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.
With a brief, sunny break in Ottawa’s wet spring weather, I headed out early on an April Saturday morning for a bird watching trip to the west end of the City. I set out just before dawn on my bike, crossed downtown along the Laurier bike lane, then cut down to the Ottawa River bike path by the War Museum. Almost immediately I stopped to watch several rough-winged swallows feeding over the channel by Albert Island, darting occasionally into the drainage holes in the concrete channel walls.
Carrying on, I quickly arrived at Lemieux Island, where I stopped to check out the colonies of ring-billed gulls on the smaller islands. A brown thrasher chattered in a copse of trees at the entrance of the causeway, and white-throated sparrows moved through the underbrush. Robins foraged in the grass. A cardinal sang in the sumac on the other side of the lane, and red-winged blackbirds piped all along the shoreline. Out at the lookout, I spotted a black-crowned night heron perched amidst the gulls, and the black spikes of cormorants on the furthest island. A large flock of tree swallows hunted over the swift, roiling river.
Leaving the island, I continued west along the river, checking off puddle ducks and diving ducks, until just before Mud Lake at Britannia, where a gull carcass caught my eye. Lying beside the path, all that remained of it were the two wings and a scraps of bones. I immediately thought of a description from J.A. Baker’s beautiful masterpiece of natural history, The Peregrine.
“A peregine kill can be easily recognized. The framework of a bird is left on its back, with the wings untouched and still attached to the body by the shoulder-girdles. The breastbone and all the main bones of the body may be quite fleshless. If the head has been left, the neck vertebrae will usually be fleshless also. The legs and back are frequently left untouched. If the breast-bone is still intact, small triangular pieces will have nipped out it by the peregrine’s bill.”
Okay… not the most poetic extract of
Baker’s book, but based on this observation and others over the years, a pretty fair description.
I arrived at Mud Lake early, while only a few keen wildlife photographers were prowling the paths. I went looking first for Blanding’s turtles in the well-screened east swamp, where I’d seen them basking in previous years. But the light was still too thin and the air too cold for basking. Pushing my bike along the path toward the boardwalk and the main pond, I spotted a pair of black-crowned night herons pass overhead. Chickadees flitted along beside me on the trail, until they realized that I had no sunflower seeds to feed to them. A pair of crows chased a raven.
At the boardwalk, I hoped again to see some early basking turtles. But no luck. Several pairs of wood ducks swam amidst the maze of logs, broken branches and downed trees in the swamp on the inside of the boardwalk, while raucous geese squabbled over nesting sites along the shore of the pond. As I prepared to move on, a pair of northern flickers flew up to a snag beside the swamp, checking out the cavities. I had just resolved to leave them in peace, when I noticed a stir in the water and a tell-tale trail of bubbles. A few minutes of patient waiting was rewarded with the sight of large snapping turtle rising from the bottom of the pond for a breath.
I slowly worked my way clockwise along the shore of Mud Lake, listening to the morning chorus. Goldfinches chittered overhead. A pine warbler buzzed in a tall pine. Yellow-rumped warblers flitted and sang in the high branches. Nuthatches and downy woodpeckers methodically moved from tree to tree, searching the trunk of each for insect morsels. To my disappointment, I found no trace of the screech owl that had made its home in the woods the past two years. Perhaps a little later in the spring?
Leaving my bike locked at the trailhead at Cassels Street, I walked the ridge along the river shoreline. From one of the lookouts, I could see across Deschenes Rapids to the large gull colony at the old mill site on the far shore. With my binoculars, I made out the larger, white silhouettes of several great egrets perched amidst the gulls. At the south end of the ridge, I spent almost half an hour lingering around the conifers in hopes of getting some good photographs of the enthusiastic yellow-rumped warblers feeding in their branches with a solitary palm warbler. While a small crowd of [other] grey-haired photographers fired off clusters of shots from a fortune of tripod-mounted, digital SLRs and long lenses, I waited for birds to come close enough for my pocket compact.
As usually happens, I’d lost track of time in the woods. Feeling hungry, I rode up to Richmond Road to grab some lunch, after which I returned to the Ottawa River trail and continued west. On one of the lawns at Britannia Park, someone was testing a parasail in the stiff wind. I passed Andrew Haydon Park and followed Watt’s Creek pathway to Moodie Drive, where I crossed into the National Capital Greenbelt. I continued following the Watt’s Creek pathway west to March Road, where I turned north to Herzberg Road and March Valley Road.
