The passionate hiker

The passionate hiker
Early days in the outdoors

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Rideau Trail: Reflections

The Rideau Trail:   Reflections


Kingston City Hall:  The Rideau Trail starts here in the park beside Lake Ontario



A final trail sign in far-off Ottawa
End-to-End
Last Sunday, on a cloudless day, I walked into the heart of Ottawa, thereby completing my end-to-end journey along the Rideau Trail.  This was my first long-distance trail.  It proved to be enjoyable and compelling every step of the way through the varied, sometimes spectacular, scenery of Eastern Ontario.  

I started beside the blue waters of Lake Ontario and hiked northwards to the wide, swiftly flowing Ottawa River. This was a journey of three hundred and thirty kilometres, or two hundred and six miles, done in twenty one stages over the period of June 29th to November 2nd of this year.


Here are some reflections on my journey.





Sign in downtown Perth, about halfway along the trail
The Trail
The Rideau Trail Association (RTA) has divided up the 330.4 km trail into three sections:
  • South:  from Kingston to Lally Homestead, south of Perth.  Distance of 152.9 km and containing the greatest challenges and contrasts in terrain.
  • Central:  from Lally Homestead south of Perth to Rosedale Road, between Smiths Falls and Merrickville.  Distance of 67.4 km.  Rugged to start with, then more open farmland north of Perth. 
  • North:  Rosedale Road to end of trail in Ottawa.  Distance of 110.1 km.  Farmland, forest, city pathways.
This tree is pointing the way - the sign is superfluous
The Route
The Rideau Trail is not a straight line running south to north.  As the crow flies, it is only 146 km between the two cities, and the most direct driving route is 172 km.  So this will tell you that the Rideau Trail charts its own unique course.  Often you will be heading directly away from your destination, and rarely does the path head exactly towards Ottawa.

As a result, a successful trip relies entirely on being able to follow the red isosceles triangles nailed to trees and other handy places along the way.  Miss one sign and you could be hopelessly lost.  On almost every leg of my journey, I had to stop and check for that next sign at least once.  There is a technique you soon learn so that you don’t end up in trouble.  Basically you always keep one sign in view before heading out in search of the next one.  Nevertheless, there were a few occasions where I had to search quite hard for that next sign.

Idyllic camping at Skycroft beside Lake Opinicon
Logistics
Since there are no (or very few) overnight stopping places along the trail, people usually work away at it in stages. I suppose there are people who have done the whole thing non-stop, but while this might be an interesting physical challenge, it is not my choice of how to enjoy a journey.  I chose to walk the trail from south to north, and it took me twenty one separate stages.  Logistics play a big role in tackling the Rideau Trail.  For this reason, I started in the Central section, then having completed that, I went on to do the southern, then northern sections, always walking in the general direction of Ottawa.

There is no “right way” to tackle the logistics.  It all depends on how far you want to walk, and how many of you are doing the trip.  If, as in my case, you are doing this largely on your own, then it requires someone else to help with vehicles.  The only exceptions are within the catchment areas of the two main cities, where public transport is available, and the smaller towns where you might find a taxi for example. 

A strategically positioned bike for returning to the starting point by road was part of my plan more than once.  On two occasions I camped out at handy campsites close to the trail, to allow me to cover a couple of more isolated stretches in one go.  There are apparently a couple of primitive campsites along the trail, but although I looked carefully for them, they were not to be seen.

Broken rope ferry west  of  Bedford Mills
The Pace
Overall I averaged 3.6 km/hour on the trail.  This varied greatly, depending on the terrain or the points of interest along the way.  I walked as slowly as 1.5 km/hour through parts of rugged Frontenac Park, and beside the fascinating Rideau Canal in Smiths Falls.  On straight stretches of old railway line or along city pathways I could easily do better than 5 km/hour.  I chose the pace that seemed right for me, and never felt that I had to be in a hurry to get to the end of my day’s trip. 

My overall time on the trail was 91.4 hours.  The average length of each trip was 15.7 kilometres.  Shortest day was the very first day on the trail, at 6.6 kilometres through Perth and beside the Tay River/Canal.  Longest leg is shared by two trips, each of 25.0 kilometres, one of which was my final day on the trail.

