We paddle and camp along this historic Ontario waterway without cooking a meal in six days, if you don’t count toasting bagels one morning
Chowing down is always one of the best parts of a camping trip and we just about inhale the plates of steak and kidney pie and fish and chips placed before us after another strenuous day on the water. I should not forget to mention that there is excellent draft beer to wash down this hearty repast, which has become a familiar part of the routine during our paddling trip along the Rideau Canal system in Eastern Ontario. We are dining in the Goose and Gridiron on St. Lawrence Street in Merrickville, a beautifully restored village gracing the banks of the Rideau River and we have just about succeeded in accomplishing two of our main goals. The first is to paddle by kayak from Kingston to Ottawa on the historic Rideau Canal, 202 kilometers in length and which once brought tens of thousands of newcomers a year – up to 30,000 in some years on barges hitched together – to populate Upper Canada. It is said to be the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America and much of the original equipment, including hand winches to operate the locks, are still in use. The canal was built to provide an alternative route to the St. Lawrence River where ships could be fired on by those trigger-happy Americans. We have reached Merrickville in five days and we will have no trouble getting to Ottawa in two more days.
We have brought no cooking equipment as our second goal was to let someone else sweat over a hot stove for all our meals. And we have just about hit that goal except for a minor miscalculation over the opening time of a chip wagon. It was next door to the old farmhouse at Brass Point Bridge where we stayed for the first night of our trip. Fortunately, Mike Robbins came to the rescue by pulling bagels out of his pack. We toasted them on the stove and then we headed up the Cataraqui River. It’s the southern part of the Rideau Canal, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2007 for its role in the foundation of Canada. This is not a wilderness trip where you search hopefully at the end of each day for a clearing to pitch tents. We face many of the same challenges. We sweat under the hot sun, strain upper body muscles unaccustomed to daily paddling, fight off hunger pangs and suffer the parching of our throats.
But at the end of a day of paddling there are conveniences such as manicured lawns beside the locks where tents can be pitched, a key to washrooms for ablutions and nearby inns and restaurants for down-home dining and cool libations. This is the way to go: besides the exertion, we get a brilliant history lesson on the beginnings of commerce and growth of Upper Canada, see outstanding architecture built by Scottish masons of the early 19th century and avoid those nasty portages which are part of so many paddling trips to remote and isolated areas of the country. The canal is an extraordinary monument to the British sappers under the command of Colonel John By who planned the canal with its 23 lockstations and 45 locks, most of which are still operated by hand.
Our nightly stops:
It’s also an extraordinary tribute to the Irish navvies who did the heavy construction and the French-Canadian lumberjacks who cut the trees to make way for the locks in this New World wilderness. An estimated 1,000 men died, including 500 from malaria. Certainly, we get a taste of the wilderness, race storms across open water and grunt across what seem to be never-ending lakes, but the little luxuries at the end of the day make up for those hardships. Day 1: Our journey begins at the dock of the Kingston Rowing Club as our four sea kayaks and two canoes slip into the Cataraqui River just as big-shouldered scullers return from their early morning workouts. We’re fresh so we accept the challenge of portaging our loaded kayaks – two guys at each end – up a dirt track and around the first lock at Kingston Mills where we pick up our fifth kayaker. We will do a few more portages until we decide it’s a lot easier to pay just like the pleasure boaters and float through the locks.
Old farm house
We carry around the locks at Lower Brewers and Upper Brewers before crossing Cranberry Lake to Brass Point Bridge where we pile into the old farm house at Knapps Camping for our first night after a supper of burgers and fries at the nearby chip wagon. Day 2: We get an early start paddling through Whitefish Lake to Jones Falls where we use a cart to roll our kayaks around the two locks. We set off through Sand and Opinicon lakes to Chaffeys Lock and a late lunch. From the front of the kayak I pull out a pizza purchased the previous evening at the chip wagon and it’s a welcome meal. We race threatening clouds and face stiff winds as we cross Newboro Lake, arriving at the dock before rain falls. We set up tents and walk over to the rambling Stirling Lodge, which has been welcoming fishermen (and women) – mostly from the U.S. – for 120 years. Bass and pike are the attraction. At a table near ours, there are three generations of males. Many buildings in the village were constructed in the years shortly after the canal opened in 1832. Day 3: We go through Upper Rideau Lake to the Narrows Lock where we chat with one of the pleasure boaters who is wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs sweatshirt. Ned Ellis asks him why Hamilton will never get a team in the National Hockey League. The boater shakes his head (because he knows there’s a punch line coming). “Because then Toronto would want one,” Ellis says. There are laughs all around and the boater shakes his head. “I’ve heard them all,” says the long-suffering Leafs fan with a wan smile.
We leave the Cataraqui system and set off on Big Rideau Lake, the beginning of the Rideau River system. It’s a long day of paddling and after crossing Lower Rideau Lake we arrive at Rideau Ferry late in the afternoon. After 30 kilometers of paddling, we pull up at the large expanse of lawn of the Shipwreck Restaurant, haul our kayaks out of the water and head up to the dining room. Our plan is to have a beer (maybe two) and push off to the Port Elmsley Lock on the Tay Canal a couple of kilometers further on. It was our plan to camp there. After the waitress serves us a round of beers, Mark Mahoney pops the question that is on my mind and that of a few others. “What’s the possibility of us setting up our tents here for the night?” he asks. “I’ll ask the owner,” our congenial waitress says with a smile. She returns and informs us to our great joy, “The owner says it’s OK.” And that’s a good business decision. Clicking our heels (figuratively), we order more rounds of beer and request the dinner menus. That decision puts another $350 or so into the owner’s cash register that evening. Day 4: We head off looking for the Mud Cut, an old channel, through Lower Rideau Lake. It’s shorter than following the boat channel that swings around by the shore. We find it and paddle to the Poonamalie Lock and then into the deep lock (almost 30 feet) at Smiths Falls. By this time we are paying to go through locks just like the pleasure boats. After three more sets of locks – Old Slys, Edmonds and Kilmarnock, we arrive at Merrickville, proceed through the locks and set up camp at the bottom of the combined structure. At the top, there is a private campground where I take a shower.
And that brings us to the gathering at the Goose and Gridiron pub where we meet up with the fish and chips and steak and kidney pie. Day 5: We paddle through Nicholsons and Burritts Rapids, arriving at the Long Island Marina, which has a tenting area. For supper we make do with frozen food from a dispenser machine warmed up in a microwave. Day 6: We’re getting close to Ottawa now and the sprawl becomes more and more evident. At first, we pass cottages but these soon become houses. Many residents own personal watercraft and create plenty of wake for us to grapple with. Speed limits seem to be routinely ignored. We slip through the locks at Long Island and Black Rapids, arriving at the Rideau Canoe Club at Hog’s Back. Most of us pull out here, the end of the river portion of the waterway. The rest of the way is a proper canal – close to 10 kilometers with concrete walls – through old residential sections of the city to the final eight locks leading down to the Ottawa River. The canoes and Mark Mahoney in his kayak travel this portion finally pulling out at the marina across the river in Hull.
Good to Go
Parks Canada has a web site with much detail on the canal and a map. http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/docs/r/on/rideau/pd-mp/page_01.aspx Ken Watson has written four books on the canal and his web site gives plenty of background and history on the canal. http://www.rideau-info.com/canal/index.html#menu