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Riding the Rideau

Friday, February 9, 2018   (9 Comments)
Posted by: Bann Price #141927

I like riding into the past. On my modern German-bred two-wheeled steed, I can wander centuries-old pathways and arrive at a place which looks very much like it did a couple of hundred years ago and which even today evokes the lives and the struggles of the people of the time. It is true that in some places you visit, you have to make your imagination work pretty hard to bring about the past, but the Rideau Canal System, which flows between Ottawa and Kingston in eastern Ontario, is one of those places which very requires little of that imagination. A legacy of a war 200 years ago, its continued use through the years and its out-of-the way locations have preserved its uniqueness and make it one of the most enjoyable modern-day motorcycle rides in this part of the country.

It was in the aftermath of the War of 1812 when the British government realized that if there was to be another conflict between its Canadian colonies and its former colonies in the United States, there would have to be a secure water route to move supplies and troops from Montreal to the settlements in upper Canada and the strategic naval dockyards in Kingston. The St. Lawrence River was too vulnerable to attack from the United States side of the border, so in 1826 the British sent military engineer Lieutenant Colonel John By to Canada to build a canal system to bypass the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and Kingston.

Colonel By established his base of operations at the confluence of the Rideau and Ottawa Rivers, at the appropriately named Bytown (now Ottawa, Canada's capitol) and based upon routes used by the First Nations for centuries. By and hundreds of men and women spent the next six years building a navigation system which was never used for military purposes, but from its opening in 1832 was a major artery for regional commerce. The system continued in that role until the railway and the St. Lawrence Seaway made it obsolete. Happily, it has been preserved pretty much in its original state is still in continuous use from May to October every year as a boater's paradise. Operated by Parks Canada, the system is a National Historic Site of Canada, a Canadian Heritage River and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

You might be wondering how or why you might ride a canal that doubles as a boater's paradise. The 202-kilometer/126-mile system, which is really a series of beautiful lakes and rivers connected by a series of canals, man-made lakes and locks, is served by a marvellous set of roads and some of the prettiest scenery in the province. Many of the roads are part of the Rideau Heritage Route, but the route I am going to suggest improves on that and offers more motorcycle-friendly riding. Imagine you're riding with a local instead of as a tourist; come and take a ride back into the 1820s.

Kingston is a good place to start the trip. The town itself has a lot to offer and if you are coming up from the States, there are a couple of enjoyable ways to get there. The quick way, not counting the vagaries of the agents of the Canadian Border Service (don't forget your passport), is to take the Thousand Island/Hill Island crossing at the northern end of Interstate 81 and then use the Thousand Island Parkway and Ontario Provincial Highway 2 west to Kingston. The Hill Island bridge is in fact two bridges joined by one toll; they require considerable care in crossing, as the views over the river are seriously spectacular and tend to draw the eye away from the business at hand.

The Parkway and Highway 2 are pleasant, meandering rides beside the St. Lawrence River and roughly follow the old overland route from Montreal to Kingston. Just east of Kingston proper, it brings you to the junction with Highway 15 north, which is the start point of the Rideau system ride. The second route, slower but equally scenic, calls for a ride along the eastern end of Lake Ontario to the little town of Cape Vincent, New York, a much friendlier border crossing followed by a quick ride on Horne's Ferry to Wolfe Island, Ontario and a crossing of the Island to another ferry in the little town of Marysville, Ontario. Wolfe Island, formerly known only as a "little drinking village with a fishing problem," is a farming community which has gained attention recently as the site of a large wind farm which gives the Island the appearance of a piece of land which is about to move off down the lake under the power of all of those propellers. The real attraction of this route is the Wolfe Island Ferry ride into Kingston, as the whole of the small city is laid out before you as you approach.

The mouth of the Catarqaui River, the southern end of the Rideau Canal system, is bounded by Old Fort Henry and Navy Bay on the east and by the city itself on the west. An important British naval base during the War of 1812, as you enter the harbour on the ferry you are sailing through the site of a major naval battle fought in the Kingston Harbor proper; the fortifications protecting the harbor are in full view. The ferry docks right beside the ruins of the French Fort Frontenac, built in the 1670s and now a Canadian Army college. A quick right turn from the ferry port will lead you across the La Salle Causeway, past the entrance to Old Fort Henry, and on to the Heights and the junction with Highway 15, a left turn will bring you immediately to Centennial Park on the Kingston Harbour and right into the downtown portion of Kingston. The small city is big in attractions with some very good restaurants and coffee shops, all within walking distance of the Harbour.