Westport from Spy Rock on Foley Mountain
High Points
How can I pick the high points, when every section that I travelled was full of enjoyment?  From a geographical point of view, the high point on the trail was about halfway along it, on Foley Mountain.  Here at Spy Rock is a magnificent view down to the village of Westport.  I arrived at the viewpoint to find the town shrouded in mist.  As I stood there, the mist cleared to reveal the picturesque scene shown here, in its autumn colours.

But this was just one of many highlights.  To mention a few others:  it might be the sight of the choppy waters of Lake Ontario stretching to the horizon, or the unexpected 360 degree viewpoint at Flagpole Hill in Frontenac Park, or the surprise encounter with a deer in the swamp near Lally Homestead; the glittering particles of mica on the trail beside the old mines; the twisting pathways through the Marlborough Forest leading to the remote Earthstar shelter; sneaking up on Ottawa through the prettiest woodland, and the final dramatic approach to the Capital beside the wide, swift-flowing Ottawa River. 

These combined memories are what made this long hike such a special one, and puts it right up there with my more  dramatic Rocky Mountain hikes.

Merrickville Locks on a busy afternoon
Canal and Trail
When I first heard of the Rideau Trail, I assumed it followed the towpaths of the Rideau Canal.  I soon discovered that the Rideau Canal is only partly a traditional canal.  It is really a waterway – a series of lakes and rivers connected by numerous locks, forty seven of them  (including the two Tay Canal locks).  So there are only short sections of towpath along the canal.  The Rideau Trail takes a totally separate route, occasionally meeting with the canal along the way.

There is a special magic about those places where canal and trail intersect.  You have to be patient for the first meeting.  And then, it’s not strictly the Rideau you first meet, but the Tay Canal, which runs from Perth to the Rideau at Beveridges Locks.  Smiths Falls provides the most impressive meeting of trail and canal.  Here you cross over the canal at the relatively modern Combined Lock, at 26 feet the highest lift of all forty seven locks, before strolling beside the wide canal/river on well-kept pathways leading to further locks downstream. 

Merrickville is your next encounter, where the canal passes right through the middle of the village.  Some of these lock stations are lonely places, and the section of trail between the two Nicholsons locks is a good taste of that isolation.  After crossing the old canal swing bridge at Burritts Rapids, the trail then heads off into the forest, not meeting again with the canal until the dramatic conclusion of the trail at the Ottawa Locks.  Here is the famous staircase of eight locks which lowers the canal into the great Ottawa River.

On the Cataraqui line north of Skycroft
On the Rails
The Rideau Trail might have been custom designed for The Passionate Hiker.  With a love not just for canals, but also for disused railway lines, I was treated to plenty of both.  My route followed long stretches of both the south-north K&P (Kingston and Pembroke) line and the southwest-northeast Cataraqui Trail, once a rail route from Napanee to Smiths Falls.  There were no tunnels, but there was one deep cutting on the K&P south of Sydenham, and some lonely stretches along the Cataraqui Trail east of Perth Road.

The climax of this rail/trail system came at a section of trail between Harrowsmith and Sydenham where the K&P and Cataraqui lines meet.  Here, the Rideau Trail, which had been running north along the K&P, swings east on the Cataraqui.  It was not hard to imagine the scene in days now long past, of two steam trains crossing paths at this lonely junction.

I was equipped for a surprise encounter
Surprises
Just about every section of my hike brought some pleasant surprise.  Some of these I have captured in my blog entries. 

I was surprised to discover the exciting new section of trail in Kingston, which starts at City Hall and joins together several waterfront parks.  The blue, choppy waters of Lake Ontario stretched out to the horizon.  I was surprised to find the platform and ticket office of Kingston VIA rail station to be on my route through town.  How incongruous, and what a good example of the great variety that this trail provides.  By contrast, I was surprised at the extent of rugged wilderness that I encountered as I crossed the Canadian Shield country.  The magnificent lakes, for example Gould Lake, were a surprise to me.  The list could go on and on. 

Finding a trail sign attached to a lone tree in the middle of a large swamp in Frontenac Park was certainly a surprise, but luckily I used some common sense and did not swim out across the water!
 
