Skip to main content

Destination - Rideau Canal

Lock your way through more than 100 miles of Canadian scenery, from Kingston at Lake Ontario to Ottawa, the capital of Canada

We first did the Rideau Canal back in 2000, while doing the Great Loop, and after cruising its miles of locks amid breathtaking Canadian scenery, I knew we’d be back. Indeed, last year we returned.

Summer School, our 46-foot Maxum sedan bridge cruiser, was in the right place: WinterHarbor on the Erie Canal, snugged up and happy in indoor heated storage. My wife, Patti, and I, along with our four children, were ready for another summer of cruising.


Our children have grown up boating with us, and at the time of this trip they were ages 14 to 19. We can leave the boating to them and, in many regards, just go along for the ride. Imagine having a trained crew of four handling the lines and fenders, helping with docking, hooking up the boat to water and power, and then washing it. But I digress; this is the story of our adventure on the Rideau.

We enter the Rideau Canal after crossing LakeOntario from Oswego, N.Y. Crossings require listening to U.S. and Canadian weather on the VHF. We also try to hail a boat at least seven miles out to get a feel for the real lake conditions. LakeOntario is the smallest of the Great Lakes and is not the most dangerous. Lake Erie holds that distinction for us because of its shallow depth, which causes confused seas and violent conditions with little notice. Weather is something we never take for granted.

It’s early in the season — May 31 to be exact. We’ve gotten snow a week prior to this in other years up here. But today the lake holds no surprises for us, and we’re crossing at our fast cruising speed of 21 to 24 mph. We want to visit Henderson Harbor, N.Y., and have lunch at SacketsHarbor before heading over to Kingston, Ontario, and the head of the Rideau Canal. It’s an ambitious open-water plan of just less than 90 miles.

The weather holds all day, and seas don’t build into the afternoon. We are provided with dead calm to 1-foot seas, no swell and warm air temperatures — perfect crossing conditions. The lake water is 54 to 64 degrees depending on where we measure the temperature. Our Raytheon Tridata has a built-in seawater indicator, and remarkably there is no fog from the air/water temperature differential. We try to take advantage of days like this — and what a day; the boat performs flawlessly after its long winter’s nap.

Kingston is a destination in itself. We like to stay at Confederation Basin Marina, which is owned and run by the city. The dock entrance leaves you off in the city park and just a block away from restaurants; the Wooden Head is our favorite. You’re also only three blocks from shopping. This is the chance to enjoy a gourmet meal and pick up fresh baguettes. Provisioning in Kingston is a joy. After all the Canadian $1 and $2 coins are known as Loonies and Toonies — there’s a loon on the $1 coin — and Canadian paper currency is multicolored, so it’s like you are playing with Monopoly money. Well, perhaps not quite.

Kingston is where we pass through Canadian Customs. It’s as easy as putting up the yellow “Q” flag, indicating we are quarantined, and calling (800) CAN-PASS. In almost all cases Canadian Customs inspectors will come to the boat and clear you in. We provide them with our U.S. Coast Guard documentation information and our passports. We have a U.S. Customs sticker (available for $25), which they pay little attention to but will be quite valuable on our return to the States.

Once cleared, you will be given a number to write on a piece of paper and display in the saloon window facing the dock. We do this on both sides of the boat. Future Canadian Customs inspectors, whom we see often, can view it and call in the number to verify the boat’s clearance, rather than waking you or waiting for you to return to your boat for reinspection.

The bridge at Kingston opens only at specific times, and even at these times you must call ahead on the VHF and blow your horn. They choose not to answer us on the VHF or the phone, so the horn does the job. The Rideau Canal starts just past the bridge, and it will be around 125 miles until we leave it on the Ottawa River.

It’s early in the season, and the temperature hits a high of 70, with scattered showers throughout the day. Mid-July through September are perfect for doing the Rideau, as well as the TrentSevernCanal. For us, travel on the Rideau is usually limited to 12 to 20 miles a day. Why? Because there are 45 locks, and the canal has a restricted speed limit. And it’s just beautiful, so why go fast? We’re here, it’s where we want to be, and we’ve planned to be here for so long that we intend to savor it and drink it in.

