On August 8th, the Lois McClure, towed by the tug, C. L. Churchill, on her hip, left Ottawa and went up through two pairs of locks and into the navigable part of the Rideau River at a place called Hog’s Back. For Colonel John By, when he planned his canal as a safe water route for military supplies north of the U. S. border (in case some American president subsequent to Madison might repeat his 1812 notion of invading Canada), determined to use the river and its chain of lakes as much as possible to save digging. He did have to dig, flood, and build twelve locks from the Ottawa River to Hog’s Back, a distance of five miles, since, below Hog’s Back, the Rideau has rapids and then a mighty waterfall where it dumps into the Ottawa.
We found the Rideau River leading us westward without too many S-turns, varying in width from narrows of 100 yards to the occasional bay that was 400 yards across. And we found many Canadians enjoying their river from the terraces of grand houses or the porches of summer camps. They were also afloat on the river in watercraft, from the personal to the significant vessel, with many a raucous speedboat in between. By the time we reached Kars, however, to tie up for the night at the Long Island Marina, twenty-four miles (and four more locks to keep the river navigable) from Ottawa, we were out of suburbia and into the country. It was boat country. Chris, the marina operator, rowed out to meet us in his Nutshell pram. Later, he showed us over his 28-foot wooden ketch. He also gave us permission to board and inspect the S. S. Pumper, an old steamer, anchored across the river awaiting the next event in a long career.
On the 9th, we went on up the river to Merrickville, seven more locks and twenty-one miles. The approaches to some of the Rideau locks are quite narrow. At Lock 20, Andrewsville, I looked out at the exit and saw four boats moored to the approach wall waiting for us to come out of the lock so they could come in, making our maneuvering space even more narrow. As we leave a lock at very slow speed, we can’t prevent the tug, on the hip, from pushing the schooner sideways. It looked to me as if we might not be able to avoid crabbing into four expensive-looking yachts. I mentioned my concern to the lockmaster. He said, “Well, the people from all those boats are right here to watch a big canal boat go through.” When he relayed my concern to the group, they ran for their boats, and kindly (and wisely) moved back into wider waters to let us pass safely. Anyway, in Merrickville, we showed and told our story to nearly 450 visitors.
It was on up to Smith’s Falls on August 11th, a distance of 15 miles, with five locks, one of which lifted us 26 feet. Located at Smiths Falls is the Parcs Canada headquarters for administering the Rideau Canal. Juan Sanchez was our Parcs Canada man, worrying over getting this large, historic vessel safely through his canal. The controlling depth in the canal is 5 feet, but in this summer of drought, Juan told us, it was more like 4 ½ feet. We like to maneuver the Lois McClure with the centerboard down 2 feet; with that, she draws about 4 feet. The C. L. Churchill draws 4 ½ feet. Hmmm. Well, the tug did touch once, in one of those extra-narrow, lock-approach channels, but that was because we allowed ourselves to get a mite too close to the left bank with the tug on the port hip. No damage done. Steering in these narrows was not so easy, because our vessels took up most of the water in the canal prism, so we “felt” the bottom, and the schooner would sometimes want to take a sheer for no apparent reason.
At times, the river widened to a half mile or more, with extensive marshes in the shallow coves, one of which was simply called Big Marsh. At Smith’s Falls, we moored to a fine wall in Centennial Park, the park having been dedicated in 1967, 100 years after the Confederation of Canada. We were right in the middle of the town’s festival of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. A crowd was taking full advantage of exhibits, games, and music, music, music. The next day, the Lois McClure herself became one of the exhibits, and we attracted 550 of the holiday-makers.
At the Rideau Canal Museum in Smith’s Falls, we saw a fine exhibit on Durham boats. These were watercraft about half the length and width of the Lois McClure that were used on the smaller canals in their early years. The name came from that of a Pennsylvania manufacturer, said to have developed the type in order to move his products to market. The boats could be rowed with up to four men standing up to push on sweeps. With a fair wind, they were sailed with a gaff sloop rig that could be folded down to go under low bridges. They had huge, shallow rudders with long tillers for good maneuverability at slow speed. They were quite similar to the much older river boats of the Loire in France, but there is no known connection between these French craft and the Durham boats.
On the 13th, we started a three-day passage from Smith’s Falls to Kingston, at the end of the Rideau waterway, on Lake Ontario. First, we went up to Newboro, which is at the summit of the waterway. This trip began the really beautiful part of the Rideau, probably the stretch that had so inspired the European canal veterans on the Oasis to give the Rideau top billing of all the canals they had explored. We crossed Lower Rideau Lake, passed through the 100-yard-wide gap at Rideau Ferry into Big Rideau Lake and travelled its 13-mile length, towing through the spectacular Rocky Narrows, with 450-foot cliffs on each side. Then up through Narrows Lock into Upper Rideau Lake and through its lower arm to another long, narrow, approach canal to Newboro Lock. We moored for the night on the wall just above the lock, for this would be our first down-lock on the Rideau. These lakes are full of islands, harbors, and coves, much resembling the famous Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River, minus the current. Many of the Rideau’s rocky, tree-covered islands have a clearing with a handsome house peering out from among the foliage and a nice boathouse right down on the water, perhaps with the gleam of varnish showing in its open doorway from the side of an old runabout or the transom of a lapstrake pulling boat. We could easily have gotten lost in these lakes without our excellent Canadian Hydrographic Service charts. Actually, I would love to have gotten lost here in a small cruising boat for a month or so.
