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The Rideau Canal FAQ
(Frequently Asked Questions)
ABOUT THE RIDEAU CANAL
What is the Rideau Canal?
The Rideau Canal is a series of rivers, lakes and connecting locks and canals that form a continuous waterway from Kingston to Ottawa, in eastern Ontario, Canada. It is 202 kilometres (125 miles) long, of which about 19 kilometres (12 miles) is man made (locks and canal cuts), the rest are natural waters. There are 45 locks in 23 lockstations along the main route of the Rideau plus 2 locks that link the Tay Canal to the Rideau. From Lake Ontario at Kingston the canal rises 50.6 metres (166.2 feet) to the summit of Upper Rideau Lake and then descends 83.8 metres (275 feet) to the Ottawa River at Ottawa. Water depths range from 1.5 metres (5 feet) to 90 metres (300 feet). To view location maps, head over to: www.rideau-info.com/canal/maps.html (click this link).
Who Operates the Rideau Canal?
The Rideau is operated as a recreational waterway by the Parks Canada Agency, which is under the authority of the Canadian government Department of Environment. Parks Canada maintains the heritage aspects of the canal and operates it much like a park.
When and why was it built?
It was built between 1826 and 1832. It pre-dates the locks on the St. Lawrence, and was built to assist the defence of Canada by allowing boats to travel from Montreal to the Great Lakes without having to travel down the St. Lawrence, in gunshot range of the Americans. It was officially opened in May 1832 and has been operated continuously ever since.
Who built it?
It was built by the British under the direction of Lt. Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers. Private contractors, such as John Redpath and Thomas McKay, did most of the actual construction. The design and engineering of the canal was done by Colonel By and the Royal Engineers. Two companies of Royal Sappers and Miners assisted in the construction. Hundreds of tradesmen (i.e. masons, carpenters, smiths, coopers) used local materials to fashion the locks and dams. The large amount of manual labour (i.e. digging & moving dirt, chopping trees, excavating stones) was done by hundreds of immigrant Irish and French-Canadian labourers. Local settlers assisted with moving materials (i.e. stones) and providing food to the construction camps. Some 2,500 to 4,000 men worked on the construction each year. Many women and children were also part of these construction camps. For details about the construction, visit the History of the Rideau Canal webpage at: www.rideau-info.com/canal/history/ (click this link).
What makes the Rideau Canal unique?
It is the oldest continuously operated canal in North America. Most of the locks are still operated by hand, using the same mechanisms that were used to operate the locks in 1832. As you travel the Rideau, you are viewing living history. The Rideau isn't just a canal cut (only 10% is man-made), it's a waterway combining canals, rivers and lakes. This makes the Rideau a wonderful blend of urban, rural and natural landscapes. You can see million dollar homes, quaint cottages, and loons swimming in a sheltered, undisturbed bay, all in the same day.
How has the Rideau been recognized?
On May 15, 1925 the Rideau Canal was designated a National Historic Site of Canada. It was re-designated with exanded reasons in 1967 and again in 2011. For the history of the Rideau's National Historic Site designations see the: Rideau NHS page. The 2011 designation wording is:
- built between 1826 and 1832, it is the best preserved canal from the great canal-building era in North America that is still fully operational: its historic structures and environment speak to its ingenious design, construction, and military purpose, as well as to its social and economic functions;
- it exemplifies cutting edge canal design due to Lieutenant-Colonel John By’s innovative “slackwater” approach, which created a navigable route from natural waterways and lakes on a scale previously unseen in North America, and because it was one of the first canals in the world engineered specifically for steam-powered vessels;
- its construction through more than 200 kilometers of bush, swamps, and lakes was a monumental feat. Each year, as many as 5,000-6,000 workmen assembled at over two-dozen worksites. The great majority of the labourers were Irish and French Canadian toiling under the supervision of contractors and the Royal Engineers. Working primarily with hand tools and in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions, these labourers and skilled craftsmen, such as Scottish stonemasons, endured disease and injury, with large numbers dying during the canal’s construction;
- in the aftermath of the War of 1812, when relations with the United States were tense, it was built to serve as a military canal and represented a fundamental component of Britain’s defences in the interior of North America, safeguarding the supply lines between Montréal and Lake Ontario by providing an alternative and more defensible route to that along the St. Lawrence River;
- it contributed significantly to the social and economic development of Upper Canada / Ontario prior to 1850, when it was a key artery for the movement of goods and people in and out of the colony. After that time, it continued to be of local commercial importance until the 1930s; since then it has served as a popular recreational route."
