Deep River – Part One

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 setting sun turns the sky a burnished copper over the Ottawa River.
Sunset, Deep River

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.

The Ottawa River and Ottawa Valley spread out below the lookout on Mount Martin, Quebec. In the distance, the town of Deep River lies along the far shore.
Deep River Viewed from Mount Martin, Quebec
The Deep River Waterfront as photographed from Mount Martin, Quebec.
Deep River Waterfront

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.

A wooden archway spans an entrance to the Four Seasons Conservation Forest trail network.
Four Seasons Forest Sanctuary Entrance
Looking out from the shade of a covered observation shelter, a verdant marsh offers a pleasing view.
Marsh Shelter, Four Seasons Conservation Forest
A black-masked, common yellowthroat perches on the branches of an alder bush.
Common Yellowthroat, Four Seasons Conservation Forest
An otter plays on a log in a marshy pond at the Four Seasons Conservation Forest.
Otter, Four Seasons Conservation Forest

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.

A verdant marsh is framed by overhanging trees.
Cranberry Lake, Deep River

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.”

A young white pine sits at the edge of a snow-covered beaverpond, against a backdrop of older, darker pines.
Winter Beaverpond, Four Seasons Forest Sanctuary
A forest creek runs swiftly between snow and ice-covered banks on a warm, late-winter day.
Winter Creek, Four Seasons Forest Sanctuary

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.

A wide-angle photography of a raised bog in the Petawawa Research Forest.
Raised Bog, Petawawa Research Forest
A narrow stream runs through a sedge meadow, fed by the raised bog in the background.
Sedge Meadow and Raised Bog, Petawawa Research Forest
A type of rich fen, known as a "ring bog", surrounds a small pond in the Petawawa Research Forest.
Rich Fen, Petawawa Research Forest
A delicate pink orchid, called a rose pogonia, glistens with raindrops in a fen in the Petawawa Research Forest.
Rose Pogonia, Petawawa Research Forest
A swamp pink blooms on a fen mat in the Petawawa Research Forest.
Swamp Pink, Petawawa Research Forest
Pitcher plants bloom on a fen mat in the Petawawa Research Forest.
Northern Pitcher Plant, Petawawa Research Forest
A gartner snake curls atop a sphagnum hummock in a bog in the Petawawa Research Forest
Garter Snake on Bog Hummock, Petawawa Research Forest
Tufts of red and green sphagnum moss form a mound in a bog in the Petawawa Research Forest.
Sphagnum Moss in a Bog, Petawawa Research Forest
Orange-tipped lichen grows on a sphagnum mound in the Petawawa Research Forest.
Lichen in Bog, Petawawa Research Forest

Mer Bleue

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.

Red and gold trees reflect in the pond beside the Mer Bleue Boardwalk
Mer Bleue Beaverpond

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.

Stunted trees are scattered across the flat surface of the Mer Bleue bog, with a forested ridge in the background.
Mer Bleue Bog
A pitcher plant grows amidst the mosses on a peat mat.
Pitcher Plant

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.

A wide walking trail passes under a canopy of shady trees.
Walking Trail, Mer Bleue
A canopy of large maples trees lies beside a hiking trail at Mer Bleue.
Mature Forest, Mer Bleue
A path leads under a colourful autumn tree to the start of the Mer Bleue Boardwalk
Start of the Mer Bleue Boardwalk
Small clusters of yellow tamarack needles grow from a twig.
Tamarack Needles – Autumn

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.

A small flock of Canada geese rest in a pond at Mer Bleue.
Canada Geese
Brilliant red maple leaves fill the photograph.
Red Maple
Across the wetland, a backdrop of maple trees glows red in the late afternoon light.
Afternoon Light on Maples

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.

A black-capped chickadee feeds on a heart-shaped suet block.
Black-capped Chickadee
A blanket of snow covers the floor of a mature deciduous forest.
Winter Forest Panorama
Parallel cross-country ski tracks skirt the edge of a thicket swamp at Mer Bleue.
NCC Trail 53 A, Mer Bleue

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.