It was a little surprising to discover the occasional short sections of trail alongside busy highways.  These are limited, and as far as I can see, necessary, but if there was some alternative that could be found, it would make the overall experience even better.  In studying the maps, it surprised me that the Rideau Trail is a fluid route, open to the whims of landowners, and constantly being adjusted.  So perhaps there is always an opportunity to reduce the worst of those roadside marches.

Friendly frog beside a large swamp
Companions
I may have travelled alone, but there was plenty of life all around me.  At various places I saw an occasional deer, a coyote just south of the Marlborough Forest, lots of birds, particularly geese flying south in formation, and lone herons in many swamps and lakes.  Squirrels were racing about all over the forest floors, and the ponds were full of friendly frogs.  There was a bear warning sign posted on Foley Mountain.  Although I did not expect to see a bear, I did carry my bear spray through the remoter sections of trail, just for peace of mind.

Even the trees seemed to be beckoning me onwards.  One tree leaned over so strangely with one arm pointing to my destination, that the trail sign nailed to the branch seemed completely superfluous.  I passed a few magnificent trees along my route, lone giants surrounded by much smaller trees.  I felt a need to greet them as I passed by.

A muddy patch north of  Richmond
Maintaining the Route
Someone has to keep the trail in good shape, checking the signage, clearing away fallen trees, and so on.  That responsibility lies with the three sections of the RTA, and it’s all volunteer work.  With a few exceptions I found the trail to be in very good shape.  The sections through the swamps and across the rugged Canadian Shield country were sometimes a little overgrown or damp, but the fact is that I completed the route without once getting lost and with dry feet at the end of every hike.  This speaks for itself.




Rare sign of a recent fellow traveller (luckily not a bear paw print in the mud)
On Record
I found only one travelers record book along the trail.  This was at the Skycroft Shelter, in the woodland north of Lake Opinicon.   Here I signed a visitors book placed inside the shelter.  The previous entry was by some hardy hikers who were racing down the trail from Ottawa and had already covered thirty four kilometres that day!  I never did meet any end-to-enders on my journeys.  In fact I hardly met anyone at all.

I think that more strategically placed trail books should be placed along the way.  Here travelers could share their thoughts, add notes on trail conditions, and then perhaps these notes could find their way to a shared website.  In the meantime, anyone wanting to learn more about this trail can do worse than read my blog!

Enjoy YOUR journey.


Approaching Parliament Hill in Ottawa:  a grand ending to a magnificent trail

Safety Note:  The Passionate Hiker is not recommending that people hike alone.  If you do choose to go on a solo trip, make sure you have a back-up person who knows your exact route and timing, and do not deviate from that plan.  Always carry a SPOT satellite GPS device (or equivalent) to alert your backup person of progress waypoints and (in the final resort) to allow you to press a button for emergency support.  Do not rely on cell-phone coverage.

17 comments:

Unknown said...

My friend and I are planning doing a section of the Rideau trail and would like to do about 4 or 5 days worth of backpacking. In your opinion, where should we start and end? And do you think 20 kms a day is reasonable for 2 people in fairly decent shape?

The Editor said...

Hi Shannon,

I think 20 km average per day for a fit hiker would be possible, although I averaged less than that. You will find that you can easily exceed that daily distance along many sections, but through the rugged parts of the trail, it would be a stretch. And you want to leave time to stop and enjoy the experience along the way.

If you want to explore the more remote parts of the trail, then I would suggest that the best general section to backpack along would be between Sydenham in the south and Perth in the north. However, that whole distance is 180 km, so if you had 5 days at 20 km,per day, you could start at Gould Lake Conservation Area (Rideau Trail point 4B) and hike up to Lally Homestead (trail point 9B) which is 103 km.

The logistics are key. You will need a vehicle at each end. And you will need to adjust your daily distances to coincide with handy campsites, since they are limited along the way. There are 5 campsites along this stretch of trail:
- km 9.3: Frontenac Outfitters (need prior permission)
- km 16.1: Doe Lake (Frontenac Park)
- km 34.4: Skycroft (slightly off the trail)
- km 64.5: Foley Mountain
- km 103.4: Murphys Point (end of this section)

Book ahead, especially in high summer.

