The Rideau Canal
By Terri Parrow Botsford
Boats tied up along the Rideau Canal in Ottawa.
There's always one childhood vacation that becomes legendary. For our family it was a two-week vacation in 1968 through the Rideau Canal in Ontario, Canada, on our 30-foot boat, Marianne, a 1959 Egg Harbor. I spent a lot of time thinking about that trip and my parents this past year. Both recently passed away, and in part that was what led my sister Patty and me to finally pull the trigger on a return trip to the Rideau, along with my husband Todd. We'd been planning it for 45 years, and it seemed a fitting way to acknowledge this love of boating our parents had planted in all three of their children.
Fun Fact: Childhood boating experience is a good indicator of whether or not a person will choose boating for recreation as an adult. NMMA polling says 8 of 10 current boaters boated as a child. Seven of 10 past boaters boated as a child. One-third of non-boaters went boating as a child.
Growing up, we'd spent vacations all over central New York and the Thousand Islands. Having a boat on Onondaga or Oneida Lake in Syracuse, New York, you couldn't get very far without going through a lock. One of my earliest memories is being on our old 1929 53-foot Elco, Salani, locking through at night (you can't do that anymore) on the Oswego River, when I was 4 or 5, and waking up to pandemonium, with the boat hitting the wrong side of the lock because someone hadn't secured us properly.
But by 1968, I was an experienced boater of 13. Starting out at the only marina on Onondaga Lake, my father, grandfather, and I took the Barge Canal to Oswego, New York, where we spent our first night, and the next day crossed Lake Ontario, past Galloo Island, which always had a special meaning for my dad. In December 1961, he and a few friends had lost that aforementioned Salani in rough weather while trying to get back in time to go through the locks in Oswego before dark. The Coast Guard rescued them and everyone was fine, but the place became one of lore in our household. The following summer they went back, found the sunken boat, dove on it, and removed everything they could, including the porthole and compass.
After paying our respects to Galloo Island on that long-ago cruise, we headed for Cape Vincent, New York, where we met up with my mother and two sisters and dropped off my grandfather. A farmer and car mechanic, he'd instilled a strong love of boating in his two sons, which they were passing on to us. He went only part of the way with us that time. Perhaps the idea of spending two weeks on a 30-footer with two other adults, three kids, and a dog was a little much for a 76-year-old. Looking back, no one had much of a chance to sleep in on that boat. We kids slept in the V-berth, and my parents had a Naugahyde couch that pulled out into a bed on the back deck. They could drink their coffee each morning, and we could play cribbage and cards at night, only minimally disturbing each other. We never went out for dinner back then, so my mother had to organize and pack enough food and clothes for all of us, prepare three meals each day, and keep track of a 13-, 12-, and 3-year-old, plus the dog, for 14 days. Years later, on my own 1988 33-foot Egg Harbor, which was beamier, I couldn't imagine it.
Second Time 'Round
For our return trip in 2013, we chartered a 36-foot houseboat for a week, and the three of us, along with my parents' dog Sydney, set out, confident that my mom and dad (and maybe uncle and grandfather) were with us in spirit. Todd and I drove up from Virginia to Cape Vincent, took the ferry to Wolfe Island, then another to Kingston, Ontario, where Patty joined us.
On the ferry to Kingston, I remembered back to 1965, when I was 10, and my father, grandfather, and I had crossed Lake Ontario for another two-week vacation in the Thousand Islands on a small 23-foot Owens. We'd left Oswego in fog that time and used the compass to navigate. A couple of hours after we should have arrived, we found ourselves lost and running out of fuel, came across a couple of fishermen in a small boat, and asked where we were and where we could get fuel. But they didn't speak English. I was stunned to hear my grandfather start talking to them in French! I'd never heard him speak French before. Luckily, we were just a couple of miles from Kingston.
For our return visit last year, we picked up our charterboat in Smith Falls, halfway between Ottawa and Kingston. We hadn't made it to Smith Falls back in 1968, and I'd always wanted to visit; it was the birthplace of my great-grandmother. Her parents, descendants of French coopers and fur trappers, had been two of the 20 earliest settlers in Montreal and lived in Smith Falls around the time the Rideau Canal was opened in 1832. Perhaps they'd even worked on the construction of the canal. We visited the historical society, the canal museum, and the local library, but had no luck finding a trace of them.
We left Smith Falls and went through Lock No. 32, Poonamalie Lock, our first on the trip, and Todd's first ever in his life. He loves to drive, which is fine with me. I'd much rather enjoy the scenery, and putter around the boat. The only glitch was that Todd had never driven a boat larger than 16 feet before. Patty had been in the Coast Guard, has captained many boats, and (something I hadn't already known) is extremely patient at teaching someone else how to operate a boat. She was always within earshot of Todd, would talk him through the locks or a dock, and tell him when to put it in reverse at just the right time to swing the stern into position. Very soon he looked like he'd been driving the boat for years! Meanwhile, I was in my glory, playing with the dog, handling the lines, and navigating, just like when I was a kid.