A woman leans over to admire the wetland from the boardwalk.
Admiring the Wetland

Hiking the Crazy Horse Trail

With a clear, blue sky, the autumn foliage at its peak, and rain forecast for the next few days, I decided to check out the work of the Friends of the Carp Hills on the Crazy Horse Trail.  Parking my car at the trailhead on March Road, where it intersects Huntmar Drive, I tucked my pants into my socks (tick prevention) and strolled into the forest.  The trees closed around me, and the sounds of traffic gradually faded.

The Precambrian bedrock of the Carp Hills rises from the clay-covered limestone of Ottawa’s west end.  Historically, the thin soils and rock barrens resisted settlement, leaving the hills as one of Ottawa’s most beautiful natural areas.  The City of Ottawa already owns and protects large portions of the Hills.  Other landowners have protected additional areas through voluntary conservation easements.  At the heart of these efforts, the Friends of the Carp Hills have committed themselves to seeing the area preserved for the enjoyment of current and future generations.

A narrow boardwalk crosses a swampy section of the Crazy Horse Trail.
Crazy Horse Trail Boardwalk

Under the guidance of their Trail Foreman, Bernard, the Friends of the Carp Hills have created an 8 km long hiking trail on City-owned property.  Much of the trail follows an informal network of cross-country ski trails.  With the help of City staff from the Parks and Natural Systems branches, the Friends have blazed a route that visits shady forests, sunny glades, and luscious wetlands.  While avoiding the most delicate and sensitive features, the trail winds past maples and pines, crosses beaver dams, and curls around boulders.  Short spur trails lead to lookouts over wetlands and lichen-encrusted rock barrens.  Where a short bridge spans a narrow watercourse, a rich fen lies to one side, gorgeously clad with sedges and other wetland plants.  Markers guide hikers along the way, and the Friends provide a map on their website.

A needle-covered hiking trail rises gently under a pine tree.
Crazy Horse Trail
Red and gold autumn foliage shines amid dark conifer trees on the far side a large beaverpond.
The Big Pond, Crazy Horse Trail
An open rock barren, encrusted with moss and lichens, stretches out from the edge of the trail.
Rock Barren, Crazy Horse Trail
A short bridge crosses a watercourse along the Crazy Horse Trail.
Bridge, Crazy Horse Trail
An open fen of sedges and herbs lies along the trail.
Rich Fen, Crazy Horse Trail

On this day, the woods seem quiet.  Here and there a downy woodpecker taps on a tree, a blue jay rustles in the underbrush, and small, foraging flocks of chickadees and tardy kinglets pass through the forest.  A few scarlet, autumn meadowhawks dart here and there over the barrens.  A red squirrel scurries across the trail, carrying a mushroom almost as large as itself.  A garter snake curls up in mock aggression as I pass.  A small flock of geese honk on the Big Pond.  Mostly, though, I wander alone along the trail, simply enjoying the beauty of the day.

A scarlet dragonfly rests on a dense bed of white lichen.
Autumn Meadowhawk
A fat, glossy garter snake curls defensively on a carpet of dried leaves.
Garter Snake, Crazy Horse Trail
Two small, grey mushrooms grow in a bed of moss.
Grayling, Crazy Horse Trail
Autumn foliage glows red and gold along the edge of the Big Pond.
Autumn Colours, Big Pond, Crazy Horse Trail
Red and gold trees reflect in a beaverpond.
Reflections, Crazy Horse Trail

The Wonder of Mushrooms

The largest living thing on earth lies within the floor of a forest in Oregon.  A honey mushroom, Armillaria solidipes, it has spread over thousands of years through the soil and litter to parasitize the roots of trees over a four square mile area.  Tests have showed that the entire mycelial network consists of a single, fungal colony — a single, almost immortal organism.

And it’s edible.

