The Chateau Laurier reflected in the Rideau Canal from the Ottawa locks. It's the most-visited station along the 202-km route.

Written by BEN RAYNER
Photography by JEFF BASSETT
Ottawa Sun
  The laws of physics may forbid time travel, but at points along the Rideau Canal they relax a bit.
 It's tough to predict exactly where it'll happen -- nosing the bow of a boat around a rocky bend in the still unforgiving wilderness of the Canadian Shield near Jones Falls, or perching amid total darkness and the heady scent of cedars on the dock at Poonamalie -- but eventually it will strike you: The subtle blending of timelessness and senses. Somehow, you've drifted into the past.
 You can never completely enter the illusion, of course. Even at night, when all is quiet save the soft sploosh of fish breaking the water's surface, the distant lonely jabber of a loon, or the omnipresent hiss of water cascading over one of the canal's many dams, the products of 165 years of progress still impose on the Rideau's landscape.
 The red eye of a hydro tower's warning beacon stands out against the moonlit highlights glinting off the clouds, the drone of wind through power lines mingles with the bullfrog symphony emanating from the reeds, cars roar by on invisible highways.
 Yet the past's presence in the now remains tangible, the ghosts of the canal's long history overwhelm the trappings of the present.
 Not quite time travel, perhaps, but a start.
 There's a temptation to dismiss the Rideau Canal as nothing more than a historical curiosity.
 It's a pleasant enough artifact, as any recreational boater locking his way from Ottawa to Kingston will attest, but an oddly purposeless one. After all, it seems the 165-year-old waterway has always lagged a step behind the opportunity for true prosperity.
 Built by Colonel John By and the Royal Engineers in the wake of the War of 1812 to bolster Canada's defences against the menace of the United States, the canal never saw a single day of military action.
 It enjoyed a brief heyday as a high-traffic commercial artery during the first 20 years of its existence, but the arrival of the railroad in these parts and the completion of a more convenient canal system along the St. Lawrence Seaway in the early 1850s brought that incarnation of the Rideau, too, to a premature end.
 As a result, the main commodity making its way up and down the 202-km length of the canal has always been people.
 Their chosen methods of navigating the waterway have metamorphosed over the years -- from languidly paced passenger steamers to sleek wooden cruisers to the gleaming fibreglass shells that make up the bulk of boat traffic today -- but they remain the one constant amid the canal's ever-changing physical and economic landscapes.
 But one thing becomes apparent as you navigate upstream from Ottawa towards the heart of the Rideau system: The human cargo plying its waters is as important now as it ever was to the livelihood of the people who live and work in the chain of communities -- four counties, four cities, three towns, 24 townships, three villages, seven hamlets and one regional municipality -- that occupy the "Rideau Corridor" between here and Kingston.
 Make your way down the Rideau and you'll encounter places that live and die by the canal and the traffic it brings their way: Places like Merrickville, which has turned its historic ties to the waterway into the basis for a thriving tourism industry. Places like Portland and Westport, which have blossomed into booming resort areas thanks to the thousands of summer boaters who descend annually on Rideau Lakes cottage country. Places like Chaffey's Locks and Jones Falls, where life on the canal has remained essentially unchanged for a century.
"Captain Jack" Hearn, a self-professed old coot, has been the harbormaster at Westport for the past 20 years. Many a boater has shared a beer and a tall tale with one of the waterway's most colorful characters.

