I sometimes wonder if I could still learn to paddle whitewater. Then I remember how much my knees complain simply climbing into my open canoe. Could I really fit myself into a whitewater canoe or kayak? Could I get out? Nonetheless, whenever I watch the paddlers on the waves at Bate Island, the hankering strikes again.
With temperatures climbing into the low teens, I’d set out to cycle along the Ottawa River, up Pinecrest Creek, back to the Experimental Farm and Arboretum, and then home along the Rideau Canal. I didn’t make it. Enough snow lingered along the pathway beside the river to convince me that Pinecrest Creek would be impassable except on a fat bike. Instead, seeing the cars parked at Bate Island, I decided to detour for a look at “The Wave”.
It lies just below the Champlain Bridge, on the west side of Bate Island: a standing wave, only a few metres offshore, curling perpetually in the swift current. Actually, in Spring conditions, several waves stand out from the shore. However, “The Wave”, as it is known, has just the right curl to cradle a paddler, while the adjacent boil provides the perfect conditions for tricks. Canoeists, kayakers, stand-up paddlers and surfers line up along the retaining wall to take turns lancing into the current. More experienced paddlers advise the novices on which line to take and how hard to paddle. Each paddler takes a couple of minutes carving the water, and then bails out for the next person to slide into place.
Sometimes several paddlers will launch together in a competition to see who can hold their place amid the bumping of the kayaks. The losers roll over the wave and bob away down the short chain of rapids into the lee of the island, while the winner celebrates with a few spins.
The stand-up paddleboarders impress me the most. Although they seem relatively tame in comparison to the kayakers, I admire their skill in manoeuvring their long boards through the whitewater, with only a paddle and the feel of the river through their feet to guide them.
My heart, though, lies with the canoeists. Leaning into their single-bladed paddles, and rocketing their streamlined craft into the surf, they seem like the greyhounds of the waves. I love to watch the spray knifing from their hulls and blades as they hiss across the face of the wave. Perhaps one of these days, I’ll join them.
Bate Island can be accessed from the Champlain Bridge, heading west toward Quebec. Parking is abundant. Whitewater paddling is inherently risky, and the Ottawa River is cold, even in Summer. Never paddle alone, and always wear a wetsuit, flotation device and helmet.
In late summer, when water levels drop in the Ottawa River, a fascinating glimpse into ancient history emerges into view. The Ottawa River stromatolites lie below the Quebec side of the Champlain Bridge. 460 million years ago, in a shallow, salty embayment of a tropical sea, colonies of blue-green algae cemented together sediments and calcium carbonate into low mounds of limestone (http://www.ottawagatineaugeoheritage.ca/subsites/4). They survived the geological cataclysms of next half billion years to be scoured clean by the river and exposed on the pretty, wooded shoreline. Perhaps nowhere else in the world can one leave a damp footprint on such tangible evidence of ancient life.
No river figures so strongly in Canada’s history as the Ottawa. For Aboriginal peoples, for early European explorers, for fur-traders and for pioneer loggers, the Ottawa River provided the most direct route into the heart of Canada. The first Aboriginal sites along the Ottawa River date back 6000 years. Samuel de Champlain’s Aboriginal guides led him up the Ottawa River in 1613. The last timber raft floated under Parliament Hill in 1908, and log drives continued on the Ottawa River until 1990. During the last half of the 19th Century and well into the 20th Century, power from the Chaudiere Falls supported thriving industries along the Gatineau and Ottawa shorelines. The river gave birth to Canada’s atomic industry, at the Atomic Energy Commission Laboratories in Chalk River. Hydro-electric dams continue to operate along the river, while the lakes behind them provide recreational boating and fishing that help to support thriving communities up the Ottawa Valley. A paddle along the Ottawa River is literally a paddle through the history of the country.
Fortunately, almost all of the Ottawa River lies open to pedestrians, cyclists and paddlers. Multi-use pathways line both shorelines through the urban core, with numerous lookouts and beaches providing access to the water. Most of my favourite cycling routes begin beside the Ottawa River Locks, on the Rideau Canal, sandwiched between the Parliament Buildings and the Chateau Laurier hotel. From there, a National Capital Commission cycling path travels beside the river, under the bluffs of Parliament Hill, below the Supreme Court of Canada and past the historical Aboriginal site of Victoria Island. At the Portage Bridge, the trails begin to branch, some continuing along the Ontario shoreline upriver past the Chaudiere Falls and the Canadian War Museum, some crossing over the Portage and Chaudiere bridges to the Quebec shoreline. The National Capital Commission publishes a map of its trail system, showing the available destinations and routes (http://www.ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places-to-visit/parks-paths/things-to-do/cycling-capital-pathways).
