown childrens’ request we set up an Instagram account (@paddletoperth ) to post our progress for family and friends. Being readily contactable was a mixed blessing. It was fun to meet up with friends, we could adapt plans and let’s not neglect to mention obsessively checking the weather radar. It was good that we were available to advise when our daughter had a breakdown with (our) car. However, on the days when we camped in places without wifi or cell reception it was also a blessed relief and a reminder of one of the reasons we normally go canoe tripping in the wilderness.
Being in a canoe, rather than a motorboat or a car, invites conversation, especially in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) where the sight of a canoe loaded with tripping gear is uncommon. We had many interesting conversations with strangers, including one gentleman who encouraged us to paddle the river of his place of origin, the Congo. Also, as a result of having the Instagram account we made connections with new people along the way. We received lots of encouragement and great local advice. We were invited for brunch to the home of a municipal counselor near Chaffey’s Locks, and even had one lady paddle her kayak with us for part of the last day. Renewing connections with old friends and making new ones was a fulfilling part of this particular canoe trip.
Food on an urban canoe trip can be unpredictable, usually in a good way. Upon paddling into Port Hope we considered the lunch options: sit on the porch of the very charming lakeside cafe we just discovered or pull the not-very-fresh bagels and peanut butter out of the barrel. Hmm, tough choice. Another day we got into a trailer park and found a funky Alice in Wonderland themed food truck. Then there was the time we were camped at a vaguely sketchy and almost empty trailer park and an old codger rocked up in his John Deere golf cart at sunset. “You the people in the canoe?” We allowed as how we were at which point he handed us a heavy plastic bag. “Have some walleye.” and off he went.
A big difference from our normal wild trips was the relative absence of printed maps. Directions were pretty straightforward – go downstream to the big water, then keep the land to your left. Turn left at Kingston and follow the buoys up the canal. In Kingston we switched boats again, picking up our canvas and cedar Prospector, purely for aesthetic reasons. The traditional, beautiful wood canoe seemed to fit the vibe of the historical 202 km canal joining Kingston and Ottawa, in use since 1832 and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the Rideau Canal if we ever thought we’d save time by leaving the buoy-marked route for a shortcut we soon found ourselves dragging through the ubiquitous Eurasian Milfoil. This invasive species of water plant was introduced in North America in the 1940s and is damaging water ecosystems throughout Ontario by displacing native plants, reducing diversity and affecting wildlife habitat, not to mention clogging up the water for boats.
We printed maps from Watson’s 2021 Guide to The Rideau Canal found at rideau-info.com to plan our camping at the locks. Fun facts: A seasonal lock pass for a 17 foot canoe is $77, which allowed us to go through the locks. Camping at a lock is $10 per night (best deal of the trip) and two of the lock stations had showers available for camping boaters. The challenge of paddling the Rideau Canal is that there are very few places to pull over and swim from shore or have a private moment in the bushes since the vast majority of the shoreline consists of homes and cottages. However, there was ice cream. Life’s a trade-off.
At one point we were being interviewed for a TV news piece about our big trip. The young producer said “So you’ve been married 31 years and you’re on a 28-day canoe trip: what do you talk about?” (Subtext: what could you possibly have left to talk about after all that time?) We thought that was hilarious. We couldn’t wait to get on trip to have time to talk about the important stuff of life. Or just not talk. And of course, there’s always that important question “Where and when are we stopping for lunch?”
The most difficult day of the trip was Day 28, the very last day. The entire week on the Rideau had been extremely hot and humid and the last day especially so. We packed up our camp at Upper Beveridges Lock and paddled up the Tay Canal. It was a trick finding the entrance to Jebb’s Creek, and we started walking through ankle-deep water immediately. About 10 beaver dam pull-overs later we were out of drinking water but we had made it to Otty Lake! I’ve never paddled so fast in my life as the last kilometres down Otty Lake to our community shared dock. A few friends were there to greet us and encourage us on that last 1.5 km portage to our house. After such a long journey it was an emotional homecoming.
I must admit that I derived great satisfaction from the reaction of a woman on a houseboat ahead of us in a lock whose jaw actually dropped when she asked how long our trip had been and I answered “We’re on Day 26.” It seems like most people don’t have or make time for long canoe trips anymore but we highly recommend the practice. Whether the trip is wilderness, rural, urban or a mix, it’s good for the soul to take life down to essentials.