Dreams. We all got em'. Some dream of Pamela Anderson naked, some dream of changing the world and some dream a little closer to home. As long as your dreams don’t hurt anyone, Pamela included, when you find yourself on your deathbed, you’ve only got yourself to blame for not attempting to achieve them.
I cannot for the life of me remember a time where my Dad didn’t have his nose in the Boat trader or some other used boat magazine. Looking for that king deal that would get him out on to the water.
Nope, he didn’t want it to travel to the Caribbean, cross the ocean, nothing like that. All he wanted to do was explore the areas between the great Lakes and Montreal. All the small rivers, lakes and canals that connect one of the most beautiful areas of Eastern Ontario.
There are countless ways you can navigate the waters in the area, however there is one route that reigns supreme.
The crown jewel of routes takes you from Kingston to Ottawa or vice versa. 202 km, 19km of which are man made including 47 locks with a max accumulated ascent of 50.6 meters and a max descent of 83.8 meters.
Long story short.......After he retired my dad finally got that boat and his opportunity to finally have a crack at this epic route.
Going for it
The route itself can only be travelled certain times of the year. Since navigating the river is dependent upon the functionality of the multiple systems of locks being operational. You can only boat down the Rideau river in-between mid May and mid October. Some years it opens up earlier or later depending on water levels, weather, maintenance and so on.
The entirety of this time boating season is absolutely amazing, from Springtime rejuvenation to early Autumn colors, the scenery is always stunning. However there is one time of the year that is most sought after than others, and wisely so. That time is more of a day…. Canada Day! Timing your trip so your boat is parked smack dab downtown Ottawa to watch the largest firework show of the year, from the comfort of your boat. Drink in hand, BBQ lit, it is really the climax of a super memorable trip down the Rideau.
We had talked about it over the years how some day doing such a trip timed correctly would be perfect. Now that he had the boat, the cards were in his hands, all he had to do was play them.
Attempt Number 1
In 2017 Faustine and I found ourselves back home for the summer. We knew that this was gonna be the year that my Dad was gonna give’r a go at heading downtown for Canada day. To top it off, this was Canada’s 150th birthday, surely this year was not one to be missed.
Well….it didn’t go quite as planned. For the first time ever, anywhere in history, it seemed like there was a mild problem with the climate. A change in seasonal weather? We had never heard of such a preposterous ordeal. What could have possibly caused this?
That year the water was super high. Rivers and lakes had spilled their banks, docks couldn’t be put in place until the water levels retreated and the locks couldn’t open until the first week of June. The unpredictable water levels and the backlog of other boaters plans meant that going for it this year could turn into a real shit show. As a man with an impeccable sense of common sense, my Dad decided it was not the year to be, and postponed the trip.
A decision that would receive its gratification that Canada Day, when we found ourselves drenched in the rain, surrounded by swarms of people due to exaggerated security measures. The weather was shit, the show was a bust…. Thank you climate change for forcing our hand!
As far as we made it out in 2017
Attempt Number 2
After the first years swing n’ miss, my parents were plenty prepared to make the journey. Unfortunately, this time we found ourselves working, in a different continent. Well, due to some good old fashioned human fuckery, life took a turn for the best, our friends helped us secure a new awesome gig and we now had 2 months to wait for our new work visas. I called my Dad, asked him if they were still planning on doing the trip. All signals were go, they hadn't invited anyone else to tag along so we made our arrangements, bought our tickets and it was back to Canada for round 2.
The boat had been kept at Village Quay marina in the 1000 islands. A place as diverse as the name suggests, this was our starting point for the trip. We didn’t go with a set itinerary, just a rough idea that it would take 10 days or so if we wanted to soak it all in. We left early morning and made our way towards Kingston.
A beautiful ride passing the remainder of the 1000 islands and Gananoque. Once you arrive in Kingston, it’s time to tackle your first mechanical obstacle, the La Salle Causeway Bridge.
