Written by BEN RAYNER
Photography by JEFF BASSETT
Ottawa Sun
 EDMONDS LOCK -- Lockmaster Jim Higginson has pronounced it pizza night at Edmonds Lock.
 But rather than partake of the steaming hot "farmer's specials" Higginson has ordered in from nearby Smiths Falls, Brian Francis and his wife, Sharon Hume, have elected to barbecue chicken for visiting friends on the back of their imposing 35-foot cruiser, the Sea King III.
 "This is our retirement boat," says Francis, an Ottawa physical-education teacher, as he conducts a brief tour of the floating mini-home. It's on the opulent Sea King that he and Hume intend to spend the summers of their golden years, cruising the Rideau and Trent-Severn canals and sojourning in the 1,000 Islands.
Gladys Wills runs a filling station on the canal at Rideau Ferry. The family-run business has been a fixture of the area for decades.

 Since first navigating the Rideau in a 19-footer several years ago, he explains, he and Hume have succumbed to both the "one-foot-itis" -- the nagging sensation that a slightly bigger boat is always better -- that strikes so many, and to the charms of the pure Ontario wilderness along the canal.
 "It's a different way to relax," says Francis. "We don't go city to city. We don't do Ottawa to Merrickville to Smiths Falls to Kingston. We do all the spots in between. It's a necessary evil that you have to go through all the bigger villages and towns.
 "It's probably the most relaxing time of our lives, on the Rideau. Not when there's nine boats jammed in the locks and everybody's playing their radios, but the quiet spots."
 The Rideau -- with only 29 km of artificially excavated canals -- is by far his favorite place to cruise, says Francis, who has few kind words for the more obviously man-made Trent-Severn and its endless miles of straight channel cuts. And, he adds, he finds the Rideau lock staff more safety-conscious and "99.9% super friendly. If I sound a little sour grapes, it's because I'm spoiled by this system," he says. "You have to go a little further sometimes to discover heaven's right here, you know?"
 Heaven, indeed. As Merrickville and the urban environs of Ottawa recede further into the distance, the banks of the Rideau system take on a decidedly different cast.
 The farms and cattle pastures are still there, but they're broken up now by expansive patches of increasingly rugged-looking forest and reedy wetlands coated in thick mats of verdant algae and just-blooming water lilies. At nearly every bend in the river, sharp eyes can pick out another great blue heron solemnly sunning itself amid the deadfall or atop one of the drowned stumps protruding from the water along the shore.
 And, to the relief of many a sun-dazed boater, by Edmonds Lock the level of agricultural contaminants in the water is finally negligible enough to allow for swimming. That is, if you can stand the marauding clouds of bloodthirsty mosquitoes and deerflies that are rapidly turning the evenings into prolonged torture sessions.
A spider finds a home inside the mechanics of a lock station. It was shot with a 55mm macro lens.