There may be a few other locations along this stretch that I am not aware of, but not many (if any). Otherwise you will need to use vehicles to get you to campsites further away from the trail itself.

I have a handy table which I have created which I can send to you if you like, which might help with your planning. It shows distances, parking, camping locations, etc.

Let me know what further info. might be helpful.

By the way, I assume you are talking summer/fall timing? Fall is best in my view, with less bugs and more color.

Best of luck.

PH

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed your blog. While I too love hiking, my real passion is trail running. My goal this fall is to run the trail, end-to-end, from Kingston to Ottawa, over 5 days. Still very much in the planning stage, but would appreciate any advise you may have with regards to logistical planning. My plan so far for the 5 days is as follows: Day 1 - Kingston to Sydenham, Day 2 - Sydenham to Westport, Day 3 - Westport to Perth, Day 4 - Perth to Burritts Rapids, Day 5 - Burritts Rapids to Ottawa. I imagine that water sources are plentiful, however I will be hard pressed to carry sufficient food for 5 days while running. Hence I'm considering on putting out caches near the end of each days leg with sufficient food and spare eqpt and clothing for the following day. With so few hikers on the trail, I hope that the caches will be left alone for the 5 days I'm on the trail. I have yet to commit to either camping along the way, or staying in commercial accomodations, or a mixture. A mix might be the way to go as it seems that little is avail commercially in either Sydenham or Burritts Rapids. Any advise you have would be greatly appreciated. Terry B.

The Editor said...

Hi Terry As a first step, can I suggest you get in touch with Noel Paine at runningwriter@hotmail.com ? He and a colleague ran a route last year which followed as much of the Rideau Trail as is practicable to run, and they did the whole journey from Kingston to Ottawa in lightning speed. He would be able to give you really good advice about what to do and not do, and so on. I can also provide you with the same list of thoughts which I shared with him, if that would be of help. Being now retired, and never a runner, I'm afraid my advice would be limited. There are reasonably good options for camping or B&Bs and if you go to the RTA website at rideautrail.org, you'll find a listing there which will help you. The issue with caches might be animals, unless you can find safe places, but there are communities along the way where you can probably leave a parcel with a person, for example in Sydenham or Foley Mtn at the interp.centre, in Perth, Smiths Falls, Burritts Rapids etc etc. Good luck with the planning. If you send me an email address I will send you that list of thoughts.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the suggestions. I will check out the rideautrail.org resources and give Noel a shout once I've moved back to Ottawa this summer. My email is tbuehl@outlook.com.

Unknown said...

My friend and I are planning to hike the trail this fall. We're allowing 12-14 days to complete. I'm more of a regular hiker, done a few overnight trips. She's less experienced, so I'm trying to tailor the trip to what I assume would be her pace. For the south stretch, I'm assuming 15-20 km/day, and longer towards the end, with a supply drop either at Perth or Smiths Falls. We're thinking a mix of B&B and camping. I think we'll have to limit the side loops, in order to make sure we complete in time, but wouldn't mind doing some of the more specatular loops. Which would you recommend as "must-do"? Thanks

The Editor said...

Hi Joanne - Thanks for the note. I will give it some thought and will get back to you shortly. There are some very nice short "blue signed" side trails. See a recent blog entry on this subject.

The Editor said...

Just as a start, see this blog entry: http://thepassionatehiker.blogspot.ca/2016/04/blog-post_14.html

The Editor said...

Joanne here are some thoughts:

