Sailing the Lower Ottawa River

Rockcliffe Yacht Club.

by Michael Lukyniuk

For nearly one hundred years, the Ottawa-Outaouais community relied on the Lower Ottawa River for its link to the outside world. Steam navigation on the river began as early as 1822 between Grenville and Hull, which proved essential for the construction of the lumberyards of Philomen Wright, and for the construction of the Rideau Canal by Colonel John By from 1826 to 1832. With the completion of the Carillon Canal in 1834, navigation was further enhanced.

By 1842, the first regular passenger service was initiated between Montreal and Hull-Bytown employing a stagecoach in the Montreal-Lachine portion of the trip, a steamer in the Lachine-Grenville portion, another coach parallel to the Carillon canal, and a final steamer in the 60 mile stretch from Carillon to Hull-Bytown. When Queen Victoria chose Bytown to be the capital of the Province of Canada in 1857, the river once again served bravely in the construction of the majestic parliament buildings which were completed in 1866, and in the subsequent growth of the little community. Throughout the early years of Confederation, the elected representatives of the new Canadian federation made their way to the capital on steamers; Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, is said to have had a permanent stateroom on one of them!

During this era, the quality of steamboat travel can be best described as luxurious. For many years it had little competition from the newly introduced railway service. In The Private Capital, Sandra Gwyn writes "If travel by rail was a miserable purgatory of dirty, jolting coaches, constant derailments, and cinders in the eye, travel by steamboat aboard the Prince of Wales, the Queen Victoria, and later the magnificent iron-hulled Peerless which could accommodate a thousand passengers, offered a mode of transportation that was as enjoyable as it was efficient." By 1910, the railway overtook the passenger steamboat service; steamboat excursions continued until the mid-1920s, but the primary use of the river thereafter would be limited to freight.

A Guided Tour...

We'll begin our cruise of the Lower Ottawa (in the section from the Chaudire Falls to Upper Duck Island) at the foot of the historic Rideau Canal. At this point, your boat sits below the locks which transport river traffic to and from the Rideau Canal. The world renown Chateau Laurier is on the eastern side and the East Block of the Parliament Buildings faces it. Heading west from the locks along the base of the escarpment below the Parliament Buildings, you pass below the neo-gothic structures of the Library of Parliament, the Centre Block, and the West Block, followed by the Confederation Buildings, the Federal Court, the Supreme Court, and the National Archives and Library. The river does exhibit some man-made turbulence between the Supreme Court and the National Archives due to underwater pipes which come from a central heating plant nearby.

Not far away, you are prevented from travelling any further upriver because of the Portage Bridge and the Chaudiere Falls. A small picturesque bay formed between Richmond's Landing and Victoria Island has been used by some boaters as an overnight anchorage. The miniature peninsula known as Richmond's Landing used to be the site where settlers would unload their cargo and haul it along the road leading to the village of Richmond, Ontario, some twenty miles distance. Victoria Island was for a long time the site of a large lumbermill which dispatched immense rafts of timber as far away as Europe. There is an old abandoned stone building on the site which was used in the lumber business. Strange as it may seem, this tranquil site lies near the heart of the bustling city but feels as though it is nestled far away near some rustic community.

Heading Down River

Turning around and heading down river, we pass a small low lying seagull-ridden island known as Hull Island (although I must confess that for several years, I thought it was appropriately called "Gull Island"). The river is very shallow at this point. Hull Island divides the river; if you swing upriver in the north channel, you will head near the naturally very turbulent Chaudiere Falls. I confess that I have never ventured there, preferring to leave it to the small sea-dos which revel in the rough waters. Heading down river from Hull Island, the river deepens. On the north shore across from the Rideau Locks, you will find the twin curved structures of the Canadian Museum of Civilization and its small private dock holding a large West Coast Haida canoe as well as a Durham boat. Proceeding under the Alexandria Bridge (constructed in 1900 and initially used for railway and automobile traffic), you will notice the Hull Marina on the north shore which is home to many sail and power boats. There is a good launching ramp here and ample parking for those who would like to trailer sail. It is also a popular place for a large number of tourists who embark on cruise boats like the Sea Prince II or the Paula-D.

The view downriver from the New Edinburgh Club (ONEC).
Along the north shore, parklands stretch for a couple of miles from the marina to the mouth of the Gatineau River. This wasn't always the case, however. An impressive cement plant was once located along that shoreline as well as lumber mills. The natural beauty of this area was always striking. During the 1940s, the British High Commissioner to Canada used to paddle across the river from his nearby residence known as Earnscliffe, to bird watch in a cove where Brewery Creek meets the Ottawa River. He reported on a large variety of birds which were not normally found in the environs.

Along the south shore next to the Alexandria Bridge, you can't miss the towering Nepean Point topped with the statute of explorer Samuel de Champlain holding his legendary astrolabe. Champlain explored this region as early as 1613 by canoe and lost his brass astrolabe (a device for taking measurements of latitudes) while on a portage near Cobden, Ontario; it was discovered in 1867 by a 14-year old farm boy and is now part of the Civilization Museum's collection. Behind Nepean Point is found the glass menagerie known as the National Art Gallery designed by Moshe Safdie. Next to the Art Gallery is found another interesting structure which looks like a castle, the Royal Canadian Mint. The Ontario shoreline also contains a couple of interesting-looking turn of the century boat houses. Some rowing clubs are based here, as well as the cruise ship The Senator which conducts excursions to Montebello on Sundays.

