On one of the first warm weekends of spring, I loaded a Vrtucar with my canoe, bicycle, and canoe trailer, and I headed to the Jock River. Leaving the car at Jock River Park in Richmond, I hooked the trailer and canoe on the bike and cycled into a stiff breeze out of the Village along Franktown Road. The gravel shoulder provided plenty of room for comfort, although sections remained soft from the previous day’s rains. A left turn on to Green’s Road and a right on to Jock Trail Road eventually took me to Munster Road, just a few meters from where it crosses the Jock River, 12 km by canoe from the Village. I hauled the canoe off the trailer and down the embankment, packed the bike and trailer in front, and set off down river.
Some people, perhaps, might not consider the Marlborough Forest to extend as far north as the Jock River. For several kilometres, however, the river winds through the swampy north end of the Richmond Fen — the large, provincially-significant peatland that occupies much of the north half of the forest. In the spring, when the creek spills its banks, the swamp appears like some southern bayou, with huge red and silver maples rising from the water to spread overhead like the arches of a cathedral. Blackbirds and grackles call incessently and flit overhead. Wood ducks, mallards, and even a few a teal shelter in back bays and sunlight-dappled pools. Flocks of Canada geese rise noisily from the channel ahead of the canoe as I come around a bend. The scene is both ancient and timeless.
I can hardly imagine the hardships faced by the early settlers of Richmond and its surroundings in the early 19th century. Initially settled in 1818 by demobilized British and Irish soldiers of the 99th Regiment, the village languished for a long time, with little construction or settlement. According to histories of the area, the well-known settler Hamnett Pinhey said of Richmond in 1832, “if you get into it in the Spring, you can’t get out till Summer; and if you get into it in the Fall, you must wait till the Winter…”. The difficulties rose in large part, no doubt, because of the low, boggy land through which the Jock River runs. Much of that land has since been effectively drained for agriculture. However, even today, the swamps bordering the Richmond Fen extend far north of Franktown Road, and new developments on the low, west side of the village rely on sump pumps for dry basements.
All of that swamp, however, plays a critical role in protecting the Village of Richmond, the suburb of Barrhaven, and much of the intervening farmland from serious flooding. On this particular spring morning, with the river running high, the main channel almost vanished in the swamp as the water flowed outwards into the forest, backwaters, and old oxbows. Spreading placidly over hundreds of hectares, the water slowed and calmed, like a charging bull finding itsef suddenly in a grassy meadow. Why the hurry? Further downstream, at the bottom end of the swamp, the water lazily eased back into the channel again, before running down some last riffles into the village.
The Rideau Valley Conservation Authority has calculated that the wetlands in its watershed reduce peak flood levels by at least 10% by the time they reach Ottawa. More recent work by the Credit River Conservation Authority and Ducks Unlimited shows that local benefits — such as the influence of the Richmond Fen on the Village of Richmond — can be much greater. In fact, the influence goes much further downstream. Many of the new neighbourhoods and homes bordering the Jock River in Barrhaven simply could not be built safely without the protection provided by the Richmond Fen.
After a long winter, however, the poetic virtues of the swamp have more immediate appeal than the practical benefits: the warmth of the sun through the bare trees, the squak of a blue heron rising ahead, the dance of tree swallows over the water, the reflection of a silver maple in a glassy pool, the unfurling of a fern, the bright green of new grass and sedges on the shore. I dawdled down the river, detouring up side creeks and under the railway bridge into the moat (the “lagg”) surrounding the open fen. Whenever possible, I set down my paddle and leaned back with my elbows on the thwarts drifting with with the current and watching for turtles. A Cooper’s hawk passed overhead. A snapping turtle slid reluctantly into the stream. A carp swirled from the weedy shallows into the deeper water. The river carried me along.
Ottawa’s largest natural area lies in the south end of the City, largely unknown to most residents. A 200 km2 patchwork of forest and abandoned homesteads, swamps and fens, dusty forestry roads and claustrophic thickets — it hides off the beaten path, protecting its secrets. Only one road crosses it, Roger Stevens Drive, which bisects it from east to west. Dwyer Hill Road skirts in and out along its west side. A few other public roads probe the edges, ending either in cattails or locked gates. One doesn’t stumble upon the Marlborough Forest; a visit requires purpose and intent.
