With a week of warmer weather behind us, I had a feeling that today would be good for the first expedition of the Spring. I rose at 5 AM, careful not to wake Sue, dressed quietly, packed my binoculars and camera, and pulled my bike from the basement. I then cycled over to Elgin Street and ate breakfast at Dunn’s. After breakfast, I carried my bike on to a 95 bus to Orleans, in the east end of the City.
From the Place D’Orleans Shopping Centre, I headed south on Tenth Line Road. I passed out of the urban area, into the farm fields, where I stopped to admire two eastern phoebes flitting around a derelict barn. It looks like a good place for barn swallows. Dropping down into the lowlands around the Mer Bleue bog (a globally significant wetland), I almost immediately came across a beautiful northern harrier, which drifted away across a damp, grassy field.
I turned on to Smith Road and climbed a low rise, getting my first glimpse of the fields and floodplain east of Mer Bleue. A flock of geese cackled in the pasture beside the road. In the scraggly hayfield behind them, a dozen sandhill cranes gleaned through the hummocks. Unfortunately, my camera is limited to optical 5x zoom and digital 10x zoom. But you can just make them out the photos.
From Smith Road, I turned south on Milton toward Bearbrook. During most of the year, it meanders through a broad floodplain of corn and hayfields. In the spring, though, it spreads into a wide, shallow lake. Canada geese gather by the tens of thousands, fattening themselves on the leftover grain. They are joined by mallards, pintails and teal. Sometimes flocks of snow geese stray a bit west of their usual migration route to them. Today, though, I saw only geese and pintail. But I was fortunate to see the arrival of the largest flock of geese that I’ve seen in many years: perhaps five thousand, straggling in from the southeast, probably from the Ottawa River.
From Bearbrook, I headed a little east and then north into the Cardinal Creek area. I cruised the roads for several hours, exploring some of the places that I’d featured in a recent planning study (the Greater Cardinal Creek Subwatershed Study): woodlots, karst pavements, the Proulx sugarbush.
I ended my explorations at the Cardinal Creek karst: a cave and ravine system, formed where the creek tumbles over a steep escarpment. For most of the year, the creek by-passes the ravine, travelling underground through the cave (which is blocked off to protect the public). During the spring run-off, however, or in summer storms, it fills the ravine with a torrent.
All things considered, the day could hardly have been more successful. I cycled 86 km, saw almost every bird that I hoped to find, and arrived home safe and sound for good supper, a hot bath, and relaxed evening.
“It’s easy to be a holy man on top of a mountain.”
I don’t know the origin of this quote, or where I heard it. But I recalled it a couple of weeks ago. I had guided my canoe gently on to a shallow mud flat at the edge of the Carp river, and then leaned back on the bench, resting my elbows against the gunnels and stretching my legs in exquisite pleasure at the change in position. A shrub leaned out from the shore, shading me. For as far as I could see along the straightened channel, tall, thick orchard grass bent from the bank toward the slow, clear water. Tufts of wild rice nodded slowly in the current. In places, a thin band of pickerel weed and water lilies edged out from the bank. Only the blue sky looked down on me; the rest of world lay beyond the green fringe.
A flock of geese passed noisily overhead. Birds rustled and chipped furtively in the grass. Grasshoppers buzzed in the bordering fields. Dragonflies and damselflies danced over the water, their sharp metallic colors bright in the sunlight. Minnows and creek chubb swirled and darted in small schools.
I couldn’t entirely escape the human element. Distantly, I could hear traffic. A tractor growled somewhere behind me, maybe at the golf course farther upstream, or haying in one of the fields. A high, passing passenger jet sounded like a distant waterfall. But tucked under the lip of my narrow, green valley, I felt hidden from the world. I breathed in the rich perfume of late summer, and breathed out stale air, concerns and responsibilities.