When I first came to Ottawa, more than 25 years ago, March Valley Road provided some of the best bird-watching in Ottawa, especially for hawks and owls. It may be the last place in the City where I saw a short-eared owl, and I still catch glimpes of northern harriers over the Department of National Defence lands. Over the years, however, development has crept ever closer. Suburban subdivisions now lie only a few hundred meters distant, kept at bay only by the restrictions placed around the Department of National Defence firing range. However, it still offers a few good vistas across the fields of the base toward the silver maple swamps shielding Shirley’s Bay and the Ottawa Duck Club properties, including a distant view of Ottawa’s only active bald eagle nest. On this day, tree swallows filled the air above Shirley’s Brook, and the clean white head of an adult bald eagle rose above the rim of its nest.
Having ridden to within a few minutes of the South March Highlands and the Carp River Valley, I decided to mix pleasure with a bit of work. I headed up Terry Fox Drive, past Old Second Line Road, and then turned my bike on to the construction access road into the KNL development property to inspect some of the perimeter fencing.
Even having witnessed the transformation of the landscape on the KNL property during this winter’s cutting, I still find the view quite stark and shocking. Where a mature forest once stood, a expanse of stumps and scarred earth now remains. I find little consolation in the knowledge that the destruction of this forest was ordained more than twenty years ago, and that I played my role in protecting what remains. Perhaps when homes fill the landscape, families fill the homes, and neighborhood children ride the surrounding nature trails, I’ll feel better about the outcome.
After checking out the fencing and scouting a retained pond for turtles (two painted, no Blanding’s), I continued along Terry Fox Drive to the Carp River Restoration Area. Like the KNL lands, the Carp River Restoration Area has a controversial development history. Notwithstanding its history, the restoration looks terrific. One of the pathways still needs completion, but the Carp has been returned to a more natural, sinuous form, and the new wetlands have been landscaped. With the spring flood only just having dropped (now returned!), the restoration area consisted mainly of bare, brown earth and mud. But in my mind’s eye, I could see it in the future, with the shrubs, cattails, and reeds in full growth and a cacophany of waterfowl side-slipping into the ponds.
As I was contemplating this sight, I had my best moment of the day. While I looked out over one of the muddy ponds, a flock of six lesser yellow-legs flew across the water to land on shore at its edge. A instant later they scattered upward as a brown, blurred shape swept through, knocking one of them down. A peregine! The falcon whirled tightly back around, but its first strike had not been clean; the yellow-legs was back in the air. The peregine jinked quickly after it, but again the yellow-legs evaded, striking the water in the process. The prospect of a possible dunking seemed to deter the peregrine, which quickly gave up the chase, and climbed away to the west and out of sight. The whole encounter lasted only a few seconds. In my excitement, I hadn’t even thought of reaching for my camera — not that I could have captured anything at that range.
I waited awhile to see if either the yellow-legs or the peregrine would return. But apart from some mallards and geese, my only sighting of interest was a white-tailed deer in a thicket swamp on the far side of the river.
With the sun now sliding steadily downward, I reluctantly turned my bicycle back towards home. Heading along Campeau Drive, I detoured quickly into the Kanata Centre Woods, where a short pathway winds over a pretty rock knoll and past a lovely, hidden pond. The pond seemed very quiet in the late afternoon, made more so by the song of a solitary Cardinal in the trees across the water.
Reaching March Road, I cycled back to the Watts Creek pathway and retraced my route toward downtown. By the time that I reached Britannia, however, I was ready for a refreshment. I’d spotted the “Beachconers Microcremery” in the morning, beside the cycle path. Stopping now, with my muscles weary and my throat dry, I enjoyed what must be Ottawa’s best vanilla bean ice cream — or so it seemed at that moment.
I arrived home just after sunset, wheeling up to the back door to see Sue through the window, sitting at the kitchen table. After a welcome supper, I then soothed my muscles and joints with a hot bath. Altogether, a very satisfying day.