This small yet mighty bridge was a surprise to Faustine and myself. We had never seen a bridge like this in action before. You float out front of the bridge and basically wait for it to open. If you want, you can radio the bridge master, but you're likely never to need to. These guys are on the ball and are always looking out for boats wanting to pass. All you gotta do wait for a small traffic light in front that indicates when it's your sides turn to pass.
Once we made it through, we tied up for the night on a small dock at the Kingston marina. A super cool place with an awesome sunset. There is a great park along the river and you are right downtown. Perfect for walking into town and doing a bit of sight seeing and dining or buying that necessary piece for your computer that you forgot at home.Thank you staples!
Tackling the Rideau
The second day of our trip is when the journey truly begins. It helps to be on the inside of the bridge so you can leave nice and early.
The first set of locks of the trip
I am not going to bore you with a long arduous play by play of our story. I’ll get back to it once we arrive downtown Ottawa. Let's just have a look at some of the unique points and considerations for a journey down this epic route.
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU NEED IS………
If you already got one in the area, great. If you don’t, no worries. There is a new international company called Le Boat that has made it’s way to Canada and offers some very cool boats to rent. The prices are super reasonable, the boats a super nice and and can be driven by pretty much anyone , regardless of experience. All you really need is a pulse and Ontario will issue a license. The boats they rent have built in bumpers and side thrusters for parking, from what I can see this is an amazing option to get out on the water.
You can always go with the classic rental house boat. I've done a small trip around Smiths Falls in 2012 with friends and can only recommend it. Just remember to get the insurance as things can sometimes go sideways or up in flames...!
Yes you can do it by canoe or kayak…..If you wanna do that go to Algonquin Park or somewhere else without motor boats. You will likely enjoy yourself more without being on the water with the gas guzzler's.
Also you can't do this on a canoe!
Going through the locks
Throughout the tip, you pass through a lot of different locks. This can either be a fun smooth process, or it can put a dent in your day.
Even the most mediocre boat captain should be able to manage the lock systems with ease. Nevertheless, if you are super uncomfortable and self conscious, be prepared!If winds pick up and you get nervous because too many people are watching you, driving that rental house boat might be more than you bargained for. Check him out....Not even breaking a sweat.....unlike Faustine roasting in the sun.
If you're on larger boat, make sure your crew know what exactly they need to do. Just because you know how boats work doesn't mean they necessarily do. On my 2012 trip, one of us was thrown a rope and just held the rope in his hand, not knowing to use the cleat. What happens when the wind picks up? He get’s pulled into the water and is now at risk of being squashed and/or blended by boats and propeller blades. Hahaha?! Ok might not be so funny, but it certainly was at the time.
You need to do your best to time your arrival at locks when they are the least busy. This can be super easy if you are traveling outside of peak season, but when the weather is at it’s best, you can bet your ass there’s gonna be more than just you trying to go through the locks.
If you time this correctly, even multi level locks will have you through in no time. You can always radio ahead if you want to have as much info as possible to time this. The guys who run the locks are usually on the ball. If they see you coming from far, they often get things set up in advance so that when you arrive all you gotta do is drive in straight away.
If you arrive on a day when it’s busy as hell, you can be waiting around a very long time to get through. Remember that traffic runs both ways, so when there is a 3 chamber lock and 15 boats waiting on both sides, you gotta wait for all 30 to go through first. If those boats are large, then they might only be able to do a small handful at a time. It’s likely not a big issue as it’s a journey that goes at a super leisurely pace, yet the locks don’t run all night. They close at 6pm on weekdays and 7pm on weekends. If you need to get through that day, don't wait till it's too late, otherwise you're not gonna make it through.
Spending the Night
When we did it, we spent most of our nights tied up beside the locks. Almost all of them have the capacity to have a few boats spend the night. This is a great option because most times there are toilets (so you don’t fill the shit tank full of shit on your boat!) and plug ins to electricity, so you don’t have to run a generator.