Reflecting there, I thought how fortunate I was to have such a moment and such a place to spend it. I thought how rare it must be. How many knew of this place and had lingered in it? A few minutes earlier, I had watched a green heron feeding on the mud flat and in the reeds under the ragged bark of a huge, leaning crack willow. Oblivious to the quiet man in the still canoe, he had stalked the shallows for insects and frogs, pausing now and then to lift his head and bill, showing off the soft, brown streaking of his chest and neck. An intimate show, private.
I don’t know what meaning, if any, that moment held. But I have added it to a score of others to which I return in my memories and thoughts, when I need to find some distance from the noisy, crowded world about me.
Mud Lake. Such an unappealing, dull name for such a beautiful, diverse place. It conveys nothing of the delightful chorus of migrating warblers in the surrounding forest and thickets on a early May morning. It gives no hint of the late, summer sun setting aglow the surface of the Ottawa River and silhouetting a lone fly fisherman on the shoreline’s rocky ledges. It fails to capture the spectacle of hundreds of cackling Canada geese sideslipping over paprika and apricot foliage to land in the lake late on an autumn afternoon. It says nothing of the hush of snow sifting through the towering pines on a winter evening.
Mud Lake sits on the shore of the Ottawa River in Britannia, within a semi-natural area of approximately 70 ha. A low ridge, a quiet access road and the lawns of the Britannia Water Purification Plant separate it from the river. A thin band of deciduous trees screens most of the lake. Behind this screen, on the east side, lie young swamp forests, thickets and old fields. An older, mixed forest lies on the west side of the lake, dominated by large white pines. Across the access road, the shale ridge supports a thicket of stunted trees, staghorn sumac, and other scrubby brush, that merges with a fringe of crack willow along the river.
The lake, itself, abounds with life. Cattails, shrubs and sedges crowd the shore, while lilypads and other floating aquatic plants carpet the deeper sections. Muskrats and beavers cruise the lake in the evenings. Painted turtles glide under the surface, while a few Blanding’s turtles still survive in some of the quieter backwaters. Bullheads gather in the shallows. Dragonflies and damselflies dance everywhere, with 65 species reported.
But Mud Lake is best known as one of Ottawa’s great, urban birdwatching sites (a favourite of the Ottawa Valley Nature and Wildlife Photographers). In the spring, the location, along with the diversity of vegetation and habitats, draws in birds of all shapes and sizes. Warblers, flycatchers and hummingbirds flit through the trees and underbrush. Thrashers and catbirds, sometimes even cuckoos and mockingbirds, chatter in the thickets. Swallows and martins dart over the fields and the lake. Great blue herons and black-crowned night herons stalk frogs along the shoreline. Ducks, geese, gulls and shorebirds of all kinds visit or reside through the spring, summer and autumn months. Sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks, merlins and kestrels come to hunt. Peregrines sometimes pass through, as do bald eagles and ospreys. Screech owls haunt the woods in the summer, and and great horned owls have wintered in the woods.
Mud Lake lies only a ten minute walk from Britannia Park, with its large, shady picnic area, sandy beach, and views of sailboats, kayaks and kiteboarders on the Ottawa River — an ideal place a family outing. The Ottawa River bicycle path runs past it, connecting to kilometres of trails through the City and the 20,000 hectares of the National Capital Greenbelt (National Capital Greenbelt). It’s the perfect place to listen to the wind in the pines, to find a quiet moment with nature, to watch a child laughing at a turtle, or to get that perfect photograph of a wood duck.
According to various sources, the phrase, “the dog days of summer” originated with the Romans. The Romans noticed that the hottest days of summer tended to occur during a period when the “Dog Star”, Sirius, rose in the morning with the sun: a period from mid-July to mid-August, by our current calendar. The phrase has remained in use, I suspect, because of the image it provokes: a lazy dog, a hound maybe, lolling in the shade of a lilac bush, beside a drooping, screened porch at the front of a weathered farmhouse. Cicadas buzz loudly in the trees along the lane and along the hedgerows in the fields. The hound twitches his velvet ears now and then to unsettle the biting flies, which buzz for a moment and then settle back down. Under the unbroken blue sky and midday sun, nothing moves except for waves of shimmering heat flowing off the hard, baked earth. Time crawls like a tortoise.