1. 15-20 km a day sounds ok but allow for slower going through Frontenac Prov. Park and Skycroft areas. Also allow time to stop and enjoy places along the way.
2. Typically a formal end-to-end walk does not require people also to do the blue side trails. In fact, right now I am trying to promote the blue trails as a separate challenge, to encourage more people to explore them, so don't feel you have to do any of them to be able to complete an end-to-end. Some of them are not even directly connected to the Rideau Trail route.
3. Of the side trails that I have done, here are my comments:
- 3C west to Harrowsmith (1.7 km): very handy connector into Harrowsmith and facilities
- 5A-5B Slide Lake(7.4 km): spectacular and rugged but leave for a separate expedition.
- 6A south to Skycroft access (0.8 km): very handy trail to the overnight camping at Skycroft and the little rope ferry.
- 6B Chaffeys Lock (7.0 km): do separately as part of a Cataraqui trail hike
- 6D-7A Ferry bypass (1.0 + km): useful in winter and a pretty trail but not practicable during an end-to-end
- 8C-8D Big Rideau Plateau (1.3 + km): nice in fall colors, but otherwise stick to main trail
- 8E Ghost Town (0.8 km) curious diversion, one standing building, watch for poor signage, not sure its worth it.
- 11b-11C Beveridge Locks: not connected to current trail route but worth a separate visit.
- 15A-15B Cedar Grove: nice winter loop, otherwise not.
- 15D-15BA RTA Lot: no longer an RTA lot, no need to divert
- 17C-17D: E side Jock River: avoid this as the bridge is no longer in place at north end. Stick to west side of river along Richmond Rd

All the other loops are nice day trips but just complicate an end-to-end.

Hope this helps. Let me know if you have any other questions. Good luck.

Holly said...

My friend and I are hoping to hike the trail End-to-End (no side trails) this spring. I saw in a post above that you had some ideas for overnight camping. I would love any information on locations/permits on this, as well as water (are there any filter water stations, which lakes are available for filtering)! My email is holly_hockey_14@hotmail.com

Thank you for your help, and thank you for sharing your hiking experiences here on your blog!

Unknown said...

I'm planning a solo thru hike in mid May, from looking at the maps I'm thinking one should carry 5 days worth of food (especially in the south where resupply towns and more spread out). Can you comment on resupply?

The Editor said...

Hi Holly. As a starting point, I would refer you to the RTA website at http://www.rideautrail.org/discover-the-trail/overnight-accommodations/ where some good info. is provided about camping along the trail. This would then allow you to check out the individual websites or call the places, to get details that you need to be able to plan the trip. There are quite a few long gaps between campsites, so this will drive your logistics on how far to hike each day. In some cases, you may choose to get support transport to take you from a given access point on the trail to the nearest campsite. There are no, as far as I am aware, filter water stations along the way. But there are lots of lakes or swamps and depending on your filter gear, it should not be hard to keep a good supply of water going. I am not an expert on this and my first-hand experience with filters is limited, so please check with others too. I hope this is a useful start, and I look forward to getting more specific as you start into planning.

The Editor said...

I do know of people who have left packages at strategic places (friend's house/safe location in a town or village etc.) along the trail, which awaits them as they pass through. This requires that extra amount of pre-planning that doesn't suit everyone. It is true that there are few places along the trail where you can buy supplies. So for example there's nowhere between Sydenham and Westport heading north (and even Westport is not directly ON the trail) and then after that the next place is Perth. Then from Merrickville to Bells Corners there's nowhere to buy food unless you leave the trail in Richmond or Fallowfield. So it will depend on your speed and the section of trail when you calculate the numbers of days-worth of food to carry. Obviously dried foods are the answer but I am out of date on the latest available (check with MEC or other good outdoor places). Hope this is a good start. Let me know what other questions you may have. Good luck.

Unknown said...

Hi PH,

I came across your conversation here as I am also trying to do 5 days of the Rideau trail.

This itinerary sounds appealing, and I would just like to find out more about reaching those camp sites. Would you be willing to provide that spreadsheet?

Thanks for the great blog!

- jake.cogan@gmail.com

The Editor said...

Jake

First of all, you will want to check the latest info on the RTA website re camping which you will find at: http://www.rideautrail.org/discover-the-trail/overnight-accommodations/

Also I will send to your email 2 documents. The first is the table you are referring to, which is somewhat out of date but may give you some ideas about how I did the trip. Then I also attach the latest table for the trail, with correct distances between waypoints (things seem to change regularly). You can adjust this table any way you want to add stuff in etc. etc.

I hope this is helpful

Carlo said...

Hey PH , thanks so much for the info! Could you please send me your table? carlo.ghirardelli@gmail.com

Cheers!

The Editor said...

Hi Carlo, have just emailed you some info. Please let me know if you have any other questions. Best of luck. PH