An evening calm has settled over the Ottawa River as I paddle into a burnished, copper sunset. I trail a fly behind the canoe, more from habit than hope. If I really wanted to catch fish, I would trail a spinnerbait for pike, or rig a artificial minnow for walleye. Mostly, I just enjoy the quiet, made more pronounced by the occasional powerboat thrumming in the distance. On the Quebec side, I see lights begin to glimmer on the houseboats beached at the point. Laughter carries across the water. Nearer, on my left, I see a whitetail deer come shyly down to the beach in the deepening dusk, as a wood thrush begins to flute in the woods. Abruptly, the sandy bottom rises below my canoe. I ship my paddle and quickly wind in my fly. Then I continue into the bay toward the boat launch, passing Lamure Beach and threading through the moored boats. I pull out the canoe and drag it up to the trees with the others. Then I stroll through the peaceful streets until I see home and the glow of warm, yellow light through the blinds of the large front window.
The town of Deep River lies an easy two hour drive northwest of Ottawa along Highway 17. Sandwiched between the highway and the Ottawa River, it trails along the shoreline for a couple of kilometers. The usual Tim Hortons, Canadian Tire, motel and small strip malls service the highway. A busy grocery store, post office, shops, cafes, school, and town office anchor the small, downtown core, which sits just behind the waterfront, overlooking the river. The marina and yacht club lie only a brisk two minute walk away. Tidy residential neighbourhoods lie either side of downtown — a mix of small, renovated, post-war bungalows and more modern, multi-story houses. The Deep River Regional Hospital marks the east side of town, while the Mount Martin Ski Club sits on the west side.
I spend at least two weeks every summer in Deep River with my wife and our sons. We make shorter visits throughout the year. I spend most of that time outside, exploring the local forests and wetlands, or paddling the shoreline of the Ottawa River. Deep River is a microcosm of whole Ottawa Valley, with almost every kind of ecosystem, habitat and wildlife species within easy reach.
Most trips to Deep River begin and end at the Four Seasons Forest Sanctuary, on the southeast side of the town. This community-owned forest is part of an enormous, contiguous, protected natural area that includes the restricted lands surrounding the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (formerly AECL) in Chalk River, the Petawawa Research Forest, the training areas of Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, and Algonquin Park. A short hiking loop begins across from the hospital and leads to a pretty, covered shelter overlooking a wetland. Even on the buggiest days, the squadrons of dragonflies hunting along the marsh edge succeed at keeping most mosquitoes at bay. Common yellowthroats sing in the thickets, while swamp sparrows skulk in the reeds. An American bittern grunts deep in the marsh. A blue heron fishes along the meandering stream on the other side. Turtles and frogs bask in the small pond by the shelter, where an occasional beaver, muskrat or otter makes an appearance. I’ll bring a lunch and meditate on the scene, read a book, or bring a guitar. Almost always, I’m on my own.
Longer trails lead deeper into the sanctuary, passing a variety of habitats: upland forests of white pine, maple and beech; darker forests of spruce and balsam fir; pretty riparian marshes, and dark forest pools; bright, grassy clearings, and shadowed fern gardens. One of my favourite destinations is Cranberry Lake, which stretches back into the AECL lands. At the end of a half hour hike, a small bench looks out over the lake and a pretty, floating fen mat. In late June and early July, white waterlilies carpet the water, and pink orchids (swamp pinks and rose pogonias) dot the fen. I often skip the bench and stretch out under the white pine that graces the shoreline, closing my eyes for a nap in midday sunshine. Occasionally I lift my head and look down the lake, hoping to see one of the moose that have found a haven on the AECL lands.
During the winter, the trails of the Forest Sanctuary become an active cross-country ski and snowshoe network. Trails are well marked and maintained by the Deep River Cross Country Ski Club, who put on an active recreational and social program through the winter. The forest and wetlands take on a different kind of beauty and quiet in the winter, always reminding me of the Robert Frost lines, “the only other sound’s the sweep, of easy wind and downy flake.”
The Petawawa Research Forest, just outside nearby Chalk River, also provides wonderful opportunities for exploration. The Research Forest Museum, now inactive and partly abandoned, still remains open to the public — albeit quickly deteriorating. An interpretive trail still loops from the museum through the forest, and an old boardwalk still offers a short, but pretty walk along the shore of the Chalk River. A maze of access and logging roads leads deep into the forest, past a myriad of different tree communities, streams and wetlands. In particular, the research forest includes a large number of well-developed fens and bogs, some of which are very accessible and yet still virtually unknown and pristine. They provide a unique opportunity for a careful, conscientious visitor to explore the flora and fauna of these marvelous ecosystems. Unfortunately, summer visitors can expect to be trailed by a cloud of deer flies, which swarm from the sandy roads and trails in numbers that are hard to comprehend. Once off the roads and into the forests and wetlands, however, the deer flies give way to the usual mosquitoes and blackflies, which respond much more readily to repellent. Of course, sensitive individuals can always choose to wear bug hats or bug shirts. Either way, the research forest is worth a visit.
South of the Canadian Shield, Ontario has very few true bogs. The two largest occur in Eastern Ontario, anchoring both ends of a 60 km long, regionally-significant, natural landscape corridor known as the Bog-to-Bog Link. At the east end of this link lies the Alfred Bog — Southern Ontario’s largest. At the west end of the link lies Mer Bleue — Southern Ontario’s second largest and, arguably, most accessible and famous.