In some of the lakes near Westport and Smiths Falls there is enough room to throw anchor, but the rest of the route is pretty narrow. Any seasoned boater knows that if they can tie their boat up, they are going to sleep a lot better. As you can see from this file photo, in 2012, we were not seasoned boaters!
There are also several small marina’s along the way that can usually accommodate a few boats for the night.
If you thought it was free, you would have been correct in 2017. For the Canada 150 it was free for the entire season. So maybe wait another 50 years for Canada 200 for your next chance at a free season.
You can either purchase a Season Pass or one of several other passes available from Parks Canada. All prices are calculated in price per foot, so the longer your boat, the more it’s gonna cost. If you buy your pass before the 31st of March you can enjoy a discount.
Also if you decide to spend the night at a marina, you are gonna have a fee calculated by the length, in dollars per foot per night.
On top of this fuel is few and far between. I ain't gonna lie to ya, get ready to be severely violated when it comes to the price. The marina’s along the way got you buy the balls when it comes to refueling, and their prices reflect that. If you can, I highly suggest doing your best to buy gas from a road side gas station. I know on large boats that’s nearly impossible, but if you can find away, go for it!
You need to make sure you purchase the permit that includes overnight mooring. This will give you access to spending the night a wide array of parks Canada docking areas.
For those who can’t sleep on their boats, there are a few riverside hotels and motels along the way. Yet they tend to be a dying breed of business. You can always look for Air BNB in smaller villages like Smiths falls or Merickville.
Food & Alcohol
Depending on the size of your boats fridge and/or freezer you might be limited on what you can bring. There are plenty of options in some towns along the way to tie up and go into town to shop. Best part is you get everything at regular value and can find pretty much anything you need. So it won’t usually cost you anything extra, just a bit of time to head in and explore town a bit.
A side from the many spectacular locks ,cool boats and nature, there are quite a few stops that are well worth the time.
Sitting on upper Rideau lake, this small village offers a slight deviation from the route. If planned correctly, Westport has small music festivals that can be timed to fit perfectly into your trip. A few small restaurants to get off the boat for a meal and they have an awesome place to dock the boat right in the heart of town.
In 1998 the town was dubbed Canada’s most beautiful village by Communities in Bloom. I wouldn’t go that far, yet it is one of the most special stops along the journey.
The village is well adapted to handle small amounts of visitors, so you will find unique shops and art stores on the main strip. The dock is a few 100 meters from groceries and alcohol and there is a park to be explored right beside town center. A great spot to buy supplies and have a BBQ before the last stretch to Ottawa that doesn’t have many stops.
This was one of our favorite overnight locations. Located right beside the hotel Kenny, this is what it’s all about. This place has everything you could ever want. It’s quiet, there is a bit of walking and exploring that can be done and if you want a great meal you don’t have to cook, the hotel Kenny is there to provide. They also have a good bit of memorabilia to get an idea of the local history. Unfortunately I am not sure if they will be opening again after the whole Covid-19 ordeal. Maybe a business opportunity available?
There is just something about the setting here that makes this place incredible. From the sunset over the locks, to the snapping turtles in the bay, there is so much to be appreciated here.
Long Island Locks
The last stop until you get into urban Ottawa. Maybe I'm a bit bias here as I grew up only minutes away, but this park is fantastic for just hanging out and enjoying being outdoors. Great spot to picnic and there are some walks around the area. You can find a very old dam there, one built way back when the construction of the waterway began. A crucial component to the navigability of the waterway. It’s pretty impressive to look at when you are reminded how little technology that used to construct it.
Coming down the Rideau canal is a huge contrast to the beginning of the trip. You get to pass by Hogs back falls, Carleton University then Dows Lake until you get to the stretch made most famous by our habit of skating it during winter. Then once you turn the final corner, it’s a straight shot downtown.