Wetlands

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.

A woman meditates on a deck overlooking a wetland in the Four Seasons Conservation Forest, Deep River
Wetland, Four Seasons Conservation Forest, Deep River
The sun sets on the Upper Poole Creek Wetland.
Upper Poole Creek Wetland

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.

Reknowned naturalist, Michael Runtz, walks ahead along a deer trail in the Phragmites Fen.
Entering the Phragmites Fen with Michael Runtz

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.

The autumn sun shines on an open marsh meadow and maple swamp.
Maple Swamp and Marsh Meadow, Stony Swamp

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.

A great blue heron flies over a marsh.
Restored Wetland, Carp River Floodplain

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.

An aerial photograph shows a long ditch bisecting the Mer Bleue bog.
Mer Bleue Ditching
A marsh lies in the floodplain of the Mississippi River.
Mississippi River Wetland

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.

A beaver lodge and food pile sit at the edge of thicket swamp.
Beaver Lodge and Food Pile

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.

In the dusk light, a beaver lodge is silhouetted against the grey lake water, with a pine-covered shoreline in the background.
Mud Lake Beaver Lodge at Dusk
A large snapping turtle rises for a breath of air at Mud Lake.
Mud Lake Snapping Turtle

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.

A beaver deceiver protects road culvert.
Beaver Deceiver Protecting a Road Culvert

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.

An endangered eastern prairie fringed orchid grows in a fen.
Endangered Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid
A blue sky shines down upon a floating fen in the Shirley's Bay area.
Floating Fen
A patch of flowering sundews grows on floating log.
Sundews
A purple pickerelweed grows in shoreline marsh.
Pickerelweed
A low, evening mist blankets a spruce swamp.
Misty Swamp
A solitary, pink rose pogonia rises from a fen mat.
Rose Pogonia
A marsh lies nestled amidst the trees of Gatineau Park.
Gatineau Park Wetland

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.

A male red-winged blackbird clings to a cattail in the Dows Lake marsh.
Red-winged Blackbird, Dows Lake
An ermine peers out from some brush in the Upper Poole Creek wetland.
Ermine, Upper Poole Creek Wetland
A common yellowthroat sings from a willow shrub.
Common Yellowthroat
A close-up photograph of a white water lily.
White Water Lily
A dragonfly perches on a shrub in a fen.
Dragonfly in a Fen
A garter snake slithers across a floating pond lily leaf.
Garter Snake
A green heron perches in a tree at the Beaver Pond in Kanata.
Green Heron, Beaver Pond, Kanata
A leopard frog sits at the edge of the Snye Wetland.
Leopard Frog, Snye Wetland
A close-up photograph of an orchid called Swamp Pink.
Swamp Pink

Planning the Manotick Drumlin Forest

What makes a large urban forest special, and to whom?  How do you plan it?  How do you manage it?

Two large maple trees rise like pillars from the forest floor.
Maple Trees, Manotick Drumlin Forest

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.

A forest pool lies under an emerald canopy of leaves.
Swamp, Manotick Drumlin Forest
A small tree fort perches above the forest floor.
Tree Fort, Manotick Drumlin Forest

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.

An aerial view of the Manotick Drumlin Forest.
Manotick Drumlin Forest Looking North (excludes the woodland on the right)
White trilliums blanket a forest floor.
Trilliums, Manotick Drumlin Forest
A cluster of white enchanter's nightshade blooms in the forest.
Enchanter’s Nightshade, Manotick Drumlin Forest
A close-up photograph of single, yellow violet growing on the forest floor.
Downy Yellow Violet, Manotick Drumlin Forest

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?

A group of young hemlock trees stand the understory of a hemlock grove.
Hemlock Grove, Manotick Drumlin Forest

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.

A spreading maple, typical of old pastures, dominates a stand of younger, second-growth trees.
Old “Field” Maple in Younger Second Growth Trees, Manotick Drumlin Forest, North Section
The sun glints through the towering canopy of the Manotick Drumlin Forest.
Sunlit Canopy, Manotick Drumlin Forest

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.