The dog days of summer lie heavily over Ottawa. The fields, forests, wetlands and wildlife whither under the worst drought in decades, with the past twelve months having produced the least precipitation on record. Brush fires flare around the City. Farmers suffer terribly, with poor hay yields and the prospect of failing corn and soybeans. Wilted trees seem common, and those on drier, thinner soils have begun to change color from the stress. Many smaller streams and creeks have shrunk to strings of stagnant, remnant pools. One can walk across the cracked, clay beds of some marshes.
And, yet, in many ways, it seems the best of summers. The hot, dry days hark back to halycon times, simpler, slower times of lazy contemplation. Cool morning outings. Afternoon siestas. The ecstatic plunge into a fragrant lake. The thrill and promise of a lover’s fingertips trailed along a forearm in the long, lingering evening. Times that probably never existed as we remember them, but exist now as we desire them.
These days will impress themselves upon us, and especially on our children. For them, this summer will stand for all their youthful summers. They will recall that the sky never seemed so blue, the grasshoppers so numerous, the world so expansive and free. No lake will sparkle again so brilliantly under the sun for them. The rustling of the trembling aspens will never again sound so bright, nor will the poplars smell so pungent. No sunset will ever again burn so rich. Our children will carry these memories, and these memories will shape their lives. And someday, in the dog days of another summer, they will relive and renew them.
The Rideau River doesn’t flow down to Camelot, although the old City Hall, perched on its island just upstream of the Rideau Falls has its own, nostalgic mistique. But my romance with the Rideau River has not waned in the twenty-odd years that I’ve lived in Ottawa. In fact, it has deepened.
The Rideau River runs for almost 20 kilometres through urban Ottawa, although the section along which I spend most of my time is the 12 kilometre stretch from Carleton University to the Rideau Falls. Several times a week, from late spring until mid-autumn, I ride my bicycle along the bordering pathways. Once or twice a month I put my canoe in at Strathcona Park, and paddle up the river, with camera and binoculars beside me and a big fly trailing behind in the current in the vain hope of picking up a muskie. Or I walk down with my rod and waders to a favourite ledge, where I cast to the big bass that lurk at the edge of a deep channel.
On any day, I never know what wildlife I will find at the river. In the winter, mallards and goldeneyes congregate in the swift, open reaches. In the spring and autumn, migratory waterfowl pass through: buffleheads, loons, black ducks, common and hooded mergansers…. In the summer, the river and the woods teem with birds: more mallards, wood ducks, great blue herons, mergansers, double-crested cormorants, spotted sandpipers, and songbirds of every kind. More than once, I’ve lifted my head to the piping alarm of blackbirds to watch a Cooper’s Hawk fly swiftly across the river. The Royal Swans, released from their winter captivity, glide along the shoreline.
Not just birds frequent the Rideau. Bullfrogs groan in the shallows, and muskrats wind between lilypads and pickerelweed. I’ve cruised my canoe up to somnolent snapping turtles, and cautiously edged toward wary painted turtles. On an evening bicycle ride, I’ve exchanged curious stares with an otter. In the dawn of another day, I’ve paddled quietly past a doe and fawn drinking at the water’s edge. The Rideau River provides a natural refuge and a ribbon of life through the heart of Ottawa.
The abundance and diversity of wildlife attests to the health of the Rideau River, especially considering the number of people that come to enjoy its offerings. Some people come to fish. Some come to cool their feet in the clean current — especially at the shallow, limestone ledge that spans the river at Strathcona. Some come to feed the ducks. Some come for exercise, to walk, run or ride along the pathways. Some come merely to enjoy the views, to quiet their minds beside the water, or to hold hands with a sweetheart.
I have lived in Victoria, Vancouver, Halifax, Edmonton, and Toronto. I have visited most other Canadian cities at one time or another. I don’t know any urban, natural space that exceeds the beauty of the Rideau River. In another place — a New York, a London, or a Tokyo — it would be celebrated and promoted. In books and movies, lovers would embrace and part on its shady banks. Photographers would immortalize it. Poets would write of it. In modest Ottawa, though, it rolls on almost unheralded. Perhaps we like it that way. Perhaps that’s the secret of its charms.
