These fiddlers are playing live music on the Rideau River for charity

Fiddles on the Rideau Photo by Joel Haslam

You may have heard of a fiddler on a roof, but have you heard of a fiddler on the Rideau? If you’re near Manotick, Ont. on August 28 or September 18, you’ll have the opportunity to find out what it means.

In May, Sherryl Fitzpatrick, a fiddler and music teacher who lives in Ottawa, was paddling with a friend along the Rideau River in a kayak. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it had been months since she’d been able to perform live music. She’d noticed the mental health impact this was having on her and other performers.

“It really sucked the life out of everybody’s soul. We had no purpose to play anymore,” she says. “But also, we had no more human connection.”

While drifting along the Rideau River, she started thinking about a performance she used to take part in at a music camp in New Brunswick: Fiddles on the Tobique.

“The Tobique River is very shallow, but it has a fast current. So, [the camp] would put fiddle players in canoes, and we would float down the Tobique River for three hours playing the fiddle,” Fitzpatrick says. “It was one or two fiddlers per canoe and you didn’t need to paddle because the current was so fast. You had a guy in the back with a rudder.”

In the first year, the event had 10 fiddlers. After 20 years, Fitzpatrick says there were 2,000 canoes on the river with fiddlers from all over the world.

Fitzpatrick figured there was no reason she couldn’t host a similar event, calling it Fiddles on the Rideau. In fact, with the right resources, there’s no reason a cottager couldn’t put on the same type of event at their own lake.

To start, Fitzpatrick paddled up to neighbours’ docks along the Rideau River, asking whether they’d enjoy a live performance and whether they’d be willing to help out. Neighbours were interested, with a few even offering up their boats to transport the musicians.

“With Fiddler’s on the Tobique, we were in canoes and there’s no boat traffic because the river’s flowing in one direction. So, we didn’t have to contend with any boat waves,” Fitzpatrick says. “But the canal system is very different. In order for everybody to stay safe, we had to figure out what we were going to put the fiddlers on. Canoes are too dangerous and kayaks are impossible. So, we decided on pontoon boats.”

Currently, 20 musicians are registered to participate in August. For the September performance, Fitzpatrick says some people are looking at renting pontoons from the nearby Long Island Marina.

With the help of her team, which includes award-winning musicians Anna Ludlow, Graham Lindsey, and Chad Wolfe, as well as local volunteers, Fitzpatrick was able to execute the first successful performance of Fiddles on the Rideau on July 24. Aboard pontoons, the musicians travelled from the Mahogany Harbour dock to the Manotick boat launch to the Long Island locks.

“Each boat has its own accompaniment,” Fitzpatrick says, including accordions, fiddles, guitars, and keyboards.

To ensure the safety of everyone involved, Fitzpatrick contacted public health about COVID precautions. “What they said was because it’s an outdoor event, it’s really difficult to try and monitor that. So, what we’ve been doing is trying to restrict the number of people on board the boats to three musicians, so that we can all sit safely distanced.”

Organizers have asked all participants to be double vaccinated, and, due to certain public health protocols, are unable to include wind instruments. “We actually had to turn down a flute player,” Fitzpatrick says,” because we couldn’t put her behind a plexiglass. It’s just not possible on a pontoon boat.”

Fiddles on the Rideau was organized to raise awareness about fiddle music and is also raising funds for Ottawa’s mental health charity Rideauwood Addictions and Family Services. Donations can be made here.

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