My favourite ride makes a loop through Gatineau, on the Quebec side. From the Chaudiere Bridge, it heads briefly upriver, then turns north into Gatineau Park, makes a quick detour to Pink Lake, heads east to the Gatineau River, goes back down through Lac Leamy Parc to the Ottawa River, and then crosses the Alexandra Bridge at the Canadian Museum of History. It’s a challenging ride through beautiful scenery: steep climbs and descents along forest trails and roads, winding pathways past wetlands, boardwalks and bridges over creeks and along shorelines.
For a shorter, easier trip, I like to ride upriver along the Ontario shoreline to Mud Lake and Britannia Park. Along the way, I sometimes stop at Lemiuex Island to view the colonies of gulls, cormorants and night herons on the adjacent, smaller islands. I stop at Remic Rapids to admire the balanced rock sculptures in the shallows of the river. Near Westboro Beach, I often take a detour into Westboro Village for coffee at Bridgehead, a browse through Mountain Equipment Co-op, or a meal at one of the cafes and restaurants. Reaching Mud Lake, I may dismount for a walk through the natural area or carry on to Brittania Beach or Andrew Hayden Park. I usually time my ride back home for the evening, when the sun sets behind the Quebec shoreline, sending its apricot glow across the river.
On calm mornings, I will often load my canoe on to a Vrtucar (a local car-sharing business) and head off to one the river’s quieter areas. Petrie Island, in the east end of the City, is a wonderful destination. The provincially significant wetland inshore of the island provides sheltered canoeing, with opportunities to photograph the area’s many birds, turtles (including the threatened map turtle), and beautiful swamp forest. Downstream of the island, the mouth of Cardinal Creek provides one of the river’s most important fish habitats. A low squeeze under the Highway 174 bridge takes one into the lower reach of Cardinal Creek: a marvellous, meandering paddle through a superb floodplain wetland entrenched in a deep valley.
At the opposite end of the City lies Constance Bay, which deserves a full blog post of its own. Lying at the upper end of a relict, post-glacial flow channel paralleling the Ottawa River, Constance bay forms a wide, shallow, sandy-bottomed crescent at the mouth of Constance Creek. Cottages and homes line the shore, but access to the Bay is possible from City road allowances at the end of Greenland Road on the east side of the bay and Lane Street on the west side of the bay in the Village of Constance Bay. The shallow, sandy bay is delightful for wading, warm in the summer and easy on bare feet. In the spring, just east of the creek mouth, longnose gar spawn and hunt in mere centimetres of water, “finning” in the shallows. Pike lie in ambush in the reed beds. Catfish wait in the channel of the creek, and walleye hunt along the dropoffs. Waterfowl abound. Herons hunt frogs. Gulls and terns patrol the shallows, waiting to plunge onto schools of small minnows. Within the mouth of creek, along the edge of the silver maple swamp, songbirds flit and sing. It may be the prettiest spot on the river.
The Ottawa River simply offers too many places to visit and things to do to describe in one short post. Just within the boundaries of Ottawa and Gatineau, one can find places enough to fill a summer with exploration: Morris Island Conservation Area, Fitzroy Harbour Provincial Park, The Quyon Ferry, Piney’s Point Historical Site, Sheila McKee Park, Shirley’s Bay, Andrew Hayden Park, Bate Island, Lemieux Island, Victoria Island, Rideau River Falls, Rockcliffe Park, Green’s Creek, Upper and Lower Duck Islands, Lac Leamy Park, Baie McLaurin, Baie Lafontaine. Beyond Ottawa, even more opportunities abound, such as whitewater rafting in Beachburg, only 90 minutes north of the City, camping in Voyageur Provincial Park or Driftwood Provincial Park, an hour downriver and two and half hours upriver respectively, or houseboat cruising on the Upper Ottawa River. Somewhere, there’s a deserted beach waiting.