Mer Bleue occupies an old, post-glacial flow channel of the Ottawa River. Two forested ridges — immense, old river sandbars — thrust into the heart of the flat, peaty wetland. Cold, nutrient-poor groundwater seeping through the sandy ridges, along with the poor drainage of the old clay channel, creates the perfect conditions for the formation of peat, which lies almost 10 metres deep in places. Toward the centre of the wetland, the peat has built up into an almost imperceptible, low dome. Out of contact with the underlying water, most of few, hardy plant species growing in the centre of the raised peat must survive entirely on trace nutrients deposited by rain, snow and dust. One or two carnivorous species, like the pitcher plant, supplement that diet with captured insects. This reliance on aerial deposition of nutrients is what makes Mer Bleue a true bog.
Mer Bleue welcomes visitors in any season. In the spring, the ridges attract migrating songbirds, while the watery moat along the edge of the peat mat (technically known as a “lagg”) attracts migrating waterfowl. Hawks hunt high over the ridges or low over the wetland. A dozen or so sandhill cranes stop in the area annually on their way north, with a few perhaps nesting somewhere deep within the bog. Beavers and muskrats ply the waters in the morning and evening to a chorus of frogs.
Through the summer, the shady, ridge trails provide a cool, relaxing hike. Vireos and pewees sing overhead. Ferns push up through the underbrush. Where a trail skirts the edge of a field, grey catbirds mew in a hedgerow, while a brown thrasher scolds from the treetops. Along the boardwalk, the heat of afternoon fills the air with the perfume of Labrador tea, bog rosemary, bog laurel, and leatherleaf. The scent of a few tamarack needles rubbed between the palms calls forth old memories.
In autumn, the contrast of vegetation communities makes Mer Bleue one of the best places at which to enjoy the fall colours. The bog turns a deep red, accented by the paling tamarack. Red and gold maples line the edge of the ridges, brilliant against backgrounds of pine and spruce. Variegated thickets of young birch stems support an awning of yellow leaves. The forest floor rustles with life, as squirrels, thrushes, sparrows and other creatures prepare for the long winter. Flocks of blackbirds and starlings pass noisily overhead, while strings of geese call plaintively in the distance.
In winter, well-stocked bird feeders guarantee that the bright chatter of chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers and finches will greet visitors at every trailhead. Animal tracks criss-cross the trails: squirrels, snowshoe hares, mice and voles, coyotes, weasels, deer, and even moose. Those hoping to lay down their own tracks in fresh snow will need to rise early. Later in the day, when the parking lots begin to fill with visitors, the compacted trails provide an easy walk in the woods or out onto the boardwalk.
The NCC does not provide heated shelters or warm-up huts at Mer Bleue, so winter visitors should dress appropriately. The boardwalk, in particular, lies exposed to the wind, which blows unhindered across the bog. At those times, frostbite becomes a real risk. On calm days, however, particularly those brilliant blue days of January and February, when a frigid Arctic high sits over the City and the snow squeaks underfoot, the moisture rising from the peat will sometimes crystallize in a delicate, morning hoarfrost on the bog, sparkling in the sunlight. On those mornings, one hardly feels the cold.
Mer Bleue lies only fifteen minutes from Parliament Hill and just five minutes off Highway 417 — the Trans-Canada Highway (http://www.ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places-to-visit/greenbelt/mer-bleue). Every trailhead has a small parking area, where visitors will find basic outhouses. There is no charge for parking or use of the area.
Visitors should remember that the international community has recognized Mer Bleue as a globally significant wetland under the Ramsar Convention (www.ramsar.org). Please stay on the trails and the boardwalk. The bog may look inviting, but it is both delicate and hazardous. A stray footstep can destroy decades of painstakingly slow plant growth or lead to a fatal plunge through the mat into the tannic waters below. Such a plunge would lead to an immortality of sorts, as the tannins of the bog preserved and slowly transformed the unwary soul into a leathery mummy. However, such immortality would be unappreciated both by the victim, the victim’s family, and posterity. Take a photograph instead.
With a clear, blue sky, the autumn foliage at its peak, and rain forecast for the next few days, I decided to check out the work of the Friends of the Carp Hills on the Crazy Horse Trail. Parking my car at the trailhead on March Road, where it intersects Huntmar Drive, I tucked my pants into my socks (tick prevention) and strolled into the forest. The trees closed around me, and the sounds of traffic gradually faded.
The Precambrian bedrock of the Carp Hills rises from the clay-covered limestone of Ottawa’s west end. Historically, the thin soils and rock barrens resisted settlement, leaving the hills as one of Ottawa’s most beautiful natural areas. The City of Ottawa already owns and protects large portions of the Hills. Other landowners have protected additional areas through voluntary conservation easements. At the heart of these efforts, the Friends of the Carp Hills have committed themselves to seeing the area preserved for the enjoyment of current and future generations.
Under the guidance of their Trail Foreman, Bernard, the Friends of the Carp Hills have created an 8 km long hiking trail on City-owned property. Much of the trail follows an informal network of cross-country ski trails. With the help of City staff from the Parks and Natural Systems branches, the Friends have blazed a route that visits shady forests, sunny glades, and luscious wetlands. While avoiding the most delicate and sensitive features, the trail winds past maples and pines, crosses beaver dams, and curls around boulders. Short spur trails lead to lookouts over wetlands and lichen-encrusted rock barrens. Where a short bridge spans a narrow watercourse, a rich fen lies to one side, gorgeously clad with sedges and other wetland plants. Markers guide hikers along the way, and the Friends provide a map on their website.
