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Locking Through Canada's Rideau Canal

A late-season charter on this beautiful historic waterway south of Canada’s capital city is not only enjoyable, but doable — no matter your skill level.

LeBoat locking Rideau Canal

We head into our first lock at Jones Falls, one of many we would encounter on the Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Inquisitive but friendly natives gathered on the dock near our boat, communicating with us in excited tones while straining to catch a glimpse of the interior of our vessel. I'd come to explore this ruggedly beautiful part of the world and acquaint myself with local culture but soon got the feeling our presence was as remarkable to them as their land was to us.

No, this wasn't some remote part of the Amazon. We were waiting for a lock to open on Canada's Rideau (pronounced ree-doh) Canal that runs between the town of Kingston, Ontario, on the eastern end of Lake Ontario, and Ottawa, Canada's capital city. The Rideau, the only continuously operating North American canal of its time, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007.

Only four months after Le Boat launched this North American outpost in May 2018, boats such as our purpose-built 42-foot Delphia Horizon, with its single-screw inboard, were still a welcome novelty for residents in the quaint towns along the canal. The excitement surrounding the influx of international visitors arriving to enjoy this new sport of canal cruising, and its positive effect on the local economy, have been a boost.

Originally constructed as an alternative to the St. Lawrence River following the War of 1812, the stone-walled Rideau Canal has 45 masonry locks through which boats maneuver to cruise this 125-mile waterway. (For more on the canal's history, see "History of the Rideau Canal") The thought of navigating locks might seem daunting to some. It shouldn't be. The majority of people who charter with Le Boat have no boat-handling experience.

History of the Rideau Canal

While Americans now live peacefully alongside our neighbors to the north, that wasn't always the case. During the War of 1812 between the United States and United Kingdom — over British restrictions on U.S. trade and America's desire to expand its territory — American forces attacked Canada, then a British colony. The invasion underscored Ottawa's vulnerability, so Colonel John By, a British Royal Engineer, was tasked with establishing a secure inland supply and communications route between Ottawa and Kingston to avoid the more exposed St. Lawrence River.

Construction began in 1826. For six years, thousands of men battled rough, rocky terrain and swamps to build the 125-mile stone-walled canal, including 12 miles dug by hand and 45 masonry locks. More than 1,000 workers perished during the construction.

Once the canal was complete, no further conflicts arose between the U.S. and Canada, and the Rideau became a commercial shipping route. Today it's known as a recreational boater's paradise. Great Loop cruisers are probably most familiar with navigating this feat of engineering, the only North American canal of its time to remain operational.

Did I mention that the four of us taking the charter had never met? Le Boat had put us together to explore the canal. Jessica works for a public relations company in Alberta, T.J. is a freelance writer from Missouri, and Heather is Le Boat's marketing coordinator who lives in Smiths Falls, where Le Boat's Canadian headquarters is located.

Almost immediately after she arrived, Jessica surveyed the provisions that had been stocked aboard and started putting together dinner. While we all got to know one another over wine, we pulled out the spiral bound cruising guide to plan our first day on the water. We were excited to get started. It had been a day of air and car travel to get north from my home in Virginia here to Seeley's Bay, Le Boat's newest Rideau base that allows for one-way cruising to Smiths Falls and shorter round trips south to Kingston.

Rideau Canal map

After getting to know one another and settling aboard, we said our goodnights and tucked into our cabins — each with its own en suite head/shower combos. We were gently rocked to sleep while light rain tapped against the hatches above.

Learning The Ropes

The first morning, we took on comfortable roles we'd keep for the whole trip. I got up and made everyone coffee, then became sous chef for Jessica, who loved to cook. Base manager Sandy Crouthers arrived while we were enjoying our omelets, and gave us a tour of the onboard systems and the few but necessary daily tasks. With Heather at the helm, we got underway, heading northeast.

Waiting for the lock to fill

Jessica and T.J. handle the lines with Heather at the helm while the lock fills.

We were all relative novices when it came to skippering a big boat. I grew up around boats and knew line handling and some maintenance, but never got much helm time. T.J. had never run a boat before. Jessica had some sailing experience, but hadn't driven many powerboats.

Sandy put me at the helm next, showing me how to look for channel markers and follow the route shown in our cruising guide. An hour or so later, we came to our first lock at Jones Falls. He showed us how to motor through the lock gates and engage the thrusters with the push of a button to put the starboard side against the lock wall. Jessica, T.J., and I went to work looping our lines around the cables secured to the wall face, and held the boat in place as water rushed into the lock.

