I never tire of paddling the Rideau River, especially the familiar section between Sandy Hill and Carleton University. I always find something to admire. I always reflect upon the human experience of the River, which still evolves, and which goes back at least 4000 years.
On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, while many of my friends participated in the Ottawa Race Weekend, I launched my canoe for the season’s first paddle on the Rideau. I usually make this excursion earlier in the spring, but this year’s high flows kept me off the river. Loading my canoe on the bike trailer, I rode down to Robinson Park, launched from the beach, and turned upstream.
The paddling proved relatively easy, despite the strong current. I passed under the Queensway and the footbridge, skirting the shoreline and reeds in search of wildlife. My new cherrywood paddle (a birthday gift from Sue) felt good in my hands, and the tensions of the past work week eased out of my shoulders.
Given the warmth of the day, I expected to see a lot of basking turtles. In the past, I’ve spotted large numbers of painted turtles, plus large snappers and even map turtles along the shore. Surprisingly, in almost six hours on the river, I only found two painted turtles up on logs, along with three snappers idling in the shallows amidst the reeds. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has several old records of Blanding’s turtle along the river, and despite a decade of disappointment, I still live in hope of finding one sometime on this stretch.
The hardest paddling of the day came at Billing’s Bridge, where the river flowed fast through the piers. Passing a small group of stand-up paddleboarders, I tried first for the central span, paddling hard in the eddy behind a pier and then shooting into the current. For a minute a two I held my own, but without making headway. Finally, I dropped back and moved to the next span south, where the current proved a little less challenging. One of the paddleboarders tried to follow me, but couldn’t muster enough speed. Just upstream of the bridge, several more stand-up paddleboarders practiced in the calmer pool. One of them, a very pretty young woman, struck yoga poses on her board, as her girlfriend snapped photographs.
After working slowly through the riffles above Billings Bridge, I slid my canoe into the reeds at Clifford Allen Island, so that I could renew my sunscreen. As I slathered on the cream, with a pair of geese eyeing me warily, I noticed a newly molted dragonfly drying its wings at the tip of broken, brown reed, still hanging from its discarded nymph skin. It’s colors had not yet fully developed, but the stripes on the thorax suggested some kind of darner. I had seen pretty, green darners dancing over the reeds during my paddle upstream, but they lacked the thorax stripes.
Carrying on from the island, I paddled past Brewer Park to the Dunbar Bridge. This part of the Rideau River hosts the most fascinating juxtaposition of culture in the City: literally 4000 years of history separated by barely 300 metres of river. On the north shore, nestled under the Dunbar Bridge, the House of PainT provides a venue for Ottawa’s hip-hop community, featuring its first legal graffiti wall and regular street dance festivals. Just upstream and across the river, on the south shore at Vincent Massey Park, lies a 4000 year-old, indigenous archaeology site. Excavated by the National Capital Commission over several years, the site marks the bottom end of an old portage around the Hogsback Falls. Paddling up the south shore in late afternoon, just below the rapids under the O-Train line, one can easily imagine those Early Woodland people pulling their canoes into shore to set camp for the night, perhaps casting their nets into the river, where fishermen cast their lines today. I suspect that they chose the spot as much for its beauty as for its convenience.
I turned back downstream in late afternoon, alternating drifting and paddling gently. For awhile, I watched two jets circling over the City in formation as part of the race weekend celebrations. Gradually, as the light mellowed, the wildlife became a bit more active. Just above Billings Bridge, a female mallard shepherded her large brood of ducklings. I could not help but think of the large muskellunge known from the area, and wonder how many ducklings would survive the summer. Further downstream, a muskrat plied the shoreline in the shadows of the trees. Finally, near the end of the paddle, I came upon a mink feeding on the carcass of a carp at the edge of the shore. I shot a few, quick photographs, then circled back to take a few more, only to see the mink slip back into the shadow of the trees.
I pulled back into Robinson Park, just as the evening sun was dropping behind the City. I looked down the peaceful waterway to the Adawe Crossing at Strathcona Park. The serenity of the scene encapsulated the beautiful dichotomy of this wonderful urban river.
What makes a large urban forest special, and to whom? How do you plan it? How do you manage it?