From the Poonamalie Lock we went through Mud Cut, then Lower Rideau Lake where we filled up with gas and continued to the quaint town of Portland. We spent the night tied up to the town dock — so large and wide there are picnic tables scattered around the dock — and spent time laughing and sharing stories with other boaters.
My, How Things Have (Or Haven't) Changed
The next day we left Portland for Jones Falls, missing our other sister Suzi when we cruised past the Sisters Islands. She hadn't been able to join us. Back in 1968, Jones Falls had been one of our favorite stops. Instead of the public docks, we'd tied up at the Hotel Kenney, which had a swimming pool next to the dock. We still treasure goofy videos of our dad throwing himself off the diving board and us trying to copy him. The swimming pool has long been filled with dirt — you can still see the cement edge — but the hospitality hasn't changed, nor the area's beauty.
The only food I remember from the original trip was Canadian peameal bacon from the local grocery store in Westport, another cute town that has changed little. It's nothing like what we think of as bacon in the U.S., more like ham coated with cornmeal. Back then we sliced it and cooked it up in a skillet. Boy, was that good. Todd and I found a restaurant in Smith Falls called Roosteraunt. You guessed it, it was decorated with lots of roosters, and had peameal bacon for breakfast.
As my mother did on our 1968 voyage, my sister planned all the meals in advance so we could eat on the boat. What we didn't realize until we got there was that the houseboat didn't have an oven or microwave. So instead we got creative and made brownies and nachos on the outdoor grill. Roughing it was fun. Much as we did in 1968, in the evenings we played cards, but this time we also used Facebook and email, something we couldn't have even dreamed of back then.
Just like when my dad and mom did all the navigating together with simple paper charts, each night Patty and I reviewed the charts and made our plan. We had paper charts for backup, but the Rideau Canal is cut through many different lakes and rivers. You really have to pay attention where the canal goes, so out came the iPad and Navionics app. At the end of the week we headed back to where we started, Smith Falls. The plan had been to make it by boat to Ottawa, but instead we took our time and went to Ottawa by car.
Reminiscing about that vacation in 1968, I marveled at how my parents had instilled a love of boating we've all kept and shared with our own families. My daughter Jennifer inherited it. After sailing lessons and a new Laser for her birthday ages ago, she still likes to race and cruise on sailboats, and met her future husband during races on the Potomac. He proposed in the middle of a Star Clipper cruise in Tahiti. Even better, they're sharing their love of boating with my grandson Jackson Robert (after my dad) who's only a year old. Patty was one of the first female coxswains on Coast Guard search-and-rescue boats and later involved with boating safety enforcement. Today she owns a couple of recreational boats just outside of Syracuse. My sister Suzi loves boating and recently took up scuba diving, just as our dad used to. And me? Well, I've owned various boats, and had a wonderful 22-year career with BoatUS, grateful to my mom and dad that they gave me the gift of time spent together, on a boat.
Terri Parrow Botsford has just retired as BoatUS vice president of Internet Operations. She and Todd have a couple of small boats at their second home in Heathsville, Virginia, on the Chesapeake, and are moving back to the Syracuse area.
— Published: February/March 2014
Cruising along the storied 50-mile stretch of the St. Lawrence River between the U.S. and Canada
What you'll need if crossing the Canadian border by boat
The Canal offers an inspiring history, friendly locals, a string of charming towns
Know Before You Go
We grew up pronouncing it Re-Dew, but you'll be quickly told it's Re-dough. The Rideau Canal opened in 1832 with 45 locks and 25 lock stations for a total of 125 miles. All but three of the 45 locks are still gravity-fed, as they were in 1832. The others have been switched to hydraulic. The canal is maintained to a minimum 5-foot depth, although it has a maximum depth of 329 feet. At the Newboro Lock, the direction of the buoys change. Leaving Kingston and heading toward Ottawa, red is on the right, but after Newboro, red is on the left due to the divide between the Rideau River watershed and Cataraqui/Gananogue River watershed. Check with Parks Canada for the fees and schedules. www.pc.gc.ca
- Passes and Permits
- Digital Edition of the "Discover the Rideau Canal Waterway"
- Other issues of Discover Magazine
- Canadian Aids to Navigation
- What you'll need if crossing the Canadian border by boat
- BoatUS Reports: Crossing Into Canada
Take the BoatUS Foundation course for navigating rivers, locks, and lakes with confidence. Cost for members is $31.60. www.BoatUS.org