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Cruising The Historic Lower Ottawa River

By: Richard Crowder

There is something stirring and soul-searching about sitting in the expanse of the Ottawa River with beautiful Ottawa before you. The majesty of those buildings on the hill in front of you comprises The Parliament of Canada. Just stop and think for a few minutes about the history that surrounds you.

With a deep blue sky on a bright summer day the enormity of the history of Canada can be overwhelming. The back part of those buildings you are looking up at, the circular part, the library, was one of the only portions of the centre block of parliament that survived the great fire of 1916. The Centre Block, including the new Peace Tower, was rebuilt in its present form in 1917. Over one hundred years later, the cause of that fire has never been determined.

Look to your left, to the east, and you will see eight flight locks that can raise you and your boat up onto the Rideau Canal and to the Rideau River. Eventually that canal system, originally built in 1832, will take you 202 kilometers to Kingston on the St. Lawrence River. The Canal’s architect was Colonel John By, for whom Bytown was named, which few Canadians know was the original name of Ottawa. The Rideau Canal richly deserves its designation as a U.N.E.S.C.O. World Heritage Site.

Look slightly further to the eat and take in the magnificence of the 429 room Fairmont Chateau Laurier Hotel. Now a Canadian National Historic Site, it was completed in 1912 by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway as its showcase hotel. Listen closely and you may catch snippets of many thousands of political secrets and skulduggery held captive by its walls over these many years.

To your right, to the west, on the Quebec side of the river you will have to use your imaginations as it is no longer there, were the massive mills of the E.B. Eddy Company. Begun in 1854 they were made famous for their wooden matches. Immediately behind you and slightly over your left shoulder on the Quebec side is the relatively new and stunningly beautiful Canadian Museum of History.

Whether you start your journey of the Lower Ottawa River by arriving in this place via the Rideau Canal, or by launching your boat at the excellent launch ramp in Jacques Cartier Park, you must spend some time at this spot in the river to consider the history surrounding you. The launch ramp is almost beneath the Alexandra Bridge, off Laurier Street, in Hull. Across the street is the Canadian Museum of History. On the other hand, this may be the end of your journey if you started in Montreal but regardless, stop and reflect a moment.

Think of the history of Canadian boating that has passed over the exact place you are now occupying; the native tribes that used the river for transportation by birch bark canoe many centuries ago; the first European explorers including perhaps the most famous, Samuel de Champlain who over five hundred years ago passed this spot on his way to explore central Canada.

Think of the thousands of native transport canoes and coureurs du bois adventurers participating in Canada’s lucrative fur trade that lasted for over two hundred and fifty years into the mid-eighteen hundreds. Imagine the millions of logs of timber that were shipped to England and Europe for shipbuilding, and of the pulp logs for the many paper mills downstream. They all passed this spot in the river and played a vital role in Canada’s history and economic and political development.

But now, let’s head east and proceed to explore the natural beauty and manmade features of this historic and well-marked waterway from here to Montreal. Ensure you have a current Canadian Small Craft Hydrographic chart in hand and/or current GPS navigation screen. Of course, if you need accommodations or food there is almost an endless supply within walking distance of docking in both Ottawa and Hull/Gatineau.

Immediately after passing under the first bridge on the opposite side of the river from Jacques Cartier Park, look starboard and you may catch a glimpse of the venerable Royal Canadian Mint where all Canadian currency is produced. Along the river’s edge on the same side are some of the world’s Canadian embassies and residences. After passing under the second bridge and again immediately on your right, you will see the site of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC).

Just past NRC, the Rideau River dumps into the Ottawa River over a scenic and picturesque waterfall. Just past Rideau Falls Park is the Embassy of France, followed next by 24 Sussex Drive, residence of the Prime Minister of Canada in a stately but perhaps controversial home overlooking the river. Next on your right is Rockcliffe Park and lookout. Slightly beyond the park is the accommodating Rockcliffe Boathouse Restaurant and Marina.

Look to the left and you will see the Gatineau River as it flows into the Ottawa River. A short excursion up this navigable river and a sharp left turn into a narrow channel will lead you to Casino du Lac Leamy with its excellent food and hotel accommodation. Further down the Ottawa River on your right are Rockcliffe Airport, Flying Club, and Yacht Club, behind which is the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum. Beside that are the Canadian Police College and the Home of the RCMP Musical Ride Stables.