A large cluster of oyster mushrooms sprouts from the trunk of a tree.
Oyster Mushrooms

I sometimes think about bringing brown paper bags with me into the forest.  Unfortunately, that thought usually comes when I’m standing before a feast of oyster mushrooms sprouting from a log or tree, with no way to carry them home.  By the time that I return, the slugs will have found them.  Generally, however, I have little interest in picking mushrooms.  My reluctance comes, in large part, from my lack of confidence in distinguishing edible mushrooms from the many inedible or poisonous species that grow side-by-side with them.  It also comes from my appreciation of the beauty of mushrooms and the fascinating, critical role that they have played in life on Earth.

A beautiful, but deadly Frost's Amanita sprouts from the forest floor.
A beautiful but deadly Amanita frostiana, Frost’s Amanita.

By some estimates, almost 90% of the Earth’s plants form a symbiotic relationship with soil fungi.  These mycorrhizae colonize plant roots, feeding on the sugars produced by the plants.  In return, the fine mycelial threads of the fungi penetrate into soil pores and other spaces where plant roots cannot reach, giving the plants greater access to water and nutrients.  They break down leaf litter and other detritus, improving the efficiency of nutrient cycling.  They may even use organic acids and enzymes to dissolve rock, releasing phosphorous that would otherwise be unavailable to the plants.  Not just individual species or plant families, but entire ecosystems like the northern boreal forest depend upon mycorrhizal fungi for their existence.

Hygrocybe acutoconica, a bright orange mushrooum, with an upturned, gilled margin, grows on the forest floor.
Hydrocybe acutoconica, Waxcap

Genetic studies suggest that the relationship between fungi and plants goes back to the very first colonization of dry land by plants.  DNA analyses show that mycorrhizal fungi diverged from a group of parasitic aquatic fungi called “chytrids” approximately 700 million years ago — just about the time that the first land plants appear in the geological record.  It seems very likely that these mycorrhizae not only accompanied plants on to the land, but that they actually made colonization of land possible through their superior ability to scavenge for water and nutrients in the barren landscape.

A cluster of small, brown cups of Ascocoryne cylichnium grow on a weathered log.
Ascocoryne cylichnium, a Sac or Cup Fungus
A cluster of small, dark, spherical fungi called Lasiosphaerica spermoides fruits on a weathered log.
Lasiosphaeria spermoides, a Sac or Cup Fungus
Scarlet cup, a bright orange fungus, sprouts from dark, expose soil.
Sarcoscypha austriaca, Scarlet Cups

As a photographic subject, mushrooms seem sadly underappreciated.  In the dog days of summer, when the spring chorus of birds has faded and the other forest animals hide from sight with their young, when the trees cast the forest floor in shade and the trilliums have withered and dropped, many of the most colourful mushrooms begin their slow eruption from the humus.  Purest white, brilliant yellow, earthy browns and tans, luminescent orange, pale translucent blue… they turn dried leaves, moss and twigs into minature landscapes.  One appreciates them most from close up, lying carefully amidst the ferns, tree seedlings, and forest litter:  the different varieties and substrates, the forms and textures, the subtle details of cap and stem when viewed from the side or below.  Other features of the forest floor also come into focus.  Slugs enjoying a meal, tendrils of moss, skeletal scaffolds of decaying leaves.  The first coral fungus that I ever examined held a red spotted salamander hidden amidst its spires.  Sadly, on that day, I didn’t have a camera with me.

Leccinum aurantiacum, or Orange Bolete, is a a stout mushroom with an orange cap and thick white stem.
Leccinum aurantiacum, Orange Bolete
Claculinopsis fusiformis, or Spindle-shaped Coral, sprouts from a bed of moss like a cluster of bright yellow fingers.
Claculinopsis fusiformis, Spindle-shaped Coral
A cluster of delicate, yellow-brown mushrooms called Xeromphalina campanella sprouts from a well-decayed log.
Xeromphalina campanella
The large, white orb of a Giant Puffball, Calvatia gigantea, grows in the darkness of a forest.
Calvatia gigantea, Giant Puffball
A slug grazes on the cap of an Orange Bolete.
Slug Feeding on an Orange Bolete
Two delicate, blue-tinted mushrooms called Mycena subcaerulea grow from the forest floor.
Mycena subcaerulea

