“All the life-potentialities that we never managed to bring to adult realization, those other portions of ourself, are there; for such golden seeds do not die. If only a portion of that lost totality could be dredged up into the light of day, we should experience a marvellous expansion of our powers, a vivid renewal of life.”
When you’re motivated to explore outside of your comfort zone, there can be questions of doubt that quickly come to the forefront. Parents can give you their worries, friends lend their bets, and even your own research can have you reconsidering the endeavour. However, the hunger to explore the unknown bellows from the bowels an ageless narrative that hints of our highest calling. So, if you hear the internal holler and are in pursuit of perspective, the Rideau Canal Waterway is the perfect pitch-off point for your discovery.
The Rideau Canal in its totality is 202km of rivers, lakes and man-made canal, carved out between Kingston and Ottawa. Historically, it was built to defend us from further invasion from the United States after their attempt at takeover in 1812. Yet, underneath lies a much older intrusion of continental collide that formed the Grenville mountain range a billion years in the past. The remnants only serve now as a geologists’ nerd-out, and an elevation gain of 166ft from Lake Ontario to its summit of Upper Rideau Lake. Today, the canal is the oldest continuously operated canal in North America and its original slack-water system design allows for all levels of paddlers to come enjoy the width and depth of the adventure.
Our aspiration was to paddle the waterway in its entirety, to seek a new perspective from roads to rivers, and to surround ourselves with the beauty of eastern Ontario. So, on May 19th my main squeeze, Laura and I launched our 10’ canoe (The Mosquito) from Kingston for a journey through the historic main route. With little paddling experience we planned to canoe 40km a day for 5 days with minimal gear, navigating rivers, lakes and portaging the 23 lock stations while camping along the way.
The first day we sketchily placed our canoe in the swollen waters with headwind gusts of 30kms north east into our eyes. Team work came on quickly when the waves splashed over the bow of our tiny boat. Yaaar, I thought at first, until I realized we were taking on water. Laura had to keep the bow straight to the upcoming waves, while I bailed pints of lake water from the canoe. It gave us a lot of information quickly. How to navigate, work together under stress, and communicate effectively. Thrown into the deep end to literally sink or swim. However, in this case neither were an option. A light rain started, but it was hard to distinguish from our sweat. We hadn’t expected to both launch and bail so closely together, if at all, but the weather on the water can change fast. Not soon after the winds calmed. The white tips of the waves exchanged visuals with over sixty white swans canoodling in the distance as huge carp washed over each other in spawn. Coupled loons popped up out from nowhere and mysteriously kept us in their sight from a distance.
The pressure of isometric exercise makes our bones stronger, and immense earth pressure makes carbon into diamonds, so perhaps our challenges can pressure us to produce an alike fortitude, but of character. Nine hours of paddling a day brought a physical test, and with the aid of wind and wave, compressed our spirits to a humble shiver before expanding them outward at the end of each day in appreciation for our environment. We felt small, yet not helpless. We realized we couldn’t master nature, but instead become a part of it.
Our bodies ached by the third day, and to our surprise we became comfortable with our discomfort. We laughed into the serene silence as the day breezed by and our emotional barometers maxed out in awe. Note: when slack jawed by awe struck on the water, be sure to bring chapstick with a good SPF. After the first few days we eased into the elemental mix that could bring our attention to the immediate, or take it to the existential. A heavier rain started one afternoon, but with no wind, formed pearl-like drops splashing up from the water that left us forgetting about the wet. Each morning we would take our time by the shore. The small sachets of instant coffee gave us a black powder pioneer feel as we tore them with our teeth. In those moments we ate our breakfast quietly pondering those who had lost their lives both on the creation of the canal and colonizing of our country.
By contrast, when we arrived at a lock station to set up camp each night, we were typically greeted by a friendly Parks Canada employee working quietly to beautify the station for the opening season. They would ask us how we managed so far, tell us what to expect between the next locks, and with a chuckle, to mention to the next station how good their’s had looked. Each station has bathrooms, potable water, and an outlet to charge batteries. After setting up our tent, locking up the canoe, and getting organized we would inhale our food before a stone-like slumber. No fires are allowed at the lock stations, so bring a warm sweater and make sure your sleeping bag is always dry. Dry bags work great. Garbage bags, not so much. We felt safe at each station although many times there were few people around. The people we did encounter were kind, capable, and equally happy to chat. Animals were never an issue, but respectively we hung our food in a nearby tree. Our waterproof map was essential, and easy to read. We found it fun to wade in the water looking over the map as we snacked on chocolate and trail mix. I think the only item we would bring next time in addition to our neoprene gloves, would be a pair of neoprene shoes to keep our toes warm even when wet. Also, time.
The next time we paddle the canal we’ll take double the amount of time to explore, stopping in the many enchanting small towns, museums, old stone mills, and the quaint artisan shops along the way. Since the Rideau Canal is mostly flat-water friendly, it allows for the hard paddler or the lilly dipper with equal parts discovery. When Laura and I arrived back in Ottawa, people asked us where we were going to go next. All we could think of was, further. The Rideau Canal showed us the magic in simplicity, the strength in patience, and the gratitude for our environment. Magic is a word that describes the incredible, and discovery is never any less than that. An incredible renewal of life.