There she stood, across the canal from our houseboat, a sugar maple with leaves in shades of gold, orange, red and green. She gracefully submitted to endless admirers. Amorous couples who locked lips under her brilliant fall canopy. People who used her as a backdrop for their “grams.” Kids who rolled around in her fallen leaves. A woman in a sparkly, body-hugging gown. And me, at the start of a leaf peeping journey out of Ottawa, the Canadian capital.
She is a sugar maple, a lover of full sun and deep, rich soil. Three things you might not know about this species when you first see her on the banks of the Rideau Canal between the National Arts Centre and the Flags of Canada square. It’s the national tree of Canada. It releases the sweet sap that becomes maple syrup. Its leaf is showcased on the Canadian flag.
I studied this captivating tree from a 44-foot, four-bedroom luxury houseboat in late September as temperatures soared to 80F. I popped a kayak in the canal and paddled past her to the Paris-inspired “love locks” attached to the Corktown Bridge. I walked by the tree at dusk on my way to eat chef Sheila Flaherty’s Inuit country food (caribou, Arctic char and cloudberries) on the 1 Elgin patio while the HOROJO Trio performed “soul rockin’ rhythm and blues” from a floating stage across the canal.
I had cautiously left my Covid bubble with two friends to explore the Rideau Canal — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — with England-based yacht company Le Boat, and to gawk at the fall colors from the water. Nobody believed it, but we would be driving the houseboat ourselves.
“As soon as you get over how big the boat is, you’re going to be a whiz,” boat technician Sterling Brown promised during training. “The boat wants to go straight. The only thing affecting that is you. It’s going to wander a bit, but keep everything slow and calm.”
Slow and calm became the mantra of the week-long trip.
Le Boat has specialized in self-drive boat vacations in Europe and the United Kingdom since 1969. The company expanded to Canada in 2018, partnering with Parks Canada, which operates the 126-mile long Rideau Canal National Historic Site. Le Boat, a member of New York-based Travelopia Group, counted on Americans for 80 per cent of its Rideau Canal customers until Covid. With borders closed this season, only Canadians could visit the 24 lock stations and 47 locks along the historic waterway (plus the Tay Canal) between Ottawa and Kingston.
We drove to Le Boat headquarters in Smiths Falls, an hour south of Ottawa, for training and a “certificate of competency.” There are 24 Horizon boats in the fleet, each with two to five bedrooms. We drove, turned and parallel parked, learned about rudder angles, how to hard reverse as brakes, and that you can’t steer in neutral. We eyeballed the electrical panel to turn on hot water and heat, the extension cord to connect to shore power, the sound system and the bedrooms with towels, linens and — crucial during Covid — private bathrooms with showers. Up on the flybridge — aka the “fun deck” —there were two sunbeds, a propane barbecue hotplate and the upper helm station.
“This is your cupholder — your best friend,” Brown said. “This is the thruster — the cousin of your best friend.” Bow and stern thrusters move the boat sideways, a godsend when locking and docking. The boats are all wrapped in black rubber safety bumpers and their speeds are capped at six miles per hour.
What could go wrong?
Le Boat positioned our boat in Ottawa for a one-way southbound trip. We moored beneath the Senate of Canada near ByWard Market, one of Canada’s oldest outdoor public markets, and scored O-Towners (kronuts with pastry cream filling) and provisions from Farm Boy (Canada’s answer to Trader Joe’s).
I gave Kim and Nicola the two double cabins at the front, took one of the slightly smaller side cabins and used the other for luggage. The boat next door blasted bad dance music, and REO Speedwagon, until midnight. The next night we invited five friends over for socially distant drinks and Hawkins Cheezies on the flybridge.
We naively expected a relaxing trip, but that can’t happen when the boat is in motion.
Despite growing up just four hours away in Toronto, I only knew that the Rideau Canal became the world’s largest skating rink every winter.
Ottawa is the northern point of the canal where it links to the Ottawa River with eight “entrance” locks, but Le Boaters can only travel south. We walked along the locks to find the Celtic Cross memorial that commemorates 1,000 workers and their families (mainly Irish immigrants and French Canadians) who died building the canal from 1826 to 1832. The Bytown Museum could reveal more but is closed for Covid, a recurring theme. Storyboards positioned along the canal fill in the blanks.
The canal — rideau is French for curtain — links the Ottawa River to Lake Ontario through lakes and canals connected by channels, locks and dams. After the War of 1812 during the fight to control this portion of the continent, the British army needed a route to safely supply inland garrisons and so created a canal big enough for steam-powered vessels to bypass the part of the St. Lawrence River that borders the U.S. Lieutenant Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers led what’s now considered one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century.
“You’ve got to remember this was complete wilderness,” says Parks Canada’s Guy Thériault. Engineers blasted through rock, but thousands of labourers dug the channel and died of malaria, accidents, and the cold.