Our second day of this trip took us from Newboro to Jones Falls. Erick Tichonuk, back on board for the Rideau leg, had the first trick at the schooner’s wheel, and so took her among the islands of Newboro Lake and conned her through the Elbow channel, a tiny cut around Goat Island and, with a 90-degree turn, through the peninsula that makes Scott Island an island. With the Oocher on the bow, and at dead slow speed, he managed to get the vessels through without touching anything. Then it was across Clear Lake, through another tiny cut, though this one was straight at least, and along the south shore of Indian Lake to Chaffey’s Locks, across Murphy’s Bay to Davis Lock, and through Sand Lake to the narrow passage, including the extremely narrow, curvy one at The Quarters, to the first of four locks at Jones Falls, where we moored for the afternoon and night. Whew! A challenging, gorgeous day on the water. We all felt so lucky to be on this trip.
Our afternoon at Jones Falls was a highlight for us canal buffs. We saw: a video at the Visitors’ Center, reminding us, among many other things, of the human cost of building the Rideau Canal, some 500 lives, many of them to a form of malaria caught when working in the swamps; the staircase of three locks in a setting of sloping lawns; the old lockkeeper’s house, built in war-remembering days as a fortified structure with slits for gun-firing and heavy shutters for the windows; a working blacksmith shop; and a whispering dam. The 60-foot-high dam had an unusual structure for the year 1828, with vertical stones forming a huge, horizontal arch bowed against the water, so that its pressure would squeeze the stones together for strength and watertight integrity. About twenty-five years ago, folks playing around this old dam suddenly heard each other’s voices all the way from one end to the other. We tested the feature and were amazed at being able to converse quietly along its length of 350 feet.
On August 15th, we left Jones Falls for Kingston. We descended the locks we had been admiring, traveled the length of Whitefish Lake, survived Murphy’s Narrows, went through Little Cranberry Lake, and approached the swing bridge at Brass Point. The lockkeeper back at Jones Falls had warned us that this bridge had a narrow opening. We approached the opened bridge gingerly, but it looked no narrower than the locks we’d been through, so we reasoned that we could negotiate it as if it were a lock. But the bridgekeeper did not agree. As she looked at this big canal boat with a tug on the side bearing down on her bridge in her second week on the job (we were to get well acquainted), she thought, “No way!” and quickly communicated her fear to us in a sharp yell. We had to use a little extra backing power on the tug to stop in time. She shut her bridge. We backed off and sent the Oocher in with a long measuring tape. The report came back on the radio: “Thirty-three feet.” Enough. The Oocher crew persuaded the fledgling bridgekeeper to reopen. We crept through without touching. Our relief was easily matched by that of a bridgekeeper who could keep her new job.
After towing half the length of Cranberry Lake, we turned off into the small Cataraqui River and went down through its locks at Brewer’s Mills and Washburn. This brought us to the River Styx (I’m not making this up). Well, the Styx is pretty weird. It’s one of those wide rivers with a narrow channel down the middle, and the channel is buoyed much narrower than it needs to be, as if vessels crossing the Styx need to be kept very much on the straight and narrow. We stayed carefully between the forty pairs of buoys on the River Styx. It was a relief to enter Colonel By Lake and good to see that the brilliant engineer had gotten his due, because instead of accolades when his canal opened in 1832, he was falsely accused of misappropriation of funds.
Our last four locks were at Kingston Mills, and the Rideau proved that any canal can be an obstacle course. What with waiting for traffic coming up, it took two hours for us to get down through and back into the Cataraqui River. It was 7 p.m. before we slid in to a tight berth at the Kingston Marina in Kingston’s Inner Harbor. We tied up in the shadow of a huge 75-ton-capacity crane.
Next day, we used the monster to step our masts and lift the mainsail and foresail, with their booms and gaffs into place. Ahhh. A schooner again. And the day after, we shifted berth into the outer harbor of Kingston and moored to the Holiday Inn, or rather to the pier on which the hotel is perched.
In Kingston, we had nearly 400 citizens on board, and they seemed especially knowledgeable about things marine. Perhaps that’s because you can stand on the Kingston shoreline, a waterfront that has witnessed much maritime history, and look out to a straight sea-horizon, across Lake Ontario. We looked out there too, with the knowledge that our schedule called for crossing the Lake, a trip a sailing canal boat was not built to take.