In 2000 the Rideau Waterway was designated a Canadian Heritage River in recognition of its outstanding historical and recreational values.
In 2007 it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognizing it as a work of human creative genius. Two criteria were used as the basis for the designation:
- The Rideau Canal remains the best preserved example of a slackwater canal in North America demonstrating the use of European slackwater technology in North America on a large scale. It is the only canal dating from the great North American canal-building era of the early 19th century that remains operational along its original line with most of its original structures intact (UNESCO Criterion i)
- The Rideau Canal is an extensive, well preserved and significant example of a canal which was used for a military purposes linked to a significant stage in human history - that of the fight to control North America (UNESCO Criterion iv)
BOATING THE RIDEAU CANAL
How big a boat do I need?
There is no minimum size of boat. The locks are operated for the tourist boater so the canal staff are used to handling any type of boat whether it be a canoe, kayak, PWC, runabout or cruiser.
What are boat size restrictions?
The maximum size of boat is 27.4m/90ft. length, 7.9m/26ft. width, 6.7m/22ft height. Under special circumstances, the Rideau Canal can accommodate a boat up to 33.5m (110ft) long by 9.1m (30ft) in width. The navigation channel, which is clearly marked by buoys, maintains at least 1.5 metres (5 feet) of water under normal circumstances (the deepest part is in Big Rideau Lake, which reaches a depth of 100.3 metres (329 feet)). Parks Canada asks that any boat drafting more than 1.2 metres (4 feet) to contact them before entering the canal. Minimum fixed bridge clearance is 6.7 metres (22 feet).
Is the Rideau Canal difficult to boat?
No - it's very easy. The Rideau was built as a "slackwater" system, meaning there is no excessive current in the rivers. Waves with some chop can develop on the bigger lakes but boaters can easily seek shelter near shore. Each lock has 3 or 4 canal staff who are used to dealing with novice boaters and will help out in any way they can.
Should I carry a navigation chart?
Yes - there are two sets of navigation charts that cover the Rideau. Chart 1512 covers from Ottawa to Smiths Falls and Chart 1513 covers Smiths Falls to Kingston. These charts, in addition to showing the depth of the water in all the lakes and rivers, clearly show the navigation channel and all the marker buoys. Charts may be purchased at many of the lockstations (see Lockstation Services Chart for locations) or can be ordered from World of Maps. See: www.worldofmaps.com.
When is the Rideau Canal open for boating?
The locks operate from mid-May to mid-October. For exact dates see the fees & schedules page located at: www.rideau-info.com/canal/fees.html (click this link). Of course with so many sections of natural water, you can boat anytime there is open water. Most of the lakes have launch ramp access. The longest "lock-free" stretch is the Long Reach, between Burritts Rapids and Long Island, stretching for 40 kilometres (25 miles) along the Rideau River.
Do the locks operate 24 hours a day?
No - the hours vary. During most of the season the locks open at 9:00 am (10 am during weekdays in the spring and fall). In the summer they stay open until 6:00 pm from Monday to Thursday and 7:00 pm from Friday to Sunday. In spring and fall they generally close at 4:00 pm on weekdays and 5:00 pm on weekends. For full details see the fees & schedules page at: www.rideau-info.com/canal/fees.html (click this link).
How long does it take to boat the Rideau Canal?