Every woodlot will have its share of mushrooms.  My favourite places to search for them are the Four Seasons Forest Preserve in Deep River, where I spend two weeks each summer with my family, and Gatineau Park, where I often cycle and hike on weekends.  Both areas offer a wide range of habitats, from dry pine and oak forests, through cool coves of maple and beech, to dank cedar swamps and wetlands.  Please refrain from collecting mushrooms on protected lands and conservation areas:  thousands of hectares of crown land lie available for collecting.  And please refrain from collecting altogether unless you can confidently identify the edible varieties.  Most mushroom guide books will list four or five unmistakable, “safe” species, such as oyster mushroom or black and yellow morels.  Outside of those species, the chance of accidental poisoning or adverse effects increases dramatically for non-experts.  Picking mushrooms for their hallucinogenic properties is especially risky, not just because the hallucinogenic species are almost indistinguishable from more poisonous species, but also because the reaction to such mushrooms can vary greatly between individuals.  It simply isn’t worth the risk.

A dense cluster of brown mushrooms, the deadly poisonous Jack O'Lantern, sprouts from a tree stump.
Omphalotus olearius, Jack O’Lantern. Deadly poisonous.

Do, however, get down on your stomach to admire and photograph mushrooms.  And while you are there, in contact with the living forest floor, think about how the life in the forest is linked and interwoven.  How the trees around you are connected by the hidden network below you; how the living and the dead are connected in the circle of life, and how the miracle of evolution has produced the wonder of it all.

A pale, pink coral fungus, Ramaria abietina, grows from the forest floor.
Ramaria abietina, Coral Fungus
An unknown species of little brown mushroom grows from the mossy forest floor.
Unknown Mushroom
A brown, wrinkled False Morel, Gyromitra esculenta, grows on the forest floor.
Gyromitra esculenta, False Morel. Poisonous.
Two small Chanterelle Waxcaps grow from a bed of moss.
Hygrocybe cantharellus, Chanterelle Waxcap

Constance Creek

We glide on dirty, brown water under a green, sunlit canopy of silver maple trees.  Spring run-off on the Ottawa River has pushed nutrient-rich floodwaters back into the forests along lower Constance Creek.  Warblers sing brightly in the tree-tops and multi-hued wood ducks peek shyly from the shady depths of the swamp.  The nighttime chorus of spring peepers and tree frogs has dwindled in the warming day to a few desultory chirps and clucks.  We pass between the spreading, fluted tree trunks in quiet awe, like visitors to some southern, bald cypress bayou.  But instead of alligators basking along the channel, map turtles and painted turtles crawl on to logs to sun themselves, while pike and gar lie up in the shallow reed beds.

When biologists speak of the diversity and productivity of wetlands, they have places like Constance Creek in mind, where life overspills its banks.  Scoop the creek water into your cupped hands, and you hold a galaxy of microscopic, living things.  Look up to the trees to see life thrust by the laws of thermodynamics toward its origin in the dust and energy of stars.  Energy flows through a tangled web of matter, seeking stability, building in complexity, expressed in a fractal lattice in which dragonflies hang like jewels.  A wetland brings together the elements of life like no other place.  Perhaps in no other place does a biologist feel more like a priest.

Three turtles bask on the projecting end of a log near the bank of Constance Creek. The treed shoreline reflects in the calm water.
Turtle Basking on Constance Creek

A confluence of fortuitous circumstances has preserved Constance Creek as a uniquely healthy riverine wetland.  About 10,000 years ago, when meltwaters of the retreating glaciers swelled the Ottawa River, part of it flowed along a side channel from Constance Bay in the north to Shirley’s Bay in the south.  Along the banks of this channel, it deposited large sandbars over the flat clays left by the retreating Champlain Sea.  Over time, as the Ottawa River shrank to its current size, flows along the channel reversed direction, draining the adjacent Carp Ridge and Dunrobin Ridge north through a meadering stream and wide, swampy floodplain.  Annual flooding limited farming and permanent settlement along the creek, while the deep, sandy soils supported the growth of a rich riparian forest to further screen and protect the creek.  Some unauthorized filling of the Constance Creek wetland occurred in 1989 with the construction of the Eagle Creek Golf Club.  Sand pits have also opened at places along the creek, although they remain hidden from the main channel.  For the most part, though, the creek remains well buffered from surrounding land uses.

