What’s behind reduced boat traffic on Rideau Canal?

Locking from the Rideau Canal into the Tay Canal at Upper Beveridge near Parth, Ontario. (photo: Lucy Martin)

Locking from the Rideau Canal into the Tay Canal at Upper Beveridges near Perth, Ontario. (photo: Lucy Martin)

Long, hot summer days should herald the peak of boat activity. But some users of Ontario’s Rideau Canal are unhappy about shorter hours of operation and a sense of drifting neglect.

The Rideau Canal consists of 45 locks connecting natural rivers and lakes – a 125 mile waterway from Kingston to Ottawa. The historic UNESCO World Heritage site is managed by Parks Canada.

The Ottawa Citizen recently reported that figures from Parks Canada indicate boat use in May and June is down by more than 30 percent, as compared to the same months last year. While steep fee hikes were proposed earlier this year, sharply negative response lead to a freeze on fees for three years. So what’s behind the drop in boaters?

According to the Citizen article, Parks Canada theorizes that cold, wet weather at the start of the 2013 season is to blame. But many observers blame a shortened schedule.

Morale among the lock keepers has been in decline too, according to Frank Folts,described by the Citizen as “… the 79-year-old American who owns the iconic Hotel Kenney at Jones Falls”

Folts, who chats with lock workers at Jones Falls every day, has been impressed over the years by how dedicated and sincere they are. “They like to entertain people, and they’re proud of it,” he said.

“But that pride’s gone. There are guys who now look forward to retirement. I don’t think money’s really the issue. It’s how they are treated as partners in this whole thing (by Parks Canada). I don’t think they’re looked upon as partners.”

Some users are worried the canal is experiencing a downward spiral. Sean Horsfall owns Len’s Cove Marina on Big Rideau Lake. As recounted in the Citizen article:

“One thing that’s abundantly clear is that the status quo’s not working,” Horsfall said. “They’re not marketing well, not communicating well, they’re not appearing to have the best interests of all the stakeholders on the canal at heart.”

While I live near the Rideau Canal and have reported on it before, I don’t own a motor craft and have scant personal experience with that side of canal operations. As it happens, I did paddle from Last Duel Park to Upper Beveridges Lock last Saturday as part of a Rideau Trail Association outing. (One of two locks on the Tay Canal that connect the city of Perth to the Rideau Canal System.)

While our group ate lunch there, a lone boat arrived to lock through. Two Parks Canada employees drove up from (I presume) Lower Beveridges Lock and hand-cranked the massive wood gates to float that boat upward and onward.

The lockies were cheerful and friendly. The whole business was delightfully low-key in a beautiful setting – boating on an intimate, human scale. While numbers are not yet available for July traffic, it did seem to me that there should have been many more boats out enjoying the waterway.

Here’s a more cheerful item to add on the topic: a group of history students at Carleton University spent a year building a (free!) app that puts Canal history in your pocket. It’s called Rideau Timescapes. This past June the project won a public history prize from the Canadian Historical Association.

What’s your experience on the Rideau Canal and your take on current operations?

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One Response to “What’s behind reduced boat traffic on Rideau Canal?”

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  1. Hank says:

    Those Canadian folks who are complaining about reduced service should complain to their MP, not to the Rideau Canal staff or Parks Canada. Parks Canada is only doing what it has to to live within its budget. The reason for his reduced service and lack of maintenance is a direct result of federal budget cuts. As with all public services, if you want better service, you need to pay for it through higher taxes.

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