After a long day of travel, the glass of red wine I’m reaching for feels well-earned.
“You never used to drink wine,” my mother, with one eyebrow raised, calls out from behind me. I laugh.
She must be thinking of the last time we travelled this way together: Just her, my dad and me.
I was 2 then.
My parents have joined my husband, two sons and me many times, but it has been more than 40 years since it was just us three. And the limited number of distractions means my parents are getting a closer look at me than they’ve had in years.
The decision to take them on this trip is a cliché because it’s true: None of us are getting younger (though you wouldn’t know it to look at my folks). With a family and career on the go, days often feel like I’m running at warp speed. Selfishly, I find myself craving more focused time with all my loved ones, but my parents top the list. They were my first trip guides, and the inspiration for the roving life I lead. It feels fitting that we should chart new paths together, free of outside interruptions, at least one more time.
And so I booked this trip for us with Le Boat, a boat-chartering company celebrating 50 years in the European cruising industry this year. It launched in Canada in 2018, offering non-boaters the chance to be captain and crew of their own vessel on Eastern Ontario’s Rideau Canal waterway. Neither my parents nor I have any boat-operating experience, never mind a boating licence. But after a 30-minute lesson – in which our instructor teaches us the difference between a throttle and thrusters, calmly offers suggestions when we’re about to crash into the dock and double-checks that we know how to “put her in reverse” – we’re left to our own devices.
It’s just us now, with access to 202 kilometres of lakes, rivers and canals stretching from Kingston to Ottawa.
This isn’t a speed boat. We max-out at about seven kilometres an hour. Kids on the shore are literally outrunning us (though horseflies seem to have no problem hitching a ride). From our starting point at the Le Boat base in Smiths Falls, it takes us about five hours to reach our first stop of Westport. We could have driven it in 40 minutes. Still, when you’re new and nervous, full-throttle feels a lot like Highway 401.
That slow pace is one of the gifts of this trip. The three of us settle into our roles quickly as we snake our way between a fairly well-marked path of green and red buoys. My dad finds the captain’s chair and never lets go – intent on taking responsibility for our safety and well-being as he always has. My job is to navigate using the provided map, binoculars and Le Boat guides. My mom is second mate, which seems to mean she can shuffle between playing puzzles on her iPad, relaxing on the comfy bench inside and popping up occasionally to take a few photos.
But even she isn’t entirely off-duty: When the time comes to enter a lock or tie up for the night, she takes her position at the rear ropes seriously.
Soon we're relaxed enough to enjoy the views of hidden island cottages, point out turtles basking on shorelines and attempt photos of herons gliding through the air.
The beauty takes me by surprise. The Rideau Canal is the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America, but until now I’ve only ever experienced it in the winter, when a 7.8-km stretch in central Ottawa is turned into the world’s largest, naturally frozen skating rink.
At the speed we’re moving, the serene waters and tree-lined shores can be appreciated. Dad and I get into a rhythm of navigating and steering. Small talk leads to revelations not meant for public articles in major newspapers.
In the evenings, we celebrate successful docking with board games and adventures into small towns. In Westport, we pop up to the Scheuermann Winery for wood-fired pizza. In Perth, we wander the main street and take a quick peek at the gardens outside the Perth Museum. And that first glass of wine becomes a nightly shared event.
We don't get it all right.
At one point my navigator skills send us off-course, and the telltale scraping of the boat bottom confirms we’re in too shallow water. A speedboating couple catches up to us and helps us make the correction, then follows us for a while to make sure we’re comfortable again.
And then, of course, there’s the natural tension that can come when three people who don’t spend this much time together do.
With my parents as my sole companions, regression is immediate. My go-to, curse-heavy playlist is shuttled aside in favour of more family-friendly tunes. And parental advice is instinctively met with defensiveness. I am a middle-aged woman, but somehow, back with my parents, I find myself reacting with teenage exasperation, heavy sighs and eye-rolling at comments that should roll off my back.
If I’m annoying them, they don’t say it, but I do catch them sending tight-lipped, knowing looks at each other on occasion.
I see them making accommodations too. They fuss over whether I’m hungry or comfortable, and one morning I hear whispered reminders between them, early risers both, that they need to be quiet because I’m sleeping. No one wants to wake the baby.
They can’t stop being my parents any more than I can stop looking to them for approval.
On the one evening that I slip away from them to the top deck, I find myself seeking them out within 20 minutes for ice cream and a round of Jenga. Solitude isn’t why I’m here.
I wanted this trip so that I could be with them, and I find myself regretting any minute where I'm not making the most of that.
And then, just like that, we’re approaching the end of our trip. Wondering if my folks are feeling as melancholy about it as I am, I remind my mother that once we land back in Smiths Falls this afternoon, it will be over.
"Wait. I'm going to wake up in my own bed tomorrow?" she asks before muttering under her breath the thing we're all thinking. "That's gonna suck."
Things you need to know:
- There is a series of locks along the canal that regulate water levels. All of the locks we went through travelling south from Smiths Falls to Chaffey’s Lock were operated by Parks Canada personnel. They do all the heavy lifting and provided support and tips for our adventure.
- The length of our trip (four days) meant we didn’t have to worry about dumping out wastewater or refilling our water tanks. Locations where you can do both are clearly marked on your guide.
- On board the boat, you’ll find everything you’d find in a cottage or RV rental. There’s a fully functional kitchen, hot water for showers, USB ports and a barbecue hotplate on the upper deck. For a nominal fee, the folks at Le Boat will provide a cooking starter package that includes things such as oil, salt and pepper, milk etc.
- Across their boat models in Canada and Europe, Le Boat offers options that can sleep between two and 12 people. Our Horizon 4 could technically sleep nine, but I would max it out at five or six adults to stay comfortable.
- Although you’re out on the water alone, a 24-hour emergency number means help is only a phone call away. At our very last lock on the return trip, we ran into engine trouble. The folks at Le Boat were there within minutes, making us laugh, assuring us it happens from time to time and getting us on our way.
- Our four-bedroom boat was great for providing lots of room to relax, but given that the three-bedroom model is the same total size, I’d opt for it if I were to do it again. My parents found their bedroom a bit tight for two adults. The three-bedroom option would provide a room that was double the size.
- The costs for renting the boat vary according to the size of the vessel and length of the trip, but you can expect to pay just more than $5,000 for a week-long cruise like ours in August. While Le Boat has arrangements with most lock stations that allow for overnight docking without charge, there could be docking fees at stops where they don’t have an agreement.
Heather Greenwood Davis was hosted by Le Boat. It neither reviewed nor approved this story. For more information, visit Leboat.ca.
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.