Several locations give access to the creek, but thick cattails often limit paddling.  At the upper end, an alm0st impenetrable marsh blocks access from Constance Lake.  The reach downstream of the bridge at Thomas Dolan Parkway provides a short, easy paddle through a lovely riverine marsh.  Painted turtles, snapping turtles and Blanding’s turtles bask along the channel in the midday sun, and a colony of black-crowned night herons hides back in the reeds.  Damselflies and dragonflies hunt over the water.  The bridge at Vance’s Side Road provides a pretty view over marsh and swamp, but the channel quickly chokes off both upstream and downstream.  In contrast, the mouth of the creek on Constance Bay offers one of the most beautiful, flat water paddles in Ottawa.

Two yellow pond lilies reflect in the calm water of Constance Creek.
Yellow Pond Lilies

I like to start my trips up Constance Creek at the far, north end of Greenland Road, where the City-owned road allowance runs up to the water at tiny Horseshoe Bay.  I paddle through the sandy shallows, tracked by freshwater clams and mussels, into the wider expanse of Constance Bay.  I don’t recommend it for breezy days, when the wind driving across the wide river can raise substantial waves.  But on calm days, the glassy water parts smoothy to either side of the bow, as I round the point to the west.  Sometimes I paddle straight across Constance Bay to the mouth of the creek.  More often, though, I skirt the shoreline, looking for turtles and scanning the flats for longnose gar finning in the shallow water.

Constance Bay provides some of the best fishing along the Ottawa River shoreline.  The clean, Ottawa River, the shallow reed and weed beds, and the steady influx of nutrients from Constance Creek create a perfect mix of spawning, nursery and adult habitats.  Although I haven’t yet tried flyfishing for longnose gar, I’ve heard that they rival bonefish for fun.  The technique seems roughly the same, and one can find lots of instruction online.  Usually, however, I troll a streamer fly or a spinnerbait behind the canoe and pick up some of the pike for which Constance Bay is famous.  Musky also lurk in the weeds, although for the sake of my light tackle (and their health), I don’t try for them.  Closer to the mouth of the creek, though, I’ve caught catfish and bass.  Walleye forage in deeper water, along the outer edge of the bay.  At times, in fact, fish have struck so frequently as I’ve paddled across the bay, that I’ve had to bring in my line to make any real progress toward the creek.

The author holds a small pike that he's caught on a spinnerbait on Constance Bay.
Small Pike on a Spinnerbait

Constance Creek flows through a stunning swamp forest into Constance Bay.  Large, mature silver maples line the banks along the channel, while swamp bur oaks sit further back on slightly higher ground.  During the spring flood, one can sometimes paddle into the swamp itself, threading between standing and fallen trees.  Great blue herons stalk along the boundary of swamp and stream, while pileated woodpeckers cackle and hammer deeper in the recesses of the forest.  In the autumn, ducks and geese descend like leaves into the marshes around the creek mouth, and the sounds of shotguns echo distantly from further up the creek, where several duck clubs operate hunting blinds.

A stand of tall silver maple trees stand in sunlight along the low, floodplain of Constance Creek.
Silver Maple Swamp, Constance Creek
A stand of bur oak trees lines a sandy bank along Constance Creek.
Swamp Bur Oak, Constance Creek
A great blue heron hunts in the shallow water along the edge of Constance Creek.
Great Blue Heron, Constance Creek.

Not surprisingly, many of Ottawa’s most interesting animals and species at risk find a home along Constance Creek.  Five of Ottawa’s six at-risk turtle species have been recorded along the creek and at its mouth, including the extremely elusive (and possibly extirpated locally) spiny soft-shelled turtle.  Red-headed woodpeckers still nest locally.  Terns no longer nest in the area, but pass through during migration.  Ospreys can often be found hunting along the creek.  Bald eagles migrate along the creek and the Ottawa River shoreline, as do many other raptors, including peregrine falcons.  Lake sturgeons and American eels still inhabit the waters.

