Looking for an easy Ottawa summer adventure? Try locking through one of the beautiful and historic Rideau Canal locks in a kayak or canoe! We tried it recently for the first time, and I had no idea it was so accessible and easy.
On a sunny June morning, we set out to paddle around Burritts Rapids, just south of the southern boundary of Ottawa. I had been there a few days before, exploring with my kayak on my own, and was lucky enough in my timing to have a front-row seat to see the Parks Canada staff operating the 1899 swing bridge to let through some big boats.
On my first visit, I poked around by the lockstation (and even took shelter there from a short but vigourous downpour under a leafy tree) but decided instead to paddle downstream toward the southern tip of the island. The main channel here was actually a dry flood channel or snie at one point that was flooded by Colonel By’s engineers to create a navigable channel past the eponymous rapids on the other side of the island that comprise the original flow of the Rideau River.
Beloved and I paddled downstream toward the lock station and portaged through to the north part of the channel, bypassing the lock. Although our canoe is pretty heavy, we had no trouble half carrying it and half dragging it down the grassy slope of the portage. We had a little more trouble when we got to the footbridge at the end of the portage – it’s so narrow we couldn’t even get through with the canoe tipped on its side – we had to lift it up and over the railings.
We explored the north channel, hoping to make it up to the weir near the far western end, but the eponymous rapids and super low water levels this year stopped our progress just under the bridge onto the island. (We’re not very facile with the canoe yet, but learning!) We considered ending our trip at the tinest beach ever at the petite Henry Street Park and walking over to get the car, or doing battle with the footbridge again to portage back up to the main channel, but in the end we decided to try something I’ve always dreamed of doing: we locked through the lock just like a big boat!
Locking through is easy. You can state your intention by waiting alongside the blue-painted dock and giving three solid whistle blasts, or calling the lock station. Since I had to pay for a day pass, I walked up to the lock station while Beloved waited with the canoe. It was less than $15 for a day pass for our 16′ canoe. You can read more about fees and passes on the Parks Canada website. I had been hesitant to ask the Parks staff to operate the lock for just me up until now, but they were friendly and accommodating.
After many years of watching the Parks Canada staff crank open the lock doors, it was fun to watch it from the perspective of the water waiting to enter. I was amused that they only opened one of the big grey lock doors for us to pass through.
We paddled into the lock and over to the side where the big black drop cables are attached to the wall. The staff hadn’t given us any specific instructions, but I knew from reading the locking through information on the Parks website that we were supposed to loop a strap or a rope through the cables to keep us moored to the side as the water level increased – holding the cable with your hand or tying firmly to it is discouraged.
I’d expected it to be turbulent as the water entered the lock to raise the level, but it was relatively calm, smooth and quicker than I expected. I think it took about 15 minutes for the lock to fill and lift us about 17 m. Burritts Rapids is a single lock, but some of the lockstations have two, three, four or even eight locks to move up or down.
We watched as the Parks staff moved into place to begin turning the big metal crank that operates the lock doors, and again they opened only one door. They waved us forward and we paddled out, moving up the lock much more conveniently and comfortably than the awkward portage down! We slipped through the big doors, feeling very much like a proper big boat, and they cranked the doors closed behind us.
I can’t wait to take the kids through more of the locks later this summer. What a perfect daytrip for families – and there are 24 lock stations from Kingston to Ottawa to explore. That will keep us busy for a while! And one day, maybe we’ll do the very big and very cool adventure of paddling the length of the canal, camping at the lock stations as we go.
Have you paddled through a lock on the Rideau Canal? I’d love to hear your experience.