Cruising America’s Great Loop Part Seven

John Simons


Our Great Loop adventure took one year and covered 6,500 miles. We departed from Waukegan Harbor in mid-September 2015 and, after making a series of left turns, returned to Waukegan Harbor in September 2016. Our crew consisted of John and Priscilla Simons and Dale and Andy Arnold.

Hundreds of “Loopers” make this trip each year. America’s Great Loop Cruising Association conducts seminars to help Loopers prepare for the adventure.

If you’re just tuning in, catch up on our journey:

  • Part one — Waukegan, Illinois, to Grand Rivers, Kentucky
  • Part two — Grand Rivers to Mobile, Alabama
  • Part three — Mobile to Key West, Florida
  • Part four — Key West to the Bahamas and Stuart, Florida
  • Part five — Stuart to Norfolk, Virginia.
  • Part six — Norfolk to Troy, New York

After spending two nights in Waterford, New York, we cast off at 10 a.m. for Amsterdam, New York. We bought a 10-day canal transit pass for $50 at the Erie Canal’s east entrance. Five locks lifted us 169 feet in less than a mile. As you exit one lock, you enter the next. In all, we transited nine locks that day, a new record for us.

Amsterdam ≫ Clay, New York

At 4 p.m., we arrived at the Riverlink Park Marina in Amsterdam, New York. Using our 30-amp pigtails, necessary equipment on the Loop, we hooked up to a double 30-amp power terminal to run our 50-amp system and turned on the air conditioning full blast.

The following day, we cast off and immediately transited the first of seven locks.

We stopped at the Little Falls Canal Harbor and Rotary Park marina that night and cranked the AC to make up for the hot, humid day on the canal.

In the morning, we pumped out before departing. With no marina reservations for the next several days, we needed to be as self-sufficient as possible.

Lock 20 put us at the highest point on the Erie Canal, 440 feet above sea level. That night, we stopped at the Rome town dock. We found a spot with a 50-amp power pedestal, which would run only one AC unit. We tried running two but popped the circuit breaker. Luckily, a rainstorm swept through and cooled things down.

The next day, we traveled 43 miles, transited down 50 feet in two locks, cruised 20 miles across Lake Oneida, and transited 7 feet down one lock on Lake Oneida’s west side. That evening, we stopped at Pirates Cove Marina in Clay, New York.

Changing Latitudes stayed at Pirates Cove while Dale and Andy flew back to Chicago to babysit, and Priscilla and I drove to Lake Champlain to visit friends.

Clay ≫ Oswego, New York

Casting off 12 days later, we found ourselves trapped like rats at the entrance to Lock 1 on the Oswego Canal in Phoenix, New York. The bridge on the lock’s north side wouldn’t open. Priscilla and I walked over to talk with the lockmaster.

An electrician, flipping through a giant schematic of the bridge’s electrical system, told us it could take 30 minutes or three hours to determine the cause of the problem. Since we needed 18 feet of clearance, and the bridge only has 11 feet, we wished him luck and waited.

In Phoenix, we experienced our first extended delay of the trip. On the bright side, we were tied to a free dock with a bakery and restaurant less than half a block away, and the town had a Scooper Douper’s Ice Cream Treats.

Four and a half hours later, the lock opened. Eight boats crammed in. We had entered a herd that would stay together until Oswego, transiting seven locks along the way.

Nine hours after departing Pirates Cove, we arrived in Oswego. Lake Ontario looked calm and flat as we pulled into our slip, plugged in, cranked the AC, and opened a beer. In keeping with the rest of the day, the celebratory beer wasn’t without drama.

The bottle opener we’d used for the entire trip broke in two after opening hundreds, if not thousands, of beers. Farewell, old friend, you served us well.

Oswego ≫ Trenton, Ontario

The following day, I strolled up the hill to check conditions before casting off. Lake Ontario was blowy and lumpy with 3- to 4-foot waves.

Fort Ontario sits at the top of the hill next to the marina. As with most forts we toured, it was built by the British, captured by the French, recaptured by the Americans and recaptured by the British. Fort capturing kept generations of soldiers busy for decades.

Casting off at 11 a.m., we crossed Lake Ontario into Canada. Heading northwest with northeast beam seas, we cranked the turbos, got on top of the waves and made it across Lake Ontario into Canada in two and a half hours.

From there, we took the Murray Canal to the Bay of Quinte. The 5-mile canal has two swing bridges, which cost $4.95 to open.

I had never paid to open a bridge. When we passed, the bridge tender held out a basket on a long pole. I dropped a Canadian $5 bill into the basket.

That night, we stayed at the brand-new Trent Port Marina in Trenton, at the start of the Trent-Severn Waterway.

The marina has a dedicated phone for calling Canadian customs and immigration. Although I had preregistered online to save time, the customs agent couldn’t find my information. No worries. After I gave her the info, it took us less than five minutes to clear. She gave me a registration number to post in Changing Latitude’s window.