Sometime around the second week of May, a magical event happens in Ottawa: the buds begin to burst on the trees. For weeks, they have swollen with the lengthening days, drawing sustenance from their roots and the moist, spring earth. Some smaller trees and shrubs have already sprouted leaves, and some canopy trees will wait a while longer. But the vanguard of the northern hardwood forest — the maples, beeches, birches, ash, basswoods, oaks — erupt with new leaves. As they unfold, the grey forest turns a delicate, pale green. Still translucent, the young leaves glow in the morning sunlight, each like a little flower. The forest has a momentary gaiety, like a young girl twirling in her first dress.
For several years, I have taken vacation during the second week of May. Sometimes I go camping. Sometimes I stay in town. Either way, I spend my free days indulging in the exuberant rebirth that spring brings. The migratory songbirds arrive: warblers, vireos, thrushes, flycatchers, swallows, sparrows. They flit through the tree-tops and scurry in the underbrush, still easily visible in the young foliage. Their early-morning chorus begins before dawn and ends only with the heat of midday. Spring wildflowers speckle the forest slopes: pointillist dreams of white trilliums; lilies, violets and dutchman’s britches; honeysuckle and elder. A few spring peepers still call, along with the croak of leopard frogs and the trill of american toads. Reptiles emerge into the sun, still half torpid from winter. Turtles bask on logs, more reluctant to re-enter the cold water than later in the summer. Snakes sun themselves on warm, grey rocks or under old boards. Even fish seek the shallows to warm themselves in the welcome rays.
I’ve spent this past week exploring some old and new haunts by bicycle and canoe: the Rideau River, Pink Lake, Baie McLaurin, Shirley’s Bay, Poole Creek. I’ve ridden about 250 km, sometimes with canoe in tow behind my bike. I recently purchased a canoe trailer for my bike from Wike, mainly to eliminate the need to book a VrtuCar (a local car-sharing business) any time that I wanted to go canoeing. Already, the combination of my two favourite activities has given me incredible satisfaction… as well as some intense exercise.
I look forward to my summer vacation — those full, glorious two weeks in late June and early July. I can feel the warmth, see the dragonflies dancing over the ponds, feel my fly rod in my hands. The time will pass slower and more restfully. But the days won’t bring the same sense of excitement and wonder as my May sabbatical, when all the world’s anew.
In late summer, when water levels drop in the Ottawa River, a fascinating glimpse into ancient history emerges into view. The Ottawa River stromatolites lie below the Quebec side of the Champlain Bridge. 460 million years ago, in a shallow, salty embayment of a tropical sea, colonies of blue-green algae cemented together sediments and calcium carbonate into low mounds of limestone (http://www.ottawagatineaugeoheritage.ca/subsites/4). They survived the geological cataclysms of next half billion years to be scoured clean by the river and exposed on the pretty, wooded shoreline. Perhaps nowhere else in the world can one leave a damp footprint on such tangible evidence of ancient life.
No river figures so strongly in Canada’s history as the Ottawa. For Aboriginal peoples, for early European explorers, for fur-traders and for pioneer loggers, the Ottawa River provided the most direct route into the heart of Canada. The first Aboriginal sites along the Ottawa River date back 6000 years. Samuel de Champlain’s Aboriginal guides led him up the Ottawa River in 1613. The last timber raft floated under Parliament Hill in 1908, and log drives continued on the Ottawa River until 1990. During the last half of the 19th Century and well into the 20th Century, power from the Chaudiere Falls supported thriving industries along the Gatineau and Ottawa shorelines. The river gave birth to Canada’s atomic industry, at the Atomic Energy Commission Laboratories in Chalk River. Hydro-electric dams continue to operate along the river, while the lakes behind them provide recreational boating and fishing that help to support thriving communities up the Ottawa Valley. A paddle along the Ottawa River is literally a paddle through the history of the country.
