The historic Rideau Canal, a part of the Loop to which we’ve really been looking forward, promising natural beauty with less populated areas and learning the history and culture of this part of Canada. The pace is slow, the distances short, and the stops are many as we travel almost every day. And the locks – did I mention there are a lot of locks?
Click the Google Map button below to open the map in a separate window. There you can zoom in/out, and click on the icons to see pictures and more info on the various places along our route.
Background on the Rideau Canal
It’s old, completed in 1832. It’s a Canadian National Historic Site and was declared a World Heritage Site in 2007. The canal connects the Ottawa River with Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway, a key commercial trade route. The British feared the cocky Americans would try again to take Canada by cutting off the St. Lawrence supply route, so the Army tasked Colonel John By to build a canal for military strategic purposes. He brilliantly routed the 49 engineering-marvel locks along the natural path of existing rivers, lakes, and ravines, so only about 10% of the 126 miles is man made to bypass the non-navigable stretches. Hence the preservation of natural beauty and its meandering path.
By the time it was completed the Americans and British were buddies. But it was a good commercial route, and towns sprang up and thrived. Then the railroad came along a few decades later and was more cost-effective than livestock-drawn barges. But it was still fun for recreation and tourism, and now it is the oldest continually operating canal in North America.
The canal is operated just as it was when it opened, with hand cranked lock doors and sluice gates, which is a large part of the charm and uniqueness of the route. Lockhouses have been preserved as best they could, as have the military blockhouses at some of the locks originally placed to defend against a threat that never materialized. Parks Canada operates the locks, staffed by experienced lockmasters and summer-hire college students. They are all wonderful in customer service, and go out of their way to help. Almost every lock also has overnight dockage and washrooms (aka bathrooms) along the ‘walls’ before and/or after the lock. Some also have campsites. We purchased both a seasonal Parks Pass and a Lock Permit that allows us unlimited lockages and overnight mooring, which made the Canadian leg of our Loop incredibly economical.
The Ottawa Flight, Ontario
July 16, 2022
The Ottawa Flight was quite a unique experience! We arrived on the empty Blue Line with Inconceivable over an hour before the lock would open, and Patty and I walked all the way up the lock stairs to find a bakery and get fresh croissants for breakfast. We had noticed two boats on the Blue Line at the top of the flight when we had walked up, so the question was which direction they were going to do first. It takes over two\ hours to do all eight locks, and they can only do one direction at a time. It would be a long wait if the lockmaster decided to do the down cycle first.
At 9:00, the lockmaster in his Parks Canada green and khaki uniform heading down the stairs was the signal they were going to lock up first – woohoo! He looked over all boats now there and assigned the order to go in. There would be two groups going up, with the second group starting in the first lock when the first group was in the third lock. With this ‘staggering,’ the filling and draining of the forward locks would supply the water to lift the boats in the later group and be the most efficient way to move the most boats.
This time lapse video is the second to last lock. The luxury Hotel Lanier is on the left. Note all the people on the side as well as standing on the bridge in front of us.
Being bigger, we were in the second group and entered the lock at about 10:00. With each lock, the modern skyline of Gatineau across the river fell further below us and the luxurious century old Hotel Lanier initially towering above on one side and the even older Canadian Parliament complex on the other side loomed less and came to eye level. The Ottawa Flight is a huge spectator sport, with people lining both sides of the locks just a couple feet from where we our lines were wrapped around the cables as we came up to their level. It was fun to talk to everyone and answer all their questions, but also exhausting to be manning the lines and the vigilance required to move from lock to lock and fight the jockeying of the boat as they flooded.
We finished at almost exactly noon and got the last space on the wall with electric hookup just after exiting the final lock. Tired as we were from the morning’s work, Ottawa was waiting to be explored and we got our second wind. I wrote about our adventures in Ottawa in the previous blog post (read it here), so will just say it was a great city and one we plan on returning to someday.
Long Island Lock - lower wall
We had packed a lot into about 24 hours in Ottawa, and wanted to focus on cruising the Rideau so headed south through the city about noon the nexrt day . Ottawa isn’t that big, and we soon traded the bustle of the city for dodging kayaks and paddleboarders and just about anything that floats as we passed through the small Dows Lake on a Sunday afternoon.
A bridge, four locks and 12 miles later we arrived at the Long Island Lock for the night at 4pm, one of just a handful of boats. No town, just marsh and water and quiet.
