Romancing the Rideau - by Liz Huff

Within a stone’s throw of the mighty St. Lawrence, on the Canadian side, discover dozens of historic villages just waiting to be explored. It only makes sense; early water-based navigation made it inevitable that both First Nations people, and later, the first waves of European explorers, would first establish their communities in close proximity to the great river that they followed into the heart of our continent. One string of villages you might wish to explore, for a day trip, a weekend, or even a relaxing week, are along the Rideau Canal, the only UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site in the province of Ontario.

Map of the region north of the River.

Where the Thousand Islands International Bridge soars across the St. Lawrence and hops across some of the 1000 Islands, you will get your first glimpse of the Rideau region, with its pockets of farmland, forests, lakes and granite. As you come off the bridge, take the first exit on the Canadian mainland heading towards Gananoque. Keep alert because in less than a minute you need to turn right and head north again on Reynolds Road (County Road #3) toward the village of Lansdowne. One of the great possibilities of random exploration is that you never know when you might just get lucky and arrive on the day some traditional local event is underway. The village association in Lansdowne offers a well-organized plant sale every spring, featuring a large variety of excesses from local gardens, and there are good bargains to be had. Later in the summer you might happen upon their farmers’ market or any number of other seasonal events. The annual Lansdowne Fair has been going strong for over 100 years, and is the local highlight of the year.

Lansdowne Fair Grounds

Before heading north across the rugged natural landscape, be sure to have a look around Lansdowne. Check out the race track next to the fairgrounds, you are almost guaranteed to see horses from the Steacy Stables being trained. This operation is one of the top stables in the horse racing industry in Ontario.

As you continue north on County Road #3 you will cross a low lying flat area that is an ancient lake bed before the road rises onto the backbone of the Frontenac Arch which runs from Algonquin to the Adirondacks. The Arch is known as ‘the bones of the mother’ in aboriginal tradition; think of the 1000 islands as vertebrae and joints peeking through the surface of her skin. It is also a UNESCO designated Biosphere Region. On this road, you will pass the entrance to Charleston Lake Provincial Park, where you can d hike on trails that take you to some ancient peoples’ seasonal camping grounds, or to the top of Blue Mountain, or maybe rent a yurt for a bit of upscale ‘glamping’. The small settlement at Outlet is the access point to the many cottages that dot the shores and islands of beautiful Charleston Lake. Twist’s at the Outlet is a supply point for everything from breakfast to warm clothing. Now, keep on heading north, Rideau waterway country is calling.

Green Gecko in Lyndhurst, ON

Next stop is lovely Lyndhurst. The history of Canada runs deep through many of the north Leeds villages, but Lyndhurst boasts ownership of the first iron foundry in the country, and the oldest stone arch bridge still standing in Canada today. Perched between two lakes on the Gananoque River system, this village would have become a key commercial location on the original route of the Rideau Canal as initially planned by Colonel By. Events changed his plans and the main canal path ended up going further west. Today Lyndhurst is an essential portage point on a natural water route which starts on Whitefish Lake in the Rideau system, follows the Morton Creek to Lower Beverley Lake, then south on the Gananoque River system to join the St. Lawrence River. People who like to travel by kayak or canoe are discovering that this highly accessible route offers terrific views of both built up and natural landscapes, as well as safe flat water paddling that is well suited to those with only beginner level skills.

In addition to soaking up the history, you can’t leave Lyndhurst without checking out the Green Gecko, a unique shop that features locally made artisanal products and one-of-a-kind imports from south east Asia. There is something for every budget and every taste at the Gecko. Alternatively, if sport fishing or hunting appeals more, Wing’s Tackle and Bait just up the street has everything you might need, from permits to gear and friendly advice. Indeed, you may want to stay a day or two – Redfish Cottages is just a block away, with traditional Hudson’s Bay blankets in the cabins and an utterly relaxing view of Lyndhurst Lake. Mind you, if you happen to land in the village during the annual Turkey Fair, it might be a little less peaceful. More than 5000 visitors descend upon the village for this fantastic festival which fills the streets with vendors, great live music, and fun filled contests.

