• Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic

THE AVALON WAS BORN IN OUR OTTAWA GARAGE, hammered together by my husband Joel and his father with fallen oaks and cedars from the ice storm that hit Central and Eastern Canada in 1998. Its design, a V-bottom launch, was a favourite among East Coast rum-runners in the late 1800s, though our own 18-foot replica has spent most of its days performing humbler duties, such as ferrying groceries from town to the summer cottage we rent on Nova Scotia’s south shore.

It motors at about 12 knots flat out, which is like riding a bicycle alongside a car when we’re up against a day cruiser. But what it lacks in speed, it makes up for in style, with the graceful curve of its unpainted hull. Perched on its bench seats, I feel as if I’m in another era.

What better boat, then, to retrace a historic route.

For years, Joel had wanted to make a trip along the Rideau Canal, the 202-kilometre waterway between Ottawa and Kingston, Ont., looking for close-to-home adventures to test the Avalon’s seaworthiness. So last July, a few weeks after the canal was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we decided the time was finally right.

You can travel the entire system of lakes, rivers and locks in about five days, if you hurry. But even on a quiet day, a boater arriving at the wrong time at the eight-lock chambers of the Ottawa Lock Station, the canal’s northern terminus on the Ottawa River, right beside Parliament Hill, might wait half a day just to be lifted through. There are picnic tables and lawns large enough to kick around a soccer ball at most of the locks and even museums to tour during the wait, but with six-year-old Noah and two-year-old Samson aboard an open boat and rain in the forecast, we thought it best to start where traffic would be light and the trip shorter.

We drive the hour and a half south to Portland, where we launch the Avalon into reedy water next to a marina and point south. This should, according to the nautical map, take us through a dozen lakes and 14 locks and get us to Kingston in three days, revealing along the way how humanity can sometimes harness nature without destroying it.

WE SPEND OUR FIRST DAY outrunning the rain, sloshing through the chop of Big Rideau, the largest lake in the system. Black clouds swarm behind us. The boys give us breathless updates on the chase, which the Avalon is clearly losing.

The first lock we hit, the Narrows, takes boats through what is now a causeway between Big Rideau and Upper Rideau lakes. We arrive as another set of boats is being raised in the locks, where a swing bridge opens so that they can pass. Noah watches, trying to figure it out. “What happens when they get to the top?” he asks with concern. “Do they just push the boats off the bridge?”

The mechanics of locks, unchanged in nearly two centuries, are not much more complicated than that, still lifting and lowering pools of water with gravity and muscle, much as they did the day the first boat passed through 176 years ago.

The British, seeking a safe supply line through their fledgling colony and fretful of an American invasion from the south, cut this passage across mostly unsettled wilderness with shovels and oxen. By the time they were done, they had created a man-made marvel that linked rivers and lakes from what eventually became the national capital to Kingston, with 47 stone locks. A large price was paid for the feat of engineering. It’s not known how many men it took to build the canal system, but roughly 1,000 workers - mostly Irish immigrants - died in accidents or from malaria during construction. To complete the job, the government spent £776,000, a fortune more than the £558,000 budgeted. The canal would cost $500 million to build today, according to Parks Canada.

There is something grand and antiquated about passing through the locks. It never gets boring, especially in a small runabout that emphasizes the scale of the walls as the water lowers us into a roofless tunnel of stone. We continue down the system, falling with the water. The lockmasters, mainly university students, expertly organize everyone into a lock, often cramming us in beside boats nearly twice our size, their bows towering overhead.

Waiting for the thick wooden gates of each lock to be cranked open by hand, I begin to understand how dangerous it would have been to build - long before power machinery and computer simulations - and how remarkable it is that the same basic mechanism of gears and levers is still sending boats smoothly through. It is even harder to imagine that the man who made certain it worked, British engineer Lieutenant Colonel John By, died broken and forgotten, unable to fully explain to his London masters why powder blasting through the Canadian Shield and dredging untouched rivers might cost more than they had expected.

STORIES OF THE RIDEAU CANAL WATERWAY are about human achievement, most famously for the stretch in Ottawa that since 1970 has formed the world’s largest skating rink. I had only ever seen the canal from this urban vantage point, with its murky water and stone walls snaking through downtown, but as we putter by boat along the wilder sections, I see its more natural side. Our small boat with a quiet engine lets us duck into the waterway’s nooks and crannies, sneaking up close to a family of loons.