When asked how much alcohol we had, I answered “ships stores.” Looper George Hospodar researched this regulation to avoid being taxed by Canadian customs agents. “Ships stores” means you carry limited quantities for personal use. The limits are one bottle of wine or liquor or a case of beer per person per week. Since we would be in Canada for five weeks, we were well within limits.

Trenton ≫ Campbellford, Ontario

We stayed in Trenton until Aug. 1 before heading up the Trent-Severn Waterway.

To get from Trenton, Ontario, to Port Severn on Georgian Bay, we would cruise 240 miles and transit 45 locks. On several nights, we planned to dock on lock walls overnight. We received two pieces of advice on that: 1) Always dock at the top of the lock to get a good breeze at night, and 2) loop your dock lines through the rings on the lock wall and secure them on your boat’s cleats. Some youths find it humorous to untie vessels and let them drift away.

A one-way transit pass on the Trent-Severn Waterway costs $4.65 per foot. We paid $209 Canadian, $161 USD with the exchange rate at that time.

The scenic waterway has a speed limit of 10 kph (6 mph), idle for us. At least we would have plenty of time to enjoy the trees and rolling hills.

On our first day, we cruised 30 miles, transited 12 locks, and were lifted 235 feet. From the time we arrived at the first lock until we tied up in Campbellford, Ontario, it was eight hours.

Even more laid back than the lockmasters on the Erie Canal, the Canadian lockmasters allow people to climb all over the lock walls and bridges while the lock is in operation. No one wears a life vest.
That night, we tied up on the west wall in downtown Campbellford. The town offers the third night free with a two-night stay.

Several Loopers told us not to miss Canadian butter tarts, which taste like miniature pecan pies without the pecans. After I bought six butter tarts at Dooher’s Bakery, I saw butter tarts with pecans. Next time, I’ll buy those instead.

Campbellford ≫ Peterborough, Ontario

After leaving Campbellford, we cruised 20 miles and transited five locks, lifting us 123 feet. That night in Hastings, we had a front-row seat to a country-western concert in a gazebo next to our boat.

The next day, we pulled up near Lock 15. The door looked closed and had no red or green light to tell us what to do. Seeing water flowing out the back gate, we assumed the lock tender was lowering the water level before opening. Several minutes later, the outer gates closed, and we realized the back gate just leaked like a waterfall. When the lock tender opened the door, I quickly moved the boat forward. After we entered, she asked why we had waited so long to enter. I explained our dilemma and asked why she didn’t call us. Since she didn’t have a VHF or bullhorn, closing the lock door had been her only way of communicating. Fortunately, it worked.

On Friday, the forecast called for 15- to 20-mph southwest winds with 25-mph gusts. Since we needed to cross the 14-mile-long southwest-facing Rice Lake, we shoved off at 8 a.m. to make it as far as possible before the waves built. Since the lake is 3 miles wide at some points, we cranked the turbos and blew out the carbon after running at 6 mph for the last three days.

The waves had just started to build as we turned north into the Otonabee River.

We cruised only 39 miles and transited one 8-foot lock (19) before arriving at the Peterborough Marina in Peterborough, Ontario, at 12:30 p.m. At Peterborough, we received the second-best swag bag of the trip. AGLCA harbor host Freya Peterson puts a jar of her homemade jalapeño jam in each goody bag. We also got a 10% discount on the slip fee and a free pump out.

On Sunday, we cast off at 8:30 a.m. after taking advantage of our free pump out.

That day, we transited seven locks, including the famous Peterborough Lift Lock. With a 65-foot lift, the “big pan” hydraulic lift is the world’s highest.

After driving the boat into the pan, we tied off, and the back gate closed by lifting from flat on the bottom. Then, the two pans, side by side, changed position. The upper pan went down, while the lower one rose 65 feet.

Peterborough ≫ Stoney Lake, Ontario

After the big pan, we cruised 15 miles and transited six locks to get to Youngs Point, where we met some of Andy’s friends. The avid boaters showed us around and provided great insight into the next phase of our adventure.

In Bobcaygeon, a famous shoe store claims to have over 30,000 pairs of shoes. I don’t know any Looper who has passed through and not purchased new shoes. We stayed two days, giving us a whole day for shoe shopping.

Leaving Bobcaygeon, we traveled 13 miles and transited one lock that lifted us 6 feet. We anchored in 17 feet of water, had lunch and swam all afternoon. Afterward, we cruised a half-mile to Harbour Town McCraken’s Landing Marina on Stoney Lake. The marina’s bakery makes the best blueberry scones ever, not to mention their banana bread.

Stoney Lake ≫ Kirkfield, Ontario

After casting off from McCraken’s Marina at 10 a.m., we passed through a section of the waterway called Hell’s Gate. Although narrow and rocky outside, the channel is easy to navigate if you follow the markers. On the way to Burleigh Falls Lock, we passed the falls. Due to the drought, Burleigh Falls looked more like Barely Falls.

