Riding the Rideau: A bucolic By-way between capitals

22 Nov

Thousand Islands

Thousand Islands

 

The 8.5-mile-long bridge system skips across four of the Thousand Islands that choke the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River. New York now lies behind and the beautiful Thousand Islands Parkway leads west along the northern shore of the river to Gananoque, where I pick up Route 2 for the last few miles into Kingston, Ontario.

Strategically placed where Lake Ontario empties into the St. Lawrence River, this small city was Canada’s original capital from 1841 to 1844 and has a history that goes back to the first fort constructed at this site in 1673. Like most places, Kingston has had its ups and downs, but right now it’s definitely up.

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A Martello tower in Kingston

The massive walls of Fort Henry dominate the heights above the harbor and four Martello towers protect the entrance to the once strategic Rideau Canal. Constructed between 1832 and 1836, the canal was a military undertaking to connect Lake Ontario to the Ottawa River. During the decades following the War of 1812, the British were concerned that the United States might once again invade Canada to capture the vital St. Lawrence River and cut off supplies to the British naval fleet in the Great Lakes. The canal never was used for military purposes, but until the railroads arrived in the 1850’s it was of vital commercial importance. This is the oldest continuously operated and original canal in North America and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. I’ve come to ride the land-based roads that follow this historic canal from the old Canadian capital to the new.

My first destination is the Kingston Brewing Co. where I can get a Whitetail Cream or Dragon’s Breath Ale, a Regal or Dunkelnacht Larger, a Guinnes or McAuslans Stout, or any number of bocks, bitters, and brews that I’m not familiar with. They also stock over a 100 different single-malt whiskies. The food is as stupendous as the bar. I settle for some fresh-cut chips, Ghetto Style Dragon Wings, and a Buffalo Burger. The buffalo is raised on a local farm, chicken and pork ribs are smoked in-house, and I haven’t a clue as to where they get the dragon wings. There are other great restaurants in town, but I’m a creature of habit and keep returning to this one.

Downtown Kingston at night

Downtown Kingston at night

From downtown Kingston I have three choices: head north on Route 10 to Westport, Route 11 to Jones Falls, or Route 15. This morning I opt for the later since it follows the Cataraqui River. Unfortunately the temperature is in the upper 90’s–an incredible heat wave for this part of the world—and there’s not a bit of shade on this highway.

There are 47 locks and 24 lock stations along the 125-mile long waterway, but I don’t intend to visit every one. I discover a shaded parking lot at the entrance to my first stop, the Jones Falls Locks. This approach to the lower lock requires walking past Hotel Kenney, a country inn that opened in 1877 and has been in continuous operation by the same family for 134 years, and crossing the end of Whitefish Lake on a wooden bridge. There are three interconnected locks at this station, with a fourth positioned above the “turning” pond, and all have miter gates as were originally designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Each of these gates – in fact, most of those on the canal—are operated by hand cranks. This station is one of the largest on the canal with a combined lift of over 58 feet and there are several surviving buildings. The blacksmith shop was built in 1843, operated until 1933, and restored in 1979. The Sweeney House is one of twelve surviving defensible lock houses and it’s the most elaborate. Of special note is the keystone arch dam. This is one of the first of its type in the world and when completed in 1831 it was the highest dam in North America. In today’s jaded world it doesn’t look spectacular, but each of the tapered vertical stones was cut and laid by hand. The shape of the dam also creates a special auditory effect: if a person stands on one side of the dam face and whispers, their words can be clearly heard on the far side.

Arched Dam at Jones Locks

Arched Dam at Jones Locks

Jones Lock

Jones Lock

Skipping Davis lock at the end of Route 8 and turning onto Route 9 takes me to Chaffeys Lock, which connects Indian- and Opinicon Lake. A number of bikes are parked in the shade, a short line of vehicles has queued to cross the swinging bridge, while boats of all descriptions are waiting their turn on both the up- and downstream side of the lock. On the opposite side of the road is the popular Opinicon Inn, operated by the same family since they purchased it in 1921. The pace of life obviously moves a bit slower here.

Lock House Museum, Chaffey's Lock

Lock House Museum, Chaffey’s Lock

Backtracking to Route 15, I turn at the intersection in Crosby to follow Route 42 northwest. The highway crosses the canal at Newboro, site of Lock 36 and one of the surviving blockhouses built to defend this strategic waterway. This also marks the height of land, the ending of the Cataraqui River system that flows into Lake Ontario and the beginning of the Rideau, which runs to the Ottawa River.