On this day, the woods seem quiet. Here and there a downy woodpecker taps on a tree, a blue jay rustles in the underbrush, and small, foraging flocks of chickadees and tardy kinglets pass through the forest. A few scarlet, autumn meadowhawks dart here and there over the barrens. A red squirrel scurries across the trail, carrying a mushroom almost as large as itself. A garter snake curls up in mock aggression as I pass. A small flock of geese honk on the Big Pond. Mostly, though, I wander alone along the trail, simply enjoying the beauty of the day.
The largest living thing on earth lies within the floor of a forest in Oregon. A honey mushroom, Armillaria solidipes, it has spread over thousands of years through the soil and litter to parasitize the roots of trees over a four square mile area. Tests have showed that the entire mycelial network consists of a single, fungal colony — a single, almost immortal organism.
And it’s edible.
I sometimes think about bringing brown paper bags with me into the forest. Unfortunately, that thought usually comes when I’m standing before a feast of oyster mushrooms sprouting from a log or tree, with no way to carry them home. By the time that I return, the slugs will have found them. Generally, however, I have little interest in picking mushrooms. My reluctance comes, in large part, from my lack of confidence in distinguishing edible mushrooms from the many inedible or poisonous species that grow side-by-side with them. It also comes from my appreciation of the beauty of mushrooms and the fascinating, critical role that they have played in life on Earth.
By some estimates, almost 90% of the Earth’s plants form a symbiotic relationship with soil fungi. These mycorrhizae colonize plant roots, feeding on the sugars produced by the plants. In return, the fine mycelial threads of the fungi penetrate into soil pores and other spaces where plant roots cannot reach, giving the plants greater access to water and nutrients. They break down leaf litter and other detritus, improving the efficiency of nutrient cycling. They may even use organic acids and enzymes to dissolve rock, releasing phosphorous that would otherwise be unavailable to the plants. Not just individual species or plant families, but entire ecosystems like the northern boreal forest depend upon mycorrhizal fungi for their existence.
Genetic studies suggest that the relationship between fungi and plants goes back to the very first colonization of dry land by plants. DNA analyses show that mycorrhizal fungi diverged from a group of parasitic aquatic fungi called “chytrids” approximately 700 million years ago — just about the time that the first land plants appear in the geological record. It seems very likely that these mycorrhizae not only accompanied plants on to the land, but that they actually made colonization of land possible through their superior ability to scavenge for water and nutrients in the barren landscape.
As a photographic subject, mushrooms seem sadly underappreciated. In the dog days of summer, when the spring chorus of birds has faded and the other forest animals hide from sight with their young, when the trees cast the forest floor in shade and the trilliums have withered and dropped, many of the most colourful mushrooms begin their slow eruption from the humus. Purest white, brilliant yellow, earthy browns and tans, luminescent orange, pale translucent blue… they turn dried leaves, moss and twigs into minature landscapes. One appreciates them most from close up, lying carefully amidst the ferns, tree seedlings, and forest litter: the different varieties and substrates, the forms and textures, the subtle details of cap and stem when viewed from the side or below. Other features of the forest floor also come into focus. Slugs enjoying a meal, tendrils of moss, skeletal scaffolds of decaying leaves. The first coral fungus that I ever examined held a red spotted salamander hidden amidst its spires. Sadly, on that day, I didn’t have a camera with me.
Every woodlot will have its share of mushrooms. My favourite places to search for them are the Four Seasons Forest Preserve in Deep River, where I spend two weeks each summer with my family, and Gatineau Park, where I often cycle and hike on weekends. Both areas offer a wide range of habitats, from dry pine and oak forests, through cool coves of maple and beech, to dank cedar swamps and wetlands. Please refrain from collecting mushrooms on protected lands and conservation areas: thousands of hectares of crown land lie available for collecting. And please refrain from collecting altogether unless you can confidently identify the edible varieties. Most mushroom guide books will list four or five unmistakable, “safe” species, such as oyster mushroom or black and yellow morels. Outside of those species, the chance of accidental poisoning or adverse effects increases dramatically for non-experts. Picking mushrooms for their hallucinogenic properties is especially risky, not just because the hallucinogenic species are almost indistinguishable from more poisonous species, but also because the reaction to such mushrooms can vary greatly between individuals. It simply isn’t worth the risk.
Do, however, get down on your stomach to admire and photograph mushrooms. And while you are there, in contact with the living forest floor, think about how the life in the forest is linked and interwoven. How the trees around you are connected by the hidden network below you; how the living and the dead are connected in the circle of life, and how the miracle of evolution has produced the wonder of it all.
We glide on dirty, brown water under a green, sunlit canopy of silver maple trees. Spring run-off on the Ottawa River has pushed nutrient-rich floodwaters back into the forests along lower Constance Creek. Warblers sing brightly in the tree-tops and multi-hued wood ducks peek shyly from the shady depths of the swamp. The nighttime chorus of spring peepers and tree frogs has dwindled in the warming day to a few desultory chirps and clucks. We pass between the spreading, fluted tree trunks in quiet awe, like visitors to some southern, bald cypress bayou. But instead of alligators basking along the channel, map turtles and painted turtles crawl on to logs to sun themselves, while pike and gar lie up in the shallow reed beds.
When biologists speak of the diversity and productivity of wetlands, they have places like Constance Creek in mind, where life overspills its banks. Scoop the creek water into your cupped hands, and you hold a galaxy of microscopic, living things. Look up to the trees to see life thrust by the laws of thermodynamics toward its origin in the dust and energy of stars. Energy flows through a tangled web of matter, seeking stability, building in complexity, expressed in a fractal lattice in which dragonflies hang like jewels. A wetland brings together the elements of life like no other place. Perhaps in no other place does a biologist feel more like a priest.