I cross the Corkstown footbridge each morning to work. The City built it across the Rideau Canal several years ago, to take pedestrians from Sandy Hill to Centretown. From the centre of the bridge, one can look north along the canal toward Rideau Street. The scene is beautiful and ever changing.
The Gatineau Hills peek through from the background. The Chateau Laurier dominates the center of the view, while the Peace Tower stands against the sky on the left and National Defence Headquarters looms on the right. In the foreground, a continuous line of mature maples and basswood screens Queen Elizabeth Parkway and broad band of well-tended grass spreads beside Colonel By Drive. Walkers and cyclists wander the paths atop the canal walls. From late spring through to mid-autumn, the canal captures and reflects the colors of the leaves and the changing sky. On some evenings, a half dozen photographers may gather on the bridge to capture the sunset. In the winter, the dark ice contrasts against the snow and the grey tree limbs, except on milder days when skaters come in the thousands to fill the canal from side to side with bright jackets and touques.
Even dreary, overcast days have their moments. In the past week, I’ve paused in the morning to watch a waterfall of leaves tumbling into the empty canal before a cool, damp wind, and stopped in the evening to admire the way that a grey light reduced the landscape to a simple, but elegant lesson in perspective and geometry.
I woke to a quiet morning. Slowing working out the kinks in my back and neck, I wriggled out of my sleeping bag and dressed as quietly as possible in the twilight of the tent. Thomas stirred and asked about the time. I told him that it was early, and that he could sleep longer if he wished. He pulled himself deeper into his bag.
The air felt mild but damp when I crawled from the tent. I picked up my shoes from outside, gave them a quick shake, and then padded barefoot across the pine needles to the logs by last night’s fire, where I slipped the shoes on. Night lingered under the trees, but on the river I could see the first blush of morning. I walked softly down to the canoe landing, careful not to disturb the beavers that I could hear munching on pickerelweed and lily pads up and down the shore. No birds sang, not even the barred owl that had hooted periodically in the distance throughout the night. Downriver, the trees stood darkly along the shore, silhouetted against a sky that shaded from navy blue through ochre to umber.
I stayed on the shoreline for an hour watching the dawn. As the sky slowly lightened, its muted reflections became more distinct on the still water. Mist loitered over the marsh downriver, lifting sometimes like a ghost to drift across the stream. Upriver, the sky and landscape emerged more slowly from darkness, passing through a period of intense blue. Autumn colors began to spread along the shoreline, like watercolors seeping along the fibers of handmade paper. Around me in the trees and across the river, nuthatches and chickadees started to call, while red squirrels and chipmunks commenced their squabbles and chatter. Just before sunrise, I called Thomas from the tent and, together, we watched the sun spill across the river to ignite the golds and oranges of the autumn foliage.
We only had one night in Algonquin Park. Sue dropped Tom and me at Squirrel Rapids about 10 AM on Saturday morning, where a canoe from Algonquin Bound waited for us. We didn’t need to paddle far, just 500 m up the river to the lower portage, and then another 500 m or so to the second campsite, which I hoped would be free. It was. We landed, set up camp, made some lunch, and then enjoyed a lazy afternoon of fishing.
I’d chosen this particular campsite for several reasons. It lay on a small point, with wonderful views up and down the river. It sheltered under a canopy of towering white pines and cedars. It seemed the most isolated of the campsites. But most important, it lay immediately upstream of a marsh where Tom and I had caught several large bass on a daytrip to the canyon two years earlier. On this occasion, however, the bass ignored us. We worked several types of powerbait along the weed edge, and even tried a spinnerbait — but without success. Nonetheless, we soaked up the sunshine and the record high temperatures, and returned to our campsite at suppertime tired and content.