Not planning and managing it won’t do. “Just leave it alone,” the City often hears. That might work in the Marlborough Forest, or the Carp Hills. In an urban forest, though, we don’t have that choice. Whether the City plans it or not, people will use and change the forest. People will walk their dogs. Kids will ride their bikes, build forts, and climb trees. Homeowners will dump yard waste along the edges. Over time, a network of shortcuts and dusty, packed paths will develop. Soon the blanket of wildflowers will thin and fray into a scattered patchwork, while invasive periwinkle and buckthorn creep inward from the edges. Where massive maples and pines once aged and rotted, providing homes for woodpeckers and other wildlife, Forestry Services will remove any tree that could be a hazard to public safety. Skunks and raccoons, enjoying the bounty of adjacent yards and gardens, will proliferate. Where shaded forest pools once vibrated with the chorus of spring peepers and tree frogs, a silence will fall.
We would like to avoid that fate for the Manotick Drumlin Forest. Acquired by the City from Minto over the winter, the Manotick Drumlin Forest (also known as the Mahogany Forest) comes as close to an old-growth, northern hardwood forest as one can find in Ottawa. In his original evaluation of the forest, the renowned biologist, Dan Brunton, commented on its outstanding beauty, especially the proliferation of wildflowers. In a more recent evaluation, the biologists of Kilgour and Associates noted the remarkable diversity of the woodland. Within its relatively small area, the forest includes not only a mature stand of sugar maple, but also a healthy hemock grove, a red maple swamp, and large specimens of every other tree species commonly found in northern hardwood forests: white pine, beech, yellow birch, basswood, white ash (albeit infected with EAB), black cherry, red oak. Not surprisingly, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has long identified the forest as a candidate Area of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSI). Together, the City of Ottawa and Minto have begun planning the preservation of these qualities, while enhancing the value of the woodlot to the surrounding community and the City as a whole.
Over the next ten years, a new subdivision will grow up on the east side of the forest, with thousands of new homes and residents. The City has a rare opportunity to work now with the land developer to decide how the forest and the new community will fit together. Where will trails go, and how will they look? How can we bring children into the forest and make it safe for them? Where can we allow dogs, and can they be off-leash? Can we turn the forest into a living classroom, and if so, how do we bring students to it? Where will people find quiet, cool shade for contemplation? And, most important, can we accomodate all of these uses while still protecting the trees, wildflowers, wetlands, and wildlife that make the forest unique?
Some answers already seem apparent. If we don’t plan and create trails, then future residents will create their own. By planning trails now, we can direct traffic away from the most sensitive places and leave space for natural forest processes to continue. By considering the viewscapes along streets and across open spaces, we can highlight the natural beauty of the forest as a centrepiece of the community. By working with the shape of the forest, we can create smaller, more intimate scenes for retreat and gentle appreciation. Most important, in my mind, we must also plan for kids, for the creation of spaces and zones along and within the boundary of the forest, where free play can occur. In doing so, however, we must consider the risk posed by Ottawa’s new status as a Lyme disease area. This emerging issue emphasizes the need for particular attention to “edge management” in the transition zone between the forest and adjacent landscaped areas, both for protection of residents from natural hazards, and for protection of the forest from residents.
We know that no matter how carefully we plan, we cannot protect the woodlot from all impacts — whether intentional or incidental. Very sadly, unauthorized tree cutting and harvesting of wild plants has already caused substantial damage to the most sensitive portion of the forest. In the end, the fate of the forest will lie in the hands of the community. It will reflect the love and care that the community residents provide. If they value and respect the beauty and wonder of the woodlot, then they will preserve it. If not, then no amount of planning and City management will compensate. As the City and Minto move ahead with planning, we will seek community partners in stewardship and conservation.
The Manotick Drumlin Forest preserves a glimpse into the forests of the past. Not a pristine glimpse — sadly the chestnuts, elms, and now white ash of old have fallen victim to imported pests and diseases — but one that conveys a strong sense of how the forest must have appeared to the Algonquins. Majestic in scale; intimate in sense; timeless in experience.