A mature black cherry tree lies on the forest floor where it has been cut down and partially hauled away.
Unauthorized Tree Cutting, Mature Black Cherry, Manotick Drumlin Forest

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.

A mushroom grows out of rotting log, beside a fern, on the forest floor.
Nurse Log and Fern, Manotick Drumlin Forest
Two tall, white trilliums bloom beside a tree trunk.
Trilliums, Manotick Drumlin Forest
The buds on the floral spike of a Canada mayflower swell before blooming.
Canada Mayflower, Manotick Drumlin Forest
A garden of ostrich ferns glows in sunlight.
Ostrich Ferns, Manotick Drumlin Forest
A mature maple tree towers into the canopy of the Manotick Drumlin Forest.
Mature Maple, Manotick Drumlin Forest
A mature beech tree towers into the forest canopy.
Beech Tree, Manotick Drumlin Forest

Chapman Mills and Heart’s Desire, South Nepean

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.

A wide, dirt mountain bike track cuts through the middle of the Chapman Mills East Woodlot.
Mountain Bike Track, Chapman Mills East Woodlot

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 thick trunks of two maples and a beech rise from the forest floor.
Maple and Beech in Chapman Mills East
A blanket of white and painted trilliums bloom in Chapman Mills East
Trilliums in Chapman Mills East
A small patch of wood betony blooms is fleck of sunlight beside a stone in Heart's Desire.
Wood Betony in Heart’s Desire

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.

The massive trunk of a downed maple tree lies in a blanket of seedlings on the forest floor.
Rotting Log in Chapman Mills East
A path crosses a tumbled wall of old boulders, through a frame of trees, into the Chapman Mills Woodlot.
Entrance to Chapman Mills East from Serena Way

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.

A dense stand of cedar trees shades a dry, almost bare forest floor.
Cedar Forest in Chapman Mills West, South Section
Bright green leaves reflect in the water of a swamp in Chapman Mills West.
Reflections, Chapman Mills West Swamp
A pair of adult mallards and a chick sit on a log in the Chapman Mills West swamp.
Mallards, Chapman Mills West Swamp
A stonedust trail runs through large cedars, beside a bench and an inclined sit-up board.
Fitness Trail, Chapman Mills West, South Section
Two massive maples trees rise from the forest floor in the Chapman Mills West Woodlot.
Maples On the Fitness Trail, Mancini Park, Chapman Mills West

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.

A showy cherry tree blooms along the edge of the Chapman Mills West woodlot.
Cherry Tree, Chapman Mills West
Sunlight bathes an open forest of young trees in the north section of the Chapman Mills West Woodlot
Open Forest, Chapman Mills West
The perched roots of a birch tree still drape over the decayed stump on which it sprouted.
Life From Death, Chapman Mills West
Canada Mayflower grows near the roots of a tree. The plants have a single leaf each, typical of the non-flowering individuals.
Canada Mayflower, Chapman Mills West

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.

A massive red oak tree reaches to the canopy of Heart's Desire.
Red Oak, Heart’s Desire
A view of the Jock River through the foliage in Heart's Desire.
Jock River, Heart’s Desire
Boulders fill the bed of the Jock River, providing stepping stones to the far shore.
Stepping Stones, Heart’s Desire
White boulders lie on the south shoreline of the Jock River, against a emerald background of trees.
Across the River, Heart’s Desire

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.

A pile of grass clippings and other yard waste smothers the native plants in Champman Mills East.
Yard Waste, Chapman Mills East
A pile of trash lies along a path in Chapman Mills East
Trash, Chapman Mills East
Broad-leaved toothwort blooms on the forest floor in Chapman Mills East.
Broad-leaved Toothwort, Chapman Mills East
In this close-up of a jack-in-the-pulpit flower, the clublike spathe can be seen emerging from the hooded, tubular, green and red flower.
Jack-in-the-pulpit, Chapman Mills West
A cluster of false solomon's seal blossoms in Heart's Desire.
False Solomon’s Seal, Heart’s Desire

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.