 OLD SLY'S LOCKS -- The double lock station at Old Sly's -- named for an unfortunate settler whose home and sawmill were flooded out during canal construction -- is a hive of activity this morning, although it's still early enough that boat traffic has little to do with the hubbub.
 There's a crowd of about 20 teenaged cyclists from the Compagnie des nomades camp in Chelsea, Que., splayed on the flower-bed-bedecked grounds, taking a quick breather at the near-halfway point of their own 11-day tour of the Rideau Canal. Today's destination of choice: The Hershey chocolate factory in Smiths Falls, only minutes away.
 A couple of canal maintenance workers are floating on a raft at the gateway to the first lock, attempting to repair a broken door cable before a convoy of Quebecois cruisers speeding up from Edmond's Lock arrives.
 (In fact, there's already a buzz amongst the male contingent of the lock staff that an "interesting bathing suit" is making its way towards Old Sly's. Makes you wonder how the lockmasters communicated in the days before cordless phones.)
 Lockmaster Lawrence Agnew warns boaters to keep an eye out for his English springer spaniel, Major, who awaits them at Poonamalie Lock on the other side of town.
 Agnew worked alongside Major at the Poonamalie station for 10 of the 17 years he spent there, until an increasingly budget-conscious Parks Canada decided a couple of years ago that it would assign a single veteran employee to keep watch over both Old Sly's and the massive concrete combined locks at Smiths Falls.
 Though Agnew still lives in the old lockmaster's house at Poonamalie, aging Major no longer accompanies him to work.
 "He's been there 10 years," he says. "He's a supervisor."
 SMITHS FALLS -- Things are starting to get a little cramped in the Smiths Falls combined locks.
 Nine vessels in varying degrees of ostentation -- together likely worth close to $1 million -- are bobbing precariously together at the base of the eight-metre deep lock chamber as the towering oak doors whir ominously shut behind them.
 The almost subterranean quiet of the enormous lock is broken only by the frantic babble of several French-Canadian voices as less experienced boaters veer a little too close to the pristine fibreglass hulls of some of the cruisers.
 Nowhere is the odd process of revelation that accompanies locking -- the gradual lurching into view of canal watchers' faces, lock stations and finally their surroundings -- more pronounced than here, as the concrete walls slowly fall away to reveal the hurried front street of downtown Smiths Falls.
 More than a few lock personnel refer to the combined locks (off the record, of course), opened in 1974, as "a monstrosity" because it replaced the original stone walls and hand-cranked doors of the three ascending locks that used to carry boaters through the heart of Smiths Falls with concrete and hydraulics. But it's a necessary evil.
 "It was a real bottleneck for boats, so when we were under the Department of Transportation they decided to build this one," explains canalman Dave Moore, manning the lock controls. "We can drop 'em down here in 10 minutes, whereas before it took them an hour to get down through the three."
 The original locks still stand, albeit empty and overgrown with weeds, just south of the lock station and the reclaimed floodland that now houses Centennial Park.
 A few steps in the other direction lies another link to the canal's heritage: The six-year-old Rideau Canal Museum, as good a primer as any on the nuts and bolts of the Rideau system's construction and its beneficial relationship with Smiths Falls.
Water arcs from a leak in the loose mortar of a lock wall.

 Located next door to the canal's administrative offices in the converted Woods Mill, the museum is the brainchild of museum impresario David Baird, who used to drive by the vacant stone building regularly on the way to his cottage on Big Rideau Lake. Recognizing opportunity when he saw it, and realizing relatively few people actually knew anything of the canal's history, he approached Parks Canada with the idea.
 "It's such a good tale," he says, "and there's Smiths Falls right in the middle, and this great old building fit for the taking -- or should I say, the rehabilitation."
 Rehabilitation was the operative word. Working with the late canal historian Robert Leggett -- whose 1955 book Rideau Waterway remains the standard for canal enthusiasts -- Baird crafted a museum that set out to rescue By's name from the back pages of history, where it was driven following the completion of the canal in 1832. As amazing an achievement as the Rideau was, By's cost overruns and the false rumors that he'd misappropriated funds during its construction sufficiently incensed his employers in the British government that they kept his name buried for years.
 Now, at the museum, the colonel's original, hand-colored sketches of some of the lock sites join three storeys worth of Rideau trivia -- more than 400 photographs, a couple of model steamers, tools and interactive displays that make apparent the hardship under which he and the more than 5,000 workers who put in time on the canal toiled.
 "If at the time (the British authorities) had come over here to see it, they'd probably have treated him differently," says unofficial museum guide April Smith. "I'm blown away because if they tried to do something like this today it would take 20 years."
 The museum also fills visitors in on a little local history -- which dates back well before the canal was a going concern, to the first land grant handed to Thomas Smyth in 1796. Although it was ultimately the railroad which sent Smiths Falls' prosperity soaring, having the canal running through town certainly didn't hurt the local foundries and grist, saw and carding mills that made up its industrial core.
 And to think, Smith notes, By was originally planning to bypass the town altogether because of the rapids on the Smiths Falls Reach.
 POONAMALIE -- Sure enough, Lawrence Agnew's dog, Major, is waiting to greet boaters as they moor at the Poonamalie lock station -- although his supervisory duties today seem to consist mainly of wandering from picnic table to picnic table in search of scraps.
 At the low end of the lock, a group of teens begins cannonballing into the river -- braving perhaps the most aggressive population of deerflies on the planet -- as the last boat of the day finishes locking through.
 The lockmaster's house opposite the station where Agnew has lived since 1985 is the original, although at some point in its existence a wooden second storey was added to make what was essentially a stone block built for defence purposes a bit more livable. It's a prime piece of real estate, although boaters sometimes forget that Agnew's 17-year tenure as Poonamalie lockmaster finished a couple of summers back.
 "Oh, yeah -- they bang on the door at 11 p.m. looking for a key to the washroom or whatever," he says. "Sometimes they walk right in. I just laugh and say 'I live here.'"
 It's an inconvenience he's quite willing to put up with.
 "It's heaven," he says. "I've been all over the world and there's no more beautiful spot in the world than this waterway, as far as I'm concerned."
 Still, as picturesque and peaceful as it is, Poonamalie can take on a decidedly eerie cast at night, when loons gibber in the distance and faint mist curls off the inky water.
 Thoughts easily turn to the canal workers buried here and there in unmarked graves around the lock site. It was these men, according to popular legend, who gave Poonamalie its name. Inspired by the gauntlet of thick cedars flanking the glassy channel that leads to the lock station, they named it after a trail they'd seen in India.
 Ironically, the very fact that they were well-travelled men led indirectly to their burial at Poonamalie. The malaria parasites that killed them travelled to Canada from abroad in their own bloodstreams.
Lockmaster Lawrence Agnew and faithful companion Major patrol the station at Poonamalie. Agnew lives in the lockmaster's residence right on the property.