With a brief, sunny break in Ottawa’s wet spring weather, I headed out early on an April Saturday morning for a bird watching trip to the west end of the City. I set out just before dawn on my bike, crossed downtown along the Laurier bike lane, then cut down to the Ottawa River bike path by the War Museum. Almost immediately I stopped to watch several rough-winged swallows feeding over the channel by Albert Island, darting occasionally into the drainage holes in the concrete channel walls.
Carrying on, I quickly arrived at Lemieux Island, where I stopped to check out the colonies of ring-billed gulls on the smaller islands. A brown thrasher chattered in a copse of trees at the entrance of the causeway, and white-throated sparrows moved through the underbrush. Robins foraged in the grass. A cardinal sang in the sumac on the other side of the lane, and red-winged blackbirds piped all along the shoreline. Out at the lookout, I spotted a black-crowned night heron perched amidst the gulls, and the black spikes of cormorants on the furthest island. A large flock of tree swallows hunted over the swift, roiling river.
Leaving the island, I continued west along the river, checking off puddle ducks and diving ducks, until just before Mud Lake at Britannia, where a gull carcass caught my eye. Lying beside the path, all that remained of it were the two wings and a scraps of bones. I immediately thought of a description from J.A. Baker’s beautiful masterpiece of natural history, The Peregrine.
“A peregine kill can be easily recognized. The framework of a bird is left on its back, with the wings untouched and still attached to the body by the shoulder-girdles. The breastbone and all the main bones of the body may be quite fleshless. If the head has been left, the neck vertebrae will usually be fleshless also. The legs and back are frequently left untouched. If the breast-bone is still intact, small triangular pieces will have nipped out it by the peregrine’s bill.”
Okay… not the most poetic extract of
Baker’s book, but based on this observation and others over the years, a pretty fair description.
I arrived at Mud Lake early, while only a few keen wildlife photographers were prowling the paths. I went looking first for Blanding’s turtles in the well-screened east swamp, where I’d seen them basking in previous years. But the light was still too thin and the air too cold for basking. Pushing my bike along the path toward the boardwalk and the main pond, I spotted a pair of black-crowned night herons pass overhead. Chickadees flitted along beside me on the trail, until they realized that I had no sunflower seeds to feed to them. A pair of crows chased a raven.
At the boardwalk, I hoped again to see some early basking turtles. But no luck. Several pairs of wood ducks swam amidst the maze of logs, broken branches and downed trees in the swamp on the inside of the boardwalk, while raucous geese squabbled over nesting sites along the shore of the pond. As I prepared to move on, a pair of northern flickers flew up to a snag beside the swamp, checking out the cavities. I had just resolved to leave them in peace, when I noticed a stir in the water and a tell-tale trail of bubbles. A few minutes of patient waiting was rewarded with the sight of large snapping turtle rising from the bottom of the pond for a breath.
I slowly worked my way clockwise along the shore of Mud Lake, listening to the morning chorus. Goldfinches chittered overhead. A pine warbler buzzed in a tall pine. Yellow-rumped warblers flitted and sang in the high branches. Nuthatches and downy woodpeckers methodically moved from tree to tree, searching the trunk of each for insect morsels. To my disappointment, I found no trace of the screech owl that had made its home in the woods the past two years. Perhaps a little later in the spring?
Leaving my bike locked at the trailhead at Cassels Street, I walked the ridge along the river shoreline. From one of the lookouts, I could see across Deschenes Rapids to the large gull colony at the old mill site on the far shore. With my binoculars, I made out the larger, white silhouettes of several great egrets perched amidst the gulls. At the south end of the ridge, I spent almost half an hour lingering around the conifers in hopes of getting some good photographs of the enthusiastic yellow-rumped warblers feeding in their branches with a solitary palm warbler. While a small crowd of [other] grey-haired photographers fired off clusters of shots from a fortune of tripod-mounted, digital SLRs and long lenses, I waited for birds to come close enough for my pocket compact.
As usually happens, I’d lost track of time in the woods. Feeling hungry, I rode up to Richmond Road to grab some lunch, after which I returned to the Ottawa River trail and continued west. On one of the lawns at Britannia Park, someone was testing a parasail in the stiff wind. I passed Andrew Haydon Park and followed Watt’s Creek pathway to Moodie Drive, where I crossed into the National Capital Greenbelt. I continued following the Watt’s Creek pathway west to March Road, where I turned north to Herzberg Road and March Valley Road.