Our first day takes us through Kingston Mills and Lower Brewers Lock, with our first overnight at Upper Brewers Locks. Typically you’ll want to stay on the high side of a lock overnight, because the water usually is cleaner, the bugs fewer, and the turbulence of the lock opening and dumping water isn’t an issue.

We are told that we are the third large boat to enter the system this season. As we pass boatyards we see numerous boats still shrink-wrapped, and marinas with much of their dock space vacant. Proceeding along the canal past Jones Falls, we can tell why there are few boaters: It has gotten cold. The high temperature was in the high 40s yesterday, with overcast skies and light scattered showers. Our flybridge enclosure is unzipped just enough to get an accurate view of the water ahead, and we make slow progress on very short hops. We have two days of cold weather and then spring returns.

We have a seasonal CanalPass, along with a seasonal CanalDockagePass, so we typically stay at the locks overnight. A few locks have limited power available, and for those that don’t we tie to the outer end of the dock and run the generator overnight for heat. This puts our generator noise away from other boats and lets the diesel exhaust dissipate, rather than find its way into another boat’s cabin.

Upper Brewers is the beginning of the Cranberry and Whitefish lakes, one of the larger bodies of water in the system. The Rideau is dotted with cottages and pasture land in this area, and the canal itself is for the most part original. Original lock hardware typically is operated by hand, and even many of the bridges over the canal are operated by hand-cranking them open and closed.

Wood — being what it is and used as lock gates — has been renewed over the years, but it’s typically renewed in the manner in which it was originally built. The Rideau has a minimum depth of 5 feet throughout the canal portion of the system and can accommodate boats to 90 feet and 22 feet tall. Canoes and personal watercraft are welcome in the locks. Locking is communal and controlled by the lockmaster. You may be the only boat locking through on a weekday, or you may wait hours on weekends and end up with 10-plus boats in the chamber.

When approaching a lock you tie up on the “Blue Line,” which is simply a space on the dock painted blue. This signifies to the lockmaster that you want to proceed through the lock and are waiting for it to open and be called in. Lockmasters also can be contacted on VHF radio or with a cell phone. The lockmaster will ask how far are you going and will contact the next lockmaster if necessary so he or she can ready the lock chamber. Ambassadors of Canada, lockmasters are a wealth of information, such as which marinas have what available and where to provision.

Things change on the water just as on land; what was quaint and undiscovered in 2000 is now a new marina. New and just as quaint to a person visiting for the first time, but a little sad to see some precious, unique spots disappear. And then you come to amazing Westport. We bypassed Westport in 2000, and how happy we are to chug an extra few miles to discover it this time.

The marina at Westport is run by fellow boaters who take care of the protected cove and are a fount of local information. They keep their boat at the marina and understand the needs of boaters. Thankfully, the town does too. Though the town shops close in early evening, for example, we were able to call one of the restaurants and place an order — to be delivered by the owner, in this case — after it had shut down for the night. It’s that kind of place — nice, laid-back and easygoing. Don’t miss it.

SmithFalls is the area’s big town, just about dead center on the Rideau. It’s where the canal headquarters are located, along with the Rideau CanalMuseum. A must-see on the trip, the museum is close enough to walk to from both the Poonamalie or SmithFalls locks. We like to stay at Poonamalie for at least a night. There’s quite a variety of shopping a block or two away, from Wal-Mart to groceries. We rented a car here during both of our visits. (The rental agency also is a block away.) With a car you can visit the Hershey plant at SmithFalls. Remember, we have children aboard. And pick up farm-fresh produce, cheese and cold draft beer — remember, we have adults aboard, too. There are new and old friends to join, and blue skies again.

While fuel for the trip isn’t a problem, we filled up in Kingston and have a planned fuel stop at Dows Marina in Ottawa. We can pump out at marinas along the way, and we choose to water up at Westport and SmithFalls, both on the high part of the system. From here to Ottawa we go down in elevation and pass through some low, swampy areas. The water in these areas is fine, but when we have a choice, we take on water from a large, proven municipal system or a well on the high lakes. Some people like Evian water, some like Poland Springs.