When we first started planning this trip, we worried that the boys might get restless sitting all day, but we find that a steady supply of fish crackers and fruit roll-ups keeps them happy. Along with Joel and me, they are energized by the sense of adventure that comes with navigating the canal. Mapping out the locks gives the trip a scavenger-hunt feel, and we all anticipate the changing scenery around each corner. Between locks, the land morphs from forest to marsh to cow pasture to cornfield; the water widening to windy lakes and then narrowing to gentle passageways. Rows of cottages and more than a few sprawling year-round homes line the shores, and the boys are impressed by a neglected boathouse sunk into the lake up to its roof.

But at every stop, there is a taste of history: the Lockmaster’s House at picturesque Chaffeys Locks, with its slits for the barrel of a gun; the nearby cemetery, where fieldstones mark the graves of nameless labourers; and the brick house on the hill at Jones Falls, with its small, simple rooms, where a succession of families faithfully served out their tenures.

As we’re passing through Chaffeys Locks, the rain catches us. We huddle under a tarp in our matching bright yellow raincoats, waiting for it to pass, while Joel tries unsuccessfully to jury-rig a temporary shelter with tent poles. The tarp clings to our faces like plastic wrap. “This is just like being trapped under a giant waterfall,” Noah grumbles and grins at the same time. Samson, in the midst of toilet training, announces that he has to pee, so out comes the potty tucked under the seat, and he does his business in the downpour. Multi-million-dollar cruisers sail past, their passengers watching our odd little scene while sipping wine inside their dry cabins.

It helps that we don’t have far to go. At the foot of Chaffeys Locks, nestled in a tree-lined inlet, we pull into The Opinicon Resort Hotel, a stately family residence built in the early 1800s that was converted to a fishing club at the turn of the 20th century and is now an old-fashioned resort with horseshoe pits, assigned seating in the dining room, a sheltered berth for boats and individual cottages for rent. It is the kind of place that hosts generations of families and where they are proud to say they do not accept credit cards, trusting their guests to send a cheque once they return home - a fact confirmed by an American fisherman we meet in the lobby.

At breakfast the next day, we chat with Bob Conklin, 68, from Pennsylvania, who has been coming to the Opinicon since he was three years old; tomorrow, his daughter and her kids arrive. Until then, he goes fishing three times a day, starting at 4:30 a.m., motoring easily between the weedy five-metre-deep Opinicon and the more than 30-metre-deep neighbouring Indian Lake. “The water is restful,” he says. “No two lakes are the same.”

Conklin’s fishing tales having inspired Noah, we trudge up the road to buy some junior rods. His enthusiasm is short-lived, however. While waiting on the dock at Jones Falls for the flight locks - a series of four locks that transfer boats nearly 18 metres - the bass practically leap onto the hook. But after watching his father, a reluctant fisherman at best, pull a hook from the eye of a fish, Noah promptly decides to give it up for good. Fishing is a passionate pursuit on the Rideau system, but our family will stick to sightseeing.

THE FEW FAMILIES WITH KIDS we see along the waterway are paddling canoes, but we have begun to encounter the same boaters - mostly retired couples - also making their way to Kingston. It is easy to strike up conversations in the locks, our wooden boat with its musical potty drawing curious looks (and some encouraging applause for Samson’s fledgling efforts) and generating comments among a fleet of expensive fibreglass.

We meet an American couple with a catamaran making the Great Loop, a famous journey around the eastern half of the continent that requires passage through the Rideau system. At the dock of the Hotel Kenney, where we stay on night two, we chat with a couple from Bath, just west of Kingston. Both in their sixties, they have removed the mast from their sailboat, Meander, and are heading home from Ottawa. “We just wander all over the place,” they say, explaining how they investigate the hidden spaces that boats racing through will miss. They tell us to watch for a spectacular inlet as we head out for an evening ride. They have heard it’s worth slowing down for.

We discover it as the sun is setting, sheltered from the water trampolines and roaring engines of cottage country. We emerge from a narrow, overgrown channel and a sweeping rock face suddenly looms some 90 metres above our heads, as if a chunky boulder had been plopped in the water with one side sheared off. We have timed it well, our unexpected find. The sun, flickering through trees on the opposite shore, makes glowing stripes of light across the cluster of pine and spruce growing stubbornly from rock crevices.

We drift, idling the Avalon’s engine. Our discovered cliff is for sale, a crooked sign at its foot tells us, and there’s graffiti in the caves down the shoreline. But on the edge of a lake lined with summer homes, along a river system carved out by men, this quiet place still seems like a secret pit stop for the wandering boater. Samson has fallen asleep in my arms, and Noah is learning how to steer. This is a good place to pause.