If Ottawa doesn’t instantly spring to mind when you think of great canal cities of the world, you’ll probably be surprised to know that it’s actually home to the oldest continuously operating canal in North America.
The 202km long Rideau Canal was first opened in 1832 to make the Ottawa River navigable between Ottawa city and Kingston on Lake Superior, pre-empting potential US hostilities at the time, since relations between the two mighty countries weren’t so neighbourly back in the early 19th century.
Fast forward almost 200 years and the mighty Rideau Canal is still going strong. In 2007 it became Ottawa’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the seasonal Rideau Canal Skateway is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest, naturally frozen, ice rink: a gigantic 7.8km long, and skate-able for up to 90 days between January and March every year.
But that’s jumping ahead, because the Rideau Canal is nothing if not a waterway for all seasons. Happily there’s no call for hostile measures along its length these days which means it’s almost totally given over to fun and it turns out to have a particular talent for that: whether temperatures are sub-zero in winter or its lazily flowing through a long, warm Ottawa summer.
© Katherine Shapiro
© Ottawa Tourism
Even if UNESCO hadn’t bestowed honours on the canal, Ottawa couldn’t be prouder of its heritage. There are walking and cycling trails dedicated to admiring its waterfalls; beautifully maintained original lockhouses all along its length; trained keepers upholding the fine summer tradition of operating the locks, and an entire industry built around cruising, sailing, kayaking and rafting on the Rideau Canal (or Rideau Waterway as locals in Ottawa know it).
You might think that’s a lot of fuss about a bit of water, but there’s almost nowhere in Ottawa where the Rideau doesn’t come into view, and for an outdoorsy city like this it’s basically a natural playground. And it’s easy understand the love when you consider that the canal even fits perfectly into a long, cold Canadian winter – and that’s no mean feat.
Dip into Ottawa Tourism’s archives and you’ll come across images of hardy Canadians playing ice hockey on the Rideau Canal way back in 1901. So it’s safe to say that the city has a lot of experience in keeping its ice smooth and sturdy, beautifully surfaced and glide-worthy for the mammoth 7.8km that define it as the world’s largest ice rink.
In fact, prepping the canal for skating starts in mid-October, even though nobody gets out on the ice until at least January: that’s how seriously they take things here.
Since the Skateway is open continuously during the season, there’s consistent maintenance too, ice conditions are updated twice daily and it’s a matter of pride to keep as much of the surface clean and smooth as possible.
You probably won’t take advantage of midnight skating with kids – regardless of it being completely free of charge – but it’s kind of fun to know you could, if you wanted to.
© Ottawa Tourism
© James Peltzer
What you definitely shouldn’t miss are the cool little huts along the canal in winter, set up for the sole purpose of recharging chilly skaters with enormous cups of hot chocolate and BeaverTails pastries: doughy confections with a choice of toppings that are a bit of an Ottawa legend.
On a practical note, adult and kids’ skates, safety equipment and kick-sleds are available for hire during the Rideau Canal Skateway season. There are also several designated rest areas on-route and parking is free, just like the skating.
Summer temperatures in Ottawa tend to linger around 25˚, add in blue skies and plenty of sunshine and you’ve ideal sailing conditions, which is handy considering the Rideau Canal is wonderfully navigable and there are dozens of different ways to get out on the water.
Guided kayaking tours are easy-going fun for families and a great way to the see the city from a different perspective. If you want to go it alone, dozens of boat rental companies in Ottawa hire-out kayaks, canoes and paddleboards for as little as an hour: so you can always put your sailing skills to the test before making a final commitment.
Canal cruises are good if you prefer someone else at the helm. Or there’s always the option of staying off the water altogether, taking to one of the Rideau Canal cycle trails and checking out the lock keepers operating the waterway’s amazing locks – Parks Canada kindly supply grassy picnic areas alongside most of the locks to let you observe in comfort.
© Ottawa Tourism
© Le Boat
But the truly keen on canals family should think about renting a Rideau houseboat for the holidays. Again there are several rental companies specialising in everything from luxury cabin cruisers to barges – such as Le Boat – specially designed for people with no boating experience or knowledge.
Whichever way you take to the water, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. The canal’s a hotspot for blue heron and osprey, turtles are regularly spotted in warmer weather, and if you’re out and about at night, expect to see plenty of fireflies doing their dazzling stuff.
Canada’s worries about a 19th century war with the US turned out to unfounded, and in almost 200 years the Rideau Canal hasn’t been used for military purposes at all. Although there’s no denying its historic significance, and not just to the Canadians: thousands of British immigrants arrived in Canada via the Rideau Canal in the 1800s.
So whether you want to celebrate the history, sail or hike or cycle in spring and summer or skate the world’s largest ice rink in winter, you’ll find the Rideau puts Ottawa firmly, high up, on the list of great canal cities of the world.
© Taylor Burk Photography