One nice thing about Le Boat yachts is that all proud surfaces on the hull are covered in hard rubber bumpers. No need to put out fenders. Zero worry about damage. Also, the boat's bottom is reinforced with a steel plate in case you kiss the ground, which Sandy said occasionally happens.

Scout kayakers locking through

We locked through with a fleet of Scouts in canoes at Chaffeys Lock.

At Chaffey's, we locked through with a fleet of canoes paddled by young scouts and their leaders coming back from an overnight camping trip — the most boating traffic we'd encounter now that it was nearing the end of the season.

Just outside the lock awaited the dramatic Adirondack-style resort The Opinicon, which means "beautiful land between two bodies of water"in Algonquian. We docked the boat and walked up a wooded drive to the main lodge, which features a restaurant, pub, vintage ice-cream parlor, infinity pool, and light-filled rec room with walls of windows overlooking the canal.

Fiona McKean

Fiona McKean, owner of The Opinicon Resort with her husband, relaxes in a Muskoka chair in one of her favorite quiet spots on the property.

The main lodge, the "Grand Old Dame of the Rideau," on the 16-acre property was originally built in the 1870s as a private residence, then turned into a private fishing club and resort in the 1920s, finally closing in disrepair in 2012. Fiona McKean, wife of ecommerce platform Shopify cofounder Tobias Lütke, had spent childhood summers at the resort. When it came up for auction in 2015, the couple bought it, then spent a year pouring funds into a stunning renovation, adding modern conveniences while keeping it true to its historic roots. Fiona gave us a private tour of the main lodge with its sweeping spiral staircase and tiki-inspired lounge; the cozy, historic guest cottages; and secluded decks overlooking the water. It was like stepping back in time to a more glorious era.

Wandering back to our boat, we decided to top off the water tanks before getting underway to Newboro, about an hour’s cruising, and our destination for the night. With yours truly supervising the hose, Heather and I noticed that the tank was taking an awfully long time to fill, considering we'd been on board only a day. In the back of my mind I wondered why the fuel tank was labeled but not the tank next to it, the one we were filling. We finally aborted the operation, agreeing to fill up later if needed.

Hand-cranking lock gate

Lockkeepers still hand crank the gears that open and close the lock gates.

Underway, I was at the helm and noticed the boat felt sluggish, particularly when using the thrusters. Heather went below to check the gauges, and came back up to the bridge, on her phone. Her tone was serious. Instead of filling up the freshwater tank, it turns out we'd filled the blackwater tank! Thankfully, it was only three-quarters full, but that meant we either had to find a pumpout or minimize our head and shower usage. Rather than backtracking, we agreed to go without showers — given the other possibilities, not the worst outcome.

While locking through at Newboro, the wind kicked up. Our dock for the night was just outside the lock gates, and I maneuvered us into the slip between two docked houseboats, with wind pushing us away from the dock and thrusters that were less-than-agile with the boat's added holding-tank weight. After stalling a few times, I got us safely — OK, I admit it, triumphantly! — into the slip without using the thrusters, and we tied up for the night.

Tip

For something uniquely Canadian, try the Tiger's Tail — orange-flavored ice cream with a ribbon of licorice.

The village of Newboro is a five-minute walk down a gravel path through the woods past one of four blockhouses built to protect the Rideau. We strolled past restaurants and inns and took in the variety of architecture from Georgian to Gothic and classical revival. The village is best known for Kilborn's "department store," an odd thing to have in this village of only 250 people.

Chartering with Le Boat

Le Boat has offered self-drive boat holidays for 50 years, in 17 destinations in eight countries in Europe and Canada. You choose where you want to go and for how long; the itinerary is up to you. Cook on board using locally sourced delicacies, or visit excellent restaurants along the way. Prices start around US$2,200 for seven nights aboard a Horizon 1, which sleeps two couples. Fees include boat rental, fully equipped galley, towels, linens, boat-handling demo, tech support, cruising guide, and locks/mooring fees. Le Boat offers BoatUS Members exclusive discounts. LeBoat.com and BoatUS.com/Travel

Originally housed in the old grocery, Kilborn's is now a regional shopping mecca occupying three buildings filled with designer clothing and shoes, furniture, gifts, kitchenware, and local delicacies. We wandered through the maze of merchandise for an hour, until dinnertime.