The Village of Pakenham, just outside Ottawa, lies on the gentle Mississippi River. Most visitors come to photograph the famous five-arch, stone bridge, or to eat ice cream at the Pakenham General Store, the oldest general store in Canada (open in the same location for 170 years). A few dragonfly enthusiasts know it as one of the very few places to find the endangered Rapids Clubtail, a small colourful dragonfly that breeds in the shallow pools and rapids below the bridge. I think of it as the perfect place to begin an excursion on the Mississippi River downstream to Cody Creek.
The quiet backwater beside the Conservation Area at the bridge provides a good location to launch a canoe. The river meanders gently through a rural landscape of wooded banks and farmland, a fringe of marsh along the sh0reline. In places, old oxbows flank the main channel, hidden behind a screeen of willows. Wildlife abounds along the banks, in the wetlands and the shallows. Smallmouth bass, pike and walleye hunt the weedlines, the dropoffs and deeper pools.
Not far downriver from Pakenham, perhaps a twenty minute paddle, Cody Creek joins the river from the east. As one approaches the creek from upstream, the eastern shore becomes more hilly and heavily wooded. Small, pretty wetlands lie behind the shoreline, draining to the river through small, muddy channels. A wooded sandbar provides a place to pull out and stretch one’s legs. Thick sedges and marsh grasses cover the banks, while beaver and muskrat tracks crisscross any patch of open ground. Frogs scatter into the water at every step. A narrow, greasy flood channel connects to a small beaver pond, overlooked by a large snag and stick nest. A red-tailed hawk sounds a “keerrr” of protest. The shade of a silver maple provides an idyllic location to sit, eat a snack, and watch a heron stalking in the shallows downstream.
The marsh at the mouth of Cody Creek deserves appreciation for its diversity, beauty and productivity. An artificial frog or a wooly bugger tossed along the weedline is likely to provoke an aggressive strike. Dragonflies and damselflies cruise over the lilypads, coming to land on the side of the canoe, the end of a paddle, or the brim of a hat. Mayflies cling to reeds. A swirl in the water betrays a snapping turtle feeding on a dead carp in the murk of the bottom, while sun-loving painted turtles line up on logs.
Very few people know of Cody Creek. From its headwaters in Long Swamp, it flows west, draining much of the southwest corner of Ottawa’s rural landscape. It remains remarkably healthy, despite passing through some extensive agricultural lands. By the time that it nears the Mississippi River, it has carved a steep-sided, overgrown valley. In its last reaches, it meanders through a spectacular, black maple swamp. This provincially significant Area of Natural and Scientific Interest is, so far as I know, unique in Ottawa. The accomplished and well-known biologist, Dan Brunton, deserves much credit for documenting the outstanding natural value of the swamp and bringing it to the attention of the Province.
The swamp appears almost primaeval. The brown water moves slowly, swirling slowly around large downed trees. Animal prints crowd around dark holes in the slick, clay banks. Tracks lead through sunlit ferns to the dark forest beyond. I’ve come upon otters swimming in the shadows, as well as the ubiquitous muskrats and beavers. Emerald and ebony jewelwings flit along shore. Bright birdsong burbles in the underbrush and in the high canopy above, while the air below seems very still.
The creek can be paddled as far as the bridge at Hanson Side Road in low water, and a bit further in high water. Log jams and fallen trees block the channel in some places. The banks consist of slick clay, and it is probably easier and safer to climb on to the log jams and haul the canoe over than to try going around. Access to the creek is also possible at the bridge, but there’s no easy put-in.
A hurried visitor can paddle the round-trip from Pakenham to Cody Creek in less than an hour. But I wouldn’t take less than three hours, to allow time for sightseeing, photography and fishing. A drifting canoe can float up to wildlife that a impatient paddler would never see. And I’ve spent 45 minutes simply resting, bow into the weeds, with my head hung over the side of the canoe watching a microcosm of life play itself out in the water. I suggest a morning trip, when birds and other animals are most active, and the air is a bit cooler. Picnic by the stone bridge, then walk up the General Store for some ice cream and fresh-baked bread.
Every ski in Gatineau Park seems to begin with a long hill. You snap into the bindings, slip your gloved hands through the poll straps, and push off. If you have started from one of the more exposed trailheads on a windy day, then the chilled air bites at your face. But only for moment. Within a few hundred metres you enter the woods, where the wind lifts into the treetops, leaving you climbing comfortably up the trail. You reach the top and slide into the tracks. As you recover from the first, short exertion, you settle into a rhythm and pace. The sun glints on snow crystals, or maybe you ski through a snowglobe fantasy of big, soft flakes. The kilometres flow away.
