PETERBOROUGH, ONTARIO—Get a lock on one of the most unusual and fun things to do on the water this summer.
Settle into a 11-metre Montreal Voyageur canoe and paddle into some Canadian history along the Trent Canal by floating in one of two massive, water-filled tubs at the Peterborough Lift Locks for the 20-meter ride up.
A National Historic Site, we paddled into the largest hydraulic lift lock in the world, an elegant beast opened in 1904 on the Trent-Severn Waterway.
We made the easy trip in a fiberglass replica of the birchbark canoe workhorses that kept the fur trade in motion across parts of pre-Confederation Canada from the 1690s until the 19th century.
No experience is required and anybody over 13.5 kg can join the gentle, 90-minute paddling adventure.
Tours cost $20 for adults and $15 for kids and are run by The Canadian Canoe Museum, which is also definitely worth a visit. It has more than more than 100 canoes and kayaks on display, including watercraft belonging to singer Gordon Lightfoot and former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
Another 600 canoes are in storage but they’ll finally be on display when the new 75,000-square-foot, $65-million Canadian Canoe Museum opens opposite the Lift Locks in 2022

Waiting to enter the Peterborough Lift Locks. Photo courtesy the Canadian Canoe Museum


The Canoe Museum is a key part of a growing tourism push in the Peterborough & The Kawarthas region, a rural area of rolling hills dotted with 155 lakes about a 90-minute drive east of Toronto.
With more than 300 signed bike trails and a growing focus on both farm-to-table dining and craft brewing and distilling, the region is emerging as an ideal weekend getaway.
There were a dozen of us playing modern-day Voyageurs on our canoe tour. First, we had a dockside paddling lesson and learned the French words we’d need on board. With the Canoe Museum’s Sam Cuddy in the stern calling out commands as the gouvernail and Jen Burnard in the bow as the avant, we were off.
But first, a show as we watched a tour boat make the 90-second trip to the top. It was fascinating to see the lock slowly lift the big vessel, holding the it high above us.
The locks work by water balance and gravity, so they move in silence.
Then it was our turn to paddle into the bucket. Lockmaster Ed Donald shared a few facts about the system from the loudspeaker in his booth at the top before he started the process for the slow, smooth lift. We shared the space with a couple of cabin cruisers. It was a strange feeling to look back at the canal behind us dropping away as our bucket slid up along the concrete walls. Then the gate opened and we glided out into the upper canal.
The Voyageurs paddled 14 hours a day, taking more than three tonnes of cargo in their canoe. When Burnard suggested we try to match their 60-strokes-per-minute pace, we followed her rhythm to give it an exhausting go.
It brought back a rush of summer camp memories for me to be in a canoe again, feeling the pull of the water and listing to the swish of the paddles. Burnard led us in a Voyageur salute as we cheered and raised our paddles like the fur traders did 300 years before.
Hungry after out tour, we made a short drive to Peterborough’s Downtown East neighbourhood for lunch at Ashburnham Ale House, which has a sizable list of local and Ontario craft beers, including Beard Free Brewing’s Lock 21, named for the Peterborough Lift Lock.

Robert Black and Barb Matchet make “grain to glass” spirits at Black’s Distillery in Peterborough. Linda Barnard photo

Among the newest craft makers in town, Black’s Distillery opened in March across the street from Ashburnham’s.
Rows of shiny copper stills and vertical towers are the centrepieces of the airy, open craft distillery and tasting area. Copper-coloured chandeliers add just the right touch.
Owners Robert Black and Barb Matchet make “grain to glass” spirits, including a 100% barley whisky, 100% rye whisky and vodka distilled from Red Fife Wheat grown in nearby Douro, a heritage grain first developed not far from Peterborough.
“I really like authentically made stuff, good food. To me, spirits are like food,” said Black. He sees Peterborough undergoing a food and beverage renaissance, embracing “anything local” with pride.
Part of that local pride also connects to the canoe. The Peterborough Canoe Company was once the largest manufacturer in Canada. Although the factory has closed, local craftspeople still produce canoes in the region.
Add to that a true bucket list experience, done paddle in hand, in a travelling tub of water.
I was a guest of Peterborough & the Kawarthas Tourism which did not review or approve this story.

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More about Peterborough & The Kawarthas
The new Venture/North visitors centre: 270 George St. N., suite 101
Or go to for info on arts, culture, heritage and food and drink-based experiences and accommodations.
For Voyageur canoe tours: Go to or call 866-342-2663 ext. 218
Some Black’s Distillery products are available at LCBO stores. The distillery at 99 Hunter St. E. is open for tastings, tours and sales daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday noon to 5 p.m.