The six lane Macdonald-Cartier Bridge crosses the river at this point. To the east of the bridge lies the previously-mentioned Earnscliffe, a gabled mansion where Sir John A. Macdonald lived from 1871 to his death in 1894. It is now the official residence of the British High Commissioner to Canada. A couple of interesting buildings can be seen next to Earnscliffe; the distinguished National Research Council building overlooks the river, and behind it is found the ultramodern Lester B. Pearson Building, home to the Department of External Affairs.

Where Rivers Meet - the Rideau & Gatineau Rivers

One of the most impressive natural sites on this part of the river is undoubtedly the Rideau Falls, a greenish cascade of water which acts as a curtain for the brave souls who would dare to walk under them. It was Champlain who christened the falls after the Algonquin Indians took him on a walk underneath. A favourite game of cruise boats is to poke their bows into the shower of the falls to the delight of the tourists. The falls are divided in two by Green Island which houses the newly renovated Ottawa City Hall complete with pyramids and towers, designed once again by Moshe Safdie. Next to the falls, we can see the French Embassy, and the official residence of the Canadian prime minister (a former lumber baron's mansion).

Below the prime minister's residence is an area known as Governor's Bay, a shallow and weedy part of the river. High on the eastern side of the bay is an old gazebo. From this lookout, sightseers can have a breathtaking view of the Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers as well as the bluish Gatineau Hills in the background. Boaters can replenish their gas tanks or have a meal at the Rockliffe Boat House which is located just below the lookout. A lot of powerboats and houseboats are moored for the season at this spot.

Across from this site lies the mouth of the lengthy Gatineau River which reaches far into the Canadian Shield. On the western shore, the river bed is shallow and very weedy. On my first experience in motoring up the Gatineau from the western approach, my keelboat came to a complete halt held back by the dense underwater weeds; luckily, I had a retractable keel and was able to pull myself out of this embarrassing situation. On the eastern shore we find the community of Pointe Gatineau with its Quai des artistes, a spot where you could tie up for a spell and have a meal at a nearby restaurant. (In fact, one of the best French cuisine restaurants in the entire metro region, L'Eau Vive, is located within a short walk of the quay.) The bridge which crosses the Gatineau River next to the quay is called the Lady Aberdeen Bridge, named after the wife of a former Governor General and founder of the Victoria Order of Nurses who almost lost her life in 1896 when she fell through the ice in the not-so-frozen river along the Quebec side. The towns folk generously came to her aid and commemorated the event by naming the bridge after the thankful victim. The park across from the quay is called Parc Lemay; it has several bike paths and a modest swimming beach. Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of an Indian settlement there dating from the time of Christ.

Heading down river, you will notice a lot of small docks with different types of boats and a good number of bars and restaurants. Around the end of August each year things become very busy when the international hot air balloon festival is held here. Some seventy balloons ascend twice daily during the event, and one of the best places to watch it is right on the river!

The Ottawa River broadens at this point and is a popular site for small boat sailing. Two clubs are located on the Ontario side of the river in an impressive building sitting on the water and dating back to 1883. The Ottawa New Edinburgh Club (ONEC) is the owner of the building and shares space with another club, RA Sail. The fleets of the two clubs consist of lasers, albacores, and mistrals which are used for training and racing. There are some larger sailboats moored at ONEC belonging to private members.

The River Around Kettle Island

To the east of this lies Kettle Island, a good sized island stretching for about a mile down the river. Towards the north side, the river is filled with underwater weeds, so traffic flows down the south side of the river. This uninhabited island is now owned entirely by the City of Gatineau and is home to a variety of birds: blue herons, kingfishers, and different types of ducks. A few boaters may be seen camping overnight on the island next to its shallow shoreline.

The Rockliffe Yacht Club lies across from the mid-point of the Island on the Ontario side. It boasts a large number of sailboats and a small clubhouse. Behind it lies the National Museum of Aviation; on a good day you may see its white biplane taking off and landing.

As we approach the eastern extremity of Kettle Island, we can swing around and enter the north channel. It is well marked with buoys and leads you to the Kitchissippi Marina in Gatineau. Next to the marina you will find a handy restaurant and a local baseball diamond. The boats moored here tend to be mostly powerboats and houseboats. Returning back to the main channel along the Quebec side, you will be following Rue Hurtubise with its collection of fine looking houses.

The end of our excursion takes us into another broad stretch of the river bordered by Kettle Island, the Quebec shoreline and Upper Duck Island. For some inexplicable reason, the wind tends to shift frequently in this area. Keel boats should be cautious of the Upper Duck Island shoreline; the sandy river bed is surprisingly shallow for a good distance. This is once again a popular spot for boaters wishing to anchor overnight or go for a swim.

