The Griswalds have nothing on us when it comes to the Park-Bozzo Houseboat vacation.
We researched our week trip on the Internet (www.rideau-info.com) to discover the Rideau Canal flows between Kingston and Ottawa through a series of 47 locks. It runs 202 Km and visitors can navigate it by boat, canoe, kayak, road, or trail. By day two we wished we had chosen any option other than a 40-ft, 8-ton houseboat.
We picked it up in Portland Ontario, about a two and a half hour drive from Toronto. Despite verbal guarantees, it was not ready. A young woman began cleaning it although she repeatedly told us it "wasn't my job" and said little else. Lucky for her she wasn't paid by the word. She reviewed the inventory, 10 plates, 10 spoons. "Make sure you bring it all She dipped a ruler in the gas tank. "17-1/2 inches, if it's returned with less, you pay."
Anything else we needed to know? "I don't know. I just do inventory."
The houseboat staff had assured us that driving was simple. Later, one lockmaster compared manoeuvring a houseboat to driving a sailboat.
The instructor gave "only two captains", dads John P and John B. a ten-minute training session. The young man also informed us that no one under 25 years old was allowed to drive. That eliminated our teenagers - Michelle, 15, Brandon 15, Mario 17, Trevor 17 and Haley 18. No problem: Michelle wanted to tan, Brandon to fish, and Haley to read. The reluctant travellers, Mario and Trevor, wanted to sleep until they could return to their city friends. .
Towels alone took most of the storage. There was one small room with a door, the penthouse, a crawl space above the room, and the benches that opened into two double beds while the table dropped to create a third. These were meant to hold two people each. It didn't matter. Not yet. It was sunny and warm and we were on holiday. Anchors up.
We headed to Smith Falls and to our first lock. A lock in a canal is like a water elevator, letting some boats up and others down. When a boat enters a lock, the gate closes behind it so the boat is enclosed in a chamber. Valves are contained within the walls and gates. If a boat is travelling upriver, the valves upriver are opened until the water level within the chamber rises and equals the elevation of the water upriver. The upriver lock gates are opened and the boat departs. It works the opposite way going downriver. The lockmasters at each lock manage the traffic. It was obvious to them at our first lock, Smiths Falls Combined Locks that we were novices. People rushed from above to throw us lines. We held onto ropes slung through cables on the chamber walls and released them once the gate reopened. We found the Lock Masters hugely helpful and the crews on happy holiday mode. We felt sorry for those people with beautiful expensive cruisers who shuddered (with excellent reason) when they saw us approach. Not surprisingly, houseboats were told to be first in line. We did not take the snickering and comments personally.
That night we docked at Victoria Park and the boys slept on the adjacent parkland.
The adults toured the Hershey's Factory, a chocoholic's version of heaven. While the others jogged, my workout was carrying the bags of chocolate back. The chocolate filled up the entire fridge but no one doubted it was the best use of space.
Next stop: Poonamalie Lock. We pulled in at a swampy dock as a favour to the lonely mosquitoes. We discovered that most of the screens had holes.
We trolled the river before anchoring in a secluded spot enroute to the town of Westport. Everyone, except for our non-swimmer Grace, dove into the deep, clean water. The kids jumped off the side of the boat and it could not have been more idyllic. Feeling optimistic, we dried off and started toward Westport. The motor turned, but then immediately died. The wind picked up and the Refreshed, John P. restarted the houseboat. The wind rose and we started drifting. A young man was sent to our rescue. He couldn't get the engine going either. He towed us to isolated Narrow Lock but not through it as he didn't have enough gas to get back, and his girlfriend was waiting. Much later the head mechanic found the problem. No gas.
No one had mentioned that 13 inches of gas meant empty. We had assumed the tank had been filled. Silly us.
Once stranded without food (five teenagers, remember) the boys perked up. Brandon was determined to catch dinner. His hook was too big for the tiny sunfish, so he lured, Mario scooped and Trevor gutted. They barbecued twenty sunfish. Not meaty, not tasty, but wonderful.
That night John B. was delighted to leave the crawl space and sleep on top of the boat. Shame about the midnight thunderstorm.