For much of the year, the Marlborough discourages exploration. In winter, winds stream bitterly across flat peatlands and old fields, sculpting snow into ripples and waves, and piling it deep under bare hardwoods, while deer seek shelter in dark groves of cedar and spruce. In spring, meltwaters pool behind beaver dams, submerge roads and trails, and turn tracks into clay quagmires. In summer, plagues of mosquitoes and deer flies swarm in the hot, dry air to torment both human and beast. In autumn, the crack of hunters’ rifles warns against casual hiking.
And yet, the Marlborough offers moments sublime and increasingly rare. The low, winter sun glinting off deep snow may highlight the tracks of a fisher crossing between trees or an otter crossing between creeks. A humid and buggy trek through a swamp may lead to the open, fresh air of a fen, where orchids rise from pale green sphagnum like small, purple flags. In the stillness of a darkening, plum sky, bats may flitter along the edge of a clearing, while whip-poor-wills call plaintively.
Perhaps because of its isolation, any intrusion on the quiet of the Marlborough feels more agregious. In the sharp winter air, the whine of snowmobiles announces their presence minutes in advance. In the murmur and buzz of a summer afternoon, the grumble of ATVs stalks the forest like a disgruntled bear. Nonetheless, the Marlborough has survived because of its history of public use. More than half of the forest lies in public ownership, a legacy of Ontario’s Agreement Forest Program.
The Agreement Forest Program ran from the 1920s until 1998. The program aimed to repair the damage done by the previous 150 years of deforestation in Ontario. On abandoned lands — lands stripped by poor logging practices, scratch farms, and wildfires — the Province began a program of reclamation and rehabilition. Many of Ottawa’s protected natural lands date from this time: places like the Cumberland and Larose Forests in the east, the Marlborough Forest in the south, and the Torbolton Forest in the west.
The Cedar Grove Trail, off Roger Steven’s Drive, provides a pretty introduction to the Marlborough Forest, ideal for a sunny winter day of snowshoeing or skiing (https://ottawa.ca/en/residents/water-and-environment/air-land-and-water/greenspace#south). This short trail circles a small lake and takes about 1 – 2 hours to complete at an easy pace. En route, it passes over a short weir, crosses a meadow, and threads through hardwood and cedar forests. At first, the forest seems quiet, except perhaps for the distant buzzing of snowmobiles. But a few minutes of walking and listening soon corrects that perception. Chickadees and nuthatches twitter and flit among the trees, always ready to alight on an outstretched hand for peanuts and sunflowers seeds. Downy and hairy woodpeckers tap in the treetops. Pileated woodpeckers hammer deeper in the woods. With a deep “croak” and the susurration of wings, a raven passes overhead.
Other life remains hidden behind the cedars or sheltered under the snow. The tracks of white-tailed deer, squirrels, and hares cross the trail. The delicate footprints of a white-footed mouse emerge from a tunnel beside a log and end at a small pile of seeds. Under the pond ice, beavers venture from their lodge to retrieve twigs from their food pile. Under the clearer ice by the weir, a close eye may find water beetles still hunting in the gently flowing stream.
I haven’t visited the Cedar Grove Trail outside of winter, but I imagine it equally as lovely. I’d opt for autumn, after the mosquitoes and deer flies, when the golden foliage along the pond should glow against the darker conifers. I can picture a frosty early morning walk, with the sun just touching the down of milkweeds in the meadow, perhaps a delicate rime on the leaves and grasses, and a beaver silently creasing the pond toward home. A faint mist might lie on the water. Along the forest edge, the sun might catch the flash of a white tail, as a deer vanishes into the wood.
Wetlands receive very little respect in literature. J.R.R. Tolkien, in particular, seems to have had low regard for them.
