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Canadian canals: A family afloat

Ottawa’s Rideau waterway is a hallowed holiday playground for Canadians but with the recent arrival of European operator Le Boat, its canals and vast lakes offer a new frontier for British families seeking an adventurous holiday afloat

Canadian canals: A family afloat
Image: Alamy

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This is not the Norfolk Broads. Our motorboat — complete with cabins, kitchen and sun deck — looks strikingly similar to the only other pleasure cruiser we’ve any experience of piloting, on the Broads, but this being North America, everything is supersize scale, including the terrain. Unlike East Anglia’s flat, angular waterway, the Rideau Canal twists and turns, its network of serpentine rivers and lakes connected by a series of canals and deep locks constructed back in the 1800s to tame what were once sharply raked rapids. And it’s a big bugger this boat, its hulk responding with a somewhat panic-inducing delay to what’s fast becoming some text-book oversteering.

“It gets easier,” yells the driver of another Le Boat cruiser coming upstream towards our frantically veering vessel. River-worn kayaks roped to the bow, wet kit flapping cheerily off the rafters, its sunny-faced family crew are on the return stretch to the boat hire base, triumphant veterans of the Rideau’s 125-mile reach between Kingston on Lake Ontario and the Canadian capital of Ottawa. “You’ll get the hang of it!” assures one of the kids, cockily.

After what had been a pretty rudimentary briefing back at base, we’d assumed we would. Here, we were shown the Rideau’s snaking map, given suggestions of the best route for swimming (pretty much anywhere), waterside suppers and sights which, beyond the natural distractions of the shoreline, are delightfully few. A week of carefree mucking about on the river was surely ahead of us. No experience, no licence needed, instruction of the 36ft, five-berth cruiser was also elementary, amounting to: push this for forwards, and this for reverse, and stay within the buoy-marked channels. There’s a practice run at a mooring and a lock and… away you go. With top speeds of 10mph, how hard could this be?

Turns out that in strong winds, summer-shallowed waters, and with that tendency to oversteer, you could easily run aground barely a mile from base and have to call a tugboat to haul you off the rocks. I’m not saying this is what happened (this is exactly what happened) but in this case, you might conclude that it’s simply better to get such indignity out the way, and the holiday ahead of you. It’s more or less plain sailing from here. Largely thanks to the lovely Jason who comes aboard from the tugboat to tutor us along narrow canals into our first lake, the Lower Rideau.

One of Le Boat’s preternaturally patient staff, Jason is among several locals who joined the France-based company for its Canadian debut in 2018. At the shiny new Le Boat dock in the blink-and-miss-it blue-collar town of Smiths Falls, as our journey’s start, residents were keen to know how we were finding the experience, amazed to learn we’ve come all the way from “London, England” (rather than the Ontario town of the same name). Le Boat’s shiny logoed fleet glides in and out of the marina, everyone loving ‘le joke’ in this bilingual part of the world.

At the locks, too, we’re greeted with affable Canadian welcomes, an efficient, uniformed compliment of Parks Canada rangers guiding boats in and helping rope up. Each slightly different, the Rideau’s impressive tally of 47 largely hand-operated locks are intricate feats of Victorian-era engineering, involving enormous inter-connecting cogs, regal swing bridges, and sluice gates allowing tonnes of water to float up to 10 boats at a time up or down depths of 22ft. It’s pretty epic if slow-moving stuff, which demands all hands on deck to follow very official directions from Parks Canada staff. It’s a novelty that doesn’t wear off for us parents but soon wears thin for our daughter Ella (12) and cousin Breanna (13) who’d rather be supine on the stern’s elegant sun deck (or down below watching DVDs on the massive TV).

Among such practical rules as: no running on deck, and fingers clear of the sides when docking, I add: “No hanging below deck during daylight hours.” The scenery demands respect, veering from shady, emerald green channels whose dense, overhanging banks do a surprisingly convincing impersonation of the Amazon for this northerly latitude, to oceanic electric blue lakes, where laser-like sun bounces off the windows of holiday cabins that often stand alone on neat little islands. Each ‘cottage’ (such as they’re known around here) is a marvel, from overblown Tudorbeathan mansions to minimalist mid-century bungalows, and all manner of Canadiana cabins in between.

The kids are less seduced by this Grand Designs tour than the adults. The mainstay of the Rideau’s tourists, I note, are either retired couples or families with primary school kids. The great outdoors, antique locks, and quaint moorings do not a wild teenagers’ dream make. But jumping off the deck into drinking-water-clean lakes knows no limit of fun, and kayaking likewise. At Chaffey’s Lock, we set off through reeds so thick it’s like paddling through miso soup. It’s a den for hefty-but-harmless North American water snakes; a fleeting sight of which makes the girls squeal. Once out into the lake, oars cut through water like silk. Beneath the surface: a garden of reeds and flowers, and blue-lipped fish that nip at trailing fingers. Ice cream stops, too, garner approval. Each harbour hamlet, teeny as they are, has at least a little general store with a disproportionately large ice cream selection, where such flavours as maple walnut, cotton candy and lurid birthday cake, are wins.

At Rideau Ferry, where the sun is melting the black asphalt, we grab a toasted S’mores ice cream and take a slow walk to the local yacht club beach. In true down-to-earth Canadian fashion, this is simply a strip of sand near a boat mooring accessed by a little woodland trail. We take a reedy if cooling lake swim and a nap amid the dunes, to the soundtrack of Quebecois parents admonishing kids in what sounds to European ears like a cowboy speaking French. Up river in Westport, the oppressive heat breaks with a sky-splitting storm that drives diners off the deck at The Cove country inn, and brings sweltering kitchen staff out to join our kids who are whooping it up, running around in the warm rain.

Increasingly confident canal cruisers, our final night brings a rare ‘wild mooring’ at the Parks Canada-owned Colonel By Island (named after the English military engineer who oversaw the Rideau’s construction). Unless you count a spookily abandoned hotel, built by the co-owner of New York’s Yellow Cab company there are no facilities and thus light pollution. We swim under the stars and wake up to hear racoons trying to raid our kitchen through the roof. It’s these wild moments — from showering in the summer rain to snake spotting — that travel memories are made of, even for sporadically truculent teens.

Need to know
Summer is the best time to go, but in a heatwave boat cabins can get hot and sticky, and the shallow waters of narrow canals tricky to navigate.

No boating licence or previous experience are required but insure you’ve got a firm handle on the boat before you leave the base. Ask for more instruction, including guidance on navigating narrow canals, and how to idle the boat safely, if unsure.

There’s no GPS, which can be tricky even if you master the boating maps. Smartphones’ GPS coverage is pretty good but not completely reliable.

The Rideau’s locks are pre-paid for Le Boat users. A C$500 (£295) fuel charge is taken up front, and you’re reimbursed for what you don’t use. Fuel pumps are in most marinas.

There are free municipal moorings at each town, with water/power hook-ups (around C$10 for water, and overnight charging).

Kayaks are often available to rent at moorings, which allow for exploring smaller channels and paddling around little islands (most of which are private, so don’t go ashore).

ESSENTIALS

Who: Ella (12), cousin Breanna (13), plus parents, Tony and Sarah.
Best for: A unique, self-contained Canadian outdoors adventure, for children 5-12 or teens who love kayaking and wild swims.
How to do it: Le Boat’s Southern Rideau Cruise, Northern Rideau Cruise and Seeleys Cruise, all based on the Rideau Canal are from £2,069 for seven nights (May 2019) aboard Le Boat’s Horizon vessel (sleeps five). Price includes boat and equipment.

Published in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)