A confluence of fortuitous circumstances has preserved Constance Creek as a uniquely healthy riverine wetland. About 10,000 years ago, when meltwaters of the retreating glaciers swelled the Ottawa River, part of it flowed along a side channel from Constance Bay in the north to Shirley’s Bay in the south. Along the banks of this channel, it deposited large sandbars over the flat clays left by the retreating Champlain Sea. Over time, as the Ottawa River shrank to its current size, flows along the channel reversed direction, draining the adjacent Carp Ridge and Dunrobin Ridge north through a meadering stream and wide, swampy floodplain. Annual flooding limited farming and permanent settlement along the creek, while the deep, sandy soils supported the growth of a rich riparian forest to further screen and protect the creek. Some unauthorized filling of the Constance Creek wetland occurred in 1989 with the construction of the Eagle Creek Golf Club. Sand pits have also opened at places along the creek, although they remain hidden from the main channel. For the most part, though, the creek remains well buffered from surrounding land uses.
Several locations give access to the creek, but thick cattails often limit paddling. At the upper end, an alm0st impenetrable marsh blocks access from Constance Lake. The reach downstream of the bridge at Thomas Dolan Parkway provides a short, easy paddle through a lovely riverine marsh. Painted turtles, snapping turtles and Blanding’s turtles bask along the channel in the midday sun, and a colony of black-crowned night herons hides back in the reeds. Damselflies and dragonflies hunt over the water. The bridge at Vance’s Side Road provides a pretty view over marsh and swamp, but the channel quickly chokes off both upstream and downstream. In contrast, the mouth of the creek on Constance Bay offers one of the most beautiful, flat water paddles in Ottawa.
I like to start my trips up Constance Creek at the far, north end of Greenland Road, where the City-owned road allowance runs up to the water at tiny Horseshoe Bay. I paddle through the sandy shallows, tracked by freshwater clams and mussels, into the wider expanse of Constance Bay. I don’t recommend it for breezy days, when the wind driving across the wide river can raise substantial waves. But on calm days, the glassy water parts smoothy to either side of the bow, as I round the point to the west. Sometimes I paddle straight across Constance Bay to the mouth of the creek. More often, though, I skirt the shoreline, looking for turtles and scanning the flats for longnose gar finning in the shallow water.
Constance Bay provides some of the best fishing along the Ottawa River shoreline. The clean, Ottawa River, the shallow reed and weed beds, and the steady influx of nutrients from Constance Creek create a perfect mix of spawning, nursery and adult habitats. Although I haven’t yet tried flyfishing for longnose gar, I’ve heard that they rival bonefish for fun. The technique seems roughly the same, and one can find lots of instruction online. Usually, however, I troll a streamer fly or a spinnerbait behind the canoe and pick up some of the pike for which Constance Bay is famous. Musky also lurk in the weeds, although for the sake of my light tackle (and their health), I don’t try for them. Closer to the mouth of the creek, though, I’ve caught catfish and bass. Walleye forage in deeper water, along the outer edge of the bay. At times, in fact, fish have struck so frequently as I’ve paddled across the bay, that I’ve had to bring in my line to make any real progress toward the creek.
Constance Creek flows through a stunning swamp forest into Constance Bay. Large, mature silver maples line the banks along the channel, while swamp bur oaks sit further back on slightly higher ground. During the spring flood, one can sometimes paddle into the swamp itself, threading between standing and fallen trees. Great blue herons stalk along the boundary of swamp and stream, while pileated woodpeckers cackle and hammer deeper in the recesses of the forest. In the autumn, ducks and geese descend like leaves into the marshes around the creek mouth, and the sounds of shotguns echo distantly from further up the creek, where several duck clubs operate hunting blinds.
Not surprisingly, many of Ottawa’s most interesting animals and species at risk find a home along Constance Creek. Five of Ottawa’s six at-risk turtle species have been recorded along the creek and at its mouth, including the extremely elusive (and possibly extirpated locally) spiny soft-shelled turtle. Red-headed woodpeckers still nest locally. Terns no longer nest in the area, but pass through during migration. Ospreys can often be found hunting along the creek. Bald eagles migrate along the creek and the Ottawa River shoreline, as do many other raptors, including peregrine falcons. Lake sturgeons and American eels still inhabit the waters.
This richness of life is no doubt what attracted aboriginal peoples to the creek. Archaeologists have documented at least one 2500 year-old camp and burial site at the mouth of Constance Creek, on its west shore (https://ottawarewind.com/2014/02/24/ancient-ottawa-lost-relics-from-500bc-found-at-constance-bay/). More undocumented sites seem likely, perhaps in the large woodland on the east side of the creek mouth. Unfortunately, that woodland remains at risk of future aggregate extraction. Lying atop one of the largest, untouched sand and gravel deposits in the north end of the City, it currently enjoys protection by Provincial wetland policies and an unopened City road allowance. These prevent the legal access required for an aggregate license. Nonetheless, so long as the property remains privately-owned, the threat exists.
In the meantime, one can travel back 2500 years with just a canoe trip up the creek. The present swirls behind from the blade of your paddle. Lying quietly up in the swamp, daydreaming and staring serenely up at the translucent leaves, one can easily imagine that it has always appeared this way. With a whisper of wings and ragged croak, Raven passes over the canopy. Floating there, you surrender to thought and memory.
When I visit the woodlots of South Nepean, I think of my years growing up in Esquimalt, Victoria, British Columbia. I didn’t know, living in Esquimalt, that I was privileged to have one of Canada’s most endangered ecosystems in my backyard. Highrock Park, or the “Cairn” as we knew it, was simply the place where we played after homework on a school night or rode our bikes on the weekend. It rose above my neighborhood: a rock bald, surrounded by a skirt of open woodland.
