Can a family of four landlubbers find happiness and adventure on a 10-day houseboat vacation up the historic, 124-mile-long Rideau Canal in eastern Canada?
That was the question we asked ourselves as we picked up our 30-foot rented boat in Kingston, Ontario, on the northeast shore of Lake Ontario, and set out to follow the waterway north toward Ottawa over a route that encompasses two rivers, 16 lakes and 22 lock stations.
We found, I happily report, a landscape that is attractively diverse; an interesting history lesson to be learned along the way; plenty of opportunities for fishing, swimming or simply sunning on a rock; and secluded inlets for quiet nights on the water.
At times, the Rideau meanders narrow channels bordered by high grasses, waving cattails and indifferent cows placidly chewing their cuds as boats slip by. Then, the pathway broadens into shallow lakes with surfaces broken by floating patches of algae and rocky shoals. Finally, the canal passes into deep, cold lakes whose wide expanses are dotted with small islands and whose thickly treed shores are lined with cottages ranging from the primitive to the palatial.sw sk
There are beaches on the Rideau waterway where small children can paddle around in shallow water, and jutting promontories where older children and adults can dive safely into the cool depths of a lake and then sun themselves on heated rock.sw sk
For avid fishermen, thousands of weed beds are home to the feisty bass, pike and pickerel.
The Rideau's lock system was originally a military project undertaken by the British after the War of 1812 to ensure a safe route into Upper Canada (now Ontario) in the event of another war with the Americans. For amateur historians, the lock system still is operated by hand, just the way it has been for 150 years.
It was through this waterway that we headed with no particular destination in mind. We could, if we were energetic, follow the Rideau Canal to its end in Ottawa or, if we were lazy, never budge from some nice sunny spot.
Our houseboat was a floating cottage on pontoons. It had all the comforts of home -- hot and cold running water, a three-burner stove, a propane refrigerator, a gas barbecue and a toilet with a shower. Lights operated from a battery that also powered a radio and a tape deck with stereo sound.
"Not hard to take," we all said smugly to one another on the beginning of our first day. My husband steered our houseboat at a stately pace through a placid, well-marked channel, and my daughters and I lay prone on the houseboat's carpeted upper deck, acquiring a de rigueur tan.
Perils, however, lurked ahead for novice houseboaters. The first was at Kingston Mills, where the Cataraqui River had once tumbled down a gorge, and the locks had been picturesquely cut out of steep-sided granite. As we arrived at the blue-painted dock where boats line up before entering the locks, two British redcoats met us, their mock sabers jostling against their hips. They were college students and museum guards, their costumes reminding boaters of the canal's defensive origins.
A vacation on the Rideau Canal is definitely not for the impatient or those in a rip-roaring hurry. We had, we were told, just missed "locking up." What this meant was that a number of boats had already entered the first lock and were now being raised upward. Four locks later and 40 feet higher, they would exit onto Colonel By Lake while new boats would enter and then "lock down." As each locking sequence took an hour or more, we would have a two-hour wait before getting our chance.
We took the time to make lunch, wander around the locks, take photographs and chat with other boaters. There is a distinct flavor to the lock life on the Rideau. Temporary friendships spring up quickly when 10 boats are crammed into a lock and when cooperation is required to keep ports from ramming into starboards.
We might have successfully managed our first lock had not a jaunty wind sprung up. Since we lacked a keel, and the side of our boat caught the wind like a sail, the rear end was blown in the opposite direction that we wanted to go.
At the prow, my 15-year-old daughter managed to hook one of the steel cables that hung down the lock's cavernous wall, but our stern had a mind of its own. For a few seconds, we were in danger of committing the ultimate lock humiliation -- reversing ourselves. Unprintable language emerged from the cockpit.
Finally, a frantic revving of the motor and turning of the wheel got the crisis under control. Within seconds, we had put ropes around the steel cables, and our houseboat was docilely bobbing up and down, a tamed, five-ton monster. We never had quite as much trouble locking again and even came to regard the experience as a challenge. Still, we learned just how difficult a houseboat could be to maneuver in windy, adverse conditions, knowledge that stood us in good stead on our final day when high winds whipped the Rideau into white-capped waves.