Fortunately, almost all of the Ottawa River lies open to pedestrians, cyclists and paddlers. Multi-use pathways line both shorelines through the urban core, with numerous lookouts and beaches providing access to the water. Most of my favourite cycling routes begin beside the Ottawa River Locks, on the Rideau Canal, sandwiched between the Parliament Buildings and the Chateau Laurier hotel. From there, a National Capital Commission cycling path travels beside the river, under the bluffs of Parliament Hill, below the Supreme Court of Canada and past the historical Aboriginal site of Victoria Island. At the Portage Bridge, the trails begin to branch, some continuing along the Ontario shoreline upriver past the Chaudiere Falls and the Canadian War Museum, some crossing over the Portage and Chaudiere bridges to the Quebec shoreline. The National Capital Commission publishes a map of its trail system, showing the available destinations and routes (http://www.ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places-to-visit/parks-paths/things-to-do/cycling-capital-pathways).
My favourite ride makes a loop through Gatineau, on the Quebec side. From the Chaudiere Bridge, it heads briefly upriver, then turns north into Gatineau Park, makes a quick detour to Pink Lake, heads east to the Gatineau River, goes back down through Lac Leamy Parc to the Ottawa River, and then crosses the Alexandra Bridge at the Canadian Museum of History. It’s a challenging ride through beautiful scenery: steep climbs and descents along forest trails and roads, winding pathways past wetlands, boardwalks and bridges over creeks and along shorelines.
For a shorter, easier trip, I like to ride upriver along the Ontario shoreline to Mud Lake and Britannia Park. Along the way, I sometimes stop at Lemiuex Island to view the colonies of gulls, cormorants and night herons on the adjacent, smaller islands. I stop at Remic Rapids to admire the balanced rock sculptures in the shallows of the river. Near Westboro Beach, I often take a detour into Westboro Village for coffee at Bridgehead, a browse through Mountain Equipment Co-op, or a meal at one of the cafes and restaurants. Reaching Mud Lake, I may dismount for a walk through the natural area or carry on to Brittania Beach or Andrew Hayden Park. I usually time my ride back home for the evening, when the sun sets behind the Quebec shoreline, sending its apricot glow across the river.
On calm mornings, I will often load my canoe on to a Vrtucar (a local car-sharing business) and head off to one the river’s quieter areas. Petrie Island, in the east end of the City, is a wonderful destination. The provincially significant wetland inshore of the island provides sheltered canoeing, with opportunities to photograph the area’s many birds, turtles (including the threatened map turtle), and beautiful swamp forest. Downstream of the island, the mouth of Cardinal Creek provides one of the river’s most important fish habitats. A low squeeze under the Highway 174 bridge takes one into the lower reach of Cardinal Creek: a marvellous, meandering paddle through a superb floodplain wetland entrenched in a deep valley.
At the opposite end of the City lies Constance Bay, which deserves a full blog post of its own. Lying at the upper end of a relict, post-glacial flow channel paralleling the Ottawa River, Constance bay forms a wide, shallow, sandy-bottomed crescent at the mouth of Constance Creek. Cottages and homes line the shore, but access to the Bay is possible from City road allowances at the end of Greenland Road on the east side of the bay and Lane Street on the west side of the bay in the Village of Constance Bay. The shallow, sandy bay is delightful for wading, warm in the summer and easy on bare feet. In the spring, just east of the creek mouth, longnose gar spawn and hunt in mere centimetres of water, “finning” in the shallows. Pike lie in ambush in the reed beds. Catfish wait in the channel of the creek, and walleye hunt along the dropoffs. Waterfowl abound. Herons hunt frogs. Gulls and terns patrol the shallows, waiting to plunge onto schools of small minnows. Within the mouth of creek, along the edge of the silver maple swamp, songbirds flit and sing. It may be the prettiest spot on the river.
The Ottawa River simply offers too many places to visit and things to do to describe in one short post. Just within the boundaries of Ottawa and Gatineau, one can find places enough to fill a summer with exploration: Morris Island Conservation Area, Fitzroy Harbour Provincial Park, The Quyon Ferry, Piney’s Point Historical Site, Sheila McKee Park, Shirley’s Bay, Andrew Hayden Park, Bate Island, Lemieux Island, Victoria Island, Rideau River Falls, Rockcliffe Park, Green’s Creek, Upper and Lower Duck Islands, Lac Leamy Park, Baie McLaurin, Baie Lafontaine. Beyond Ottawa, even more opportunities abound, such as whitewater rafting in Beachburg, only 90 minutes north of the City, camping in Voyageur Provincial Park or Driftwood Provincial Park, an hour downriver and two and half hours upriver respectively, or houseboat cruising on the Upper Ottawa River. Somewhere, there’s a deserted beach waiting.