After supper, we went for a short, evening canoe up the river. The sun set more quickly than we expected, so we turned around short of the canyon. Beavers began to emerge along the shoreline, and as we crossed the path of one, he slapped the water hard with his tail in warning. A flight of ducks whistled high overhead. Blue jays called in the woods. A planet began to glow bright in the sky, and the waxing moon appeared bright above the river. We returned to our camp, lit a fire, and spent two mystical hours tending the flames and considering the embers, before slipping into the tent and our sleeping bags.
The next day, after the magical sunrise, we ate a leisurely breakfast amidst the chatter of the forest. Chipmunks foraged around the campsite, hoping for a taste of oatmeal or hot chocolate. A red squirrel suddenly burst into angry denunciation, and we looked up to see a pine marten peering around the trunk of a pine tree. A pileated woodpecker cackled across the river. Finally, reluctantly, we packed up our campsite, loaded the canoe, and made the short trip back down the river to the put-in, where Sue and Ben soon arrived to pick us up.
Last autumn, Sue and I disposed of our car and turned to VrtuCar (a local car-sharing business) for our transportation needs. Consequently, this spring, I’ve lacked an easy way of transporting my canoe around Ottawa. I have yet to fish for pike in Constance Bay, or paddle up the Rideau looking for the big snapping turtle that basks on a sagging crack willow, or fall on my butt in the muck while hauling over a beaver dam along some narrow creek in the Marlborough Forest. In fact, I feel a bit stir crazy.
I didn’t like Ottawa when I arrived here twenty years ago. I had grown up in Victoria and Vancouver, with the sea and the mountains close at hand. I had lived for eight years in Edmonton, with frequent forays to Jasper or out into the prairie parkland. I revelled in the sky, the space and the light. Ottawa, in contrast, seemed to have none of these: the forests were beautiful, and I appreciated the chance to swim in deep, clean lakes after years of prairie potholes; but I missed the horizon and the bevelled edge of the rockies. I missed the gothic skies: the vast, blue dome of the sky on a still, deadly-cold winter morning, or cathedral pillars of thunderheads mounting over fields of wheat. In Ottawa, it seemed, every sightline ended with another row of trees.
Then, a few years ago, I bought a canoe. Light enough to portage and control myself, but long enough to float over all but the shallowest rock. I launched it on lakes, rivers and streams around the region, exploring side channels and bays, tucking under leafy banks and cruising tight, winding channels through marshes and swamps. In it, I discovered the secret of Ottawa’s beauty: intimacy.
If the prairies are a cathedral, then Ottawa is a chapel. Whispers replace echoes. Everything feels immediate. I skirt lilypads along the bend of creek and watch a painted turtle slip off a log just ahead. I watch dark shadows of pike and gar dart from under my bow as I edge through rushes along the Ottawa River. Or I drift slowly, while a muskrat swims past with a mouthful of reeds and a heron watches serenely from the shore. On foot or on my bike, I dip into a damp, cove forest and stop to admire a garden of ferns, impossibly green under the dense maple canopy. Oyster mushrooms spread over a rotting log (and I curse that I’ve again forgotten to bring a paper bag). A red-eyed vireo sings incessantly overhead. A small brook chuckles nearby. I follow the banks, admiring the liverworts and turning over small logs to look for salamanders. The damp odour triggers hovering memories, like the scent of incense.
Even the vistas seem intimate. Standing on the prairie, the vastness takes away my breath. I feel like a visitor, tolerated but never entirely welcome. A distant hawk, spiraling on a thermal, calls out his accusation (as Whitman would put it). Whereas, standing on an escarpment, looking over the Ottawa Valley or the Madwaska Highlands, I feel the distance shrink and the details grow. The forests and fields each have their own character, and I can imagine walking through them. I know where I’ll find the sagging line of an old, split rail fence, the craggy bark of burr oak, and a lichen-crusted mossy rock outcrop on which to eat my lunch.