Perfect entry through the locks. John P. proudly executed three-point turns for gas, to remove sewage, and to dock. We taped the screens, sprayed Raid and explored Westport. Ate out, enjoyed live jazz. Prevented the boys from going to the pool hall. First good night sleep.
Insisted everyone arise early to hike to a reportedly beautiful beach. Didn't know about the Zebra Mussels until we arrived. Water too filled with sea scum and slime to swim much. Only three of us went in. John B. itchy, and seemed to have a growing rash.
Bought cream for John's poison ivy. Grace and I went to Laundromat to wash towels and sheets as everyone at this point was using closest available towel. Did I mention that poison ivy is contagious? Returned to drugstore for more medication for the three boys who had rashes.
John P. sent Brandon to Laundromat to tell us not to go back to the boat because there were thunderstorm warnings. Trevor came in shortly after to tell us not to go back because there was possibility of a tornado, but instead to meet at a nearby restaurant. Brandon came to tell us to stay put because there were tornado warnings. Grace and I looked at each other, sticky from the hike, itchy with the thought of poison ivy and decided that we would rather be hit by lightning than not shower. The storm damaged the locks, but the tornado never materialized.
The tornado never came, but the locks had been damaged by the storm and we couldn't return as planned the next morning. We were relieved.
The captivating village of Westport has dozens of places to walk, stay, eat and shop. (www.westportrideaulakes.on.ca). We celebrated Grace's birthday at an outdoor cafÃ©, telling jokes and singing. Trevor and John P.'s colds were much better. (Had I mentioned they had colds and the John B's allergies kept him up most of the night?)
Our plan was to have a celebratory barbecue on Colonel By Island and sleep under the stars for our last night. By afternoon the lock was repaired and we entered the long queue. . Our houseboat balked in reverse so John P. gave it a burst of gas, and instead of backing up, it jerked forward, right into the cruiser in front of us.
Traded insurance information and confidence. Waited humiliated. Finally on open water, we took a refreshing swim and puttered off in search of Colonel By Island.
Interesting how blurred the distinction between directional and warning buoys can be. Landing on rocks jarred everyone. At this point, our non-swimmer Grace panicked. Half of us jumped in the water to push the 40-ton boat off the rocks. Rushing to check the propeller, his legs slippery from Poison Ivy cream, John B. fell and gouged his knee on the engine. In the meantime, John P. though he would remove a rock he saw as the main problem. Unfortunately he didn't see the zebra mussel attached to it, which sliced deeply into the palm of his hand. He tried to convince everyone that the dripping blood looked worse than it actually was. In the meantime, the teenage boys came to life. They decided to push from the side, then from the back. With the help of the current, the wash and wake from nearby laughing speedboats, the giant boat creaked free. We scrambled aboard and steered far away from the rocks.
The adults conferred below deck. Both men were bleeding through wads of paper, Grace was shaken, my neck hurt.
"I still don't know where Colonel By Island is," said John P.
"That hand needs stitches," I said
"How is your knee John?" said Grace.
"I can't see through the blood," said John B.
We all looked at one another.
It cost an additional $40 to bring the boat back early.
Four hours later, John P. waited in the hospital for a handful of stitches. The wait wasn't bad though, because we had company. John B. walked in as his rash had spread and his knee wouldn't stop bleeding.
The costs, especially repairs, could have covered rooms at an upscale lodge. But we all agree, where's the fun in that?
If you are interested in a houseboat holiday, consider the following tips:
• Check references
• Check the size of the sleeping quarters on boat.
• Plan to come early, make sure the boat is cleaned (perhaps while you have lunch calmly) and then pay.
• Bring your own cleaning supplies.
• Check there are screens in the windows. Check the screens in the windows are not ripped. Check gas levels and what they mean
• Check the sewage has been emptied (tricky)
• Spend more than ten minutes learning to drive the boat
• Check the maps are all there and up to date
• Find out when the locks open and close BEFORE setting out
• Bring a cell phone
• Bring an extra cooler or two for drinks and food as the fridge is definitely too small for families with any teenagers.
• Make sure that the insurance you buy is for other boats as well as your boat. Double check who the insurance company is, and that it will pay claims in a timely fashion.
• Buy enough Hershey Kisses to last the entire trip