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Cruise Control

Navigating a houseboat through the locks along the majestic lakes of Ontario offers lots of ups and downs

By William G. Scheller
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page W20

Of course there would be loons.

I knew that, in crossing half a dozen Canadian lakes, we would see those sleek compact birds, riding low in the water, their black-and-white bodies a visual tease against the wavelets and the shadows. And we would hear their calls, at night -- the ululations, the laugh of a maniac. What we didn't expect was loons at almost every turn, loons so nonchalant that even a mother with her chicks would swim blithely close to our boat. I'm accustomed to loons diving out of sight when a silent canoe comes within a hundred feet of them, and it was strange to see loons no more fazed than a blase mallard at the approach of a grumbling houseboat.

We were on long, shallow, weedy Pigeon Lake, traversing the middle section of Ontario's Trent-Severn Waterway. The Trent-Severn, so called because it begins by following the Trent River from Lake Ontario and ends with the Severn at Lake Huron's Georgian Bay, is a system of rivers and lakes skeined together with man-made canals. It links those two Great Lakes, and saves boat traffic from having to make the long slog down through Lake Erie and up past Detroit. The traffic the Trent-Severn's designers had in mind when they started digging, more than a century and a half ago, had to do with such practical matters as transporting westbound lumber and eastbound grain. But, like many North American canal routes, the waterway was eclipsed by railroads even before it was completed. Today, it's kept open for pleasure craft, including the doughty houseboat my wife, Kay, and I had rented on Pigeon Lake for a weeklong cruise.

Houseboats at Egan Marine on Pigeon Lake
Houseboats at Egan Marine on Pigeon Lake
Houseboats for hire at Egan Marine on Pigeon Lake, two hours northeast of Toronto. (Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post)

_____Spring Travel Issue_____
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This would be our first vacation alone in 19 years. Both of us had been near-compulsive travelers before we met and married in the mid-1980s (our first casual car trip together was a 5,500-mile jaunt from Alaska to Massachusetts), and it never occurred to us to behave differently after our son was born. For so long we had been three. Now, with David staying home to work during his last summer before college, it was time to hit the road as a pair once again.

If there's one thing Kay and I have always agreed on, it's that whenever there are roads to be hit, we like to be actually going somewhere. There has to be a Point A and Point B. I'll admit I'm a little nuttier on this subject than Kay is -- I once decided to try snowmobiling and initiated myself into the sport by driving one of the machines 700 miles around Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula.

Canoeing? A friend and I once loaded our boat into the baggage car of a transcontinental train, had ourselves dropped off in the northern Ontario wilderness and spent the next week paddling to a railway station 60 miles away. It's all about having a destination -- the farther away the better.

Never mind bus tours (could we ever get that old?); neither of us would even consider one of those bicycling or hiking rips where you travel in a gaggle with a guide. We both love having the wheel and the throttle and the maps and the clock entirely under our own control.

RON EGAN, who runs Egan Marine in Omemee, Ontario, at the southern end of Pigeon Lake -- about 80 miles northeast of Toronto -- showed us to our boat, a trim, white 32-footer. "Any larger," Ron told us, "and you'd need three people for docking and going through locks." But it was large enough. There were a table and banquette in the bow, opposite the helm; a closet and bathroom amidships; and a galley with sink, stove and fridge sharing the stern with a dining table and cushioned bench seats. At night, both the benches and the bow banquette converted to double beds. There were open sun decks, a propane grill and even a ladder leading to the roof, where there was a separate throttle and wheel.

As Kay said after a quick inspection, "You could live in it."

Because most houseboaters are, like us, rank amateurs about to pilot something twice as long as their cars 100 miles or more through waterways that can get narrow, shallow or both, Ron and his staff walk renters through the basics of handling, docking and negotiating locks. They provide detailed charts; and explain the Trent-Severn's system of numbered channel-marker buoys, which -- when correlated with the charts -- make it hard to get lost even on the larger lakes. Staying between those buoys is the best guarantee of avoiding Ron's biggest bugbear and the biggest added expense most renters might face: replacing a propeller. "We don't have too bad a problem," Ron said. "Maybe two a week, on a fleet of 28 boats. Most of the time, when I go out to change a prop and I ask where the charts are, they tell me, 'In the closet.'"

With our charts out, we headed north on Pigeon Lake. No difficult navigation here -- there were only a few marker buoys, and the main thing was to stay clear of the shallow, reedy shoreline. The charts showed that, even in mid-lake, I could have stood next to the boat with my head above water.

The first small challenge was to watch for Fothergill Island, then steer to starboard for Gannon Narrows. One island too far, and we'd be turning into a dead-end channel. One of the trickiest parts of navigating by charts is reconciling the two-dimensional bird's-eye outline of landforms on the chart with the actual elevation profiles you see before you. We were 90 percent sure we'd called Fothergill right, but it was nevertheless reassuring to come upon Buoy 131 in the narrows, right where it was supposed to be.

By this time I had gotten the knack of standing in the open front doorway and reaching over to steer with my right hand. Even at full throttle, the boat went slowly enough to allow this, and it became my favorite steering position except in tight spots. Kay's favorite steering position was not to steer at all. We never had to argue about who was taking the helm, because we had a natural division of labor. Kay would read the charts when I couldn't take my eyes off the water, and she would check the numbers on the marker buoys through the binoculars.

When two people take their first trip alone together after this many years, a lot of cliches come to mind -- most of them at the "Who are you, anyway?" level. But that's not our problem: Because we both work at home, neither of us is in the predicament of the people who write to advice columns lamenting that, after emerging from several decades in their office cubicles, they can't recognize their spouses by daylight. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to learn. Until I stood there at the helm, it hadn't occurred to me that Kay's particular brand of independence might manifest itself not in wanting to steer or in asking how come the guy gets to steer, but in not wanting to steer.

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