Burritts Rapids Lock - upper wall
Early morning weather check showed good chance of rain but much less of thunderstorms, so we decided to keep moving – but had to wait until 9:00 for the locks to open. This was another flight of three locks, and it turned out did the down boats first so we had to wait an hour for the cycle to complete. Most of the way to Burritts’s Rapids was residential-lined banks, but a pretty cruise. The weather forecast proved accurate, and we locked through the final lock in steady rain and I was soaking wet by the time the lock staff helped to squeeze both of us onto the remaining wall space. The rain continued all afternoon so not much exploring until our walk with Roxy the following morning.
After the rain, it was a beautiful sunny morning, though of course everything was still soaking wet and Roxy tracked mud all over the boat. Oh well — life on a boat with dog. We had six locks to do today, and in between was mostly marsh, lush vegetation, and a meandering route sparsely dotted with homes.
Merrickville is one of the few towns along the Rideau that pre-dated the canal. All the spots with electric hookup were taken, so we had to tie up next to the spillway and Inconceivable rafted off us. This unfortunately meant we wouldn’t have AC on this hot day so had to take Roxy with us to explore the town, and she darted from shady spot to shady spot. We did find a place where she could wade in below the dam spillway amongst some ruins of an old mill and canal buildings, and she lay down there for quite awhile. We cooled off with our feet in the water as well.
Later we had a ten-minute microburst come through with high winds, hail, thunder, and a driving rain. It came up so suddenly we were running around shutting hatches and keeping things from blowing away. It wasn‘t until the following day that a fellow Looper mentioned he had seen Inconceivable’s Canadian courtesy flag get blown right off the antenna during the storm. None of us had even noticed it missing.
Inconceivable had friends visiting and weren’t planning on departing until later in the day, so Dave and I headed out early. After so many weeks of traveling together, it was actually a little weird to do the locks without banter between us while going in and out. All we had for entertainment was some kayakers in the last couple locks who kept paddling in front of us, going to the wrong side of the lock wall, and causing general confusion and delays.
The town of Smith Falls managed the wall in a beautiful park with gardens, trees, and fountains. The only problem was all the goose poop in the park rendered it completely underutilized. (If you think Canada Geese are a problem in the States, you should see ‘em in Canada.) Dave and I did manage to find a coffee shop for our afternoon treat – the first in a long time. Breweries are much easier to find in towns along the Rideau than coffee places. The extra ‘down day’ was used for things like laundry and badly needed haircuts for both of us.
Late one afternoon, Dave found Inconceivable’s Canadian courtesy flag stuck around one of our antennas. Apparently, when it blew of their antenna in the microburst, our antenna caught it. What are the odds?
Colonel By Island Anchorage
We had the final Smith Falls lock to go through first thing, and upon exiting we were almost immediately in a rather narrow canal surrounded by marshland, with water lilies blooming on both sides as we traveled south. The canal became progressively narrower until we passed between two rock ledges and suddenly were out in the open of Lower Rideau Lake, followed later by Big Rideau Lake. There were dramatic tree-covered rocky cliffs and dozens of little islands scattered throughout, some with a cottage or two (the Canadian term for what we would call a lake house or cabin).
We took a mooring ball rather than the dock at Col By Island because we love being surrounded by water. The view of several small islands nearby, super clear water, and a moderate breeze was glorious, conducive to an afternoon swim off the boat after we had dinghied over to explore the small park. Previously owned by a rich guy who started Yellow Cab Company before being donated to Parks Canada, he had used the lone cottage to entertain the rich and famous; now it was a fenced off dilapidated hazard. But there was a random tennis court and if you don’t happen to carry tennis racquets on your boat as standard equipment they had some there, although no tennis balls so you’d have to play air tennis. Which was fine because the surface of the court was in pretty rough shape and balls would probably bounce in random directions. We enjoyed a quick sunset dinghy ride around some of the little islands nearby and could see a bejillion stars and even the Milky Way on the moonless night. It was camping on the water and one of our favorite stops.
First lock of the day was Narrows Lock, the last lock where we would go up. It was built because it was easier to raise the water level by damming up the river leading to Big Rideau Lake to form Upper Rideau Lake than to blast out a navigable channel through the rocky rapids.
Westport was a couple miles off our route but the stop highly recommended. We explored the one-square-block downtown, then enjoyed a much-needed cold drink at Westport Brewing and later ice cream, of course.
