Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, is full of surprises. It’s compact and easy to visit, and crammed with Instagrammable sights. The Rideau Canal UNESCO Heritage Site is one of them. It is a perfect example of a well-preserved historic site that people can enjoy year round.
What is the Rideau Canal UNESCO Heritage Site?
The Rideau Canal is a 202 km (126 mi) long waterway that runs between Ottawa and Kingston in Ontario. It joins Lake Ontario with the Ottawa River. The Rideau Waterway, as it’s also known, is a series of natural rivers, lakes and connecting locks and canals, of which 19 km (12 mi) are man-made.
Built between 1826 and 1832, Rideau is the oldest canal in North America to remain in operation. The locks are hand-operated the way it was it was back then. Locks 1-8 are located between the Parliament Buildings and the Hotel Fairmont Chateau Laurier in the heart of Ottawa.
I didn’t get the chance to see the locks in action because the water was frozen, which makes navigation impossible. However, if you’re interested in seeing how locks work, may I suggest you read this post about British canals and locks.
Why was the Rideau Canal built?
As they say, war is the mother of invention. In this case, it was the War of 1812 that sowed the seed of the canal. After their independence from the United Kingdom, the United States had become a threat to the British possessions in Canada. So much so that both countries went to war in 1812. The British Canadians needed to find a safer and more easily defensible route to the Great Lakes.
After conducting surveys and much toing and froing, actual work began in 1827. Colonel By and some Royal Engineer officers supervised hundreds and hundreds of labourers. It took them until the summer of 1832 to finish the canal. It became a busy trade route until the advent of the railway. Nowadays, it’s used for recreational purposes.
Why is the Rideau Canal a UNESCO Heritage Site?
From the UNESCO website: “The site, one of the first canals to be designed specifically for steam-powered vessels, also features an ensemble of fortifications. It is the best-preserved example of a slackwater canal in North America, demonstrating the use of this European technology on a large scale. It is the only canal dating from the great North American canal-building era of the early 19th century to remain operational along its original line with most of its structures intact.”
How can I enjoy the canal?
As mentioned above, nowadays the canal is used for recreational rather than commercial navigation. Gone are the days of the steam-powered vessels carrying goods. The navigation season, which is when the locks operate, runs from mid-May to mid-October.
Boats, canoes and kayaks are welcome on the canal. While there is no minimum size required, there maximum size for boats is 27.4 m (90 ft.) long, 7.9 m (26 ft). wide, 6.7 m (22 ft) high. If you’re wondering how long it takes to boat the length of the Rideau, plan for six days at the very least, unless you’re on a speedboat.It’s advisable to plan for 30 minutes per lock and an average speed of 10 kph. Lock fees are based on the length of the boat.
Although the most popular time to visit the Rideau is spring to fall, people can enjoy it year round. When it freezes in winter and the locks are closed, Canadians go skating, ice-fishing, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Every winter, the Rideau Canal becomes the largest skating rink in the world: the 7.8 kilometre long Rideau Canal Skateway. It winds its way through downtown Ottawa and it’s a beautiful sight. The sake season, of which 2020 was its 50th, runs from January to late February. Skaters are advised to check for ice conditions, though.
The Rideau Trail network has 387 km of walking trails between Kingston and Ottawa. Learn more here.
From my travel diary
Monday, 10 January
We arrived via Chicago. The cold air hit me like a wall. We drove along the Rideau Canal to our hotel. It’s now frozen and it’s like a huge open-air skating rink.
Tuesday, 11 January
I walked around the Byward Market, and up the York steps to a park behind the Chateau Laurier hotel. Wonderful views of the Ottawa River and the park. I chatted briefly with a lady walking her dog and kept walking along the canal.
I remember it was all white with snow, and very cold. Cold finger and cold toes were rather painful. But what spectacular views!