Thomas and I cycled the Hogs Back loop today. I wanted to assess his capacity for longer rides — perhaps to Fitzroy Harbour Provincial Park, or down to Dawn and Chris’ home in Oxford Mills. He rode to school through the autumn, and both his speed and endurance seem good. I don’t think that he’ll have any problem keeping up on longer rides, provided that he doesn’t burn himself out too early. I wonder if, by the end of the summer, I’ll be able to keep up with him.
On the way back, we stopped at Pure Gelato on Elgin Street, where I enjoyed a mix of lime and raspberry. The first taste of the lime gelato took me back to North Kingston, Rhode Island, in about 1973. The “Dell’s Lemonade” truck would come tinkling and jingling by in the evenings, on the weekends, or at lunchtime at school. I would buy a lemon-lime ice, in a bright green paper cup. I would stand on the sidewalk, peel back the paper lid, scrape a curving sliver of ice off the top with the small, wooden spoon, and then catch it on my tongue. Delicious. I hope that I can give Thomas (and Ben) the same kinds of memories.
Tom and I sat at the window counter in the gelato shop, watching life along Elgin Street. It wasn’t quite a holiday; it wasn’t quite workday. The sidewalk held an odd mix of office workers and street people, pretty girls and gruff old men. We left the shop and pushed our bikes along to Bridgehead, where I bought some beautifully oily french roast beans, and then we cycled the last five minutes home. The honeysuckle was in bloom beside the footbridge, and students spread over the grass by the canal.
I dropped into Mags and Fags on Friday, after a lunchtime meeting at Bridgehead. With ten days of holidays ahead, I wanted to pick up a magazine or two. Browsing the shelves, I came across a photography magazine with a story about the last roll of Kodachrome film.
The article was written by the same photojournalist who took the iconic photograph of the startling, blue-eyed Afghan girl for National Geographic. Upon learning that Kodak planned to discontinue production of Kodachrome film, this photographer made a special request to the company for the last roll of the film. He then travelled around the world, taking portraits in his favourite places. Stunning portraits, with all of the richness and color of Kodachrome film.
I felt terribly sad as I skimmed the magazine — as though reading an account of the death of a language and culture. I’ve shot Kodachrome film. Nothing compares. It represented the world as the world should appear: intense, dramatic, sharp. It documented some of the most dramatic and important moments in world history, and it brought them into lives and homes. It took people out of their lives and homes, to places in which they would never otherwise set foot. It took me to those places and awakened my yearning for travel. A medium is lost; an art is lost.
Coincidentally, I’ve been reliant on my old 35 mm Olympus camera since last summer, when I decided to go snorkeling at Devil Lake with my digital camera in my pocket. I took it with me today, as I cycled to Mud Lake at Britannia. Sue accompanied me most of the way there, but turned back just before the conservation area. The trails around the lake were crowded with people out to enjoy the good weather, before the forecast rains close around tomorrow. The air felt cool, the sun felt warm, and I ambled around the lake for several hours, stopping to watch the birds or photograph the flowers.
Only a few birds had arrived. Lots of geese and gulls, of course. Mallards. A pair of hooded mergansers in the middle of the lake. At one point, while I spoke with a Birder on the west ridge, a pair of falcons flew behind us calling, and then circled high over the lake. “Peregrines,” said the camouflage-clad Birder, lifting his head from a very expensive and heavy spotting scope to squint at their silouhettes against the bright sky. “Aren’t they a bit small for Peregrines,” I suggested, knowing full well from their size, wing strokes and call that they were merlins. “No,” he said with certainty. “Peregrines.”
To make up for the poor showing of birds, the turtles had finally emerged from their winter torpor to enjoy the sun. The shallow area near the boardwalk held close to a hundred painted turtles of all age classes, lined up along logs like soldiers on parade. They reminded me of rows of spinning plates, or a sidewalk of parasols. However, a smaller pond in the woods held a much less spectacular, but more impressive find: three Blanding’s turtles, stacked atop each other like piled dishes. Two large, mature turtles and one juvenile, heads lifted in the sun and bright yellow necks as clear and unmistakable as ripe bananas. I’m hoping that I got a good photo.