A houseboat entered the lock as we approached. Over 300 rental houseboats ply this section of the waterway. Fellow Loopers advised us to let houseboats enter locks first so they can bounce off both walls (instead of your boat) before tying up.

Since the lock was full, we tied up and waited for the next opening. When a houseboat arrived, we waved it ahead of us. Although the boat headed for the left side, it ended up tied up on the right.
When we arrived at Buckhorn Yacht Harbour marina, we received a covered slip. No satellite TV that night.

The next day, we arrived at Fenelon Falls, Lock 34, at 11:30 a.m. We tied up on the blue line to wait for the lock to open. I walked across the bridge to the upper lock wall to see if I could find a place to tie up for the night. Two open spaces had electric pedestals, but neither could fit Changing Latitudes.

After asking a 48-footer from California to move up a few feet, the owner told me to check the other end of the wall. I found a space with electricity at the other end, but we needed a small boat to pull up 5 feet. Holding a plate of pancakes and scowling, the owner wasn’t inclined to help.

When I walked back to the first spot, Andy, a Canadian in a small houseboat, made room for us. I hurried back to the boat so someone couldn’t try to claim the spot before we transited the 24-foot lock. Fortunately, we pulled into our place with ease.

The next day turned cool and blustery. It felt like fall. After casting off at 9 a.m., we cruised 3 miles to the first and only lock of the day, a 4-foot lift, our last on the Trent-Severn Waterway.

We spent that night on the Kirkfield, Lock 36, lock wall without power or water. Although a hydraulic lift lock like Peterborough, Kirkfield isn’t enclosed. You get a greater sense of being suspended in mid-air. We were at the highest point on the Trent-Severn Waterway. After entering the upper pan the next day, we would go down 49 feet.

Kirkfield ≫ Orillia, Ontario

The next day, we let a houseboat lock through first. It’s always best to lock through alone if you can. When we locked through the Kirkfield lift lock, we got great photos with us in front of the 49-foot drop. Where else can you be on your boat and be suspended five stories?

At Lake Simcoe, we turned north toward Lagoon City Marina. We pulled over to the beach as we approached the entrance, anchored in deep water and swam.

When I pulled into slip 631 at Lagoon City Marina, I thought we had run aground. Changing Latitudes wouldn’t maneuver into the slip. When I hit the bow thruster, nothing happened. Weeds had jammed it. It took two burly dock hands to pull our stern through the weeds to the dock.

Today marked 11 months on the Loop. In 31 days, we would cross our wake in Waukegan, Illinois.

When the rains briefly ended the next day, we tried heading to the pump-out station but couldn’t back out of the slip. Marina staff had to push us out. When I had enough room ahead, I put the engines in forward and spun the weeds off the props. You could see our hull outline on the weed bed.

After pumping out, we cruised west on the canal to Lake Simcoe, which was lumpy. We headed northwest and then north. Winds out of the south created larger-than-expected waves, some up to 10 feet. Since we only had a few miles to go, we got on top of the waves and cruised at 20 mph for comfort.

When we arrived at the north end of the lake, we entered a narrow, fully protected canal.

Orillia ≫ Victoria Harbour, Ontario

After a week in Orillia, we headed north on Lake Couchiching. We passed two swing bridges, locked down 22 feet and then another 45 feet on Lock 43, the tallest standard lock on the Trent. The waterway’s scenery continues to stun with granite rocks, summer homes and boat docks. At 3 p.m.,
we arrived at Big Chute Marina. Tomorrow we would transit the Big Chute Marine Railway.

After the other boats locked through the following day, we went to the blue line dock of the Big Chute Marine Railway. Within a few minutes, the loudspeaker asked us to enter the rail platform. To compensate for the current coming from the right, we aimed for the right side of the railway car and ended up dead center. Two slings grabbed the boat and lifted it slightly. Since the lockmaster seemed happy with his work, I turned off the engines, and he raised us a little more. The back end of the boat hung off the back of the railcar. In less than 10 minutes, we were hauled across the road, 58 feet down the hill and launched on the other side.

After the Big Chute, the channel marker colors changed sides again. I can see how Loopers get turned around and hit the rocks, which reach out from the narrow, twisty channels to grab you at every turn. Fortunately, we had two people navigating. One person watched the GPS while steering, and the other checked and double-checked the course on the iPad using Navionics.

Officially in Georgian Bay, we tied up for the night at the Queen’s Cove Marina in Victoria Harbour, where we spent two nights with nary a Looper in sight.

Having made it to the beginning of the end of our Great Loop Adventure, we only had to transit Georgian Bay, the North Channel and Lake Michigan before crossing our wake in Waukegan, Illinois.

John Simons

A member of Waukegan Sail & Power Squadron in District 20, John Simons has a USCG Masters License 100 ton. In his second career, he’s a broker for Weber Yachts, which sold Changing Latitudes two weeks after his Loop cruise. If you need help finding your ideal boat or selling your current one, you can email him.

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