Lifestyles

Cruising the Rideau Canal

What unique waterway bridges two Canadian cities, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most beautiful places on earth?

Answer: Ontario’s Rideau Canal.

The 202-kilometre channel flows continuously from Kingston to Ottawa, just as it did when it was built back in 1832.

The series of lakes, rivers and dams are linked by 47 locks at 24 stations, most of which are still operated by winches, chains and manpower.

During this cruise, we travel from Perth to Jones Falls and the entire way are treated to a journey back in time.

With more than a dozen years’ touring experience under his epaulettes, Captain Andy Neeteson, operator of 1,000 Islands & Seaway Cruises, knows every historical tidbit and treasure.

“The Rideau is a story of hopes and dreams, disappointment and tragedy,” he said as we plyed effortlessly by campgrounds and posh homes that pepper the canal’s reed-choked shoreline.

“It’s also an epic part of Canada’s heritage.”

We discovered that, after the War of 1812, British mastermind Colonel John By was commissioned to oversee the construction of this canal, a defensible waterway that could be used in the event of an American invasion.

He designed gated chambers (locks) so boats could navigate the varying water elevations.

When filled, the vessels would float up to a higher level.

When drained, they would descend to a lower one and neighbouring weirs would deal with any excess.

Through the day, we tested this bathtub theory at six locks, rising in some, sinking in others, a 10-minute process that moves hundreds of thousands of gallons of water.

And, beyond every park-like station, we were treated to new ventures and vistas: Trout-filled lakes, marshy wetlands and sliver-thin canals, all etched out of limestone and granite-hard Canadian Shield.

It’s an aquatic route of untarnished beauty with a colourful past.

“As brilliant as Colonel By was, he couldn’t manage this feat on his own,” Neeteson said.

“Hordes of unemployed Irish arrived armed with picks and shovels — all for two shillings of pay a day. But they didn’t know what they were in for.”

Long work days, frigid winters and atrocious conditions would have been challenging enough in this untamed wilderness.

Add malaria, dysentery and unruly dynamite to the mix and it certainly raised the death toll.

In spite of the strife, it only took determined By five years to complete the task — yet it was all for naught.

The threat of war had then passed and the route was no longer needed.

When By disclosed he had spent five times more than the initial budget, he became a laughingstock — all the way to his grave.

Our final destination point was Jones Falls, one of the largest engineering marvels en route.

Four locks needed to be navigated at this station to conquer the water levels that span 18 metres.

A blacksmith shop, lockmaster’s home and visitors centre are featured along a self-guided tour and, topping it off (or holding it back) is a stone arch dam that supports the powerful force of Sand Lake.

This wall of limestone spans 107 metres, is 19.5 metres high and was coined by its makers as the “Seventh Wonder Of The World.”

The concave shape also has an unusual acoustic quality, dubbing it as The Whispering Wall.

I proved there’s truth to this name while quietly sharing a secret with my husband, who was standing 100 metres away.

History also lives on at nearby Hotel Kenney.

The yellow clapboard beauty that looks right out of Nantucket has been welcoming guests to its shoreline locale since 1877.

We booked a night in one of the comfy lakeshore rooms and, while enjoying a little down time, great food and legendary service, took another step back in time.

 

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