Ontario Provincial Highway 15 is the backbone of the first half of the Rideau Ride and is the old overland route between Kingston and Ottawa. The road follows the Cataraqui River, passing through extensive wetlands to the first of the lock complexes at Kingston Mills. Boats climb the flight of locks that used to be the Cataraqui Falls, past towering granite cliffs and onto the Frontenac Axis, part of the rugged Canadian Shield. Kingston Mills is a good one to visit as it is a model of the engineering feat required to produce the canal and waterway system. Termed a "slack water" system, the dam and embankments at the site were started in 1827 and designed to raise the water level at the site a total of 9.1 meters (30 feet). That work created Colonel By Lake, which allows the locks to be filled and emptied as boats pass from one lock to another back down on their journey to Kingston. Kingston Mills can be reached off Highway 15 on the Kingston Mills Road/Station Road (County Road 21), and the lock sites are well signed.

The next two lock sites are also very close to the highway. Lower and Upper Brewers Locks are small complexes, with Lower Brewers being just off the Washburn Road and Upper Brewers just off the Brewers Mills Road. Both are tucked into the woods and are pleasant places to visit. Each lock site is unique, even if the engineering is much the same. However, if you want to visit only one site on the lower system, Jones Falls is the one to choose.

Jones Falls is reached by turning west off Highway 15 onto Jones Falls Road just north of the little town of Morton. Jones Falls Road is a well maintained, paved country road with some nice twisties leading right up to the site. It is a large complex, and the best place to start is to turn down at the Victorian era Hotel Kenney sign, park the bikes and have a look around. From the parking lot a short walk across the causeway will take you up to the lower locks on the site and from the top, you're afforded a good view of the upper lock across the turning basin. The area is attractive and offers amenities ranging from a quick snack to a full meal at the Hotel Kenney. For those engineers in the crowd, the real treat is the dam that creates the high water. It's either a bit of a hike or mounting up and riding around to the Dam Road and following this hard-packed dirt road to the site. For its time, the stone dam was the largest in North America and is in great shape, considering it is still doing its job 180-odd years later.

There is some fun riding to the next couple of sites. From the Hotel Kenney entrance or the Dam Road, follow Jones Falls Road a short distance to the west and turn north (right) on Sand Lake Road. After a few kilometers of farmland, you'll meet Bush Road at a T junction; heading north (left) on Bush will lead to another T junction with Davis Lock Road. A left turn leads to Davis Lock, one of the more remote lock sites, but one of the most fun to get to. The road is well paved, but it is narrow with lots of twisties and the local cars, pickups and trucks sometimes use more of the road than is theirs by law. From Davis Lock, backtrack to a left turn on Crossing Road to Chaffey's Locks Road and another left takes you down to the area of the locks and the small community of Chaffey's Locks. This back-road trip to the three lock complexes is a fun ride.

Leaving the locks and retracing the route of Chaffey's Locks Road will lead you back to Highway 15 and a turn north will bring you shortly to the crossroads at Crosby and a decision. Smiths Falls is the next town along 15 and is an important one, as it is the central and high point of the Rideau Waterway. To get there is a matter of time with the choice being the short, straight route (following Highway 15) or the long, scenic route through the towns of Newboro and Westport, north to Perth on County Road 10 and then south again to Lombardy to rejoin Highway 15.

The ride along County Road 42 from Crosby through Newboro and on to Westport runs along a ridge and is a nice trip with good views of Newboro Lake on one side and the Upper Rideau Lake on the other. The Upper Rideau marks the highest point on the waterway, with the system now heading north to Ottawa along the Rideau Lakes/Rideau River waterway. There is a small lock at Newboro. Westport is a pretty place with lots of coffee shops, restaurants and shopping and is worth a stop. From just north of Westport, County Road 10 winds its way through yet more farm country for about half an hour and ends up in Perth, a lovely town with many historical buildings. Perth is not on the Rideau Canal system as such, except for a branch of the Tay Canal, which leads down to the Lower Rideau Lake just outside of Smiths Falls. Take County Road 1/Rideau Ferry Road south to reconnect with Highway 15.

Smiths Falls was the hub of the Rideau system and the centre for the maintenance done on the system in the early days. Founded by United Empire Loyalists fleeing the United States after the Revolutionary War, it has a very complicated system of locks and spillways which run right through the centre of town. The lock system here is unique as it features the one and only automated lock on the system. All the rest are opened and closed the old-fashioned way. The town itself offers all of the usual amenities, including a tattoo parlour for those who are so inclined and the Rideau Canal Museum.

