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.
I wonder, sometimes, if some places should remain undiscovered. If they remain unknown, then who will care to protect them? But if they become too well known, how much attention can they withstand? The Morris Island Conservation Area and the Snye River fall into that category.
Morris Island lies at the far west edge of Ottawa, on the Ottawa River just upstream of Des Chats Dam. The Snye River, a shallow, rocky stream, separates the island from the mainland. The Snye originates as a branch of the Mississippi River, which enters the Ottawa River at Marshall Bay, upstream of Morris Island. About 500 m from the mouth of the Mississippi River, the Snye branches off 90 degrees from the main channel and winds its way northeast for several kilometres, rejoining the Ottawa River near Fitzroy Harbour. I haven’t found any explanation for the origin of the Snye River. However, the Ontario Geological Survey identifies the area as “confirmed karst”. Karstic features appear in many places along the Snye, which leads me to think that it probably began as a cave feature, subsequently collapsing to create a surface stream.
Only one small bridge crosses the Snye, limiting development to less than 15% of Morris Island, clustered entirely on the west side. Most of the island remains privately-owned. Without another bridge, however, no further large development can occur, and the cost of such a bridge appears prohibitive. Provincially significant wetland and habitat for species at risk also cover much of the island. In the short term, therefore, the area appears likely to remain largely natural. In the long term, it would benefit from greater public ownership.
Fortunately, the most scenic part of Morris Island already resides in public ownership. The Morris Island Conservation Area — owned by the City of Ottawa and managed by the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority — lies at the very end of the island’s road, on the south side of Lac Des Chats, in the backwater of Des Chats Dam. The calm, stable waters of the lake lap along a rugged shoreline and archipelago of small islands. Trails lead from the small parking lot. One broad, accessible trail follows the route of an old railbed along the shore, while narrower nature trails venture into the forest and across boardwalks to the larger islands.
A pretty place at any time of year, Morris Island looks most beautiful in the autumn. Along the shorelines of the islands, the gold, red and yellow foliage reflects in the still water. Leaves carpet the pathways. The rich odour of damp earth fills the air. In the late afternoon, the low sunlight glows warm. A cast lure lands in the gentle river with a quiet, “plop”.
The Snye River, in contrast, deserves a morning paddle in the richness of full summer. Sunlight penetrates deep into the clear water. Longnose gar warm themselves in the shallows, and smallmouth bass lurk as dark shadows at the edge of boulders or beneath undercut banks. Turtles glide below the surface. The river cuts through bedrock, alternating between deep pools and short, shallow riffles. In some of the longer, wider runs, enough sediment has built up to form small marshy areas and wet meadows. It may be the most picturesque river in Ottawa.
Morris Island and the Snye River provide one of the best places in Ottawa to find and photograph wildlife. The mix of forest types, the presence of wetlands, the confluence of two major rivers, and the close proximity of West Quebec’s enormous wilderness areas, give the area an amazing diversity of habitats and species. Many of Ottawa’s species at risk enjoy relative protection and abundance in the area — a condition which deserves respect and sensitivity. Visitors should heed the old Sierra Club motto: “take nothing but a photograph; leave nothing but a footprint.” If we treat the area gently, then it should remain a haven for future generations of wildlife and visitors.
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.
On a still summer morning, the lake lies like glass. The sun has peeked over the hills to light your campsite and warm the air. The mist begins to burn off, drifting like lace before an imperceptible zephyr and swirling up in wisps. You almost regret fetching water for the morning coffee, because of the ripples that mar the perfect reflections of stone, tree and sky.
The Barron River flows east out of the quiet, north side of Algonquin Park. Being much less accessible to visitors from Toronto, the north and east sides of the park receive much less use than the Highway 60 corridor. For visitors from Ottawa, they offer a chance to experience the park free from crowds, tour buses, and other traffic. The campgrounds feel more open, cleaner and less claustrophobic. Everything seems slower and more simple.