From the Chaudiere to Upper Duck, the Ottawa River bustles with activity. On certain dates, like July 1st when boaters congregate below Nepean Point to watch the Canada Day fireworks display, this part of the river might even be described as a place to avoid! From my experience, however, the river always holds something of interest, whether that may be a hot air balloon attempting to perform a "baptism" on the water, or a friendly sailboat race running from the Hull Marina to Kettle Island. It's natural beauty and historical background make sailing the Lower Ottawa River a memorable event.

© Michael Lukyniuk, 1996.

Some Additional Information about Marinas/Clubs
on this part of the Ottawa River.

The New Edinburgh Tennis and Sailing Club is approximately 1 kilometre east of the Rockcliffe Boat House Marina. Three kilometres further east there is the Rockcliffe Yacht Club (RYC). This club has approximately 100 members, both sailors and power boaters in about a 50/50 mix. The RYC offers overnight docking or mooring at rates similar to those for docking overnight at the locks on the Rideau system. Reciprocal arrangements with some other yacht clubs in the "Golden Triangle" (Ottawa-Kingston-Montreal) area generally provide for one free night if you are a member of one of those clubs. The RYC has pumpout facilities, water, ice, and restrooms with showers. The club has a very good launch ramp (concrete descends about 50 feet into the water) and day launching is available at a reasonable fee. In addition, the club has 24 hour security which is ideal for those wishing to leave their boat overnight and visit the sights in downtown Ottawa.

There are also two marinas on the Quebec side of the river in this area. One is located just behind the eastern tip of Kettle Island in the narrow channel there (most likely a municipal facility). It offers fuel, pumpout, and has a small restaurant. The other marina is located about 2 kilometres east of Lower Duck Island. It sells fuel, has a pumpout facility and offers winter storage for fairly large boats.

Information provided by Dave Rodger (May, 1996)

Some Additional Information on
Cruising the Lower Ottawa River.

  • There are a few masting facilities on the Ottawa River for boats going in or out the Rideau system. There is a good masting crane at the Hull marina (819-595-7390), but tying up is difficult because of the concrete wall and the area gets rocked a lot by the wave action of the many powerboats going by. There is also a good one at the Rockcliffe Yacht Club (RYC), but boats are limited to a draft of 5 feet or less to get in.

  • Chris Locke and Tom Robertson sailed downriver from Ottawa to the Carillon Lock in a Tanzer 16 during the summer of 1999. Here's a link to a photo essay of their cruise (it's worth checking out):

  • The total waterway distance between the Hull Marina and the locks at Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue is close to 150 Kilometres (90 miles). Montebello is approximately 65 Kilometres (40 miles) down river, and it's another a 50 kilometres (30 miles) to the Carillon Lock. Once through the lock, the Ottawa River soon expands into the Lake of Two Mountains. From Carillon it's a 30 kilometres (18 miles) hop to the lock at Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue. The lower part of the river is covered by chart 1515 (Papineauville to Ottawa) and chart 1514 (Carillon to Papineauville).

  • The Rockcliffe Boathouse Marina is the first such facility east of the Rideau Falls (5 km east of the Parliament Buildings). It offers overnight moorings, pump out, restrooms and showers. You can contact this marina on VHF, channel 68, or by calling 613-744-5253.

  • There is a marina at Rockland on the Ontario side of the river approximately 36 kilometres (22 miles) east of Ottawa. They have 120 full service docks, some of which are available on a daily or weekly basis. They sell gasoline and offer a pump out service. Their phone number is 613-446-4756.

  • The Chateau Montebello has a marina with docks available on a daily or weekly basis. People on boats staying at this marina have access to some of the facilities of this ritzy resort. Unfortunately prices for tying up at Montebello can be a little steep - ranging from $1.70 to $1.90 per foot of boat length per day (in 1996). For more information call 819-423-5328.

  • The Voyageau (Carillon) Ontario Provincial Park is located on the Ottawa River immediately west of the Carillon Dam. It has boat ramps and a variety of camping grounds. For more information call 613-674-2825. A link to the Voyageur Park web site.

  • The Carillon lock is truly an impressive facility. It is one of the highest locks in North America. A single locking operation raises or lowers boats across a 66 foot (20 meters) difference in water levels - the equivalent of 7 stories. It takes around 20 minutes and some 25 million litres of water to fill the lock. The dam at Carillon is also the largest power generating station on the Ottawa River. The fee for single lockage at Carillon (in 2001) is $2.95 per metre of boat length (one way). Draft clearance is 9 feet, overhead clearance is 42 feet, and transit time is 45 minutes. For more information call 514-537-3534. A link to a Parks Canada site about the Carillon Canal

  • The lock at Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue serves as the demarcation point between the Ottawa River and the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Average lockage time is 15 minutes, total transit time is about 30 minutes, and fees are set at $2.46 (in 2001) per metre of boat length (one way). Call 514-457-5546 for more information. A link to a Parks Canada site about the Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue Canal

    Information compiled by Michael McGoldrick (1996)

Website, photos, map and some text by Michael McGoldrick.
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