I didn’t know about Garry oak parkland and savannah. No-one told me that I couldn’t play in the Cairn because it was special, or because I might damage myself. Sure, I came back with skinned knees and bee stings. And on warm summer evenings, when the local teens would sometimes gather in the twilight under the trees to consume beer or other elicit substances, my parents didn’t forbid me the adventure of the dark. We climbed the twisted oak trees and played hide-and-seek in the thickets.
I think that I first learned my love of rock on the Cairn. I couldn’t identify the hill as an exposed “pluton” of granite — a lump of igneous rock formed far down in the earth’s mantle 400 million years ago. I didn’t know that the cataclysmic formation of western North America had thrust it to the surface. I traced the long, parallel grooves on the smoothed rock without knowing about the pebbles that had gouged them under the weight of two kilometres of glacial ice. I just loved the feeling of the hard stone under my hand, as I scrambled over the flanks of the hill or sat with my legs pulled up to my chest, looking out over my home.
Perhaps that’s why tree-forts and home-made mountain bike tracks usually don’t trouble me, even when I find them in some of Ottawa’s protected natural areas. When I see bike trails, jumps and obstacles worn and carved into a place like the Chapman Mills East forest, I think of how much I would have enjoyed them as a kid.
Most people driving past on Strandheard Road and Prince of Wales Drive likely give little more than a glance to the three adjacent patches of forest. Few of them would suspect that these emerald gems contain some of Ottawa’s largest trees: maples, beeches and oaks that rise like the pillars of a cathedral. Under their boughs, a profusion of wildflowers bursts forth in spring: trilliums, trout lilies, false solomon’s seal, violets, jack-in-the-pulpit. Vireos sing high overhead. With their windows rolled up and air conditioners running, few of the passing drivers will ever feel the coolness of the woods, or hear the susurration of the leaves as a breeze passes through the canopy.
The neighbours, I suspect, would prefer to keep it that way. Walking through Chapman Mills East on a warm, weekday afternoon, I marvel at the lack of traffic. I pass a few dogs and their owners sauntering the trails. The occasional runner pads past me. Most of the time, though, I have the woods to myself. Apart from the distant sounds of traffic, I might be alone in the world.
Hopefully the evenings and weekends see more visitors. Each of the South Nepean woodlots has its own charms and attractions. Chapman Mills East, along Cresthaven Drive and Serena Way, is the easiest to love, with its towering maples, huge decaying logs, and dense mat of herbs and wildflowers. Deep shade gives way to a patch of sunlight, where a snag has finally crumbled to the forest floor. In the sunny gap, new growth reaches to the sky. Bumblebees travel from flower to flower, then circle and drone off to a hollowed, old tree. A pileated woodpecker hammers at a rotten white birch, while squirrels scold the intruder. Old stone walls lie along the perimeter, marking the edges of old farm fields.
Chapman Mills West has a different character. Lying astride Clearbrook Drive, it consists of two very different forest types. In the southern, larger section, a dry cedar forest surrounds and hides a small, pretty, swamp. Frogs croak along the marshy edges, while pairs of mallards raise chicks in the dense underbrush. Just inside the south edge of the woodlot, the City’s Park Planners have cleverly threaded a fitness trail from Mancini Park. Next door, where the School Board has allowed a small portion of the woodlot to remain in the yard, the worn earth under the cedars attests to affinity of children for trees.
The smaller, north portion of Chapman Mills West appears younger, higher and drier. Between scattered patches of cedar, an open forest of light-loving shrubs and trees creates a more pastoral feeling. And, indeed, the woodlot may have provided pasture for cattle or horses before Chapman Mills was transformed from farmland to suburbia. Over time, the forest canopy should fill in, especially now that the Ottawa Stewardship Council, with help from local schools and Ward Councillor Michael Qaqish, have taken an interest in managing and improving the woodlot.
Heart’s Desire, on the north bank of the Jock River, appears superficially like Chapman Mills East. Here, though, massive oak trees dominate the forest. And whereas blue cohosh seemed to blanket the floor of Chapman Mills East, false solomon’s seal carpets Heart’s Desire. However, Heart’s Desire really gains its charm from the Jock River. Spilling over a small weir and then flowing under Prince of Wales Drive, down to the Rideau River, this reach of the Jock runs along a stoney bed, with alternating riffles and pools that beg for a well-placed fly. Through the summer months, large boulders provide tempting stepping stones to the other side. The steep, wooded south bank provides an idyllic backdrop and creates a sense of wildness and privacy that belies the surrounding suburbs.
When I visualize South Nepean’s woodlots, I see children. I see them racing bicycles along the paths, searching for frogs, and leaving damp footprints on white riverstones. I hear unrestrained shouts and laughter under the trees. Perhaps in my heart, I still feel myself with them.
I certainly feel torn. When I look at the damage that already occurs to our woodlots — the trash, the yard waste, the bags of dog faeces — I wonder if the wildflowers and other delicate organisms in the forest floor can also withstand the trampling of young feet. I think of myself as a boy, wriggling through the underbrush in Highrock Park and bouncing my bicycle off tree roots on dirt tracks. Perhaps, along the way, I trampled something rare or special. Perhaps the butterfly in my jar shouldn’t have been there. But those experiences, and my other childhood explorations, taught me to love the natural world. They set me on the path to where I am today.
