Retirees on the Rideau
In the introductory pages to his book, “A History of the Rideau Lockstations”, author Ken Watson writes,
“…if you press your ear to the stone of the lock, you can still hear, very faintly, the sound of chisels on stone and the creaking of the ropes and pulleys that lowered these massive blocks into place.” 1
2007 will mark the 175th anniversary of the completion of the construction of the Rideau Canal and Locks system under the supervision of Colonel John By of the British Royal Engineers. The collection of locks, dams and weirs that link the 202 km waterway joining Ottawa with the St. Lawrence River, at Kingston, stand today as proudly, and efficiently as in their days of origin.
The working concepts are disarmingly simple in theory; water in – boats up; water out – boats down. Boats in … boats out! Lock number 36 at Newboro, (there are 49 locks in total, and 24 lock stations), marks the highest point of the route and waterflow from there descends in both directions to Ottawa and Kingston.
Four paddlers from the retirement community of Elliot Lake in Northern Ontario recently travelled the system by canoe, putting in at Kingston Mills and exiting in Ottawa. They spent eleven days on the water, averaging approximately twenty to twenty-five km daily. They also paddled the Tay Canal via the Upper and Lower Beveridge Locks to enjoy a stop in the town of Perth, camping overnight at the municipally operated Last Duel Park.
Bill Ralph and his wife Iris have extensive experience in canoeing and they were joined by fellow enthusiasts Gordon Bruce, and Jim Graham. Each of the retirees, (ranging in age from 56 to 69), speaks appreciatively of the benefits of healthy lifestyle choices of activities, and the pleasures of canoeing and camping in the company of good friends. Says Ralph, “We’re hoping to encourage a larger group to join us in ’07 for an anniversary trip.” He acknowledged the outstanding efforts of lock staff and Parks Canada personnel in answering questions and offering suggestions. “These are people who know their jobs and responsibilities very well, and they treat all the boaters with respect and politeness. They are great ambassadors of Canadian and provincial tourism.”
Bill’s wife, Iris, remarked on the variety of wildlife and waterfowl they spotted during their trip. “Judging by the frequency of herons, loons, osprey and ducks, it’s a healthy habitat environment. We saw turtles and assorted fish, and even had deer watching us from the shoreline.”
Much of the natural river course extends into shallow flood areas as a result of dams controlling water levels. Gord Bruce commented on the weed growth, particularly along shorelines and in many of the natural bays. “There were instances where paddling in these areas was more of a struggle. I can see where a solo canoeist might have difficulty.” To avoid the weed beds he recommends staying closer to the main channel. “Boaters are quite cooperative and conscious of their wake regarding canoeists. There’s a welcome camaraderie on the water” he notes, adding, “I don’t believe ‘River Rage’ has affected us just yet!”
Graham is the self-admitted novice of the group, and he voiced appreciation for the diversity of shoreline scenery. “We saw everything along the river route”, he said, “from gentle, sleepy farmlands and grazing cattle, to picturesque cottage lots and stately executive homes on manicured lawns. There are numerous marshlands and extensive areas of natural forest as well, for those who prefer more isolated or wilderness settings for their paddling.”
Their one day of leisure and rest from paddling was spent in the delightful village of Merrickville. Here, they took time to restock provisions and do some shopping in several of the craft and artisan shops. The lock station at Merrickville is one of the busiest on the route as it entertains boaters, pedestrians, and lots of vehicular traffic on its swing bridge. Here too, are the Canadian Recreational Canoe Association Museum and the popular Friends of the Rideau outlet store, an excellent location for picking up souvenirs and gifts. If you’re visiting on a Friday evening, they recommend a good home-cooked meal and entertainment sponsored by the Legion, or a choice of equally fine dining in any other of Merrickville’s fine restaurants and inns. Lion’s Park and Campground, located alongside the canal approaching the locks, is a popular venue for campers and offers the added attraction of showers, available at a nominal fee.
The river and its connecting lakes are alive with recreational boaters, water skiers, sea-doers, canoes and kayaks. The popularity of fishing is testament to the number of “secret spots” for catching the big ones. Touring boats and rental house boats also make their way up and down the course of the Rideau and all enjoy the same privileges in locking through and stopping for a picnic lunch or an overnight stay.
The foursome did most of their camping at lock stations along the way and again, commended Parks Canada staff on the condition of the grounds, buildings, and facilities. They also spent an evening at Rideau River Provincial Park near Kemptville and were especially appreciative of Superintendent, Peter Woods who arranged truck transportation of their gear from the boat launch to their camp site. “He treated us to complimentary kindling and firewood”, reports Bill Ralph, “which was a highlight to what had been a long day of paddling. Sometimes the smallest act of kindness means so much to a traveller.”
The closing day of their trip saw the group enjoy a leisurely paddle from Hartwell Locks through Dow’s Lake and along the canal to downtown Ottawa at the Chateau Laurier and the Ottawa Locks. They took time to visit the grounds at Majors Hill Park and Bytown Museum and found it a particularly satisfying culmination point. Graham sums up the experience, saying, “We took time to reflect on the scope of the original project, and the incredible workmanship of its builders. It truly was, and is, a remarkable achievement.”
“Our trip was a wonderful experience,” says Graham, and he recommends it to canoeists of all ages. “It’s a great opportunity to live a part of Canada’s history,” and he adds, “the upcoming anniversary will be an excellent time to re-visit the route.
Yes, the sounds of its construction can still be heard in the stones of the locks, but they can also be heard in the currents and waves that wash the shores of this magnificent historic waterway. Get out there and listen.
Elliot Lake, Ontario
August 15, 2005
1 Watson; Ken W. “A History of the Rideau Lockstations”
Published by Friends of the Rideau;
Smiths Falls, Ontario, Canada, 2000