“The ground now became damp, and in places boggy, and here and there they came upon pools, and wide stretches of reeds and rushes filled with the warbling of little hidden birds. They had to pick their way carefully to keep both dry-footed and on their proper course. At first they made fair progress, but as they went on, their passage became slower and more dangerous. The marshes were bewildering and treacherous, and there was no permanent trail even for Rangers to find through their shifting quagmires. The flies began to torment them, and the air was full of clouds of tiny midges that crept up their sleeves and breeches and into their hair…. They spent a miserable day in this lonely and unpleasant country. Their camping-place was damp, cold, and uncomfortable; and the biting insects would not let them sleep. There were also abominable creatures haunting the reeds and tussocks that from the sound of them were evil relatives of the cricket. There were thousands of them, and they squeaked all round, neek-breek, breek-neek, unceasingly all the night, until the hobbits were nearly frantic.” — The Fellowship of the Ring.
Tolkien later takes Frodo, Sam, and Gollum into the Dead Marshes, an even more unpleasant place by his description — where bog gasses flicker like will-o-wisps and corpses lie preserved in fetid pools.
Tolkien, that tweedy professor, clearly had never stood in a deer track in an open, sunny fen with a breeze stirring the drooping reeds, dragonflies and damselflies dancing overhead, sedge wrens rattling in the rushes, and dense spikes of orchids rising from the spongy, peat mat. He’d never paddled a canoe at dawn through a flooded cathedral of maples or bald cypress, watched by a wary heron. He’d never sat beside a marsh at dusk, flipping a plug toward the lily-pads and watching a beaver crease the copper reflection of sunset on the water.
I spend more time in wetlands than most people, both for work and pleasure. Unlike Tolkien’s poor hobbits, I have accepted the two inevitabilities of happy wetland exploration: water and bugs. I embrace the first. Unless hypothermia threatens, boots and hip-waders are better left at home. A pair of old runners — “bog shoes” — and long pants tucked into socks make for easier and more enjoyable wading. I tolerate the second, helped by slatherings of picaridin or DEET. With walking stick or paddle in hand, I follow the windings of marshy channels, clamber and slog through alder and ash swamps looking for fens, or pierce dense spruce thickets and ford moat-like laggs to stand upon a bog.
Wetlands, much like coral reefs or rainforests, display life at its most exuberant. They literally overflow with the most precious substance in the universe, water: H2O, that wondrous, bipolar, lipophobic molecule; miraculous solvent; force of nature; cradle of creation. From the smallest plants on earth to some of the largest, life rises upwards from wetlands. Scoop a handful of marsh water from a canoe and see life swimming and writhing in your palm. Stand within a circle of reeds, close your eyes, and hear hidden life rustle, hum, buzz, and sing about you. Raise your face to the emerald canopy of a red maple swamp and watch life transform sunlight into substance.
Ottawa and the Ottawa Valley differ from much of Southern Ontario in that they retain most of their original, pre-European wetlands. Other areas south of the Canadian Shield have experienced the loss of up to 95% of their wetlands to urbanization and agriculture. In addition to the direct loss of wetland habitat and biodiversity, these losses have robbed the landscape of much of its ability to retain water, nutrients, and pollutants — contributing to a array of environmental problems, including toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie. In Ottawa, where about 60% of our original wetlands remain, the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority has calculated that they reduce peak floodwater elevations by about 10%. In doing so, they protect property and homes in both the rural and urban area.
Circumstance rather than foresight has protected Ottawa’s wetlands. Although protections now exist for much of the City’s wetlands, all of the larger wetlands bear the scars of previous attempts at drainage. Even in Mer Bleue, an internationally significant RAMSAR wetland, abandoned drainage ditches and channels cut knife-like through the 10,000 year-old bog, easily visible on Google Earth. Many of these attempts failed simply because the land proved too flat to drain efficiently. Flat or near-flat plains of shallow limestone bedrock and clay cover about 2/3 of the City’s landscape, often pockmarked by shallow depressions. Even where larger creeks and rivers, like Bearbrook or the Carp, have carved channels, they often flow slowly through wide floodplains lined by old oxbows, backwaters, and marshy swales.