Yes, we need to protect our urban natural areas from careless and unnecessary damage. We should educate our children to cherish and respect these marvelous places. We can even try to direct their enthusiasm. But we should never tell them that they can’t ride their bikes or build tree forts, imply that they don’t belong among the trees, or frown on their ebullience. We need more children in our urban forests, not fewer.
I’m crouched low, slowly creeping through young ferns and cedars toward a shaded pool, where my instincts tell me a brown trout should be resting. Sunlight and reflections dapple the surface of the water. In the shadow of the bank, the sandy, leaf-littered creek bottom looks bronze. Freezing against a tree trunk, I concentrate on the patches of bronze, looking for movement. After a few seconds, I can make out the shape, then the speckled, grey back and splash of gold on the sides, holding near the bottom. Perhaps 14 inches long, and just over a pound. I raise my camera, and try to slide surreptitiously into a better position. With a quick flip of its tail, the fish is gone.
This isn’t Algonquin Park, the Madawaska Highlands, or Upper State New York. This is Poole Creek, in the heart of Stittsville, one of Ottawa’s rapidly growing suburbs.
Like many people, I first visited Stittsville around 1980, on a Sunday family outing to the village’s famous flea market. It was a small bedroom community clustered along its Main Street. Since then, the village has merged with the City of Ottawa and grown into a busy suburb of 27,000 people, with more development and homes appearing every year. As the village has grown, it has displaced much of the farmland, forest and wetland that once surrounded it.
Fortunately, throughout all of that growth, the community has had the wisdom to preserve Poole Creek — one of only two, truly cold-water creeks in the Ottawa area. Poole Creek originates in the provincially-significant Goulbourn Wetland, about 1 km west of Stittsville along the Trans-Canada Trail. An observation platform looks north over a large expanse of cattail marsh, while the creek begins its life flowing south under the trail through a steel culvert. Barn swallows nest below the platform, and a careful observer might spot a well-camouflaged snipe probing the exposed mud flats with its long bill. Common yellowthroats — pretty, masked warblers — call “witchitty, wichitty, witchitty” from the thickets.
Local residents familar with the Goulbourn Wetland will have seen recent changes to it. Water levels in the wetland have dropped since the City of Ottawa Drainage Unit and Roads Department replaced the collapsed culvert under the trail. The culvert, and the beavers that habitually dammed it, had created a substantial pond extending into the marsh. The replacement of the culvert and routine trapping of the beavers by the City has been controversial. Whether justified or not, the resulting changes to the wetland need to be assessed in an historical context. Aerial photography prior to the 1990s, when beavers recolonized the area, shows that much more of the wetland existed as swamp — suggesting that water levels were lower at that time. In all likelihood, the wetland has probably gone through many changes since European settlement, as beavers were trapped out, the railroad built (the bed of the current trail), farms cleared and then abandoned. The wetland will likely change again as it adjusts to the lowered water levels, perhaps seeing the conversion of marsh to swamp. However, there’s little danger of the wetland vanishing, given the low topography of the area and size of the contributing catchment.
The Goulbourn Wetland and surrounding areas actually contribute very little to the flow of Poole Creek, except during the spring runoff and large storms. Outside the wetland area, the thin, clay and till soils dry out quickly in the summer months. Even before the culvert work and lowering of water levels in the wetland, Poole Creek west of Stittsville was classified as “seasonally intermittent”. In dry summers, lengthy portions of the channel cease to flow, and minnows cluster in isolated pools as easy prey for birds and raccoons.
Shortly after flowing under Westridge Drive into Stittsville, Poole Creek changes character. The western side of Stittsville lies along a relict beach of the ancient Champlain Sea, which covered much of the Ottawa Valley following the retreat of the glaciers 10,000 years ago. Rainfall infiltrates more easily into the sandy, beach soils than the clay and till soils that dominate most of the City. Rather than running quickly along the surface, the water percolates slowly through the earth toward Poole Creek. By the time that it seeps and wells up into the creek channel, the water has cooled to the temperature of the deeper soil. Consequently, once it enters the village, Poole Creek quickly changes to a permanent, coldwater stream.
From Westridge to its mouth at the Carp River, five kilometres downstream, Poole Creek meanders through the village in a mostly natural corridor anywhere from 30 meter to 70 meters in width. Immediately upstream and downstream of Stittsville Main Street, a healthy canopy of trees overhangs the creek. Short riffles alternate with deeper pools. Here, in the clear, cold water, local organizations introduced brown trout about twenty years ago, constructing “lunker boxes” for shelter and stabilizing the banks to improve the habitat. The trout remain, virtually unknown to anyone but a few fly-fishers, who practice a careful catch-and-release to preserve the small population.
Although the Trans-Canada Trail deviates from Poole Creek at Westridge Drive, another trail system picks up from it, following the creek in fits and starts for much of its length toward the Carp River. However, any visit to Poole Creek would be incomplete without a detour to Quitters Coffee, where the Trans-Canada Trail crosses Stittsville Main Street. Just a block or so south of Poole Creek, Quitters makes great pastries and sandwiches, while selling the best coffee in Stittsville. You can sit in the spacious, bright cafe or relax outside on the patio. With any luck, you might meet the owner, singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards.
Just east of Main Street, Poole Creek turns north and dissappears into a large remnant of Stittsville’s once extensive wetlands. Almost inaccessible, the wetland remains largely unsurveyed and uninventoried. However, I suspect that an bioinventory would likely reveal several species at risk, especially Blanding’s turtle, which is known from the Goulbourn Wetland Complex and several isolated observations elsewhere in the village. From the wetland, the Creek runs through the Amberwood Village Golf and Country Club, finally emerging back into the public realm at Springbrook Drive. You can bypass the wetland and golfcourse by following the trail out on to Beechfern Drive (crossing a pretty little bridge on the way), and then taking every left turn until you arrive at Springbrook. Along the way, you will follow a short, pretty trail between Hesse Crescent and Pine Bluff Trail, crossing a bridge over a small tributary. The bridge provides a good place to pause and watch dragonflies, or listen to chickadees and common yellowthroats singing in the shrubs.