UNESCO calls the gravity-fed canal — that takes water from upstream and moves it downstream — “the best-preserved example of a slackwater canal in North America.” It has operated continuously since 1832. Most of its original structures are intact, and most of its lock gates and sluice valves are still operated by hand-powered winches.
The canal was never used for defense. It was a commercial waterway until the advent of trains and automobiles, and then hosted luxury excursion steamers. Now it draws recreational boaters from mid-May to early October.
I’ve travelled with Le Boat once before so became lead captain. My friends became crew, handling the ropes, reading navigation charts and serving as relief skipper. We stayed in navigation channels marked by red and green buoys. A handy gadget called a “marker minder” reminded us we were travelling upstream and needed to keep the red buoys on our right.
On our first travel day, we nervously passed under Ottawa’s Pretoria Bridge, a vertical-lift bridge. We waved to joggers, cyclists, kayakers and kids.
“Who’s your captain?” a bystander asked at Hartwells, our first lock.
“I guess I am,” I replied. “I’ve got 60 minutes of experience.”
“Oh wow. It’s better than nothing.”
Locks raise and lower boats from one water level to another by filling or emptying watertight chambers. They were built, along with dams, to bypass rapids and waterfalls. Parks Canada staff crank winches to open and close gates and sluice valves at most locks. A few are automated.
We only did “upbound lockages,” stopping at the “blue line” — painted stripes along a holding area — until waved in. We entered at the downstream level, looping bow and stern vessel lines around black drop cables attached to the lock walls. When the lower lock gates closed, we turned off the engine and waited as the upstream sluice valves were cranked open so the water level would rise and equalize with the upstream level. When the upper lock gates opened, we carried on.
“Have a nice trip,” a bystander shouted at Hogs Back Lockstation. “Enjoy it. You should have it all to yourself.” He told us about a houseboat that came in sideways and caused the screaming skipper to abandon the wheel. Then the couple in the boat next to us revealed intruders had just jumped on their deck as they slept. The man ran out screaming and chased them away. “Buck naked,” the woman confided with a saucy grin.
These tales distracted me, or maybe it was the waving construction workers, because minutes later I collided with an unexpected piece of bridge under construction. Brown had said “the worst thing that can happen is panic,” and so I stayed calm until learning Nicola got a bloody gash in the mishap. Nothing like a trip to the emergency department for four stitches to rattle everyone.
We decompressed that night at Long Island, a triple lock with a hand-operated swing bridge.
As the fall colors reflected in glassy waters, I jumped off the back of our boat for one quick, cold swim. We grilled rib eyes and washed them down with wine and gin & tonics.
The stretch between Long Island and Burritts Rapids is nicknamed the “Long Reach” because it’s 25 tedious miles of canal unbroken by locks. We stopped in Manotick to see the Gingerbread Man shop and Watson’s Mill, where Elaine Eagen provided a private tour, stressing that in non-Covid times, the 1860 grist mill “really comes alive when all the machines are on.”=
That night we moored at Burritts Rapids, a quiet lockstation nestled among trees. Two anglers were casting for musky, pike, and pickerel. We leaf peeped on foot, fixating on two massive trees that were stubbornly green with clusters of hot pink and vivid orange leaves. I forgot to identify them with the Leafsnap app but suspect they were red and silver maples.
By the third day of boating, we had seen one mink, a great blue heron, several loons, ducks galore, and countless skeins of honking Canada geese. As September turned to October, blankets came out and relentless rain made the trip less easy to love.
We raced through Merrickville, a picturesque village that calls itself “the jewel of the Rideau” and boasts an 1832 blockhouse built for troops defending the lockstation. It’s a museum now — but closed for Covid. Bob’s Fresh Cut Fries was open, as was Mrs. McGarrigle’s Fine Food Shop.
Then we hightailed it to Old Slys lock so we could mispronounce it as Old Sleaze and sleep under a railway line. Named for early settler William Sly, this lock inspired 4 Degrees Brewing Co. to create Old Slys ’69 with a white-bearded man in overalls leaning against a lockstation crab (hand winch) on the label.
“Flowing through our town and connecting communities together, the Rideau Canal has offered over 180 years of hometown pride and adventure,” the Smiths Falls brewery explains. “Old Slys lock station and all the others along the Rideau Canal are time capsules of technology and beacons of pride for anyone who has ever witnessed the cranking of the crab.”
Time capsules, indeed. We pass under a final swing bridge at Old Slys and then end our epic journey in Smiths Falls, where the 1831 flight of three locks has been preserved, and boaters pass through the 1974 single automated “combined” lock for the final 26 feet.
Under a harvest moon, we tallied up our accomplishments. We travelled 60 miles through 14 lock stations and 20 locks while gorging on fall colours. As for that perfect sugar maple in Ottawa, we said a sad goodbye after a worker on a ride-on mower appeared and sucked up all her precious fallen leaves.