Outside a Tim Hortons on the 401 , after a coffee break, the wind rose up. I licked a finger to confirm its direction, and that's how we came to canoe Kingston to Ottawa instead of the other way around, which was our original plan.
That meant 126 miles of canoeing without, oh joy, one portage.
It was Colonel John By (creator of Bytown, later Ottawa) who ensured the easy paddling. After the War of 1812, the Rideau Canal was built for strategic military purposes to connect the Ottawa River and Lake Ontario. The price tag was $800,000. It was a scandal, and cost far more than expected. By, the canal builder, was hung out to dry and sent home to England in disgrace. Worse, scores of workers died - of malaria.
The Rideau was never used by the military and not much by commerce. But for leisure, it's delightful. We found this out when, with the wind behind us beside Kingston's Royal Military College, we slipped our canoe - holding our tent, sleeping bags, primus stove, food and bottle of gin - into the broad Cataraqui River.
Gin? Might as well fess up before we take another stroke. Each afternoon at precisely 5 pm on this five-and-a-half-day trip, my wife and I beached the canoe, no matter where we were, for G-and-Ts.
This didn't always happen at campsites. In fact, there's only one official campsite on the whole route. Usually, we were putting up our pup tent amid cow pats in some farmer's field. But so what if campgrounds were rare? There are 45 locks along the way, which is why there are no portages, and there are numerous pretty little villages en route.
Jones Falls is one of them, where Kenny's, a large waterside hotel, is run by the fourth generation of a family by that name. There's also an ice cream stand, a canal museum, picnic tables, hopeful fishermen and local boys jumping off rocks into clear water.
Jones Falls has triple locks bringing boats up from Whitefish Lake to Sand and Opinicon Lakes. The Rideau system is as much a series of lakes as it is a canal.
On a busy summer day, 80 boats lock through Jones Falls, sometimes more than half of them Americans, who know a good thing. Canadian or American, they always waited for us. So did the lock-keepers if they spotted us paddling like mad to join the multi-horsepowered launches in the lock. One of the boat owners would throw us a rope, and we'd chat as the waters rose. We were a novelty. We're in our 60s, and I'm sure we were the only couple canoeing the entire canal system.
It was all uphill from the spot where red-winged blackbirds trapezed on the reeds of the Cataraqui through 11 locks at Kingston Mills, Chaffey's Lock and other hamlets, to Newboro, the summit of the system.
After that came one good-sized town, Smiths Falls, then the cottages on Big and Little Rideau Lakes and Merrickville.
Such were the hopes spurred by the building of the canal 150 years ago that Merrickville had the biggest department store between Montreal and Chicago. It was built by Sam Jakes, who erected a mansion next door, now an inn. And a temptation. It was raining. Should we, shouldn't we? No, like voyageurs, we paddled on, found a pasture, put up the tent and crawled in, sopping wet.
But that was the only downer of the trip. By the time we disembarked under Ottawa's Peace Tower, we were feeling a bit stiff but the fittest we'd ever been in our lives. And, of course, proud. I caught a bus back to Kingston, picked up the car and drove to Ottawa.
As we loaded the canoe on the roof rack, we were planning our next trip.