Honestly, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. With Canadians—and the world—being encouraged to stay inside as much as possible, Tripping the Rideau Canal comes along to fill a goodly chunk of time for those abiding by the rules and hunkering down.
Debuting Friday at 7 p.m. on TVO (and available to stream on TVO.org) the four-hour documentary—yes, you read that right—plops viewers into a seat in a 1948 mahogany Shepard runabout and takes them on a real-time ride on a 27-kilometre stretch of the canal into Ottawa. The doc is the brainchild of executive producer, writer and director Mitch Azaria, whose Good Earth Productions has made series like Canada: A Magnificient Journey, Great Canadian Parks and Great Canadian Lakes.
And if four hours aboard a boat seems boring, it’s not. Tripping the Rideau Canal is equal parts boat ride and history lesson, as facts about the canal and the area surrounding it flit on-screen every few minutes.
We chatted with Mitch Azaria about the show’s seeds and the challenges he faced filming a four-hour, non-stop production.
I’ve driven parallel to the Rideau Canal for years, so this really opened my eyes to it. How did you end up doing this for TVO?
Mitch Azaria: Ironically I’d actually made a doc about the Rideau Canal a long time ago, but it was so long ago that I’d forgotten about it. I went to Ottawa University, so I always thought that the Rideau Canal went from Carleton University to downtown. I didn’t realize that it’s over 200 kilometres long, it goes from Kingston to Ottawa, when it was built or why. I didn’t know any of that.
We were talking with TVO and they kept saying, ‘We’d like to do something that’s in real-time and we don’t have commercials so we can just put something on for a really long time.’ And we thought, ‘What broadcaster says that to an independent producer? It’s the greatest thing you can do.’ We figured out pretty quickly it would have to be some kind of journey where the viewer feels like they’re taking a trip. It couldn’t be static, it would have to be in motion. We had a list of 10 places in Ontario that we thought would be interesting and that ranged from train trips to highway trips to boat trips. We’d got it down to the Welland Canal and the Rideau Canal and we went with a small camera, shot footage of both and presented it to TVO. We knew already that we liked the Rideau Canal, but we didn’t want to influence them. And they picked the Rideau Canal too. So there we were.
It’s very relaxing and part of the fun is the history lesson.
MA: It’s the oldest continuously operated canal in North America. There’s a lot of interesting parts about the history, but what I find the coolest is that you get to a lock. The men and women that are working the lock, they’re Parks Canada people, because the Rideau Canal is under Parks Canada.
The cranks that they’re turning and the operation that they’re running is the same one that’s been in operation for almost 200 years. The actual handle that they’re hand cranking, everything other than the doors, all the metal works, all the internal work, even the stones that the canals are made out of. Because it’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, they have to go and get the stones from the quarries that are now 150 years closed. They have to go and find those old quarries and take the stone out of those old quarries, so they match the stone that was put there 200 years ago.
Let’s talk about some logistics. I guess it was natural for you to start at the dam at the beginning rather than further up the chain?
MA: John Morrison was the director, and he and I spent a crazy amount of time on the canal trying to figure out all of these things, including a starting point that would be exactly four hours from the end. We weren’t smart enough to figure out anything more than, let’s go four hours back and start.
What about motor noise? Was that ever going to be an issue?
MA: It was going to be a real issue, and we had two sound men that all they did was try and figure out how to avoid that. So, they had everything pointed forward and they had figured out a way to keep everything in front of us.
What are some issues you came across during filming?
MA: We thought we asked every question and every technical issue to make sure that we could run for four hours. And one of the things that came up as we’re running and sort of live, we’re shooting, is the boat operator said, ‘Geez, we’re probably going to have to stop a few times because of these weeds.’ And we went, ‘What do you mean weeds?’ We thought we asked every question. Can the batteries last long enough? Will the camera run long enough? Are the cards long enough that we’re recording on? Do we have enough gas? That’s the one question. So yeah, there were a couple of little hitches that we didn’t count on, but that’s the way it goes.
Get some extra behind-the-scenes footage on filming on the show’s website.
Tripping the Rideau Canal airs Friday at 7 p.m. on TVO.
Images courtesy of the TVO original, Tripping the Rideau Canal