Mississippi River and the Cody Creek Black Maple Swamp

A white canoe rests on the shoreline of a small creek where it enters the Mississippi River. Lush, green vegetation covers the shore.
The calm water of the Mississippi River reflects the clear, blue sky.  A pretty, shoreline marsh lies close on the right, while a wooded shoreline lies across the river on the left.
Mississippi River

The Village of Pakenham, just outside Ottawa, lies on the gentle Mississippi River.  Most visitors come to photograph the famous five-arch, stone bridge, or to eat ice cream at the Pakenham General Store, the oldest general store in Canada (open in the same location for 170 years).  A few dragonfly enthusiasts know it as one of the very few places to find the endangered Rapids Clubtail, a small colourful dragonfly that breeds in the shallow pools and rapids below the bridge.  I think of it as the perfect place to begin an excursion on the Mississippi River downstream to Cody Creek.

A view from the river across dense bed of pickerel weed to the shoreline of the Mississippi River, where a white barn stands in a pasture, with trees in the background.
Mississippi River Shoreline
A white canoe lies on the shoreline of a small creek where it empties into the MIssissippi River.  The shoreline is covered in dense grass, with trees in the background.
Exploring the Shoreline

The quiet backwater beside the Conservation Area at the bridge provides a good location to launch a canoe.  The river meanders gently through a rural landscape of wooded banks and farmland, a fringe of marsh along the sh0reline.  In places, old oxbows flank the main channel, hidden behind a screeen of willows.  Wildlife abounds along the banks, in the wetlands and the shallows.  Smallmouth bass, pike and walleye hunt the weedlines, the dropoffs and deeper pools.

A painted turtle basks on floating load, balancing precariously on the knot of an old branch.
Painted Turtle, Mississippi River
Through a frame of leafy branches and marsh vegetation, a striped skunk can be seen drinking on the shoreline.
Skunk Drinkng at the Shoreline

Not far downriver from Pakenham, perhaps a twenty minute paddle, Cody Creek joins the river from the east.  As one approaches the creek from upstream, the eastern shore becomes more hilly and heavily wooded.  Small, pretty wetlands lie behind the shoreline, draining to the river through small, muddy channels.  A wooded sandbar provides a place to pull out and stretch one’s legs.  Thick sedges and marsh grasses cover the banks, while beaver and muskrat tracks crisscross any patch of open ground.  Frogs scatter into the water at every step.  A narrow, greasy flood channel connects to a small beaver pond, overlooked by a large snag and stick nest.  A red-tailed hawk sounds a “keerrr” of protest.  The shade of a silver maple provides an idyllic location to sit, eat a snack, and watch a heron stalking in the shallows downstream.

A white canoe rests on the shoreline under the shade of a large silver maple tree.
Silver Maple, Mississippi River
A scenic view of a meadow marsh, framed by tree branches.
Mississippi River Wetland
A bullfrog hunkers down in a mudhole, with just his mouth and eyes protruding from the grey, silty water.
Bullfrog
Branches of a red maple tree silhouetted against a blue sky.
Red Maple

The marsh at the mouth of Cody Creek deserves appreciation for its diversity, beauty and productivity.  An artificial frog or a wooly bugger tossed along the weedline is likely to provoke an aggressive strike.  Dragonflies and damselflies cruise over the lilypads, coming to land on the side of the canoe, the end of a paddle, or the brim of a hat.  Mayflies cling to reeds.  A swirl in the water betrays a snapping turtle feeding on a dead carp in the murk of the bottom, while sun-loving painted turtles line up on logs.

A close-up photograph of a large, brown mayfly resting on the blade of a paddle.
Mayfly on a Paddle
A species of blue damselfly called an Eastern Forktail clings to the blade of reed in shallow water.
Eastern Forktail
A large, green and black dragonfly, called a Lilypad Clubtail, rests on the side of a canoe.
Lilypad Clubtail
A closeup of the face of the Lilypad Clubtail.
Closeup
Amidst a dense patch of pondweed, a shy painted turtle sticks its head out of the water for a look around.
Shy Painted Turtle
Another Painted Turtle basks on a log beside a bed of cattails.
Another Painted Turtle
The vague shape of a large snapping turtle can be seen under the water.
Snapping Turtle Feeding Underwater

Very few people know of Cody Creek.  From its headwaters in Long Swamp, it flows west, draining much of the southwest corner of Ottawa’s rural landscape.  It remains remarkably healthy, despite passing through some extensive agricultural lands.  By the time that it nears the Mississippi River, it has carved a steep-sided, overgrown valley.  In its last reaches, it meanders through a spectacular, black maple swamp.  This provincially significant Area of Natural and Scientific Interest is, so far as I know, unique in Ottawa.  The accomplished and well-known biologist, Dan Brunton, deserves much credit for documenting the outstanding natural value of the swamp and bringing it to the attention of the Province.

The swamp appears almost primaeval.  The brown water moves slowly, swirling slowly around large downed trees.  Animal prints crowd around dark holes in the slick, clay banks.  Tracks lead through sunlit ferns to the dark forest beyond.  I’ve come upon otters swimming in the shadows, as well as the ubiquitous muskrats and beavers.  Emerald and ebony jewelwings flit along shore.  Bright birdsong burbles in the underbrush and in the high canopy above, while the air below seems very still.

The dark waters of Cody Creek flow under overhanging trees, with the blue sky behind.
Cody Creek
A dense patch of Ostrick Fern glows in a beam of sunlight that has penetrated the dark swamp along Cody Creek.
Fern Garden

The creek can be paddled as far as the bridge at Hanson Side Road in low water, and a bit further in high water.  Log jams and fallen trees block the channel in some places.  The banks consist of slick clay, and it is probably easier and safer to climb on to the log jams and haul the canoe over than to try going around.  Access to the creek is also possible at the bridge, but there’s no easy put-in.

A hurried visitor can paddle the round-trip from Pakenham to Cody Creek in less than an hour.  But I wouldn’t take less than three hours, to allow time for sightseeing, photography and fishing.  A drifting canoe can float up to wildlife that a impatient paddler would never see.  And I’ve spent 45 minutes simply resting, bow into the weeds, with my head hung over the side of the canoe watching a microcosm of life play itself out in the water.  I suggest a morning trip, when birds and other animals are most active, and the air is a bit cooler.  Picnic by the stone bridge, then walk up the General Store for some ice cream and fresh-baked bread.

A view of the shoreline and river paddling back to Pakenham.
Paddling back to Pakenham

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