Cruising Back in Time

About the Author

Kim Lunman is the owner and publisher of Island Life Magazine, a glossy publication distributed annually every May in northern New York and eastern Ontario. Lunman, an award-winning Canadian journalist and writer for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, returned to her river roots in her hometown of Brockville and founded Island Life Magazine five years ago. She recently launched an online edition of Island Life, http://www.islandlifemag.ca, and also is a member of the non-profit http://www.thousandislandslife.com. An avid kayaker and novice boater, Lunman enjoys exploring the Thousand Islands each summer in her Brockville backyard: The river overlooking New York State.

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Cruising Back in Time

by Kim Lunman
The Rideau Canal takes boaters on a 125-mile journey through eastern Ontario and the history of Canada’s capital city — and beyond.

It’s hard to believe that a war is responsible for the wondrous waterway flowing through eastern Ontario called the Rideau Canal. 

Today, the Rideau offers boaters a peaceful cruise through its storied history. It’s a voyage back in time, with stops at its lock stations and charming village ports along the way that will ultimately deposit you into the heart of Canada’s capital city, Ottawa.

But the Rideau Canal was never intended as a tourist attraction and recreational boating destination. It came about as a result of the War of 1812. The canal was supposed to be used as an alternate supply route to Kingston and the Great Lakes during wartime, as the international boundary along the St. Lawrence River was vulnerable to attack.

The canal’s “back door” water route was built for troops and supplies from Montreal to reach Upper Canada settlements and a naval dockyard at Kingston. Considered one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century, the Rideau Canal stretches 125 miles from Ottawa to Kingston. 

Establishing the Route

The British sent Lieutenant Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers to supervise canal construction built by thousands of laborers, including Irish immigrants, French Canadians and Scottish stonemasons. They built 47 locks, blockhouses and dams. It’s truly remarkable how these structures have stood the test of time. The canal was built in virtual wilderness 35 years before the Confederation of Canada on July 1, 1867. Today, boaters can cruise into the nation’s capital, just one mile from the Prime Minister’s famous residence on 24 Sussex Drive, and watch fireworks in the shadow of the Peace Tower and Parliament on Canada Day.

Ken Watson, author of numerous books on the Rideau Canal including “Tales of the Rideau” and “A History of the Rideau Lockstations” (http://www.rideauinfo.com), has spent two decades researching the waterway and is fascinated by its rich heritage.

“A boater going through the Rideau Canal is living history,” says Watson, who resides on the Rideau’s Sand Lake. “Ottawa is there because of the Rideau Canal.”

While Big Rideau Lake is up to 330 feet deep, the Rideau Canal route has a few travel restrictions. For instance, it’s recommended that your boat not be more than 90 feet LOA or draw more than 4 feet of water if you want to take the cruise through the canal. Parks Canada oversees lock stations, locks and fees. It’s estimated that about 8,000 boaters cruise the Rideau Canal each year, says Watson. It also has become a popular route with paddlers.

Ahoy Rentals (http://www.ahoyrentals.com), located on the waterfront in Kingston, has kayaks and canoes that are ideal for paddling this route. You can launch right from the dock at their storefront or take your rental off site. They also offer flexible pick-up and drop-off service to most lock stations from Kingston to Ottawa.

UNESCO (United Nations, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has declared the Rideau Canal a World Heritage Site. Tourism is its mainstay today, ranking second in National Geographic’s selection of world class destinations in 2008. The canal attracts many boaters from Ontario and Québec and all across North America.

“It’s very different boating to be sure,” says Lorraine Ramsay, as she and her husband, Don, waited for the locks to open at the village of Merrickville for their 30-foot cruiser. But the Ramsays prefer this pace. “It’s very European.”

If time constraints won’t allow getting your boat up to Ontario, or you would prefer to sit back and relax, Ontario Waterway Cruises (http://www.cruiseontario.ca) gives passengers the opportunity to experience the Rideau Canal on a five-day cruise from Kingston to Ottawa. This family-owned and -operated cruise company offers a unique cruising experience with a casual family atmosphere, quality service, great food, breathtaking scenery, and visits to local ports along the way.

They also offer a Trent-Severn cruise, as well as one from Peterborough to Kingston, including the Thousand Islands.

The Journey Begins

The Rideau Canal is accessed through Lake Ontario at Kingston. The voyage from the Great Lakes will take you canal cruising on a different type of journey, with stops at historic ports like Jones Falls.

The first community that you reach on the Rideau Canal cruise from Kingston to Ottawa is Seeley’s Bay, a quaint village that caters to visiting boaters. The village of Newboro has a new, revitalized marina this summer and is home to Stirling Lodge and Kilborn’s, a country store with thousands of square feet of shopping that’s popular with locals and visiting boaters alike. Westport is a welcoming mill town, a highlight in the Rideau Lakes district in the shadow of Foley Mountain. The village provides boaters with amenities and popular attractions such as Foley Mountains’ Spy Rock observation deck, the Rideau District Museum and an annual Outdoor Music Festival.

The port of Portland has deep water surrounding islands and bays that make it ideal for cruising. Dock and camp overnight at Colonel By Island, named after the “Father of the Rideau.” Portland’s harbor boasts amenities including shopping, restaurants and a sandy beach for swimming.

You don’t have to be a military buff to enjoy exploring the Rideau. There’s some pretty interesting history to absorb besides that of the canal, its locks and military blockhouses.

The port of Perth offers up a story straight out of a Wild West movie script. Dock overnight here at the scene of the last fatal duel in Upper Canada, reminiscent of the fatal shootouts of Western folklore. Take a tour up the Tay Canal from Beveridges Locks, off Lower Rideau Lake, and you’ll find public docks available at Last Duel Park and Campgrounds, where the Tay Canal enters the southeast corner of town.

