Wandering through the Rideau system Page # 2

By Joan Eyolfson Cadham

The canal through Ottawa is a world of its own, filled with canoes and pedal boats. The banks are used by football teams in training, by day care groups out for a walk, by cyclists, joggers, and walkers going to work. In winter, politicians skate the canal's length on their way to another day at Canada's parliament buildings. A trip through the Rideau system is more than just miles from one camp site to another.  
The Rideau Canal Through Ottawa
Kayaking the Waterways
  The Rideau Canal winds through downtown Ottawa, near the Chateau Laurier, the Parliament buildings, the National Gallery, the National Arts Centre, museums, Byward Market, a poignant memorial to Terry Fox, wonderful little restaurants, and the Revenue Canada building, where you can have a fond look at your vanished money.
  My favorite spot is the Public Archives. I thought archives were nasty places staffed by glum, dusty public servants. I did not go willingly. A boating friend and amateur historian smoothed the way through the process of getting a reading room pass, free, in return for filling out a form and producing valid identification.

Clutching notebooks and pencils, we signed in and made for the map room. A few minutes later, assisted by cheerful staff, we were wearing cotton gloves, armed with magnifying glasses, and pouring over an original 1834 British Admiralty nautical chart. There was something about touching a chart that some ship's navigator actually used 150 years ago that moved me. We had copies made of our favorite charts then ate a good, inexpensive lunch in the cafeteria. Responsible kids are welcome without adults. Because we ordered several charts, we were billed, so we didn't need to cut into our cash reserves. The staff warned us that, if they are busy, they can't make copies while you wait, but they do offer next-day service. The archives building is open during regular business hours. It's free.

We've done a sort of majestic tour of Dow's Lake, a pretty spot that was known as Dow's Great Swamp before Colonel By flooded the land between the initial eight locks and Hartwell's locks, four miles upstream.

Just beyond Ottawa, we coasted through farm land, where the aging roots of willows clung to the banks of the river and the cows nodded greetings as we passed. Long Island is the first truly pastoral lock, complete with one of By's more photogenic dams. There are washrooms, barbecue grills, picnic tables, room for boater camping, and, if you haven't bought them yet, nautical charts for sale.  
Calm water on the Rideau Waterway
  A word about the locks. A tribute to Colonel By's engineering skills, the original locks and the original dams are still in use and most of them are still operated by hand. Rule number one is to wait for instructions from the lock master who seems to know, to the inch, how many boats will fit into the lock and who calls boaters in one at a time. Largest boats go first, and take a position on the wall. Smaller boats move in as called - lock masters usually find a corner somewhere for a canoe or kayak - and should be equipped with bow and stern lines for rafting up to a larger boat. The lock staff cranks the gates shut and adjusts the flow of water to raise or lower the lock full of boats. The lock chambers are filled and emptied through sluices in the gates, the walls, or the floor of the lock chamber, and no pumping is required. In the fortunate event that you paddle up to a lock with no other traffic, the lock master will call you in and direct you to a wall. Slip bow and stern lines around the holding cables, loosely enough that the line will ride up or down the wall as the water rises or drops but tightly enough that your bow or stern won't get caught in an eddy and toss you around. It's fun.

Burritts Rapids is on an island created by the construction of the Rideau. A dam was built upstream to bypass rapids and a channel was dug around the rough water. We walked the Tip to Tip Trail with a guide pamphlet in the quiet of early evening, looking for beaver and admiring the great blue herons. We inspected the dam and were overwhelmed by By's ability to see, through rock and forest, without the aid of computers, how this whole beautiful jigsaw would fit together with such permanent majesty.

The old mill in Merrickville
  We decided Merrickville warranted a stop. The blockhouse was built to guard against sabotage from American invaders. The original log house and saw mill date to 1794 and there are some preserved ruins that simply begged for my camera.

We worked through the Tay Canal and the Tay River, through marsh lands and around reed bed islands, past tilted trees with exposed roots, past quiet farm land and up to Perth.