Keep your eye on the marker buoys to stay within the main channel as it skirts many islands and unseen obstacles. Scenery on both sides of the river from here on is idyllic and will be primarily rural permanent and seasonal homes, farmland, and parkland along with historical settlements and towns. Many of these towns offer docking and accommodations along with fascinating historical points of interest. There are also a few ferry crossings on the river so keep a sharp watch.

A bit past Rockland is the extensive provincial Parc National de Plaisance on the Quebec side which extends almost all the way to Papineauville. Then just beyond this is one of the highlights and must-visit places of your cruise. The Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello is claimed to be one of the largest log structures in the world. Centred in its massive foyer is a floor-to-cathedral-ceiling wood-burning fireplace roughly eight feet in diameter.

Built by the Canadian Pacific Railway and opened in 1930, it is situated on one of the last surviving land grants of the French monarchy in the 1600’s made to early settlers of what was then New France. Le Chateau Montebello offers over two hundred rooms, over one hundred slips in its marina, a spa, golf course, hiking trails, and excellent culinary offerings.

Just past Montebello, the Ontario town of L’Orignal is one of the original settlements between Montreal and Ottawa and worthy of a stop to absorb its history. Next is Hawkesbury, one of the largest towns along this route and a great place to replenish any needed supplies. Or if you prefer, there is Grenville on the Quebec side of the river. Almost all the establishments in all the settlements along both sides of the entire river speak both English and French.

You have probably noticed the river has been widening and becoming deeper as you head further east. Pretty soon you will be in Lac-Dollard-des-Ormeaux, the head pond of Hydro-Quebec’s Carillon Hydroelectric generating station, the most powerful of all on the Ottawa River. It is here that you will utilize the Carillon Canal National Historic Site and lock to lower you sixty-five feet to the river below.

The Carillon Canal was originally opened in 1833 for military purposes to skirt the rapids in the river and consisted of eleven locks. The current lock is unique in North America with its guillotine gate which weighs 200 tonnes and will drip on you as you pass beneath it. There is much to see and explore above and below the lock so spend time here if you can. Once you enter and exit the lock you are in Quebec on both sides of the river for the remainder of your cruise to Montreal.

The river is narrow again below the Carillon Lock and a short distance ahead on your left side is the Government of Canada Carillon Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary. This protected area provides habitat for a great diversity of primarily waterfowl species. You are now at the western end of beautiful Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes (Lake of Two Mountains).

The lake will narrow again as you pass the Montreal suburb of Hudson on your right and Oka on your left with its National Parc and beach. Then you will enter the larger portion of the lake. Unless you want to explore the expanse of this lake head almost straight ahead and slightly to your right, passing left of L’Ile Cadieux and aiming to pass under the Trans Canada Highway Route 40 bridge. Then shortly ahead on the left is the gorgeous, exciting, and accommodating tourist hotspot of Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue with its National Historic Site canal and lock.

This relatively shallow lock which will lower you to the level of the St. Lawrence River is the busiest lock in all of Canada and provides mooring services both above and below the lock. You may want to spend one or two evenings here as the beautiful boardwalk and side streets of this suburb of Montreal offer tantalizing and inviting restaurants, bistros, and entertaining nightlife of every possible variety.

You are now technically in Montreal and perhaps at the end of your cruise. However, you may choose to extend your journey right into the heart of downtown. You are now at the bottom of the lock and need to head east and past L’Ile-Perrot on your right and into the main shipping channel of the St. Lawrence which at this point is Lac-Saint-Louis. At the far end of the lake, keep your eyes peeled for the entrance to the Lachine Canal which itself is a National Historic Site.

This 13.5 kilometer canal is lined with historical reminders of the history of industrial and commercial enterprises from the beginning of Canada and consists of five locks to allow you to skirt the wild Lachine Rapids on the St. Lawrence River where it will lead you to the rejuvenated Old Port of Montreal (Le Vieux Port de Montreal). Its accommodating and modern marina offers excellent berthing and from there you can take horse and buggy tours or walk to everything that vibrant downtown Montreal has to offer.

You have just completed one of the most historic and scenic and yet relaxing and memorable boat cruises in all of Canada.

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