The trail picks up again on the north side of Poole Creek, where it crosses under Springbrook Drive. This is a good place to see the impact of emerald ash borer on Ottawa’s urban canopy. Where the trail once entered a shady grove, it now passes through a bright, open woodland, dotted with the stumps of ash trees. Killed by the little, invasive green beetle, the dead trees posed a safety hazard to the children and other residents using the trail. Although shocking at first glance, the clearing will soon be hidden by the growth of new shrubs and trees taking advantage of the abundance of light.
The stretch of Poole Creek between Springbrook Drive and Sweetnam Drive may be its prettiest section. The creek burbles happily through the forest, then crosses under a footbridge into an open wetland. On the south side of the creek, where the trail runs, some adjacent residents have taken it upon themselves to clear a small grassy area down to the creek bank. Normally, the City frowns on such incursions into public natural areas. In this case, though, the lawn provides views up and down the creek, allowing greater appreciation of the marshy floodplain. In past years, beavers dammed the lower end of the reach, creating a pretty pond, which the City managed through use of a “beaver deceiver” to prevent flooding of the trail. Although they have now abandoned the site, the beavers will no doubt return in the future. In the meantime, the area still provides a wonderful place to observe birds, including the occasional great blue heron hunting frogs along the creek, or a Cooper’s hawk hunting unwary snakes. A quiet, careful observer might even find painted turtles sunning themselves on the banks.
Past Sweetnam Drive, Poole Creek changes character again. After a short run out of sight, it crosses under busy Hazeldean Road and enters one of the City’s newest neighbourhoods. Where it once meandered through farmland, the creek nows winds between recent or still-developing subdivisions. Deeper, clay soils have allowed the creek to carve a valley dense in places with Manitoba maple, crack willow and thorny thickets. Following the creek becomes more difficult. With construction still underway, the trail remains incomplete. Good vantage points exist up and downstream of Huntmar Drive, beside one of the established subdivisions.
At first glance, the view in this area seems uninspiring. With a few exceptions, the creek exhibits little of the primordial wildness of the upper reaches. The nearby homes look down into the valley, which appears sadly exposed.
Such a perspective ignores what the creek has been and what it will become. In the past, when farmland lined the creek, the grassy valley provided pasture for farm animals, who would water in the creek, trampling and eroding the banks. Animals would defecate in the creek. Grazing maintained an open valley, exposing the creek to continuous sunlight and warming the water. Although much of Ottawa’s agricultural community has embraced new, sustainable animal husbandry, such conditions still exist in some other creeks in Ottawa’s rural area. We see the impacts as poor water quality, dismal aquatic habitat, and low native biodiversity.
Lower Poole Creek reminds me of the Don Valley, in North York, where I lived for year in 1975. I recall the matted grasses along the riverbank in the spring, when the ice had finally melted. I recall the dusty, dirt tracks on which we rode our bicycles, which turned to mud in the slightest rain. When I visited that same site in summer 30 years later, I did not recognize it. Where I’d known a wide, open, baking hot valley, I found a young forest and a cool, clear creek.
The same transformation will occur along lower Poole Creek. Already, the local developers, the City and the Conservation Authority have planted hundreds of trees, which will stabilize and shade the creek banks as they grow. They will plant more trees, and nature will play its own role, filling in the spaces. By the time that the children in the neighbourhood have their own children, they will marvel at the changes. A forest will fill the valley. Spring mornings will sparkle with birdsong, and along secret ways, wildlife will follow the water.
Poole Creek demonstrates why my fellow environmental planners and I fight so hard to conserve and restore urban creek and stream corridors. We often hear, “it’s just a ditch” or “it’s not worth protecting.” In almost every case, we find ourselves having to justify the few metres required to protect these places. We fight these battles not only because that’s our job, but because we see what these space will be in the future: places of refuge for people and wildlife, where children can explore, lovers can embrace, and fish hide in shaded pools.
Sometime around the second week of May, a magical event happens in Ottawa: the buds begin to burst on the trees. For weeks, they have swollen with the lengthening days, drawing sustenance from their roots and the moist, spring earth. Some smaller trees and shrubs have already sprouted leaves, and some canopy trees will wait a while longer. But the vanguard of the northern hardwood forest — the maples, beeches, birches, ash, basswoods, oaks — erupt with new leaves. As they unfold, the grey forest turns a delicate, pale green. Still translucent, the young leaves glow in the morning sunlight, each like a little flower. The forest has a momentary gaiety, like a young girl twirling in her first dress.
For several years, I have taken vacation during the second week of May. Sometimes I go camping. Sometimes I stay in town. Either way, I spend my free days indulging in the exuberant rebirth that spring brings. The migratory songbirds arrive: warblers, vireos, thrushes, flycatchers, swallows, sparrows. They flit through the tree-tops and scurry in the underbrush, still easily visible in the young foliage. Their early-morning chorus begins before dawn and ends only with the heat of midday. Spring wildflowers speckle the forest slopes: pointillist dreams of white trilliums; lilies, violets and dutchman’s britches; honeysuckle and elder. A few spring peepers still call, along with the croak of leopard frogs and the trill of american toads. Reptiles emerge into the sun, still half torpid from winter. Turtles bask on logs, more reluctant to re-enter the cold water than later in the summer. Snakes sun themselves on warm, grey rocks or under old boards. Even fish seek the shallows to warm themselves in the welcome rays.
