We’re fortunate in that two very good friends are boaters. Rob and Juudy own a 34 foot 1980-something Sun Ray cruiser and invited us to share a trip on their boat, the Dissipate III. For those who know the Rideau Canal, you can skip the next bit.
The Rideau Canal (pronounced Ree-dough if you’re not from here) was built after we won the War of 1812 to keep a navigable waterway the hell away from Americans so people in Montreal could get to Kingston and back, via Ottawa and the Ottawa River. Col. John By and a few thousand friends started digging it in 1826 and wrapped it up in 1832. It was important as a commercial waterway, but then came trains, roads and peace with the Americans, so it became more of a recreational waterway. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It takes somewhere from three to five days to do the Rideau,from Kingston to Ottawa, depending on how fast you want to go and how much punishment your wallet can take paying for fuel. Our jaunt was two nights, from Westport to Merrickville, where the Dissipate III is docked. Rob and Juudy were returning from their longer trip from Merrickville to Kingston and back to Merrickville.
For those who own pleasure craft of a certain size, you know that boating is an exercise in compact living. For example, the head (or the toilet for the non-boaty) is small. As a male you decide if your requirement is for seating or standing and enter with the appropriate side facing where you want to put it.
With the boat underway, you sit, regardless of what you intend to do, or take the time to mop everything down when you’re done, having sprayed all available surfaces including the ceiling with your products. That’s only funny once and not fun for the others on the boat, so it is avoided.
Rob has owned several pleasure craft all around the same size and has boated on the Rideau since shortly after it was built, so his captaincy is certain, safe and assured, which is reassuring. I grew up on Big Rideau, deep into German Bay, which was the family cottage for many years and in Smith’s Falls, which is about smack-dab in the middle of the Rideau Canal. Yes, I have been thrown out of Tony’s in Portland for being too drunk to sing properly. We used to stay regularly at Gallagher House in Portland before it burned down.
Westport was where we started, driving down from Ottawa, with our supplies and sleeping kit. Dissipate III can, on paper, sleep eight people, if they are all under 100 pounds and are less than three feet tall. Pragmatically, as grownups, we do not sleep well stacked like firewood. The solution is for two in the cabin and two on the deck, under the boat canvas, on an air mattress with sleeping bags.
This might seem primitive, but let me assure you, there is no better night’s sleep than that, including various hotels’ luxury bedding. You go to sleep to the sound of crickets, wind in the trees and a coolish breeze across your face and wake when the sun comes up, to the sound of birds warming up their singing voices for the day ahead. There is nothing better for the soul, including all the natural healing products you can name, organized religion, or mythical crystals hung from your earlobes, than a night’s sleep on the back of a boat. Especially after putting a huge dent in a bottle of Gosling’s Black Seal rum mixed with Harvey and Vern’s Ginger Beer.
Getting underway involves careful packing and stowage as those who have owned campers or RVs can attest. You put stuff away when you’re done with it, in the right place, enforcing a sense of purpose with your actions, a deliberateness that we rarely perform in our normal life. Deflate the bed and roll it up, roll up the sleeping bags and pillows, stowing them away. Move the deck chairs back into place, replace the sofa/futon, a small table for coffee and open up some of the canvas. Dishes done in the galley, stowed and secured, then a quick trip ashore to look after some biological imperatives, as the boat rule is liquids only to keep the use of the holding tank to a minimum.
Dissipate III has two monstrous carbureted 454 cubic inch engines under the floor, so it can, if so flogged, run like a civet cat with a flaming kerosene enema, up on plane. This is not our style of transport, as time is not of the essence. Our pace on the Dissipate III is leisurely, the motors purring along, loud enough to hear, but not so loud as to obliterate all possible conversation. The water splashing on the hull and the wind make more noise. You go fast enough to get there but slow enough to say, ‘look at that coming up’, instead of ‘you should have seen that!’