Merrickville offers a beautiful town street to walk, nice dockage, and ample opportunities to pick up something you didn’t know you needed. You also can visit the Friends of the Rideau at The Depot. The Friends of the Rideau is a volunteer, non-profit organization that provides visitors an opportunity to learn about and support Canada’s natural and cultural heritage. The Depot is an interpretive center and retail outlet selling books, videos, T-shirts and more. All proceeds help fund the work of the organization.

If you’re squeezed for time, slow down and have an ice cream cone. You’re on the Rideau — did I mention we have children aboard? We enjoy meeting different people along the way, so we linger a bit, watch the grass grow, lift a pint, and say, “ ’ello, eh!” You never know where the conversation will lead.

Burnt Rapids is after Merrickville and offers a pleasant park-like setting. It’s the beginning of the “Slow Rideau” below Burnt Rapids. The water slows down, and there is less of almost everything to distract you. The Rideau comprises 90 percent natural lakes and 10 percent canals and land cuts. Here we find a more processed waterway through a lower elevation. As we proceed toward Ottawa, marinas and marine-related businesses become more numerous until we get to the outskirts of the city, where we are diverted to a canal cutout that brings us to downtown Ottawa, avoiding the RideauFalls.

Ottawa begins to show its control over the Rideau with more than summer cottages on the shores. We now see substantial houses along the banks, attesting to the wealth of Canada’s capital city. Riverbank turns to canal bank, with walkers, joggers and cyclists on dedicated paths with tunnels under roadways. This is the area where we have seen photos of people ice skating on the canals. Winter has left, but its control can still be seen, with signs of where to enter the canal to skate. Later, in Dows, there are lockers for skates and broad wooden walkways that lead into the lake — for skaters, not swimmers.

Our goal today is to reach Dows Lake Pavilion; it will prove to be somewhat of a disappointment for us. The City of Ottawa has sold the facility to private owners, and it’s not the place it used to be. It’s cold today, reaching only 48 degrees, and the wind has picked up. The weather is urging us to stay near the boat or hail a taxi for the trip to the town center. Dows, while well-located on the water, is not convenient to the needs of boaters. We wait an extra day until the weather window improves.

We are one of three boats here transiting the Rideau. In fact, there is so little traffic on the canal that the lockmasters on “The Steps” — a series of eight locks leading down to the Ottawa River — have set them to overflow each other. A beautiful photograph but a time-consuming job to reset for boat traffic. No matter, today we’re here for the photos and to shop in The Bay, the modern version of the Hudson’s Bay Company store. Ottawa is a beautiful town to visit; it’s a good walking town, and its people are helpful and pleasant.

Back at Dows, we begin to take on fuel. We have spare filters if ours is stale and dirty, but that question will have to wait. The fuel hose is the same as it was in 2000 — too short to reach across the boat. We have to fuel up on one side, then go out and come back in for the opposite tank. However, this poses a problem for us. The small-craft launch ramp is very close to the fuel pumps, and our stern will be over it, which means the propellers won’t be sitting in their normally happy 5 feet of water. How do we know this? We hit in 2000, and it’s the same drill this time.

I hear the blades strike, and my heart goes cold. With a strong wind pushing us into the dock, we cannot spring out, and there is no room to pull forward to increase the spring angle. With no marina nearby big enough to haul us, this could be a dealbreaker. As we push toward The Steps, however, there is no excessive vibration, and the fuel seems to make the engines happy, with no apparent water or contaminants.

We’re going to be the second boat down the final flight of locks to the Ottawa River today. Passage in one direction takes just under two hours. The first boat is still on its way down, and we will wait until the system can be reset for us. But it appears that the first boat wants to go down and then come right back up again. This really seems to perturb the lockmaster, and he makes the skipper wait until we go down before bringing the boat back up.

The sun has come out to provide some great photographs, and with the Rideau behind us, we’re off to continue the rest of our trip down the Ottawa River.

James Clausen is retired from the microelectronics and power electronics industry, and has been boating for 40 years. He holds a Coast Guard captain’s license. To read more about the family’s cruising adventures, go to .

Editor’s note: The Rideau Canal, a National Historic Site of Canada, this year gained World Heritage status and celebrates its 175th anniversary. You’ll find much more information at the Rideau Canal Waterway Web site ( ) and the Parks Canada Web site ( .