Back at the dock, we collected branches to make a fire in the nearby picnic area while Jess whipped up a gourmet dinner. Then we sat out on deck together, marveling at the stars.

Tip

Want to travel with your dog? You can bring up to two furry first mates on board a Le Boat charter.

A Taste Of The Good Life

Heather and I woke early, and decided to clean the sea strainers, a fairly simple process once we got the tops unscrewed. The two small containers, about the size of small Tupperware bowls and housed in the engine compartment, were already full of seagrass. As we finished, Jess and T.J. emerged from their cabins, lured by the scent of fresh coffee, Jess concocted some stellar heuvos rancheros, while a local fisherman reeled in sizable bass from the end of our dock.

Boat visible from Main Street

The assistant dockmaster at Westport positioned our boat so it could be prominently seen from Main Street.

Once in open water, we puttered for an hour or so to Westport village on the western edge of Upper Rideau Lake. The assistant dockmaster welcomed us, helped us tie up, and walked the boat to the end of the pier, explaining that he wanted our boat to be prominently visible from Main Street.

"You're the 222nd Le Boat that's come through this season!" he pronounced happily.

Wines

A visit to Scheuermann Vineyard and Winery in Westport included a wine tasting and wood-fired pizzas.

Jessica and T.J. took a morning run on nearby Foley Mountain, while Heather and I explored downtown, then we all met up at the farmer's market across the bridge from the docks and headed to Scheuermann Vineyard and Winery, a 20-minute walk from town. There we met Alison Scheuermann, who owns the vineyard and winery with her Swiss husband François. After purchasing the property, they'd discovered that it was perfect soil for a vineyard. Their 14-acre property also features a sculpture garden and paintings by local artists. We strolled among the vines, tasting the sun-warmed pinot noir, chardonnay, and Vidal grapes — followed by one of their acclaimed wood-fired pizzas, which didn't disappoint.

We hated to leave but needed to make the next lock and pumpout before they closed for the night. With T.J. at the helm, we locked through Narrows Lock with another Le Boat charter, all chatting over our shared experiences, while awaiting the lock to fill. From there, I drove the rest of the way to Rideau Ferry, the village named for the original car ferry that shuttled vehicles across the canal before the bridge was built. After finally pumping out the tanks, we tied up at the dock outside CC's restaurant, then gathered inside to thaw out and sample some local craft beers. Heather introduced me to a Caesar — like a Bloody Mary but made with Clamato juice. Easy conversation and laughter turned to discussion of what to grill for dinner – steaks, corn on the cob, and salad, followed by the Canadian delicacy called butter tarts, a melt-in-your-mouth crust with filling made from butter, sugar, syrup, and eggs.

Laughs on the bridge

Heather, T.J., and Jessica enjoy some laughs on the bridge.

We broke out some great Scheuermann's wines and Caesars, sharing stories and laughing for hours like old friends. With the blackwater tank now empty, there was also the sublime pleasure of a hot shower after an amazing day on the boat.

Homeward Bound

In the few days we'd been on the canal, the trees had begun to show fiery yellows, oranges, and reds. Bundled in fleecy layers and wearing borrowed gloves on our last day, I drove while Heather looked through binoculars and navigated. T.J. and Jess huddled in the cabin, cleaning up after breakfast, until we got to the narrow byway channel, barely wide enough for two large boats to pass, and shallow enough to clearly see the bottom. We were glad for the scant traffic. After a lock and bridge opening, the channel began to wind sharply to and fro. I dropped our speed to about 3 knots. Even with the shallow depth and shoals, I felt more confident than I did just a few days before.

Chaffey's Lock

It was a postcard-perfect day as we headed into Chaffey’s Lock.

Too soon, we arrived in Smiths Falls and locked through for our journey’s last time. If we’d had a few more days, we all would have loved to navigate this beautiful canal all the way into the stunning city of Ottawa. Next time! I backed our charter into a slip next to the other Le Boats using just the wheel and throttle, no thrusters, pleased with myself. The Rideau had provided us with the perfect place to get comfortable at the helm of a sizeable boat, while showing us the wild beauty and warm hospitality of our neighbors to the north.

Visit these articles on other Le Boat trips in France and Ireland.

Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

Stacey's earliest memories include being hung by her ankles in the engine compartment of her family's 1963 Egg Harbor, helping with repair work and searching for lost items. Her love of boats may only be superseded by her love of horses. She spent 20 years writing and photographing for and editing magazines and books — including Practical Horseman magazine. She is an award-winning writer and photographer.