The turn-off for the Barron River lies just over an hour and half north of Ottawa on the Trans-Canada Highway, 13 kilometres past the Town of Pembroke. A turn on to Doran Road, followed by a quick right turn, leads to County Road 28. After nine or ten kilometres, the pavement changes to a good gravel road and County Road 28 becomes the Barron Canyon Road. The Sand Lake Gate to Algonquin Park lies another 18 km up the road. Day trippers can obtain a visitors permit at the Sand Lake Office, while those with reservations can pick up their camping or backcountry permits.
Many visitors to the Barron River travel only 2.5 km past the gate to the Squirrel Rapids parking lot and access point, for a day paddle up to the Barron Canyon. The flat water trip takes about six to eight hours return, factoring in an easy 420 m portage around some falls, maybe a try at the bass in the marsh above the falls, with time for a relaxed lunch and swim in the canyon.
The Barron Canyon formed after the last ice age, carved by an immense, sand-laden river of cold, glacial water draining from the Great Lakes. 100 m high cliffs climb straight out of the water, stained with orange lichen and topped by dense pines and cedars. Ravens soar overhead. Trailing a free hand along the stone of the canyon wall, one feels the age and weight of the earth.
Several canoe-in campsites lie along the river below the canyon, available by reservation. Other resting spots offer themselves along the way. But I prefer to stop for lunch in the heart of the canyon, where a tumble of huge boulders offers a small pull-out, a swimming hole, and a flat picnic spot just above the river. Eating a sandwich in the warmth of a 4.5 billion year-old star, on billion year-old stone, in a 10,000 year-old canyon, I find comfort and satisfaction in the triviality of my own existence.
Backcountry camping is available all along the Barron River. Achray Campground, 25 km past the Sand Lake Gate, offers a good starting point for a trip down to Squirrel Rapids. A one-way trip could be accomplished in anything from one to four days, depending on how hard one wished to work. Personally, I prefer to take a full day to traverse the five portages between St. Andrews Lake and Brigham Lake. None are long or onerous, but they add up. Even more, I can’t imagine missing the evening paddle along the shoreline in twilight, after setting up camp, eating and washing the dinner dishes. Or rising before dawn to watch the dawn wash the hills and sunrise glitter on the dew of a cobweb.
Scenery along the Barron River equals that of any place in Algonquin Park. Wildlife abounds, although moose are infrequent. Waterfalls and cascades separate the stretches of flat water. The autumn colours dazzle against the dark conifers and reflect in the still river. Bring a camera, canvas and brushes, paper and pencil. Bring an open heart and time to fill it.
The morning chorus of songbirds has quieted. The spring sunshine has dried the dew and warmed the rocks. Sprinkles of mica glint in the thin soil under your feet. Green darners hunt over the beaverpond, while a swallowtail settles on to a bed of moss and lichen behind you. Rufous-sided towhees sing from scattered pines, common yellowthroats and swamp sparrows flit through the willows along the shore, and a hummingbird buzzes by you on its way to a patch of columbine. As you sit peacefully on 800 million year-old gneiss eating your sandwich, you watch a Blanding’s turtle crawl out warily on a beaver lodge to bask. You have just fallen in love with the Carp Hills.
The Carp Hills rise as a rocky ridge between the valleys of the Carp River and Constance Creek. A mosaic of rock barrens, rocky, open woodlands, and dense mixed forest, I find them most inviting in mid-May, ahead of the swarms of blackflies, mosquitoes and deer flies that torture the summer visitor. I like to arrive just before dawn, when the dew is still heavy enough to soak the hem of my pants. Venus may still glitter over the turquoise horizon. Birds begin to sing from every tree and shrub. A beaver creases the mirrored surface of its pond, on the way back from its last foray of the night. As the morning warms, the dragonflies and butterflies begin to stir. Turtles and snakes come out to warm themselves in the sun. Dewdrops cling like diamonds to cobwebs and spring flowers. Before I realize it, I’ve spent two hours in wonder and barely moved 200 meters from the road.
The Carp Hills, along with the nearby South March Highlands, consist of Precambrian bedrock — an island of ancient metamorphic rock in the sea of younger, Paleozoic limestone that underlies most of Ottawa. The large mineral crystals exposed in the rocky barrens attest to their formation and slow cooling almost a billion years ago, deep under a towering mountain chain created by the collision of continents. Time and the inexorable force of water eroded the mountains, exposing their roots.