Since the mid-20th century, in fact, Ottawa’s wetlands have made a come-back, in large part thanks to the resurgence of beavers. For nearly 200 years, beavers had become rare in the Ottawa Valley, eliminated in the 17th and 18th centuries by the combination of the fur trade, uncontrolled logging, and agricultural land clearing. By the end of the fur trade in the mid-19th century, the focus of trapping had shifted far west and north. Around the 1950s, however, beaver populations began to recover and to rec0l0nize their old ranges. At the same time, marginal farmlands had been abandoned across eastern North America and forests began to regrow, providing food for returning animals. In Ottawa, historical aerial photography shows beavers re-settling the area through the 1970s and 1980s, with populations reaching a peak in the mid-1990s.
Signs of beavers appear everywhere, even in the heart of Ottawa. A walk along any one of the City’s larger urban creeks is liable to reveal a dam or a lodge tucked into a quieter reach. Stony Swamp, in the National Capital Greenbelt, contains the popular Beaver Trail, and Mud Lake, in Britannia, provides a favourite location for photographers seeking that iconic image of a beaver at dusk.
The real impact of beavers, however, has been felt in the rural area — both for good and ill. That long-time chronicler of Ottawa’s natural history, Dr. Fred Schueler, has suggested that the return of beavers may be responsible for an apparent resurgence of threatened Blanding’s turtles in the region. In fact, many scientific studies have demonstrated the immense benefits of beaver ponds and beaver meadows for biodiversity: for everything from bugs and bats to moose and wolves. However, those benefits seem poor consolation to a farmer who has seen acres of his grandfather’s fields and woodlots turned to marsh and swamp. Sometimes the costs of those societal benefits come at the expense of individual landowners, with no compensation. Given the robust health of Ottawa’s beaver population, I cannot fault a farmer who feels the need to trap a beaver — although I might suggest some more effective solutions.
Ottawa’s residents enjoy access to every type of wetland: marshes, swamps, bogs, fens. The City of Ottawa has left some more sensitive areas, like the Phragmites Fen deep in the Marlborough Forest, protected by its own natural barriers. But other features can be reached by trail, boardwalk, or path. Mer Bleue and Stony Swamp, in the National Capital Greenbelt, receive the most visitors. But the Trans-Canada Trail, west of Stittsville, offers lovely views over marshlands. Petrie Island, in Kanata, provides a popular destination for photographers and birdwatchers. The Crazy Horse Trail, in the Carp Hills, winds between beaver ponds, swamps, and small fens.
Unlike forests and grasslands, which tend to grow quieter as the sun rises higher, wetlands carry on through the day, as one group of animals replaces another. Just as the dawn frog and songbird chorus begins to ebb, the turtles emerge cautiously on to basking rocks and logs. Soon dragonflies and damselflies dart amongst the reeds. A muskrat preens itself, while an ermine hunts along the shoreline. Tree swallows chatter and sweep over the pond. The afternoon hums with the sound of bees visiting pickerweed and joe pye weed. A great blue heron freezes in the shallows, then spears a green frog. The evening sun closes with the horizon and the fringing willows and alders cast long shadows across the marsh. As the sun sets, a woodc0ck begins to buzz somewhere close by, while an American bittern starts to grunt deeper in the cattails. With a ripple, a beaver breaks the surface and glides into the darkness.
I revisit the Carp Hills several times each year. Spring, of course, when the white-throated sparrows sing, the morning dew beads on the spider webs, and the snakes and turtles come out to bask. Summer for the scent of pines. And autumn for the colours.
I turned out early this morning, driving west across Ottawa with the sky paling slowly behind me. A short hike across the barrens took me to Lovers Pond, where I sat on grey gneiss and watched the sun rise peach and turquoise behind the pines.
On the return home, I stopped at the Carp River restoration area, where I watched a northern harrier hunting over the marsh, and added a Hudsonian Godwit to my life list.
I never tire of paddling the Rideau River, especially the familiar section between Sandy Hill and Carleton University. I always find something to admire. I always reflect upon the human experience of the River, which still evolves, and which goes back at least 4000 years.