A one way trip can be done by a powerboat in as little as 4 days, but in reality you should plan at least 6 days each way. A general rule of thumb is to assume 30 minutes for each lock* and an average speed of 10 kph. So, with 202 km and 45 locks, that's 43 hours of travel time to get you from Lake Ontario to the Ottawa River. In summer, the lockstations are open 9 hours a day - so that's 4.8 days. Presumably you'll want some additional time to sightsee, shop, swim, fish, etc. So, look at the maps, figure out where you want to go, and do the math. Don’t rush, give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the scenery and relax.
* Locks are like stoplights - you might get a green, the lock doors open ready to accept you. In that case the trip through a lock takes about 15 minutes. But you can also get a red, the worst case is if the lock doors just closed before your arrival and you'll have to wait for a full lockage cycle before you can get locked through. That might take 45 minutes for a single lock. Time also depends on how many boats are locking through with you and how deep the lock is. Hence an average of about 30 minutes per lock.
How much does it cost to go through the locks?
Lock fees are based on the length of your boat and the type of pass you wish to obtain. For instance, with a 20 foot boat, it would cost you $18.40 for a single lockage and return (based on the 2023 rate of $1.00 per foot). A season pass (unlimited lockage) would cost $190.00 for that same 20 foot boat (based on the 2023 rate of $9.50 per foot). For full fee information visit: www.rideau-info.com/canal/fees.html (click this link).
I'm in a small boat with no sleeping quarters - where can I overnight?
If you bring a tent, you can camp at most of the lockstations (a mooring permit gives you camping privileges) except for Ottawa, Hogs Back, Old Slys and Smiths Fall Combined where camping is not allowed. Parks Canada also has oTENTiks at a few lockstations (Upper Brewers, Upper Beveridges & Upper Nicholsons). There are also many B&Bs, Inns, and Lodges located along the shores of the Rideau that will allow you to dock your boat and stay at their place. Call ahead for reservations. For listings, check the accommodations page at: www.rideau-info.com/canal/accommodations.html (click this link).
I'm in a big self-contained boat - where can I overnight?
You have many options. You can anchor your boat in one of the many sheltered bays. You can moor at most of the lockstations for a reasonable mooring fee. For those wishing more services such as shore power and showers, most marinas offer dockage with these services to transient boaters. Have a look at the marinas page at: www.rideau-info.com/canal/marinas.html (click this link).
Can I consume alcohol or cannabis (marijuana) on my boat?
No with one exception. The law in Ontario regarding alcohol and cannabis in any vessel (including canoes and kayaks) is the same as it is for a motor vehicle. If you’re found to be impaired, your driver's licence will be automatically suspended for 90 days and you'll be subject to impaired "driving" penalties. Any liquor in a boat must be in a container that is unopened and the seal unbroken; or stored in a closed compartment out of reach of the pilot of the vessel. Cannabis must be in a closed or fastened container out of the reach of the pilot. The exception is for a vessel with a fixed head (built in bathroom), fixed cooking facilities and fixed sleeping berths. You can consume alcohol and cannabis (subject to Parks Canada regulations) on such a vessel if it is properly moored at a dock or at anchor.
Do I need to wear a Lifejacket?
Yes and no. YES if you are using an inflatable PDF (either auto or manual inflate) in any open boat or on the deck or open cockpit of a larger boat. In those cases an inflatable PFD MUST BE WORN (the OPP is enforcing this rule). This rule applies to any open boat, power or paddle. NO if you have a regular Canadian approved PFD/Lifejacket, of appropriate size, for everyone on board. If not worn, the PDF/Lifejacket must be readily accessible (not buried inside a sealed hatch).
Do I have to stock up on gas and supplies?
No - there are many services available along the Rideau. There are lots of marinas so it's easy to get fuel. There are several communities along the Rideau that have grocery stores within easy walking distance of a docking area so you can stock up on food, ice, drinks, etc. You'll find links to many of the towns, with maps and a listing of services from the maps page at: www.rideau-info.com/canal/maps.html (click this link).