From Smiths Falls, the Rideau System follows the Rideau River to Ottawa. A nice route is to take Jasper Avenue on the south side of the river/canal complex and follow it out of town (it turns right onto County Road 17) until the left turn onto Kilmarnock Road. The route is a good way to get a feel for the River; it is fairly wide, mostly because the system of dams and lock built by Colonel By drowned a lot of land making the river a very lazy one in terms of movement. Kilmarnock Road takes you across a small lock and connects with Highway 43. A right turn north on 43 takes you to the small town of Merrickville and another dam-and-lock complex. Merrickville is a motorcycle friendly town and boasts one of the few remaining defensive blockhouses on the system. From Merrickville, cross over to the north side of the river and head for Ottawa on Donnelly Drive. Consider stopping in to see the quiet little lock at Andrewsville - one of Ontario's official ghost towns.

From Merrickville, either side of the river will be much the same in terms of travel, but one complex which is a must-see is the Hogs Back. Situated just as you enter the city of Ottawa, tt marks the separation of the Rideau River and the Rideau Canal proper, but also gives a good impression of why the locks were built in the first place. The Hogs Back locks are right beside Hogs Back Falls, and there is no question in anyone's mind about the wisdom of bypassing the falls. From the Hogs Back locks, follow the canal on either side all the way into the centre of Ottawa.

The short trip is one of Ottawa's most famous tourist attractions and encompasses everything from the annual Tulip Festival in the spring to the lazy summer paddles on the canal and the world's longest skating rink in the winter. There is always something going on along the canal. At the end of the road - right at Canada's Parliament - the canal is a spectacular sight as it drops through eight separate locks down to the Ottawa River.

It is hard to believe that all of this was built almost two centuries ago, but there it is, a 180-year-old man-made water way, still functioning as per the original instructions, right in the heart of a modern city. It is a testament to the friendliness of our two countries that it was never used for its intended military purposes, but also a testament to Colonel By and all of the men and women who built the system that it is still here and still in use after all of this time. For us owners of the modern German thoroughbred, the Rideau System gives us the chance to take the opportunity to ride back a couple of hundred years and to see a bit of living history. I do like to ride back into the past.


Randy Whaley says...
Posted Monday, March 12, 2018
Great review by Bann Price. I have transited the Rideau three times by boat and numerous times by road and I can tell you it never gets old. To David Lowry requesting a GPS route - you really don't need one since you can just follow the river. Suggest an alternate tour once you have cruised the Rideau is to ride the Haliburton Highlands . To put some context of time to the Rideau Canal route, you can ride from Kingston to Ottawa in a few hours on Highway 15 or if you stretch it out it would be a two day ride.
Laurence Pike says...
Posted Tuesday, February 13, 2018
A great article! I moved away from the area years ago but still having family in the Kingston area, I try to return on an annual basis, on two wheels whenever possible. Ottawa and the northern terminus of the Canal system is just the start of some fantastic riding. Those more inclined to off and dirt road can head north-east into the Gatineau Hills and the wilds of Quebec (remember to bring your translation tools as it is very much a French-speaking province. Or head south-east to the cosmopolitan city of Montreal for top-notch food and entertainment before heading into the greens of Vermont, New Hampshire and the Adirondacks of upper New York state. But the jewel of the area are the Ontario Highlands west of Ottawa that stretch to Lake Huron, north of Toronto. Miles and miles of great elevation changes, twisty, well-maintained roads dotted with small towns and villages each one with their own special personality. I'm not associated with it but check out for more.
Dave Friedrich says...
Posted Tuesday, February 13, 2018
As a fairly old rider, but a brand new member of MOA, I'm thrilled to recall our early family adventures on the Rideau by boat! Every summer we would load up whatever old boat we had and cross the St. Lawrence to Kingston. We usually turned around at Smiths Falls because the boat needed repairs and limp back home. What great memories! Thanks!
Steven Huber says...
Posted Monday, February 12, 2018
Great article! Another item to add to the list of places to ride and visit.
James Reicker says...
Posted Monday, February 12, 2018
Excellent article. Last year I made it a project to visit every lockstation. An alternative route to Perth -- at Crosby go to Westport for lunch or an ice cream cone, then return to Crosby and take the Narrows Lock Rd to Perth -- 20 minutes of 'Tail-of-the-Dragon' riding. If you have time, head west from Ottawa to the Centennial Lake Road and the Renfrew Highlands. BMW MC Club of Ottawa welcomes visitors -- see our calendar. Jim Reicker, President, BMWMC Ottawa
David Lowry says...
Posted Monday, February 12, 2018
Any chance you can share a GPS track or something to make it easier to follow your route? Sounds like a great ride!
Wayne Koppa says...
Posted Monday, February 12, 2018
Terry P. Jarvis says...
Posted Monday, February 12, 2018
Oh Canada !!
Amy Phinney says...
Posted Sunday, February 11, 2018
As someone who has lived in Kingston and presently lives in Ottawa, a really well written article on the beauty of this region...thanks!

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