  The last fatal duel in Canada was fought in Perth and, across from the public dock, is an old cemetery that begs your company as the late evening sun slants long slender shadows across the fading marble tombstones.

The Rideau is the oldest waterway in North America to be operated for the most part with original equipment. The lock gates are hand-cranked. The valves that feed or release water into the lock chambers are hand regulated. The delicately balanced swing bridges are people-powered. The blacksmith at Jones Falls crafts spare parts in the winter. The Rideau's finest asset is its courteous, friendly, helpful staff. Its curse in the mosquito, no longer carrying malaria, but still capable of carrying away a 12-foot canoe.

And, outside of a certain spot on the farm where I grew up, there is no more easily reached beautiful spot than the Poonamalie lock station in late summer, lined with delicate blue flowers, rich with the warm scent of pines, heavy with the perfume of ripening raspberries, quiet, lovely, rather than spectacular, a gentle memory to grace a winter's night. At Newboro, the summit of the waterway, we found St. Mary's, an historic little church built from stone quarried on a farm on the Little Rideau and drawn by 40-horse teams to the site. It is of Saxon design, high sidewalls, with a square tower surmounted by a belfry and a short spire. The land was donated by Benjamin Tett and he paid the builders. His son nailed the last shingle. And, after a quick walk out of Newboro, we found St. Mary's cemetery with a monument to John Chaffey, of the Chaffey's Lock family, and his wife, Mary Ann Tett, whose family donated the land for the church.

In contrast to the soaring white pillar topped with an acorn, symbol of resurrection, we saw across the street in the Old Presbyterian cemetery a stark black-and-white sign acknowledging that the sappers and miners who died of malaria are buried here in unmarked graves. We found their monument, eventually, in Smiths Falls. The canal labourers were Irish and French. The men often laboured all day, waist-deep in stagnant water. Malaria was common, medical care non-existent. The nearest hospital in Brockville was inaccessible because of the lack of roads. In Smith's Falls, in 1829, a group of workers met in a settler's home to celebrate a Roman Catholic mass and from that beginning, they build St. Francis de Sales. The first frame church went up in 1832, the year the Rideau was completed. A blue limestone building completed in 1861 was destroyed by fire in 1948 and the current church is stunningly ornate, with frescoes and carved angels and stained-glass windows with two-in-thick hand-chiseled glass inserts. (Incidentally, St. Francis de Sales, pronounced the way it reads, is the patron saint of writers.)

We loafed around Jones Falls and read the log book kept by Peter the lock master, a combination of soap opera - a quarrelsome alcoholic wife and a daughter who ran off with a river man - and dreary accounts of long days of boredom.

Wind blown trees along the Rideau Waterway
  Low water is a serious problem in parts of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. Water levels - down five feet in Lake St Louis on the western edge of Montreal Island - are at a 30 year low. However, the Rideau has lots of water, especially for canoes and kayaks. Sixty per cent of the water needed for the system and surrounding area is stored prior to the summer in reservoirs and lakes. The other 40 per cent comes from rain and snow.
  The first reservoirs were built in 1858. For the first 20 or 30 years of canal operation, the land around was heavily forested and melts ran off slowly and gradually. Then traffic picked up and land was cleared. By the 1850s, the canal was running out of water.

Still concerned with military operations, the government confiscated private dams and grist mills, a move that caused enough ire that some little dams were destroyed 20 times a year by angry settlers. By 1880, a reservoir system under government control was in effect. The level of the dams was increased, drowning hundreds of acres of prime land and creating hundred of third and fourth generation land claims.

Colonel John By and his family made the first complete trip through the Rideau system by steamship in five days. They probably didn't take time to go swimming or to overnight in Murphy's Bay, or to take side trips where their fancy led them. I wonder if they ran out of film as often as I did. I hope he was as impressed with his achievements as we are. Five days or five weeks - there is no limit to the lure of the Rideau waterway. Easy to reach yet filled with the promise of peace, privacy and beauty, there is no limit to the pleasures the system can offer.  
Kayaking and canoeing are quiet, peaceful ways to explore the
Rideau waterway
About The Author