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.
Deep River offers many lovely canoeing opportunities and destinations. For a relaxed evening paddle, I frequently head downstream from the town along the Ontario shoreline, past Lamure Beach. As the heat of the day dissipates, the wind dies down and the river often turns glassy and reflective. I follow the outer edge of the sand flats, past two rocky points, and into Welsh Bay, where Kennedy Creek empties into the river.
I frequently see young lake sturgeon and longnose gar finning in the shallow water of the bay, feeding on the bottom. I’ve spied bald eagles sitting sentinel in the pines along the shore, and listened to the chiding of ospreys as I glide past. Pulling my canoe on to the sandy shore, I like to cross the bar to the beaverpond behind the beach and watch for wildlife in the thickets. The shoreline, here, remains largely unchanged. I can imagine Samuel de Champlain and his Algonquin guides pulling their canoes on to shore 400 years ago to make camp for the night.
At least once during our annual visit to Deep River, I like to cross the river to the bay just inside Houseboat Point, where an overgrown logging trail heads up into the forest. A 20 minute walk takes me to the path to Mount Martin, almost hidden on the north side of the trail. An inconspicuous sign, placed by the Boy Scouts, marks the trailhead. On a hot, summer day, the climb up through the forest provides a workout, and mosquitoes whine incessantly. However, after a few false summits, the trail finally emerges on to an open, rocky lookout over the river and the town on the far side. The sand flats and shoals show clearly along the shoreline. Ravens and turkey vultures soar above and below, riding the breeze that rises over the escarpment. Breaking out a lunch, I rest and recuperate on the rocks, even lying back and closing my eyes for warm nap.
Another, more challenging paddle leads up the Ottawa River along the Quebec shoreline to Baie de la Presqu’ile d’en Bas and Lac a la Tortue. This 20 km long trip follows the rocky east shore of the river, where the long seismic fault of the Ottawa – Bonnechere Graben (the geological feature that we call the Ottawa Valley) and repeated glaciation has laid bare the tortured roots of the Canadian Shield. Broken only by a few short, sandy beaches, the old gneiss falls sharply into the deep waters. Fissures and cracks spit the billion year-old rock, along with coarse veins of crystallized quartz and other minerals. Sheered plates of stone form rocky walls and ledges. A forest climbs back from the shoreline, while a few hardy, slow-growing trees find a tenuous foothold closer to the water. The bay, itself, lies under a towering, shattered rock face, sheltered from the wide river by a long spit of sand deposited by an upstream tributary. At the head of the bay, shallow Lac a la Tortue provides superb habitat for pike, gar, turtles and shorebirds. Unfortunately, the bay has become very popular with campers and houseboats, who sometime line the beach in small flotillas. Nonetheless, the scenery provides ample justification for a visit, as do the healthy pike that feed along the rocky, Ottawa shoreline.
Of course, at the end of long day of hiking or paddling, nothing feels so good as plunging into the clean, clear river at Lamure Beach or Pine Point. Many times, I’ve waded into the water to the drop-off, then dived under. The distinct, wonderful scent of the water fills my nostrils. The water washes over me. I rise, turn on my back and float under the sunset sky, as the heat seeps from my skin along with sweat and weariness. The quiet envelopes me like the river.. Somewhere inside me, an ancestral memory stirs. I think about tomorrow’s adventure.
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.
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.
An evening calm has settled over the Ottawa River as I paddle into a burnished, copper sunset. I trail a fly behind the canoe, more from habit than hope. If I really wanted to catch fish, I would trail a spinnerbait for pike, or rig a artificial minnow for walleye. Mostly, I just enjoy the quiet, made more pronounced by the occasional powerboat thrumming in the distance. On the Quebec side, I see lights begin to glimmer on the houseboats beached at the point. Laughter carries across the water. Nearer, on my left, I see a whitetail deer come shyly down to the beach in the deepening dusk, as a wood thrush begins to flute in the woods. Abruptly, the sandy bottom rises below my canoe. I ship my paddle and quickly wind in my fly. Then I continue into the bay toward the boat launch, passing Lamure Beach and threading through the moored boats. I pull out the canoe and drag it up to the trees with the others. Then I stroll through the peaceful streets until I see home and the glow of warm, yellow light through the blinds of the large front window.