Jones Falls - upper wall
From here on, we would be locking down to get to Lake Ontario. Lots of boat traffic at the locks and through some narrow, twisting legs that did not allow for great visibility around the bends. Chaffey Lock proved one of those challenges. Rounding the final blind turn before the lock, we saw boats along both the channel walls, a couple kayakers, a woman swimming (???), and a large tour boat taking up the whole blue line and blocking the entrance to the lock while they boarded. With our 18’ beam we could neither turn around nor go forward. Inconceivable slipped past us to a small spot on the wall. Fortunately the tour boat captain came out and yelled that the water was deep enough in front of him and helped us pull in. Two more small boats came around the bend and scooted over as the tour boat got underway. Once he had cleared out, we could all get into the lock and continue on our way. It had been a wild 15 min.
The rest of the transit to Jones Falls was beautiful, with more of the small rocky islands and scattered summer cottages/cabins. We tied up at the upper lock wall – which now was before the locks since we were locking down – and had the small park to ourselves. Roxy loved not having to be on a leash, and it was secluded, quiet, and peaceful. A short walk took us to the other side of the flight of locks we would be traversing the next day, and to the only business around – an ice cream place, of course. There were also many remnants of the original lock structures to explore, including an arch dam, blacksmith shop, and the lockhouse.
It was here Gary took up amateur fish-farming. He was using his bug zapper racquet on the abundant bugs, and noticed the fish feeding frenzy when he dropped the carcasses off the stern. So he intensified his bug zapping and carcass dumping. I have to admit it was entertaining.
We were playing cards when our phones alarmed with tornado warnings! It looked pretty good where we were and not knowing what to do in a tornado on a boat, we just ignored them and kept playing. We later had some heavy rain and could see some really cool horizontal lightning jumping from cloud to cloud in the distance, but nothing more.
The Jones Falls locks were a series of one lock, a very short distance and sharp left turn, and then a flight of three more locks. After that we were now technically on the Cataraqui River that would take us to Kingston. The cottages seen varied from shacks to homes perched high on the bluffs, the deep blue water had many loons floating on the surfact, and there dense copses of trees lined the banks and the small rocky islands. Add a sunny blue sky and it was stunning.
As we got closer to Upper and Lower Brewers Locks, the landscape changed to a marshy meandering waterway, with lots of blooming water lilies, geese, and even some swans. We tied up for the night on the lock wall after the Lower Brewers lock. The story goes that the owner of the mill here at Brewers kept confounding progress on the lock by damming up the waterway, until Col By showed up with a loaded gun and ‘made him an offer he couldn’t refuse’ to purchase the property, thus eliminating the construction impediment.
Last leg to Kingston took us through progressive signs of urbanization. After the final flight of three locks at Kingston Mills and an inexplicable delay at a swing bridge, we pulled into the city-run Confederation Basin Marina, right in the large park that was a hub of activity.
Kingston has a ton of history — at one time the provincial capital, the War of 1812, and a refuge for loyalists during the American Revolutionary War, to name just a bit. This ended up being a three day stop for us due to a weather delay, but we had plenty to keep us busy and a nice mix of shopping, sightseeing, free concerts (plural) in the park, and boat projects that needed tending.
But the best thing was a visit from friends Lynne and Mike, who drove all the way up from Upstate NY to see us. Lynne was the first Exec Director of Reach Out and Read MN, the non-profit I was heavily involved with during our Minnesota years. We had a great time in their short visit, dining at an excellent gourmet pizza place called Woodenheads, catching up after the deluxe 10-minute boat tour, and then doing a self-guided walking tour of Kingston. Something about seeing old friends in a foreign city that makes it extra special.
We loved the Rideau. In fact, we’re found Canada to be fantastic cruising in general. But we’re not done. From here we’ll rejoin the ‘traditional Loop’ and cross west along Lake Ontario to do the Trent Severn Waterway, a bastion of recreational boating. There will be many more locks, including some very unusual ones, many more towns, and many more remote locations. We’re behind the main Looper pack, but still meeting plenty of others without having to compete for dockage. We are in no rush — there’s just too much good stuff to see.
Pops’ Stats Corner*
- No of Days: 13
- Travel Days: 10
- Miles Traveled: 133.6 sm (116.2 nm)
- Provinces Visited: 1
- Canadian Courtesy Flags lost 1
- And found 1
Cumulative Great Loop
- Started March 17, 2022 in St. Augustine, FL
- Travel Days: 56
- Miles Traveled: 2158.6 (1876.8 nm)
- States Visited: 11
- Provinces Visited: 2
*Pops is what the family affectionately called Dave’s dad. He had a mind for sports statistics, earning him the nickname Numbers from the coaches of several Stillwater teams with whom he worked. This regular section of the blog is in his honor, because it’s the kind of thing he would love.