When I first came to Ottawa, more than 25 years ago, March Valley Road provided some of the best bird-watching in Ottawa, especially for hawks and owls. It may be the last place in the City where I saw a short-eared owl, and I still catch glimpes of northern harriers over the Department of National Defence lands. Over the years, however, development has crept ever closer. Suburban subdivisions now lie only a few hundred meters distant, kept at bay only by the restrictions placed around the Department of National Defence firing range. However, it still offers a few good vistas across the fields of the base toward the silver maple swamps shielding Shirley’s Bay and the Ottawa Duck Club properties, including a distant view of Ottawa’s only active bald eagle nest. On this day, tree swallows filled the air above Shirley’s Brook, and the clean white head of an adult bald eagle rose above the rim of its nest.
Having ridden to within a few minutes of the South March Highlands and the Carp River Valley, I decided to mix pleasure with a bit of work. I headed up Terry Fox Drive, past Old Second Line Road, and then turned my bike on to the construction access road into the KNL development property to inspect some of the perimeter fencing.
Even having witnessed the transformation of the landscape on the KNL property during this winter’s cutting, I still find the view quite stark and shocking. Where a mature forest once stood, a expanse of stumps and scarred earth now remains. I find little consolation in the knowledge that the destruction of this forest was ordained more than twenty years ago, and that I played my role in protecting what remains. Perhaps when homes fill the landscape, families fill the homes, and neighborhood children ride the surrounding nature trails, I’ll feel better about the outcome.
After checking out the fencing and scouting a retained pond for turtles (two painted, no Blanding’s), I continued along Terry Fox Drive to the Carp River Restoration Area. Like the KNL lands, the Carp River Restoration Area has a controversial development history. Notwithstanding its history, the restoration looks terrific. One of the pathways still needs completion, but the Carp has been returned to a more natural, sinuous form, and the new wetlands have been landscaped. With the spring flood only just having dropped (now returned!), the restoration area consisted mainly of bare, brown earth and mud. But in my mind’s eye, I could see it in the future, with the shrubs, cattails, and reeds in full growth and a cacophany of waterfowl side-slipping into the ponds.
As I was contemplating this sight, I had my best moment of the day. While I looked out over one of the muddy ponds, a flock of six lesser yellow-legs flew across the water to land on shore at its edge. A instant later they scattered upward as a brown, blurred shape swept through, knocking one of them down. A peregine! The falcon whirled tightly back around, but its first strike had not been clean; the yellow-legs was back in the air. The peregine jinked quickly after it, but again the yellow-legs evaded, striking the water in the process. The prospect of a possible dunking seemed to deter the peregrine, which quickly gave up the chase, and climbed away to the west and out of sight. The whole encounter lasted only a few seconds. In my excitement, I hadn’t even thought of reaching for my camera — not that I could have captured anything at that range.
I waited awhile to see if either the yellow-legs or the peregrine would return. But apart from some mallards and geese, my only sighting of interest was a white-tailed deer in a thicket swamp on the far side of the river.
With the sun now sliding steadily downward, I reluctantly turned my bicycle back towards home. Heading along Campeau Drive, I detoured quickly into the Kanata Centre Woods, where a short pathway winds over a pretty rock knoll and past a lovely, hidden pond. The pond seemed very quiet in the late afternoon, made more so by the song of a solitary Cardinal in the trees across the water.
Reaching March Road, I cycled back to the Watts Creek pathway and retraced my route toward downtown. By the time that I reached Britannia, however, I was ready for a refreshment. I’d spotted the “Beachconers Microcremery” in the morning, beside the cycle path. Stopping now, with my muscles weary and my throat dry, I enjoyed what must be Ottawa’s best vanilla bean ice cream — or so it seemed at that moment.
I arrived home just after sunset, wheeling up to the back door to see Sue through the window, sitting at the kitchen table. After a welcome supper, I then soothed my muscles and joints with a hot bath. Altogether, a very satisfying day.