The Perth Museum (Matheson House) showcases the pistols used in Canada’s last fatal duel in 1833. The incident occurred June 13, when law student John Wilson shot and killed Robert Lyon while defending his honor. Lyon had called Wilson a liar and assaulted him. Lyon, who originally hailed from Scotland, also was a law student. The pair were dueling over the love of local schoolteacher Elizabeth Hughes. Wilson and his “second,” Samuel Robertson, were both charged with murder and later acquitted. The duel didn’t hurt Wilson’s love life or law career, however. Two years later, he married Hughes and they eventually had three children together. He later went on to become a judge and member of Parliament before dying in 1869.

Steamboats once lined up at Perth to ferry passengers and other goods to ports along the Rideau. Today, Perth — voted “Prettiest Town in Ontario” by TV Ontario 2000 — offers pristine parks and a summer-long Farmer’s Market at the Crystal Palace. Town streets are lined with heritage homes and stores as it prepares to celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2016.

There are some great restaurants housed in heritage buildings here, too, such as the Stone Cellar and Fiddleheads Bar & Grill. Mex & Co., with its waterfront patio, offers ambiance and tasty Mexican food.

Perth also lays claim to the “Big Cheese.” In the 1800s, 12 local cheese makers shipped a 22,000-pound, 6-foot-high, 28-foot-wide cheese wheel to the Chicago World’s Fair, and it broke a world record. If you’re curious about what it might have looked like, you can check out a “Big Cheese” replica at the Tay Canal basin.

The Rideau’s “Crown Jewel”

The village of Merrickville bills itself as “The Jewel of the Rideau” for good reason. Merrickville was settled in the 1700s as an industrial center along the shores of the Rideau, with foundries, woolen mills, saw mills and grist mills. It would later become a strategic military center during the building of the canal. Today, it’s a bustling tourism town, with more than 50 shops and restaurants lining its streets. It’s one of the last stops en route to Ottawa through the canal lock system. Merrickville has become a popular shopping destination and is a favorite port for boaters.

Steeve Lassard and Nathalie Rawmaond, of Gatineau, Québec, love stopping here aboard their 32-foot cruiser, Passion. Cruising the canal is a way to get away from it all, says Lassard. “Just being on the water is so relaxing,” he says. “Ten minutes after leaving shore, all your problems slip away.”

Merrickville is a heritage village that has developed into a trendy day-tripping getaway for people in Ottawa and other nearby communities. But the village also is cherished for its Rideau Canal history. The Merrickville Blockhouse, now a museum, was built in 1832 as a fort to defend the canal. Visitors can find a shop along the canal called The Depot, operated by the Friends of the Rideau, that sells gifts, books, charts and waterway-related gifts.

Enjoy strolling Merrickville’s eclectic boutiques and shops offering jewelry, fashions, garden and home décor, and antiques. There are about 30 artisans in the village. Mrs. McGarrigles is a foodies’ delight not to be missed, featuring fine cookware, chocolate and its award-winning gourmet mustards in one of the village’s original general stores. Check out the handmade leather bags at Rowland Leather and the whimsical home and garden store Windsor’s Courtyard. Paws a Bit offers some chic canine couture and grooming for boaters of the furry, four-legged variety.

There are some terrific spots to eat in Merrickville. The stately stone building called the Baldachin Inn offers lunch and fine dining, British-style pub and courtyard patio. There’s Gad’s Hill Place or Dickens’ Eating House, for casual dining in a Victorian setting with pub fare. The Yellow Canoe Café has a charming courtyard, serving soups, salads and sandwiches.

The last leg of the Rideau voyage takes you past the village of Manotick, and the lock at Long Island allows boaters to enter Canada’s capital city.

Exploring Ottawa

Ottawa was wilderness when the Rideau Canal was built. Today, the canal will take you to its cosmopolitan center, with fine shopping and dining just steps away in the Byward Market and the Rideau Centre mall. The market offers fresh produce, flowers, artisan crafts and jewelry. Take a tour of Parliament Hill, drink in a 360-degree view of the city from Peace Tower, watch the changing of the Guard Ceremony, and visit the National Arts Centre, Canadian War Museum and Museum of Nature. Take a stroll through the palatial Château Laurier hotel and enjoy cocktails at its lounge.

For fine dining and cutting-edge French cuisine, try 18 on 18 York Street in a century-old heritage building. Social restaurant and lounge on Sussex Drive offers French and Mediterranean fusion cuisine, while Haveli’s Indian Restaurant on Clarence Street boasts the city’s best Indian food. Black Thorn is a popular pub and bistro on Clarence Street.

There’s no shortage of fine dining in downtown Ottawa, but the Rockcliffe Boathouse Marina, a floating restaurant on the Ottawa River a couple of miles northeast of the Ottawa Locks, offers dining and overnight mooring.

Ottawa comes alive at night, and there are plenty of summer festivals in which to partake. There’s Ribfest, the Ottawa International Jazz Festival , Canada Day celebrations and fireworks July 1 on Parliament Hill, Ottawa’s Bluesfest, and Busker Festival. Enjoy the atmosphere while you can in the summer. Because come winter, Ottawa’s canal is transformed into the world’s largest skating rink. But with spring, the ice thaws, the tulips return, and the canal once again belongs to boaters.

A voyage through the Rideau is more than a boat ride. Its tranquil time travel takes you deep into Canada’s rich history and right up to the doorstep of downtown Ottawa. It’s a cruise like no other.