Time of Rebirth

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.

Pale green leaves unfurl at the end of a twig.
Spring foliage
A tree-clad cliff rises from the water of Pink Lake.
Pink Lake Shoreline

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.

A photograph of a white trillium in full bloom at Pink Lake.
White Trillium at Pink Lake
An early saxifrage blooms in a cluster of white flowers, emerging from a rosette of leaves clinging to a crevice in bare rock.
Early Saxifrage at Pink Lake
The yellow bloom of large flowered bellwort droops from its limp leaves.
Large Flowered Bellwort at Pink Lake
A close-up photograph of a red trillium shows the purplish petals, large sepals and stamen.
Red Trillium

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.

A canoe rides on a trailer attached to a bicycle.
Canoe Trailer by Wike
The bow of a canoe cuts through glassy water at Shirley's Bay. A bicycle lies in the canoe.
Canoeing at Shirley’s Bay
Large silver maple trees surround a canoe at Shirley's Bay.
Silver Maple Swamp at Shirley’s Bay
A longnose gar basks in the shallows at Shirley's Bay.
Longnose Gar at Shirley’s Bay
The Rideau River looks placid under a blue sky sprinkled with fair-weather cumulus clouds.
Rideau River Morning
A great blue heron hunts below a bridge over the Rideau River.
Great Blue Heron
A sleepy snapping turtle basks in the mud on the shore of the Rideau River.
Sleepy Snapping Turtle on the Rideau River
A map turtle basks on a log in the Rideau River.
Map Turtle on the Rideau River
Four ostrich fern fronds begin to unfurl on the shore of the Rideau River.
Ostrich Fern on the Rideau River

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.

An adult milk snake warms itself on the pavement of a bicycle path.
Milk Snake on a Bicycle Path

 

In search of quiet on the Carp River

“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.

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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.

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The dog days of summer

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.

Country scenery

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.

Cobden flowers

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.

Haying

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Monarch 2

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.

Lunch on the mountain

Corkstown Bridge

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.

A view from the Corkstown Footbridge of the colourful trees lining the Rideau Canal.
Autumn Colours on the Rideau Canal

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.

A photograph of sunset over the Rideau Canal from the Corkstown Footbridge.
Sunset from the Corkstown Footbridge
A winter scene from the Corkstown Bridge, with snow blowing and drifting on the frozen Rideau Canal
Snowy Morning on the Corkstown Bridge
A crowd of skaters on the Rideau Canal, photographed from the Corkstown Bridge
Skating on the Rideau Canal

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.

Twilight on the Corkstown Footbridge. A bright planet and crescent moon hang in a dark, navy-blue sky. A faint orange glow lingers behind the distant Gatineau Hills.
Twilight on the Corkstown Footbridge

 

Ice covered trees glitter in the sunlight on a cold winter morning
Icy Morning

 

Learning to love Ottawa

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.

The author paddles his canoe along a river, with a beautiful Brittany Spaniel sitting up in the canoe.
A Man and his Dog

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.

A patch of sunlit shoreline reflects in the still dark water of a creek.
Reflections

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.

White Pond Lilies float in still water near the shore.
White Pond Lilies
A shallow creek runs under the shade of leaning cedar trees
Poole Creek
Maple leaves glow red and gold in a sunbeam through the forest canopy.
Forest Light
A Large, orange shelf fungi, known as chicken of the woods, grows from a mossy log in a damp forest.
Chicken of the Woods

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.

A View from the top of Green Mountain in Early Spring
View from Green Mountain

 

Growing up; growing older

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.

Goodbye Kodachrome, hello Spring.

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.

Now my spring has really begun.