 The disappointment is almost crushing sometimes.
 You've gingerly steered off the canal's main course, letting the red and green buoys guide you through some craggy channel and into one of the blue-black lakes beckoning on the Rideau system's southerly half.
 Here, surrounded by nothing but softwood-blanketed hills and gently lapping lake water, you can escape the constant mechanical whir of the boats and Sea-Doos tearing through the canal in cottage country.
 A pair of loons startled by your approach disappear below the surface in a flash of sunlight on wet feathers.
 Time falls away to the image of Colonel John By standing in the rocky gap in the trees on the bluff ahead, spyglass in hand to survey the surrounding lands.
 But again, the illusion of time travel is quickly shattered. A break in the foliage along the shoreline reveals a smartly painted cottage and a manicured lawn scattered with impossibly bright plastic toys. Parked beside it is a mint-green car. The here-and-now has reasserted itself.
 Despite the Rideau Canal's status as one of Ottawa's primary distinguishing features, one of the capital's premier tourist attractions and -- come Winterlude -- the world's longest skating rink, most residents who drive, bike or stroll along its banks every day rarely give thought to what lies beyond Hog's Back Locks.
 Fewer still consider By's tremendous six-year undertaking, begun in 1826, which made it possible for us all to take the canal for granted in the first place.
 "I think there's a lack of awareness in the city just as to what there is south of Dow's Lake," says John Bonser, superintendent of the canal for Parks Canada, which has overseen the national historic site since capturing it from the federal Department of Transport in 1972. "We have a tremendous economic impact on eastern Ontario."
 That impact is difficult to measure in dollar terms, but when you consider there were 76,000 lockings performed on the Rideau last year alone, it's not difficult to envision the economic spin-off effect on surrounding communities. Boaters aren't the most thrifty breed, to begin with. And once you factor in the hundreds of thousands of non-aquatic visitors who visit the canal's 23 lock stations every year, that figure shoots even higher.
 "Both the Trent-Severn and the Rideau canals are very major developments within Parks Canada in terms of assets and asset value," says Bonser. "We could easily equate the canal with the Banffs and Jaspers of the west and the Louisbourgs of the east."
 Naturally, the Rideau's value goes well beyond dollars and cents. As North America's oldest continuously functioning canal, it's an "operating artifact" that has been run in the same fashion - using hand-cranked masonry locks and a series of dams to turn what used to be a series of rapids, struggling rivers and swamps into a navigable waterway - since By took his first voyage down it in 1832.
Sculler John Muir gracefully parts the Rideau Canal along Colonel By Drive heading for downtown and the Laurier Ave. bridge.

 The canal was declared a national historic site in 1926, and Parks Canada's 1996 Rideau Canal management plan reaffirmed the service's pledge to "preserve, promote and protect" the canal's cultural and environmental heritage for future generations.
 But that's not to say the Rideau Canal is some sort of bucolic paradise forever frozen in time. On the contrary, increasing development along the canal corridor, environmental degradation and declining government resources for its operation have all contributed in recent years to belated growing pains for the Rideau.
 Federal fiscal conservatism has led to repeated calls for the canal to become more self-sufficient, as the government gets little return on the $17 million it shells out annually for the Rideau and Trent-Severn systems. The Rideau last year, for instance, only pulled in about $620,000 in revenues. In 1995, Auditor-General Denis Desautels even recommended closing 64% of the locks and shortening the canal's navigation season - currently mid-May until mid-October - to July and August alone.
 Unfortunately, the canal's new dependence on revenues has coincided with uncertain economic times for most Canadians, who haven't been too quick to embrace the idea of paying increased fees for mooring and locking. Recently introduced charges for boat launching and parking at lock stations have met with some success, but the donation boxes erected at lock stations two years ago to collect money from casual visitors haven't exactly set the world on fire in terms of dollars raised.
 "Over the last few years, we have seen a decline (in boaters)," says Bonser.
 "I think that's reflected by the economy. From 1991 until now, the economy certainly hasn't been conducive to people spending lots of money on leisure activities ... I'm confident we've reached the turnaround point."
 It's a perfect symbol of the tension between history and the present running through the Rideau Canal.
 On Newboro Lake, site of the canal's isthmus, a greying, dilapidated boathouse sporting a hand-painted sign reading "Bait Shop" sags into the water.
 The shop, handed down through several generations of the Pritchard family, has been drawing on the lake's reliable stock of bass fishermen for business for more than 60 years.
 It looks for all the world like a derelict building. But the ramshackle exterior houses a sleek, hi-tech collection of gleaming aluminum bait tanks teeming with temptress minnows destined for the end of a hook.
 The ravages of the economy haven't left the 130 lockmasters, canalmen and maintenance staff on the canal untouched, either.
 What most people forget is that canal staff are civil servants - albeit ones who put in a year's worth of hours, outdoors, in the space of seven or eight months.
 "We're quite fortunate on that count," says Jack Norris, lockmaster at Poonamalie - near Smiths Falls - and local president of the union representing canal staff.
 "We're civil servants who are actually liked by the public."
 Although so far layoffs have been avoided, a 30% reduction in the canal's budget has left a number of vacant positions unfilled in order to scale back staffing costs.
 "For 150 years it was fairly stable, going on 160 years, but with the change in government they thought they could work with fewer canalmen," explains Norris. "They're moving away from a lockmaster at every station."
 The Department of Canadian Heritage's plan, announced in July, to turn Parks Canada into an agency next spring could mean good news for employees if it means the Rideau system finally gets stable funding, and Norris says he has been assured the move "is not an excuse to beat up on employees."
 What the shift to an agency will mean for the canal won't be known until planning begins over the winter. Norris just hopes it means no further reductions.
 "I just don't think the canal can take any more," he says. "It looks good, for the help we have and the time we have, but it's looked better. I'd hate to see it go downhill. It's a world-class site and an important part of the country's heritage."
A canalman stands between parting locks at Hog's Back, named for a spine of rocks protruding from the rapids.

