Tourism and businesspeople in Coboconk hope that a move to officially recognize Balsam Lake Canada’s as Fresh Water Summit — the surface is 256.5 metres above sea level, nearly half as high as the CN Tower — will finally bring visitors to the Kawartha Lakes village. (Photo courtesy City of Kawartha Lakes Tourism)

Coboconk on top of the world as beautiful Balsam Lake
officially recognized as Canada's Fresh Water Summit

News Archive BY GARY MAY
If you were to set out by boat from Coboconk on the Trent-Severn Waterway in the western reaches of Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes region, you could sail east to the Atlantic Ocean, west to the Pacific, north to the Arctic Ocean or south to the Caribbean — without ever touching land.  

Now, local authorities, with the blessing of Parks Canada, have recognized the spot as Canada’s Fresh Water Summit — the highest body of fresh water in the country and the world — from which you can circumnavigate the oceans. The surface is 256.5 metres above sea level, nearly half as high as the CN Tower.  

On June 19, the title became official, as dignitaries invited the public to join in a celebration and unveiling of a sign that marks the coordinates of 44 39.476 North Latitude and 78 47.815 West Longitude.  

To the locals, that official spot is simply known as Balsam Lake. Now, it’s officially the Fresh Water Summit.  
The village of Coboconk, population 1,200, is part of the City of Kawartha Lakes. Margaret Cunningham, at the Kawartha Lakes tourism office, says credible claims have been made that there is no other navigable river or freshwater lake in the world at a higher elevation from which a boater can set sail and traverse the globe’s oceans — without touching land.  

Cunningham says she’s excited about the tourism prospects. The site has considerable historic importance for Canada, an area that was navigated and portaged by First Nations people for centuries, as well as by Samuel de Champlain in the 17th century.  

An interactive sign has been erected on Coboconk’s municipal dock to mark the spot. A full day of celebrations included a parade of Boats Through the Ages, a flotilla of historic and unique watercraft.  

The event, which also marked the summer solstice, could become an annual one, says Cunningham.  

Catharine Kersteman, owner of the Saucy Willow Inn with husband Chris, says the community hopes that by creating a “photo-op” with the Fresh Water Summit sign, it will encourage boaters and passersby on the highway to stop and take a look around. Residents hope the Summit will take its place with the Wawa goose, the Sudbury nickel and Mattawa’s Big Joe Mufferaw.  

“This is a lovely place,” says Kersteman. “But we’re on an offshoot of the Trent-Severn Waterway, and often boaters just head straight across Balsam Lake without stopping. We’ve got all the services and supplies here.”  

Great reason 'to stop and see the village'

Meanwhile, highways 35 and 48 meet in “The Cob,” as locals call it, “and we want to give people a reason to stop and see the village.”  

Besides the beautiful Kawarthas scenery, says Kersteman, one thing to see while you’re in Coboconk is what locals say could be Canada’s smallest jail, a one-room building. Then there are the lime kilns that were once used to make local bricks. Some call Coboconk the “limestone village,” in reference to its hard Ordovician-era limestone.  

And then there’s the fishing. “Mostly, it’s about the water,” Kersteman says. There’s plenty of space for motorized vessels, as well as quiet little inlets ideal for kayaking and canoeing, and lots of sand for beach lovers.  

Kersteman says it’s the water that attracted her to the community five years ago when she took over a bed-and-breakfast and created the Saucy Willow on Gull River. “We’d probably always want to live on the water,” she says.  

Kayle Graham, co-owner of Thompson’s Marina, says planning for the event has led to a lot more attention being paid to the community’s appearance — and that’s a good thing. “It’s helped clean up the town,” he says. “The signs, the flowers, they’ve cut the grass. It seems people are really starting to care about the town.”  

Cob has been busy on summer weekends, says Graham, although poor weather the past couple of seasons has left its toll. He says he’s glad to hear the summer solstice event could become an annual one, and that should help business.  

“This will introduce new people. Boaters from the far end of the lake who haven’t bothered to drop by should be encouraged to come,” Graham says. “This will make a lot more people take notice of what we have to offer.”  

Like many community names in Ontario, Coboconk is of Indian origin. But there’s some disagreement over what that origin is.  

Some say it’s from Quash-Qua-BeConk, meaning where the gulls meet or nest. Others say it’s from Ko-Ash-Hob-O-Gong, which means running water. Either way, Coboconk is a reference to the Gull River, which runs through the village and separates the townships of Bexley and Somerville.  

Coboconk’s history dates back to 1851 with the construction of a sawmill. By the year 1900, there were four hotels operating in support of the booming lumber industry. By that time, it was the northern terminus of the Toronto and Nipissing Railway and for a time, Coboconk was named Sheddon, after the railway company’s president. Public pressure forced a return to the beloved Coboconk moniker. — June 2010