The trip out of Westport navigates you by some impressive summer homes. Cottages can be different things to different people. Some like a rustic feel, a few conveniences but mostly it is the view out the windows and endless games of rummy or cribbage with family and friends. Others insist that their Malaysian Toast Chef has their own guest house near the helipad. Westport has all of these and so does Big Rideau Lake. There are joints that haven’t been painted since Dief was the Chief and maintenance consists of replacing the screens every spring where the raccoons ate their way into the cottage last winter. Others insist their personal funicular railway to the water’s edge is only waxed with 100% Brazilian carnauba by the fourth-generation freelance funicular waxer named Pietro, on retainer from Milan.
There is an island for sale in the middle of the lake, just under $700,000 with three cottages on it already, one of which looks like it was used to cook meth, while the other two look like they have seen better days. We considered pooling our resources, but as I only had $11.00 in my pockets and Rob was carrying a cue ball and a coaster from a restaurant in Gananoque, we passed on putting our names forward.
We had considered buying the island just the same, then buying the upper half of a big while military surplus radome from the Army, and erecting it on the middle of the island just above the treetops. We figured we could start really bad black-helicopter rumours that could go on for years.
Locking through is one of the Arts of the Boat. Locks are a way to raise or lower boats from one area to another and the essential workings of a lock haven’t changed much since ancient Egypt. Gates to hold back the water and sluices that let water up high flood the lower locks. As the water goes up, the boats go up, open the doors at the other end and the boats can sail out, but into the higher water. Do this enough times and you can raise or lower boats several dozen feet. Smith’s Falls has a 26 foot rise at the main lock under Beckwith Street.
Where the Art comes in, is in navigating the boat into the lock. Imagine parking your car in the front hall closet without punching a hole into the bathroom, or moving so much as one wispy summer throw scarf in one shot, and you have an appreciation of the skill level needed. Rob is a master in the locks, juggling velocity, wind, inertia, angles, throttles, and props with the delicacy of a surgeon. It was always beautiful to watch Dissipate III glide into the lock under Rob’s skillful hands.
We stopped for the night at Poonamalie, lock 32. Poonamalie is pronounced two ways correctly, depending on where you are from. The official Parks Canada pronunciation is Poon-a-mahlee. If you’re from Smith’s Falls (which is pronounced Smiffallz by the locals) you might pronounce it Poon-mallee. If you pronounce it Poony-a-mally on the Reedux you ain’t from around here.
Regardless, Poon is 22 kilometers from anywhere. At night it is darker than Sylvia Plath on downers, but we were on shore power and enjoyed lasagna, Kracken Rum with more of Harvey and Vern’s Ginger Beer and too much wine. The bed was inflated and heads asleep before 10 pm in the pitch black silence of Poonamalie dockside.
Our final day navigated us through Smith’s Falls, Old Sly’s, Edmond’s, with its two foot lift, then Kilmarnock and finally through Merrickville, gliding into Aylings Marina late in the afternoon. A quick drive back to Westport to pick up our car, then unload our kit from the boat and back home to our own bed.
Which taught us what, exactly? It taught us not to sear a jerk-spiced pork tenderloin inside the boat, as the fumes from the Scotch bonnet peppers in jerk seasoning react to heat by giving off something near to tear gas for a few minutes.
It taught us that friends are more important than we sometime remember.
It taught us that uncontrollable laughing at Jim Jeffries the comedian is truly the best medicine.
It taught us that travelling gracefully, while at peace with the nature around you, is good for the soul. It reminds you of the important things and lets you forget the parenthetical and tangential issues of someone else’s monkey in someone else’s circus.
It also teaches you that 2.5 ounces of Gosling’s Black Seal Rum with 4 ounces of Harvey and Vern’s Ginger Beer and one ice cube in a plastic sippy cup for grownups is, if not perfect, at least close enough to perfect to let you see Perfect through the trees.
For this, we are grateful. Thank you, Rob and Juudy.