 RIDEAU FERRY -- A foursome of impossibly blonde teenagers doubling boy-girl on a pair of shiny, new Sea-Doos blazes up to the Rideau Ferry Marina's gas pump amid twin plumes of spray.
 Gladys Wills saunters out from her perch on the sundeck of the marina's ramshackle office and stoops to fill their tanks. The chosen modes of getting around here at the junction of the Big Rideau and Lower Rideau lakes may have changed during the 38 years she's been here, but her job hasn't.
 "The people," she says a few minutes later, seated in front of an array of oil jugs and yellowed charts at the marina's ancient snack counter, "they keep coming back and back and back. And I suppose it's become kind of a joke. You know: 'Are you still here?'"
 Wills, 68, co-founded the marina with her late husband in 1959. The career military man had taken ill, and the young couple was worried they would have trouble putting food on the table for their three small children unless they found a new way to earn a living. The answer was quite literally on the front doorstep of the family homestead: The ever-increasing boat traffic in Rideau Lakes cottage country.
 "There weren't government regulations or anything then," Wills recalls. "You built a dock, so that's what we did. We didn't even have a sign -- we were the only pump on the lake. People were thrilled to bits. They'd been carrying gas from the store for a while."
 For 15 years, Wills did double time at the marina and an electric-blanket factory in Smiths Falls. "I'd come in the back door, change my clothes and walk out here."
 Now she's scaled her duties back to running the pumps, the main office and doing the books. Though she lives on the lakes, her lifestyle has left little time for recreation.
 "I've spent pretty near 40 years standing here," she says. "I've never been through a set of locks. When the weather's good, you know where I am? Right here."
 By 1971, with a number of larger marinas in operation on the lake, Wills' family decided to open a second branch of the Rideau Ferry Marina on some vacant property in a nearby cove, specializing in the more lucrative business of boat sales and storage.
 But Wills is content to let her son manage that part of the business, preferring to remain on the pump as long as she can.
 "I've been at it so long, I can't retire now," she says. "I just have to play it a day at a time. Nobody's coming out of the woodwork to take over for me. Nobody wants to work 20 hours a day the way we did when we started."
 Not that she has any intention of leaving her spot.
 "I like this area. It's kind of quaint. We just sit here and hope progress passes us by.
 "It's real country yet, even though there's lots of people around. I'm a pure hick -- cities I hate.
 "It's as pretty as you can get here, I think. Why go anywhere else?"
  • Part 1: The Canal
  • Part 2: 'Ottawa was the canal'
  • Part 3: Shooting the rapids
  • Part 5: Westport
  • Part 6: Kingston

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