The heat is frying my brain and I can’t seem to find my detailed map of Westport, which turns out to be important since I can’t spot any signs that provide me with definitive directions and the streets of this tiny village are an inexplicable maze. I eventually discover that I have to take a right on Rideau St. to reach downtown and Route 10.

The town of Perth turns out to be an understated gem. When the Tay Canal linked into the Rideau in 1834 it brought prosperity to Perth and this is reflected in the beautiful buildings along the bustling main street. It lays claim to be the prettiest town in Ontario and I believe it.

Every place has its own history. This is where the last fatal duel in Canada took place in 1833, but the town is most noted for a 22,000 lb. wheel of cheddar cheese. Exhibited at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair it won a bronze medal and generated more news than any other exhibit—although this was because it crashed through the floor of the exhibition hall. A small portion of this famous cheese has survived and is exhibited in the Perth Museum, but I suspect it is well past its due date. However, an exact replica of this giant cheese can be found at the end of the parking lot behind the Crystal Palace where the Perth Farmer’s Market takes place on Saturday mornings.

The River Tay at Stewart Park in Perth.

The River Tay at Stewart Park in Perth.

Code’s Mill on the Park turns out to be adjacent to beautiful Stewart Park on the banks of the Tay River. It’s affordable luxury with an excellent restaurant, Fiddleheads Bar & Grill, just across the street in the restored Code’s Mill. Chef J.J. Stewart’s inspired interpretation of poutine is made with Guinness beer gravy, while the onion rings with a black pepper/dill sauce is delectable. Although they offer steak, chicken, and seafood, my choice is vegetarian: roasted red pepper and fennel risotto with goat cheese, grilled tomatoes, and sweet onion relish—so good.

Fiddleheads Bar & Grill

Fiddleheads Bar & Grill

The next morning finds me in Smiths Falls, the economic hub of the region and the central station along the Rideau Canal. The “combined” lock with its massive hydraulic doors replaced the original three locks in the 1970’s when the new highway bridge was constructed, although the original locks can still be seen beneath the bridge. The small museum neatly encapsulates the history of the canal, and rustic sketches made by Lt. Col. By during its construction make the stop worthwhile.

Continuing north on Route 43 I pull into Merrickville in time for lunch. Considered to be the best-preserved 19th century village in Canada, it has real charm. It’s also home to Mrs. McGarrigle’s Mustards. Surprisingly, the kitchen where these award-winning mustards are handmade isn’t much larger than mine. Besides the obvious mustards, the delectable food shop also offers some of the finest chocolates in creation and the best-of-the-best of everything else. This small village turns out to be foodie heaven along with numerous small boutiques and galleries that must be browsed.

The main blockhouse is in Merrickville

The main blockhouse is in Merrickville

Mrs. McGarrigal's kitchen

Mrs. McGarrigale’s kitchen

It’s late afternoon as I follow the Rideau River into the heart of the Canadian capital via Route 73, which turns into Queen Elizabeth Drive. Traffic is heavy and moves right along, yet this is the quickest, easiest, and most scenic way to reach Ottawa’s downtown core. With the canal on my immediate right I can’t get lost. It dumps me onto Laurier Avenue West at Confederation Park and I take the first right turn onto Elgin Street. My hotel, the towering castle-like Fairmont Chateau Laurier, is impossible to miss.

The last series of locks and the Chateau Laurier

The last series of locks and the Chateau Laurier

The last set of nine locks on the Rideau canal are flanked on one side by the massive edifice of Chateau Laurier and the other by Parliament Hill, the seat of Canada’s government. These last locks are accessible only by foot, bicycle, and of course by boat. The Bytown Museum is located alongside the locks in the stone building that originally was the treasury and storehouse while the canal was under construction.

Col. By's drawing of the last canal locks under construction as seen from the Gatineau side of the Ottawa River.

Col. By’s drawing of the last canal locks under construction as seen from the Gatineau side of the Ottawa River.

My journey ends with an especially fine gourmet meal at Le Café in the National Arts Centre http://www.nac-can.ca/en/lecafe. The Rideau Canal is only a few feet from my table and, as night settles on its placid water, I’m able to reflect on what Lt. Colonel John By accomplished. Ottawa simply didn’t exist until the canal was constructed, but the city grew so rapidly that in 1845 it became capital of Canada. Built by hand through wilderness and swamps, this engineering feat was a preemptive military maneuver, but now, 180 years later, I think a peaceful incursion of Americans along the Rideau Heritage Route is long overdue.

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