The town of Deep River lies an easy two hour drive northwest of Ottawa along Highway 17. Sandwiched between the highway and the Ottawa River, it trails along the shoreline for a couple of kilometers. The usual Tim Hortons, Canadian Tire, motel and small strip malls service the highway. A busy grocery store, post office, shops, cafes, school, and town office anchor the small, downtown core, which sits just behind the waterfront, overlooking the river. The marina and yacht club lie only a brisk two minute walk away. Tidy residential neighbourhoods lie either side of downtown — a mix of small, renovated, post-war bungalows and more modern, multi-story houses. The Deep River Regional Hospital marks the east side of town, while the Mount Martin Ski Club sits on the west side.
I spend at least two weeks every summer in Deep River with my wife and our sons. We make shorter visits throughout the year. I spend most of that time outside, exploring the local forests and wetlands, or paddling the shoreline of the Ottawa River. Deep River is a microcosm of whole Ottawa Valley, with almost every kind of ecosystem, habitat and wildlife species within easy reach.
Most trips to Deep River begin and end at the Four Seasons Forest Sanctuary, on the southeast side of the town. This community-owned forest is part of an enormous, contiguous, protected natural area that includes the restricted lands surrounding the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (formerly AECL) in Chalk River, the Petawawa Research Forest, the training areas of Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, and Algonquin Park. A short hiking loop begins across from the hospital and leads to a pretty, covered shelter overlooking a wetland. Even on the buggiest days, the squadrons of dragonflies hunting along the marsh edge succeed at keeping most mosquitoes at bay. Common yellowthroats sing in the thickets, while swamp sparrows skulk in the reeds. An American bittern grunts deep in the marsh. A blue heron fishes along the meandering stream on the other side. Turtles and frogs bask in the small pond by the shelter, where an occasional beaver, muskrat or otter makes an appearance. I’ll bring a lunch and meditate on the scene, read a book, or bring a guitar. Almost always, I’m on my own.
Longer trails lead deeper into the sanctuary, passing a variety of habitats: upland forests of white pine, maple and beech; darker forests of spruce and balsam fir; pretty riparian marshes, and dark forest pools; bright, grassy clearings, and shadowed fern gardens. One of my favourite destinations is Cranberry Lake, which stretches back into the AECL lands. At the end of a half hour hike, a small bench looks out over the lake and a pretty, floating fen mat. In late June and early July, white waterlilies carpet the water, and pink orchids (swamp pinks and rose pogonias) dot the fen. I often skip the bench and stretch out under the white pine that graces the shoreline, closing my eyes for a nap in midday sunshine. Occasionally I lift my head and look down the lake, hoping to see one of the moose that have found a haven on the AECL lands.
During the winter, the trails of the Forest Sanctuary become an active cross-country ski and snowshoe network. Trails are well marked and maintained by the Deep River Cross Country Ski Club, who put on an active recreational and social program through the winter. The forest and wetlands take on a different kind of beauty and quiet in the winter, always reminding me of the Robert Frost lines, “the only other sound’s the sweep, of easy wind and downy flake.”
The Petawawa Research Forest, just outside nearby Chalk River, also provides wonderful opportunities for exploration. The Research Forest Museum, now inactive and partly abandoned, still remains open to the public — albeit quickly deteriorating. An interpretive trail still loops from the museum through the forest, and an old boardwalk still offers a short, but pretty walk along the shore of the Chalk River. A maze of access and logging roads leads deep into the forest, past a myriad of different tree communities, streams and wetlands. In particular, the research forest includes a large number of well-developed fens and bogs, some of which are very accessible and yet still virtually unknown and pristine. They provide a unique opportunity for a careful, conscientious visitor to explore the flora and fauna of these marvelous ecosystems. Unfortunately, summer visitors can expect to be trailed by a cloud of deer flies, which swarm from the sandy roads and trails in numbers that are hard to comprehend. Once off the roads and into the forests and wetlands, however, the deer flies give way to the usual mosquitoes and blackflies, which respond much more readily to repellent. Of course, sensitive individuals can always choose to wear bug hats or bug shirts. Either way, the research forest is worth a visit.
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.