I’ve spent this past week exploring some old and new haunts by bicycle and canoe: the Rideau River, Pink Lake, Baie McLaurin, Shirley’s Bay, Poole Creek. I’ve ridden about 250 km, sometimes with canoe in tow behind my bike. I recently purchased a canoe trailer for my bike from Wike, mainly to eliminate the need to book a VrtuCar (a local car-sharing business) any time that I wanted to go canoeing. Already, the combination of my two favourite activities has given me incredible satisfaction… as well as some intense exercise.
I look forward to my summer vacation — those full, glorious two weeks in late June and early July. I can feel the warmth, see the dragonflies dancing over the ponds, feel my fly rod in my hands. The time will pass slower and more restfully. But the days won’t bring the same sense of excitement and wonder as my May sabbatical, when all the world’s anew.
The forest holds no more magical sound than the song of the hermit thrush at dusk. In the calm of evening, when the breeze drops and the leaves hang still, it flutes through the trees: a short, liquid, melancholy song. You stand transfixed in the twilight of the trail, grasping for a lost memory or emotion. Perhaps some ancestral memory of the primaevel forest. Time pauses.
For anyone living in Orleans, in Ottawa’s east end, a short walk down the pathway into Bilberry Creek Ravine leaves behind the sounds of the City and carries one into the world of the wood thrush. The steep, wooded slopes of the ravine create a quiet haven. The chuckling of the creek rises from somewhere below. The thick duff of the forest floor rustles with hidden growth and life.
On an early, warm Spring morning, I stood quiet and still beside the trail in Bilberry Creek Ravine, hoping for a hermit thrush to come within photography range. I had stopped at the fuss of chickadees and nuthatches in the pines ahead, thinking that an owl or hawk might be hidden in the dense boughs. The hermit thrush foraged nearby on the forest floor, teasing. It moved from shadow to shadow, clearly visible in my binoculars, but just beyond the reach of my pocket camera’s small lens.
As I waited patiently for the thrush to come closer, I caught another movement in the corner of my eye. 30 metres farther up the slope, almost screened by underbrush, a red fox climbed on to a rotting log, into a fleck of sunlight piercing the pine canopy. Very slowly, I turned my head to watch it. It sat upright in the rare patch of warmth, the light glowing in its fur. As carefully as possible, I inched my binoculars back up to my eyes. But not carefully enough. The fox turned its head toward me, lowering itself warily to the log. I froze. For long seconds, we both stood still, our gazes locked on each other. Then I moved slightly, just a shift of balance. With a quick turn, the fox rose and vanished into the brush. Thinking that the fox had prompted the chattering of the songbirds, I started again along the trail and jumped a small tributary brook. Just at that moment, in the pine trees behind me, a barred owl began to call: “who, who, who-calls-for-you”.
Once surrounded by development, most urban forests lose their wildest elements within a few months or years. The noise and visual disturbance drive away the most sensitive animals. Cats prowl along the wooded edges, hunting songbirds and small mammals with ruthless efficiency. Neighbours dump lawn and garden waste into the forest, introducing exotic and invasive plants. Returning fishermen dispose of unused, invasive nightcrawlers (earthworms), changing the soil and nutrient cycles. Temperatures in the forest rise, light increases, and humidity drops. The slow-growing trees that once prospered in the cool, damp woodland give way to faster-growing, sun and heat-loving species.
Such woodlands still have value to a community and a city. Both the forest and the community find a new balance. The chickadees that brighten the winter woodland will still delight children, as will the play of the squirrels in the summer. The leaves will still rustle in the wind. And if trilliums give way to bluets, will anyone but the most ardent naturalist notice or really mind?
But those urban forests with the capacity to resist such change deserve special reverance and protection. Nestled in its ravine, Bilberry Creek is such a place. The ravine retains humidity and cooler air, shields the forest from traffic noise and prying eyes, retains its secrets. Although a graded, multi-use pathway cuts through the forest at one point, the steep clay slopes limit much of the ravine to rough, narrow nature trails. Mature, “super-canopy” white pines and hemlocks thrust through the deciduous trees, harkening back to the ancient, pre-settlement, northern hardwood forest that once blanketed most of central Canada. Tall, pockmarked snags provide nesting cavities for animals and birds. Massive nurse logs lie decaying in undergrowth, returning their nutrients to the soil, holding moisture for insects and fungi, and sheltering amphibians, mice and voles. The air is redolent with the rich odour of life.
Bilberry Creek, itself, appears surprisingly healthy for an urban watercourse. On a spring morning, erosion and slope failures appear all along the creek, turning it grey with silt and clay Woody debris litters and clogs the channel. But did development cause these things, or do they result from the natural process of a young creek cutting into deep, clay soils? Probably both. Certainly the presence of old log crib walls along the creek suggests that the processes aren’t entirely new. In any event, they don’t appear to have discouraged the local beaver.
I would like to visit Bilberry Creek Ravine again in the winter. I can imagine strapping on a pair of snowshoes and walking softly down the trail into the hush and swish of snow sifting through the pines. Up ahead, perhaps, a pileated woodpecker would hammer on an old hemlock. Perhaps the trail of a fox or fisher would cross the track. After a while, I’d find a comfortable place to pause. I’d pull a flask of coffee from my small pack, and a sandwich, and I’d stand there lost in the woods until the cold finally drove me onward or back.