Wandering through the Rideau system

By Joan Eyolfson Cadham

"I took the usual stroll. The fireflies lit my path past the last four locks. The turning basin was mirror calm. The smell of clover dominated the night air and hollyhocks bloomed around the lock master's house. No more than a thousand mosquitoes attended my return to the tent. I lit another mosquito-repellent citronella candle, blew a kiss to the back-pedaling mosquitoes, and went to bed."  
Kingston Mills Lock
Canoe camping at Brewer's Locks
  The above is a journal entry from Kingston Mills, the last night of our first Rideau cruise. While other waters call for big boats with large sails or motors, the Rideau is a canoer's or kayaker's paradise - because of the low bridges through Ottawa, sailboaters have to lower their masts and, to protect the fragile banks, there are strict speed limits imposed throughout the entire 125 mile length.
Although people refer to the system as the "Rideau Canal," it is more properly the "Rideau Waterway," with locks and canals connecting rivers and lakes from Ottawa to Kingston Mills. While most cruisers begin at either one end or the other, the canoeist or kayaker has the luxury of choosing from literally dozens of likely spots and, with lots of little towns along the way, this is one near-wilderness trip that doesn't require carrying a full vacation's worth of food.  
Canoe Tripping along the Rideau
The Lockmaster at work with historic, hand operated lock equipment
  The Rideau system is at once a living legend, a history lesson, a bird watcher's delight, and an invitation to slow down, relax, and enjoy. It wasn't intended to serve that purpose.

In 1826, Colonel John By was sent from England to oversee the construction of a shallow-draft gunboat canal. After the War of 1812, the British realized that their supply lines along the St. Lawrence River were vulnerable.

An alternative route was considered a necessity. In 1824, Samuel Clowes, who was hired to do a feasibility study on a canal route from Kingston to the Ottawa River, estimated the cost, including locks and canal cuts, at about 169,000 British pounds. When Colonel By was sent out to manage the project, he saw that the notion of a military canal was short sighted. He recommended that a commercial steamboat canal be built. By the time the canal was built to By's specifications in 1832 (at the cost of By's health and at enormous cost of life), delays caused by bureaucratic  
A tribute to Colonel By's engineering skills, the original locks and the original dams are still in use .
  wrangling had contributed to a cost over-run of 608,146 British pounds. By was recalled to England and publicly censured. He was partly exonerated but died in 1839, broken in spirit.

Meanwhile, the canal he had fought for quickly proved its worth. A subsequent Canada-U.S. war never happened. Steam replaced sail. Durham boats, barges and steamships carried cargo and passengers up the canal, often running the rapids of the St. Lawrence to go back downstream, until 1935, when the Great Depression destroyed the Canadian economy. The canal, which had no economic viability, was nearly dismantled as part of a make-work project.

The system was finally declared an historic site and turned over to Parks Canada in 1972. The Rideau is now a pleasure route, run as a recreational monument to Colonel By and the men who died while attempting to build a canal through granite, malaria bogs and thickly treed wilderness more than 160 years ago.

Twelve miles of man-made canals, five miles of which wander through Ottawa, connect a loose chain of lakes and rivers. The system includes 23 lock stations with 47 locks which lift boats 273 feet from the Ottawa River to the summit at Newboro and down 164 feet to Lake Ontario. A side branch up the Tay River to Perth has two locks with a combined 25 foot lift.

Anywhere is a good place to begin. The problem is - when to end? There is never enough time to do the Rideau justice. There is always one more cove begging for a swim suit, one more little town waiting to be explored, one more line of fire flies to follow, one more hiking trail to discover.

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