 Cliff Craig might agree the canal has seen better days. As assistant general manager of the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority, he's well versed in the numerous environmental concerns plaguing the Rideau River watershed - from deforestation, erosion and flooding to the loss of wildlife habitat, nutrient loading (which results in increased algae growth) and the recent arrival of zebra mussels in some areas.
 Since 1966, the RVCA's primary interest has been in maintaining a healthy watershed (on the Cataraqui River side of the canal, towards Kingston, the Cataraqui Conservation Authority follows a similar mandate), but that job's been getting increasingly difficult as the canal gets further away from its rural roots.
 More than one million people now reside along the Rideau corridor, and although more than half of the shoreland remains undeveloped, the population and its accompanying sprawl has been rocketing steadily upwards since the 1960s and 1970s.
 "People who live on waterfront properties, whatever they do on their land affects the watershed," says Craig. "We're trying to promote the low-impact development of waterfronts."
 To that end, the RVCA works with municipalities on such matters as land-use planning or septic-tank approval, and tries to educate landowners in responsible waterfront practices, such as keeping a line of vegetation along the shore to prevent erosion and its accompanying flood of nutrients into the water. The authority also owns about 5,000 acres of wetlands and waterfront and woodland property that it retains as undeveloped conservation areas.
 "From the monitoring we've been doing - and from the monitoring other people have been doing - from a bacteriological point of view, things have actually gotten better," says Craig.
 Nevertheless, he adds: "I think it's going to be a long time before we see any noticeable improvements.
 "We're certainly going through a period of change - dramatic change - provincially," he says.
 Provincial grants to the RVCA have dropped by about 70% over the past two years, and Craig says it will require some "creative" jostling with the authority's similarly cash-strapped partner municipalities to keep "watershed respect" on everyone's minds.
 "We've had substantial cutbacks from the province, but we've weathered that and I think we've even learned from it," he says. "We've grown a little more self-reliant, maybe what we've got to demonstrate is that we can do things faster, cheaper (for the municipalities) - give them more value for their money."
 A lot of change has occurred on the periphery of the Rideau Canal since the final stone was set in place at Upper Brewer's locks in the spring of 1832.
 But the waterway itself and its impact on the people whose lives it touches every day - whether they rely on it for business or for leisure - remain an unwavering link to the time that produced it.
 The Rideau is no time machine, but the ghosts of its past still wander through the ever-evolving landscape of its present. And the portal to that time can be found, literally, in Ottawa's backyard.
 Or, as Jack Norris puts it: "The Rideau Canal runs right through the heart of Ottawa and you'd be surprised how many people don't realize the prettiest parts of it are way beyond Hog's Back."
 Sounds like an invitation. Well, come along for the trip.

  • Part 2: 'Ottawa was the canal'
  • Part 3: Shooting the rapids
  • Part 4: Smiths Falls
  • Part 5: Westport
  • Part 6: Kingston

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