On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, while many of my friends participated in the Ottawa Race Weekend, I launched my canoe for the season’s first paddle on the Rideau. I usually make this excursion earlier in the spring, but this year’s high flows kept me off the river. Loading my canoe on the bike trailer, I rode down to Robinson Park, launched from the beach, and turned upstream.
The paddling proved relatively easy, despite the strong current. I passed under the Queensway and the footbridge, skirting the shoreline and reeds in search of wildlife. My new cherrywood paddle (a birthday gift from Sue) felt good in my hands, and the tensions of the past work week eased out of my shoulders.
Given the warmth of the day, I expected to see a lot of basking turtles. In the past, I’ve spotted large numbers of painted turtles, plus large snappers and even map turtles along the shore. Surprisingly, in almost six hours on the river, I only found two painted turtles up on logs, along with three snappers idling in the shallows amidst the reeds. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has several old records of Blanding’s turtle along the river, and despite a decade of disappointment, I still live in hope of finding one sometime on this stretch.
The hardest paddling of the day came at Billing’s Bridge, where the river flowed fast through the piers. Passing a small group of stand-up paddleboarders, I tried first for the central span, paddling hard in the eddy behind a pier and then shooting into the current. For a minute a two I held my own, but without making headway. Finally, I dropped back and moved to the next span south, where the current proved a little less challenging. One of the paddleboarders tried to follow me, but couldn’t muster enough speed. Just upstream of the bridge, several more stand-up paddleboarders practiced in the calmer pool. One of them, a very pretty young woman, struck yoga poses on her board, as her girlfriend snapped photographs.
After working slowly through the riffles above Billings Bridge, I slid my canoe into the reeds at Clifford Allen Island, so that I could renew my sunscreen. As I slathered on the cream, with a pair of geese eyeing me warily, I noticed a newly molted dragonfly drying its wings at the tip of broken, brown reed, still hanging from its discarded nymph skin. It’s colors had not yet fully developed, but the stripes on the thorax suggested some kind of darner. I had seen pretty, green darners dancing over the reeds during my paddle upstream, but they lacked the thorax stripes.
Carrying on from the island, I paddled past Brewer Park to the Dunbar Bridge. This part of the Rideau River hosts the most fascinating juxtaposition of culture in the City: literally 4000 years of history separated by barely 300 metres of river. On the north shore, nestled under the Dunbar Bridge, the House of PainT provides a venue for Ottawa’s hip-hop community, featuring its first legal graffiti wall and regular street dance festivals. Just upstream and across the river, on the south shore at Vincent Massey Park, lies a 4000 year-old, indigenous archaeology site. Excavated by the National Capital Commission over several years, the site marks the bottom end of an old portage around the Hogsback Falls. Paddling up the south shore in late afternoon, just below the rapids under the O-Train line, one can easily imagine those Early Woodland people pulling their canoes into shore to set camp for the night, perhaps casting their nets into the river, where fishermen cast their lines today. I suspect that they chose the spot as much for its beauty as for its convenience.
I turned back downstream in late afternoon, alternating drifting and paddling gently. For awhile, I watched two jets circling over the City in formation as part of the race weekend celebrations. Gradually, as the light mellowed, the wildlife became a bit more active. Just above Billings Bridge, a female mallard shepherded her large brood of ducklings. I could not help but think of the large muskellunge known from the area, and wonder how many ducklings would survive the summer. Further downstream, a muskrat plied the shoreline in the shadows of the trees. Finally, near the end of the paddle, I came upon a mink feeding on the carcass of a carp at the edge of the shore. I shot a few, quick photographs, then circled back to take a few more, only to see the mink slip back into the shadow of the trees.
I pulled back into Robinson Park, just as the evening sun was dropping behind the City. I looked down the peaceful waterway to the Adawe Crossing at Strathcona Park. The serenity of the scene encapsulated the beautiful dichotomy of this wonderful urban river.
What makes a large urban forest special, and to whom? How do you plan it? How do you manage it?