When subsequent upheavals in the earth’s crust created the great geological rift that we now call the Ottawa Valley, the Carp Hills remained elevated above the surrounding landscape. Oceans came and went, laying down beds of limestone across the region. More recently, Ice Age glaciers further scraped down the bedrock. When the last glaciers receded 14,000 years ago, a shallow cold, silty sea followed behind them, depositing thick layers of clay over much of valley. As the land rebounded from the weight of the glacial ice and the sea receded, massive rivers of glacial meltwater carved channels and dumped loads of sands and gravels. Through it all, the Carp Hills remained islands of stone, facing and mirroring the Gatineau Hills to the east.
Despite their cataclysmic history, or perhaps because of it, the Carp Hills exhibit an exquisite sensitivity to disturbance. The Precambrian rock provides few nutrients for plant growth, and much of it is sensitive to acid rain. The thin soils have formed almost solely through weathering of the bedrock, the action of microbes, lichens and fungi, the sprinkling of atmospheric dust, and the painstaking accumulation of organic matter. The wetlands, beaverponds and creeks that pocket the hills have adapted to the lack of nutrients, providing habitat for organisms that might not survive competition in more fertile environments. Every living thing in the Carp Hills exists in a delicate and easily upset balance.
The Hills call for a gentle presence. Even the old Sierra Club motto — “take nothing but a photograph, leave nothing but a footprint” — does not suffice, particularly in the rock barrens. A careless footstep on a delicate moss mat may undo 10,000 years of soil formation. The track of a single mountain bike remains visible for weeks, while regular bike traffic leaves a coarse scar. In such an exposed landscape, plants and animals rely upon every stone and every patch of vegetation for protection. Snakes hide and hunt in the moss carpet. Bats shelter from the sun under stones. Many species at risk make their homes here. Disturbance should be minimized. Whenever possible, visitors should keep to the bare rock to protect the soil. Stones should be left where they lie, and if turned over to look for wildlife, carefully replaced.
Even with such precautions, visitors will find more than enough to admire, photograph, or paint. Wildlife and landscapes abound. But, I particularly like to “get small” in the Carp Hills, to discover the world hidden at my feet.
The City of Ottawa owns significant portions of the Carp Hills, but much of it remains privately owned. With City permission, the Friends of the Huntley Highlands (http://huntleyhighlands.com/) have created the Crazy Horse Trail off March Road, at the east end of the Carp Hills. This low-impact walking and ski trail encompasses almost every habitat in the Hills, including forest, wetland and rock barrens. A more informal, unmarked trail exists on City property off Thomas Dolan Parkway, in the heart of the rock barrens. Parking is limited to the shoulder of the road, which can be very narrow, steep and soft in places.
As an old mountain biker — one who pre-dates the actual creation of the mountain bike — I understand the urge to ride the rock barrens of the Carp Hills. But I ask mountain bikers to respect and protect the delicate nature of the landscape. Even the most careful rider cannot help but cause long-term damage to the ecosystem. Consider, instead, the nearby South March Highlands Conservation Forest, where the Ottawa Mountain Bike Association (http://ottawamba.org/cms/) maintains an outstanding trail system, with a range of technical difficulty to challenge the most avid rider.
The Carp Hills are predominantly wild. A few black bears roam the area, especially in mid- to late summer when berries are ripe in the barrens. In late autumn, deer hunting occurs in some areas. From mid-May until early September, blackflies, mosquitoes and deer flies occur in abundance. Deer ticks, which can transmit Lyme Disease, may abound in some years. There are no facilities and no safe drinking water (due to the presence of beavers). In short, visitors to the Carp Hills should bring water, snacks and other essentials, consider insect repellent, wear long pants and sleeves, and be prepared to adapt as necessary.
Despite these few inconveniences, the Carp Hills are worth the effort. They are a marvel of biodiversity, a window into the distant past, a living classroom, an artist’s inspiration. They will remain in your eye and your mind long after you leave them, and you will return to them year after year.