West from Lyndhurst on County Road 33, and then a short way south on Highway 15 you enter the village of Seeley’s Bay. The community sits directly on the main route of the Rideau Canal, and at Haskin’s Point, a small and free public park, you can sit right on the edge of the waterway and contemplate history up close. This section of the canal is known as the ‘drowned lands’. It was created not by digging, but by raising the water levels thanks to two mill dams, one north and another south in this series of little lakes and cranberry bogs. The village of Seeley’s Bay has some helpful interpretive signs and the QR code on the sign at Haskin’s Point takes you to a link of contemporary underwater footage, showing the mighty white oak trunks that still stand eerily at attention below the surface in parts of this section of the Canal.

Haskin's Point, Seeley's Bay, ON

Seeley’s Bay was an early location for milling lumber from the backwoods to be loaded on to canal boats and then down to the St. Lawrence. Village history notes colourful legends of rowdy drunkenness, and church minutes recorded concerns about the level of bawdiness that was associated with the hard working life of lumberjacks and river men.

Today the village has evolved into an eco-tourism gem with overnight or seasonal boat mooring, a public boat ramp, a launching point customized for paddlers, a large park with full play and picnic area, tennis courts, and more. You will find all the services you need to support recreation and living on the Rideau here including groceries, restaurants, hardware, and liquor. And ice cream, antiques, local handicrafts and generous advice can be found at the popular Nest Egg in the centre of the village. From the public dock in the centre of the village, boaters can visit four lakes along the Rideau Canal without even going through a lock station. Seeley’s Bay also has a nice mix of private cottage rentals and resort cabins like Sunny Acres, as well as the Rideau Breeze marina with permits and tackle.

A ‘drowned lands’ stretch of the Rideau, at Seeley’s Bay

Heading north along Highway 15, or by water on the Rideau, you will have a hard time choosing which of the villages to visit as you explore the romantic Rideau Heritage Route. Directly along the highway you will find Morton and Elgin; but leave the highway, for just a short side trip east of Morton, and you can visit Wendy’s Country Market. The old school house might look quaint, but this leading edge business assembles locally produced items from over 100 area farms with everything from cheeses to charcuterie. Wendy’s is a very reliable source of toxin-free foods and exciting events that reconnect urbanites to authentic food production.

Wendy’s Country Market, Brier Hill Road from Morton

Head west at Morton and you can explore Jones Falls (and the historic Hotel Kenney) and see an excellent example of the engineering genius of Colonel By and his canal makers, where they built three sets of locks and a turning basin. A bit further explore Delta and see spectacular architecture and a functioning water driven grain mill where you can buy stone ground local wheat. The entrepreneur in you might even decide to buy a gorgeous old building and be part of the revival of the Rideau.

Although the route can go on to Newboro, Westport, Portland, and many other lovely spots, this journey will end at Chaffey’s Locks which is going through a breathtaking transformation. The historic Opinicon Hotel, one of the few remaining grand old hotels of the Rideau, is emerging from retirement and becoming ‘the’ spot to visit. The new owners have carefully honoured all that is beautiful and historic in its appearance, and added a contemporary locally-sourced menu and some ever-so-subtle mod-cons. There are even a couple of electric car charging stations out back. Don’t be surprised to see a Tesla (the owner’s ride) parked at one of them when you stop by for lunch, dinner, or an overnight. And if you are lucky, you might be able to drop into some outstanding live music at the Chaffey’s Locks Community Hall right next door.

The Opinicon Resort, Chaffey’s Locks

Many of the inns and village amenities along the Rideau feature old photos of early American visitors who loved to spend their summers in the ‘backwoods up north’ where their US dollars have traditionally gone further. Looking at the restored photos on the walls of shops, museums and lock stations, you can easily imagine the sounds of the freshly washed sheets flapping on the lines, the guides telling tall tales as they cleaned the catch of the visitors, the aromas of whisky and cigars, and the laughter of children swimming.

Ghosts of the past are still in the air, but today’s good roads, and the instant information offered through social media, means that you can explore the Rideau with ease. Less than half an hour north from the St. Lawrence you will discover a place steeped in romantic history and full of fresh new ideas.

Some useful links:

Liz Huff is a resident of Leeds and Thousand Islands Township having retired from Ottawa where, among other things, she worked on community economic development matters for the federal government. Now she volunteers on local initiatives, serves as a municipal councillor, and occasionally finds time to paint and hook rugs that are inspired by the Frontenac Arch region. Liz is a boisterous promoter of the Rideau region; get a glimpse of life in her own village of Seeley’s Bay on the Rideau Canal on Facebook at “Support Seeley’s Bay Ontario”.