There are two exceptionally charming lock sites on the Rideau waterway. The first of these is Jones Falls, a dramatic 57-foot lift in four locks with a large turning basin that serves as a dandy swimming hole. The building of Jones Falls Locks was considered an engineering feat in its day, especially as most of the workers were debilitated by malaria, a disease that was brought to Canada by British engineers who had served in India and that reached epidemic proportions in the mosquito-laden Cataraqui Marsh.
Parks Canada maintains an old-fashioned blacksmith shop near the locks where a smithy demonstrated nail-making for us using a forge and bellows. We also visited the lockmaster's house, which has been preserved as a museum with the original straw-tick bedding and reconstructed iron kitchen implements.sw sk This residence was also a defensible blockhouse (remember those pesky Americans?), and today a visitor can peer through the gun slits beneath the windows and take imaginative aim at would-be enemies.
A diary of an early lockmaster notes the weather, a daily regime and his less than satisfactory marital state. The initials, C.D.H.A.Q., repeat in the manuscript like an unhappy refrain. "Catherine Drunk," the lockmaster sadly recorded. "Had A Quarrel."
Seven miles from Jones Falls are Chaffeys Locks, the site of the Opinicon Hotel, whose wide verandas and sweeping front lawn still retain the 1920s elegance that made it a favored resort area for wealthy Canadians and Americans.
A small museum nearby has a short film about life on the Rideau 60 years ago and, while we were there, carpenters demonstrated the construction of a lock's gate, a mammoth undertaking since each crossbar in a gate weighs a ton and some gates have as many as 11 bars.
We stayed overnight in Chaffeys Locks, taking advantage of the 48-hour docking privilege at the public docks. Although we were unable to make last-minute dinner reservations at the Opinicon Hotel, we did get a chance to eat at Chaffeys' other well-known lodge, Dorothy's, where the average quality of the meal was offset by the homey, friendly atmosphere.
From Chaffeys we headed toward the waterway's main attraction, the Upper, Big and Lower Rideau Lakes. Depths of up to 120 feet in these lakes give boaters the opportunity to leave the safety of the buoy-marked channel and explore interesting nooks and crannies.
One of these was the pretty town of Westport, where boutiques nestle cheek by jowl with such conveniences as a supermarket, a laundromat and a bait store.
But our favorite spot was a small inlet called Little Bay on the Upper Rideau Lake about a mile from the town of Westport. Although it has a small public beach, Little Bay is out of the lake's main traffic route and was deserted by the dinner hour. We stayed overnight, tied to trees, riding a gentle current offshore and sharing the peace of a perfect summer evening with a pair of blue herons and a family of loons whose haunting cries echoed around us.
Since we had dawdled our way through 50 miles of channel and lake, our time was running out when we reached Murphy's Point Provincial Park on Big Rideau Lake. We spent an afternoon there enjoying the wide expanse of sandy beach and then began a three-day trip back to Kingston.
We took only one small diversion off the beaten track. Other boaters had highly recommended that we visit Morton Bay, just south of Jones Falls. On entering it through a bottleneck channel, we discovered why. Ahead of us was a massive, sheer cliff of gray Precambrian granite, rising 400 feet above the bay's placid, sparkling waters, one of the loveliest and most dramatic landscapes to be found on the entire Rideau waterway.
We couldn't resist an overnight stay and floated around the boat on our inflatable mats, feeling small sunfish nibble at our toes and fingers.
The cost of our 10-day holiday included (in Canadian dollars) $1,500 for the boat, $130 for gas and pump-out costs, $45 for a lock pass and a $14 fee for docking overnight at Hotel Kenney in Jones Falls.
That totals $1,689 (or approximately $1,200 in U.S. currency). For that amount (plus the cost of food), we enjoyed nine days of glorious sunshine, ate a couple of meals of freshly caught bass and developed enough houseboat savvy to safely arrive in Kingston Harbor despite high winds on Lake Ontario.
We all had great tans, and our children had, miracle of miracles, spent more time in harmony than in squabbling.
Can a family of landlubbers find happiness and adventure . . . ? We certainly did.