The Rideau River doesn’t flow down to Camelot, although the old City Hall, perched on its island just upstream of the Rideau Falls has its own, nostalgic mistique. But my romance with the Rideau River has not waned in the twenty-odd years that I’ve lived in Ottawa. In fact, it has deepened.
The Rideau River runs for almost 20 kilometres through urban Ottawa, although the section along which I spend most of my time is the 12 kilometre stretch from Carleton University to the Rideau Falls. Several times a week, from late spring until mid-autumn, I ride my bicycle along the bordering pathways. Once or twice a month I put my canoe in at Strathcona Park, and paddle up the river, with camera and binoculars beside me and a big fly trailing behind in the current in the vain hope of picking up a muskie. Or I walk down with my rod and waders to a favourite ledge, where I cast to the big bass that lurk at the edge of a deep channel.
On any day, I never know what wildlife I will find at the river. In the winter, mallards and goldeneyes congregate in the swift, open reaches. In the spring and autumn, migratory waterfowl pass through: buffleheads, loons, black ducks, common and hooded mergansers…. In the summer, the river and the woods teem with birds: more mallards, wood ducks, great blue herons, mergansers, double-crested cormorants, spotted sandpipers, and songbirds of every kind. More than once, I’ve lifted my head to the piping alarm of blackbirds to watch a Cooper’s Hawk fly swiftly across the river. The Royal Swans, released from their winter captivity, glide along the shoreline.
Not just birds frequent the Rideau. Bullfrogs groan in the shallows, and muskrats wind between lilypads and pickerelweed. I’ve cruised my canoe up to somnolent snapping turtles, and cautiously edged toward wary painted turtles. On an evening bicycle ride, I’ve exchanged curious stares with an otter. In the dawn of another day, I’ve paddled quietly past a doe and fawn drinking at the water’s edge. The Rideau River provides a natural refuge and a ribbon of life through the heart of Ottawa.
The abundance and diversity of wildlife attests to the health of the Rideau River, especially considering the number of people that come to enjoy its offerings. Some people come to fish. Some come to cool their feet in the clean current — especially at the shallow, limestone ledge that spans the river at Strathcona. Some come to feed the ducks. Some come for exercise, to walk, run or ride along the pathways. Some come merely to enjoy the views, to quiet their minds beside the water, or to hold hands with a sweetheart.
I have lived in Victoria, Vancouver, Halifax, Edmonton, and Toronto. I have visited most other Canadian cities at one time or another. I don’t know any urban, natural space that exceeds the beauty of the Rideau River. In another place — a New York, a London, or a Tokyo — it would be celebrated and promoted. In books and movies, lovers would embrace and part on its shady banks. Photographers would immortalize it. Poets would write of it. In modest Ottawa, though, it rolls on almost unheralded. Perhaps we like it that way. Perhaps that’s the secret of its charms.
I cross the Corkstown footbridge each morning to work. The City built it across the Rideau Canal several years ago, to take pedestrians from Sandy Hill to Centretown. From the centre of the bridge, one can look north along the canal toward Rideau Street. The scene is beautiful and ever changing.
The Gatineau Hills peek through from the background. The Chateau Laurier dominates the center of the view, while the Peace Tower stands against the sky on the left and National Defence Headquarters looms on the right. In the foreground, a continuous line of mature maples and basswood screens Queen Elizabeth Parkway and broad band of well-tended grass spreads beside Colonel By Drive. Walkers and cyclists wander the paths atop the canal walls. From late spring through to mid-autumn, the canal captures and reflects the colors of the leaves and the changing sky. On some evenings, a half dozen photographers may gather on the bridge to capture the sunset. In the winter, the dark ice contrasts against the snow and the grey tree limbs, except on milder days when skaters come in the thousands to fill the canal from side to side with bright jackets and touques.
Even dreary, overcast days have their moments. In the past week, I’ve paused in the morning to watch a waterfall of leaves tumbling into the empty canal before a cool, damp wind, and stopped in the evening to admire the way that a grey light reduced the landscape to a simple, but elegant lesson in perspective and geometry.