Not planning and managing it won’t do. “Just leave it alone,” the City often hears. That might work in the Marlborough Forest, or the Carp Hills. In an urban forest, though, we don’t have that choice. Whether the City plans it or not, people will use and change the forest. People will walk their dogs. Kids will ride their bikes, build forts, and climb trees. Homeowners will dump yard waste along the edges. Over time, a network of shortcuts and dusty, packed paths will develop. Soon the blanket of wildflowers will thin and fray into a scattered patchwork, while invasive periwinkle and buckthorn creep inward from the edges. Where massive maples and pines once aged and rotted, providing homes for woodpeckers and other wildlife, Forestry Services will remove any tree that could be a hazard to public safety. Skunks and raccoons, enjoying the bounty of adjacent yards and gardens, will proliferate. Where shaded forest pools once vibrated with the chorus of spring peepers and tree frogs, a silence will fall.
We would like to avoid that fate for the Manotick Drumlin Forest. Acquired by the City from Minto over the winter, the Manotick Drumlin Forest (also known as the Mahogany Forest) comes as close to an old-growth, northern hardwood forest as one can find in Ottawa. In his original evaluation of the forest, the renowned biologist, Dan Brunton, commented on its outstanding beauty, especially the proliferation of wildflowers. In a more recent evaluation, the biologists of Kilgour and Associates noted the remarkable diversity of the woodland. Within its relatively small area, the forest includes not only a mature stand of sugar maple, but also a healthy hemock grove, a red maple swamp, and large specimens of every other tree species commonly found in northern hardwood forests: white pine, beech, yellow birch, basswood, white ash (albeit infected with EAB), black cherry, red oak. Not surprisingly, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has long identified the forest as a candidate Area of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSI). Together, the City of Ottawa and Minto have begun planning the preservation of these qualities, while enhancing the value of the woodlot to the surrounding community and the City as a whole.
Over the next ten years, a new subdivision will grow up on the east side of the forest, with thousands of new homes and residents. The City has a rare opportunity to work now with the land developer to decide how the forest and the new community will fit together. Where will trails go, and how will they look? How can we bring children into the forest and make it safe for them? Where can we allow dogs, and can they be off-leash? Can we turn the forest into a living classroom, and if so, how do we bring students to it? Where will people find quiet, cool shade for contemplation? And, most important, can we accomodate all of these uses while still protecting the trees, wildflowers, wetlands, and wildlife that make the forest unique?
Some answers already seem apparent. If we don’t plan and create trails, then future residents will create their own. By planning trails now, we can direct traffic away from the most sensitive places and leave space for natural forest processes to continue. By considering the viewscapes along streets and across open spaces, we can highlight the natural beauty of the forest as a centrepiece of the community. By working with the shape of the forest, we can create smaller, more intimate scenes for retreat and gentle appreciation. Most important, in my mind, we must also plan for kids, for the creation of spaces and zones along and within the boundary of the forest, where free play can occur. In doing so, however, we must consider the risk posed by Ottawa’s new status as a Lyme disease area. This emerging issue emphasizes the need for particular attention to “edge management” in the transition zone between the forest and adjacent landscaped areas, both for protection of residents from natural hazards, and for protection of the forest from residents.
We know that no matter how carefully we plan, we cannot protect the woodlot from all impacts — whether intentional or incidental. Very sadly, unauthorized tree cutting and harvesting of wild plants has already caused substantial damage to the most sensitive portion of the forest. In the end, the fate of the forest will lie in the hands of the community. It will reflect the love and care that the community residents provide. If they value and respect the beauty and wonder of the woodlot, then they will preserve it. If not, then no amount of planning and City management will compensate. As the City and Minto move ahead with planning, we will seek community partners in stewardship and conservation.
The Manotick Drumlin Forest preserves a glimpse into the forests of the past. Not a pristine glimpse — sadly the chestnuts, elms, and now white ash of old have fallen victim to imported pests and diseases — but one that conveys a strong sense of how the forest must have appeared to the Algonquins. Majestic in scale; intimate in sense; timeless in experience.
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.
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.