Admittedly, not every day of skiing in Gatineau Park meets this idyllic description. On the coldest days, one may struggle to find just the right balance of layers: enough to stay warm on the descents, without perspiring on the climbs. An early spring may turn trails icy. A heavy snowfall may bend the trees low over the narrower trails, until the groomers have had time to visit them all. Most of the time, though, the only hard choice is deciding at which cabin to eat lunch.
Most trails in the park are shared: one or two groomed tracks on the outside, with a broad skating track in the middle. The wide parkways offer easy skiing along gentle grades, with long views across lakes and wetlands. The winding, wooded trails offer a range of challenges, from beginner to advanced, with a few, particularly narrow trails reserved for classic skiers. I’m a classic skier. I learned that way, and my stiff, old body just doesn’t take well to skate skiing. I sometimes envy the speed and grace of the skaters, as they weave past me along the trail — especially the competitive skiers, which includes national team members. But I also feel that my slower pace connects me more closely to the landscape. I have time to notice the foraging flock of chickadees, nuthatches and downy woodpeckers flitting and chirping through the trees. I appreciate the fine sifting of snow down through the canopy, as the wind drags its fingers along the treetops.
I have two favourite routes. Trail 50 begins at Parking Lot 16, in the Meech Creek Valley, on the north side of the park and rolls through easy terrain for about 15 km to the campground at Lac Philippe (where you can find both winter camping and reserve winterized yurts). En route, you pass both the Healey and Herridge shelters — large cabins with indoor picnic tables and wood burning stoves. But I prefer to carry on another 7 km or so past Lac Philippe on Trails 55 and 54 to eat my lunch at the shelter overlooking Lusk Lake. Trail 54 to Lusk Lake features three long climbs. But the view across the lake justifies the effort, and the descent back down the trail is just difficult enough to provide a novice or intermediate skier with a thrill. Altogether, it’s a 45 km round trip on easy, well-groomed trails.
My other favourite route starts at the Kingsmere Parking Lot, Number 7, near MacKenzie King Estate. It begins with a steep, winding climb up Trail, Number 30, a blue trail, but then transitions to the Trans-Canada Trail, Trail 1. Trail 1 runs for more than 20 km through the southern edge of Gatineau Park, with frequent spurs and connections to other routes. Along the way, it visits four shelters, Keogan, Shilly Shally, Huron and, near the far end, McKinstry. Keogan and Huron may be the busiest shelters in the park, and Huron features a particularly active bird feeder. I normally carry on past Keogan and Huron to Trail 2, a relatively easy blue trail that ends at the Western Shelter, overlooking the Ottawa Valley. On a sunny, late-winter afternoon, one can sometimes sit comfortably on the outside bench beside the shelter, enjoying the view across to the Ottawa River and beyond. On colder days, the stove offers warmth and a place to toast a sandwich. It is a shorter ski, about 25 km round trip.
Gatineau Park lies only fifteen minutes north of Ottawa, across the Ottawa River in Quebec, along Highway 5. The exit for Old Chelsea is well-marked. Pass through Old Chelsea and take the turnoff for Chemin de Kingsmere to reach the Kingsmere Parking Lot and Trail 1. To reach the Meech Valley Parking Lot 16 and Trail 50, continue along Highway 5 past Old Chelsea for about 10 km, to the first turnoff for Highway 105. Turn left (west) on Highway 105 for less than 1 km, then turn left again on to Chemin Pine. A well-plowed, gravel road will carry you back under Highway 5 to Meech Creek Valley and Parking Lot 16.
Day passes for skiing can be purchased at all of the trailheads, based on the honour system. Cash is simply dropped into a locked box. Day passes and season passes, along with trail maps, can be purchased at the Gatineau Park Main Office, in the Village of Old Chelsea. The village also offers ski rentals and a great selection of restaurants. I’ve enjoyed L’Orêe Du Bois, which offers gourmet dining featuring a regional cuisine. The Old Chelsea Pub offers great food with wide selection of local and brand name beers. However, I usually stop at Luigi’s Pizza. Family-owned and run, it offers very little in the way of decor or amenities. But the Magici Mushroom pizza, with portabello, king and oyster mushrooms, drizzled with truffle oil and parmesan cheese, comes as close as one can get to culinary heaven after a long day of skiing.