Captain’s Log, Part 4

At Lachine, the crew had a couple of days off and then, in the next three days, welcomed aboard nearly 1,000 visitors. These Canadian citizens were glad to trade views with us Americans on the subject of the War of 1812. The “forgotten war” came to the fore, thanks to its 200th anniversary. The most satisfactory conclusion, it seemed to talkers on board the Lois McClure from each side of the border, was that the war put both British Canada and the fledgling United States on the map. Mr. Madison’s idea of simply walking into Canada unopposed proved to be entirely wrong, and Great Britain’s idea that her navy could do as it pleased on the high seas—and Great Lakes—proved equally in error. In any case, we made it clear that the Lois McClure had come to Canada to celebrate 200 years of peace, surely the most significant outcome of the war.

The Lois docked in Lachine (photo: Tom Larsen)

On July 23rd, we were to leave our snug harbor and move a quarter of a mile back up to the public dock, where a crane truck could come alongside to strike the rig. Easier said than done. The snugness of the place gave us a challenge in turning the vessel around so that we could tow back out the narrow channel bow first. First, we had the Oocher pull us off the floating dock, out from under the trees, so that when the wind—a lucky wind—blew us up to a somewhat wider place just outside the canal lock, the masts wouldn’t foul overhanging branches. (It’s maneuvers like this that enable us to tell visitors with a straight face that we don’t have to be crazy to do what we do, but that it helps.) Next, we put two bow lines ashore so that we could control with some exactitude the position of the bow as we slid it into shallow water where a small offshoot of the canal came in. Then we had the Oocher shove the stern all the way around until it rested against the lock’s approach wall. Voila! We were now pointed almost back out the channel. It only remained to have Art Cohn back the C. L. Churchill up to the schooner’s bow, pass us a short towline, and take a strain. It was easier to miss all the moored motor yachts towing back out, because the light headwind made steering precise and, besides, we were now familiar with the territory. That same breeze, along with a little head current, made it easy to stop the schooner at the outside dock without even having to use the Oocher, now made up on the stern, for a brake. In the afternoon, Team Kerry (Kerry Batdorf, Ship’s Carpenter, and his crew of hardhats) made a good job of working with the crane to take down the schooner’s masts and stow them atop our T-shaped braces, up off the deck. And just in time. An hour and a half later, a thunderstorm came through with blinding rain driven by brief gusts of up to 50 knots. Mercy.

On July 24th, we started up the Ottawa River. Our first stop was at Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, where we tied up to a wall, right in town, along with a number of cruising motor yachts. It was a sunny afternoon, we were glad to get into a quiet berth off the River where the Northwest breeze was strong and gusty, and the atmosphere in St. Anne was definitely holiday even though it was only Tuesday. Families were strolling up and down the waterfront. Ice cream cones were much in evidence. People from nine months to ninety were looking us over, many asking questions. It’s not an old boat; it’s a replica. We’ll be open for your inspection tomorrow; come on back. Well, 552 strollers did.

In Carillon lock (photo: Tom Larsen)

The lock at Carillon, our next port-of-call, is a whopper. The Lois McClure and the C. L. Churchill seem very small moored to the pontoon in its bottom. Standing on the bow, I look up at the sill we will have to go over, fifty feet above my head! The total lift is sixty-five feet; it takes 17,000,000 liters of water to fill this lock. Eastern Canada is in the midst of a drought, but up we go.

We were to tie up on a wall just above the lock, which required a 180-degree turn to the right, followed by another 90-degree turn to the right to put the schooner alongside. We had the place to ourselves, so it was time for new First Mate Tom Larsen to try his first landing. Well, didn’t he put her right in there perfectly, just coasting the last fifty yards with engine orders to neither the Churchill nor the Oocher. He had her going exactly where he wanted her to go and resisted mightily the temptation to try to improve on the situation. Outstanding.

That deep lock means plenty of waterpower, and Carillon is the site of a major hydro-electric generating plant. Some of our crew put on hardhats and toured the giant facility, as interested in the huge water turbines and all their accoutrements as were the citizens of Carillon in this big canal boat, the likes of which the town hadn’t seen in more than 100 years.

On July 28th, we ran up the River to Montebello. The Ottawa River is broad and widens further into the occasional lake. So first we crossed Lac Dollard des Ormeaux, made by the Carillon dam. Re-entering the River proper, we began a hunt for ice. Kathleen Carney engineers about 250 meals a week for the crew, and ice is a key factor in her planning for fresh food. Ice was a common cargo of the old canal boats, though not a favorite. Despite insulation with sawdust or hay, melting could do away with up to a third of the precious stuff and left a dampness in the vessel that was hard to dispel. Our hunt was successful: off Hawkesbury, we sent the Oocher in to a marina, where her crew, Kerry Batdorf and Isaac Parker, obtained our daily requirement of four blocks and four bags of cubes. Meanwhile, the schooner continued at her usual 5 knots; the speedy Oocher had no trouble overtaking us.

At Montebello, we moored to the public wharf, sharing it with the local fisher persons. People with fishing rods have a tremendous concentration. I can’t recall ever successfully tempting one of them to come on board the Lois McClure. But plenty of their neighbors did come on board. And again, we were as interested in their town’s sights as they were in our boat.

Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello (photo: Tom Larsen)

For instance, the Chateau Montebello is one of the former Canadian Pacific railway hotels (now a Fairmont) that has attracted the rich and famous. This one is built of logs that the railroad brought in from British Columbia. It’s reputed to be the biggest log structure in North America, if not the world. I can tell you that the hotel lobby is five stories high.

The Oocher scouting the dock at the base of the locks in Ottawa (photo: Tom Larsen)
Ottawa Locks at sunset (photo: Tom Larsen)

On July 30th, we went on up the River to Ottawa itself. We passed lovely, big marshes. Oh for a week here with a kayak. The approach to the capital city by water is spectacular. The Gothic Parliament building, with its majestic bell tower, the Tower of Peace, high on its hill, dominates the scene. And we tied up right at the foot of that hill, just outside a flight of eight locks, the start of the Rideau Canal.

One of my favorite things about cruising in a boat is harbor lights. The reflection of lights on gently moving water is wonderful. This berth in Ottawa provided perhaps the most spectacular harbor lights I’ve ever seen. In one direction, the lighted stone walls of another ex-Canadian-Pacific Railway hotel, the huge Chateau Laurier, shone down on the watery staircase of locks; in another, the multitude of lighted windows of tall city buildings could be discerned out on the waters of the river; and just adjacent were reflected the gorgeous curves of the lights on the Macdonald-Cartier bridge.

On the last day of July, we started through the Rideau Canal, a journey of 126 miles requiring passage through 47 locks. We would be two weeks on the Rideau. Before we had gone very far, we happened to meet a handsome little tug yacht, the Oasis, a boat that startled Kathleen and me, for we knew her as a neighbor in the Paris marina where we spend winters in our own small vessel. Her crew, having spent many years cruising the rivers and canals of Europe, had shipped their craft across the Atlantic and had just come through the Rideau Canal, which they now claimed was their favorite waterway of all! The crew of the Lois McClure had each been looking forward to the Rideau, but with this report, our anticipation knew no bounds. We were not to be disappointed.

Colonel John By, who engineered the Rideau Canal, had foresight. In the belief that steam-powered vessels would become common and larger, he insisted that the canal locks be made big enough to accommodate vessels of the future. His vision made our passage through his canal relatively easy. Although the Rideau’s locks, opened for business in 1832, have never been enlarged, as have the original locks of the Erie and Champlain Canals, they can take a vessel up to 90 feet long and 28 feet wide. Well, the Lois McClure is 88 feet long and, with the C. L. Churchill on the hip for towing, the two vessels are nearly 26 feet wide, not counting fenders. This meant that, with extra care, we could lock through both vessels in our normal, maneuverable configuration, tug-on-hip. There was even room for the Oocher to go through with us, tied onto the schooner’s bow ahead of the tug.

It took about two hours to go up the Ottawa flight of eight locks. Each succeeding lock was drained into the one below it to lift us, step by step, a total of 76 feet. The climb was recorded by a local television channel so that viewers could experience the now-unique—though once common—sight of a canal boat coming upstairs into their city.

The canal through Ottawa is very civilized. Its smooth cement walls start along busy streets, but quickly change to traversing a manicured park. Our berth to greet the citizens was to be at Dow’s Lake, created when Colonel By flooded the area with a dam. But on this day, we bypassed the lake and tied up at Locks 9 and 10 at Hartwell, just beyond. Because we were to be the centerpiece of a festival to celebrate the 180thbirthday of the Rideau Canal, we re-stepped our masts for the occasion with the help of a crane from Dulepka Equipment.

Aerial view of the Lois getting rigged at Hartwell Locks (photo: Tom Larsen)

Lock 9 had a road down to its mooring wall, so that a crane truck could park beside the schooner to do the lifting of spars and sails, and there were no bridges between it and Dow’s Lake. By the end of August 1st, the Lois McClure was rigged and moored at the west end of Dow’s Lake, ready to join the celebration.

The Lois docked at Dows Lake, and lit for the evening boat parade (photo: Tom Larsen)

During the next five days, more than 3,000 Ottawans trod our decks, gazed aloft at our gaff-rigged masts, inspected our cargo samples in the hold, and asked many questions of our crew, transformed from deckhands to docents. We welcomed on board professional Town Criers (a nice Canadian touch) and the quietly curious; politicians and voters; tourists and amateur historians. Three musketeers in uniform fired their pieces from our foredeck to signal the start of an evening boat parade, in which one of the circling, lighted craft was the C. L. Churchill herself.

Musket fire kicking off the boat parade at Dows Lake (photo: Tom Larsen)

On August 7th, it was back to Lock 9 to strike the rig, so that we could continue up the Rideau waterway. Putting the schooner’s rig up or down takes about four hours of crane work, followed by an equal amount of time to tidy everything up. We are thankful that the captains who worked out the details of the rigs of the canal schooners kept their minds on simplicity: since the rigs had to go down and back up again whenever the vessels entered or left a canal, they eschewed topmasts, and, of course, bowsprits were out of the question in canal locks. With the rig stowed, we were ready for the Rideau’s low bridges.

Roger Taylor