I'm trailering a boat - where can I put in?
There are many boat launches along the Rideau, some maintained by local communities, some at lock stations, some at the provincial parks, some at campgrounds and at most local marinas. A full list of boat launches can be found at: www.rideau-info.com/canal/boat-launch.html (click this link). If you wish to boat for several days and wish a secure spot to leave your vehicle and trailer, then a marina or a campground is the best option. Most offer well maintained launch ramps, accessible for a nominal fee. It is best to give them a call in advance, to get the details about storage for your vehicle and trailer while you are enjoying your Rideau trip. Have a look at the campgrounds page: www.rideau-info.com/canal/accom-camp.html (click this link)or the marinas page: www.rideau-info.com/canal/marinas.html (click this link)
Can I rent a boat?
Yes - there are a number of options. Those wishing to cruise the waterway may wish to rent a houseboat or a cruiser. Those just interested in a day trip can rent a pontoon boat from one of the local marinas. Several of the local lodges, Inns and B&Bs also offer boat rentals as part of their services. A listing of rentals and tours can be found on the boat rentals and tours page at: www.rideau-info.com/canal/boat_rent.html (click this link).
LAND BASED VISITORS
Do I need a boat to enjoy the Rideau?
No - the locks are very pleasant places for visitors by car or foot to visit. Nice lawns with picnic tables make a great place to enjoy a quiet lunch. The towns and villages along the Rideau offer lots of opportunities for sightseeing and shopping. Those interested in coming by vehicle should have a look at the driving tours pages: www.rideau-info.com/canal/driving/ (click this link).
Is there a charge for using the lockstations?
Several of the lockstations have a nominal charge for parking ($1 to $4 per day). There is no charge for family/individual day use of lockstation facilities although donations are appreciated. A full listing of fees can be found on the fees and schedules page at: www.rideau-info.com/canal/fees.html (click this link).
Can I camp at the locks?
Yes, but only if you arrive by bicycle or are hiking the recognized hiking trails. Campin is available at all lockstations except for Ottawa, Hog Back, Old Slys and Smiths Falls Combined. Those arriving by water have access to one camping site with the purchase of a mooring permit. Those arriving by bicycle, on foot, or by a boat that can be pulled from the water (i.e. canoe/kayak) may purchase a camping permit. Those travelling by vehicle (car, RV, etc.) cannot stay overnight at the locks unless renting an oTENTik. The lockstations offers lawns to pitch a tent, picnic tables, water, washroom facilities and some have metal BBQ stands. There are no showers except for lockstations that offer oTENTiks (available to anyone with paid access to the Rideau Canal - lock pass, mooring pass or camping pass). A table showing the facilities offered by each of the lockstations can be found at: www.rideau-info.com/canal/lock-services.html (click this link) and a camping FAQ can be found at: www.rideau-info.com/canal/lock-camping.html (click this link)
If I come by car or RV, where can I overnight?
There are lots of accommodations along the Rideau - B&Bs, Inns, Campgrounds, Cottages, etc. - take your pick. Some of these are listed on the accommodations page at: www.rideau-info.com/canal/accommodations.html (click this link).
How can I get out on the water if I come by land?
You can take a boat with you (trailer, cartop, inflatable, canoe, kayak), rent a boat on-site, or take a boat tour. Information about boat rentals and tours can be found on the boat rentals and tours page at: www.rideau-info.com/canal/boat_rent.html (click this link).
Parks Canada Agency
Rideau Canal Office
34 Beckwith St. South,
Smiths Falls, ON K7A 2A8
Toll Free: 1-888-773-8888
website: www.pc.gc.ca/rideaucanal(click this link).
Friends of the Rideau
P.O. Box 1232
Smiths Falls, ON K7A 5C7
website: www.rideaufriends.com (click this link).
FAQ compiled by: Ken Watson
Date Created: September 15, 1999
Date Updated: January 28, 2023
Comments: send me email: Ken Watson
©1996- Ken W. Watson