This richness of life is no doubt what attracted aboriginal peoples to the creek.  Archaeologists have documented at least one 2500 year-old camp and burial site at the mouth of Constance Creek, on its west shore (https://ottawarewind.com/2014/02/24/ancient-ottawa-lost-relics-from-500bc-found-at-constance-bay/).  More undocumented sites seem likely, perhaps in the large woodland on the east side of the creek mouth.  Unfortunately, that woodland remains at risk of future aggregate extraction.  Lying atop one of the largest, untouched sand and gravel deposits in the north end of the City, it currently enjoys protection by Provincial wetland policies and an unopened City road allowance.  These prevent the legal access required for an aggregate license.  Nonetheless, so long as the property remains privately-owned, the threat exists.

In the meantime, one can travel back 2500 years with just a canoe trip up the creek.  The present swirls behind from the blade of your paddle.  Lying quietly up in the swamp, daydreaming and staring serenely up at the translucent leaves, one can easily imagine that it has always appeared this way.  With a whisper of wings and ragged croak, Raven passes over the canopy.  Floating there, you surrender to thought and memory.

A great blue heron hunts in a shallow marsh on lower Constance Creek.
Great Blue Heron, Constance Creek
A panorama photograph shows a women sitting in the front of a canoe in a flooded silver maple swamp.
Swamp Panorama, Constance Creek

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

 

Morris Island and the Snye River

I wonder, sometimes, if some places should remain undiscovered.  If they remain unknown, then who will care to protect them?  But if they become too well known, how much attention can they withstand?  The Morris Island Conservation Area and the Snye River fall into that category.

Morris Island lies at the far west edge of Ottawa, on the Ottawa River just upstream of Des Chats Dam.  The Snye River, a shallow, rocky stream, separates the island from the mainland.  The Snye originates as a branch of the Mississippi River, which enters the Ottawa River at Marshall Bay, upstream of Morris Island.  About 500 m from the mouth of the Mississippi River, the Snye branches off 90 degrees from the main channel and winds its way northeast for several kilometres, rejoining the Ottawa River near Fitzroy Harbour.  I haven’t found any explanation for the origin of the Snye River.  However, the Ontario Geological Survey identifies the area as “confirmed karst”.  Karstic features appear in many places along the Snye, which leads me to think that it probably began as a cave feature, subsequently collapsing to create a surface stream.

Flooded sinkhole - Snye River
Flooded sinkhole – Snye River

Only one small bridge crosses the Snye, limiting development to less than 15% of Morris Island, clustered entirely on the west side.  Most of the island remains privately-owned.  Without another bridge, however, no further large development can occur, and the cost of such a bridge appears prohibitive.  Provincially significant wetland and habitat for species at risk also cover much of the island.  In the short term, therefore, the area appears likely to remain largely natural.  In the long term, it would benefit from greater public ownership.

A wooden fence stands beside the Snye River at the edge of an old field.
Old Fence – Snye River

Fortunately, the most scenic part of Morris Island already resides in public ownership.  The Morris Island Conservation Area — owned by the City of Ottawa and managed by the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority — lies at the very end of the island’s road, on the south side of Lac Des Chats, in the backwater of Des Chats Dam.  The calm, stable waters of the lake lap along a rugged shoreline and archipelago of small islands.  Trails lead from the small parking lot.  One broad, accessible trail follows the route of an old railbed along the shore, while narrower nature trails venture into the forest and across boardwalks to the larger islands.

A pretty place at any time of year, Morris Island looks most beautiful in the autumn.  Along the shorelines of the islands, the gold, red and yellow foliage reflects in the still water.  Leaves carpet the pathways.  The rich odour of damp earth fills the air.  In the late afternoon, the low sunlight glows warm.  A cast lure lands in the gentle river with a quiet, “plop”.

Pine trees reflect perfectly in the still waters of Morris Island Conservation Area.
Morris Island Reflections
Silhouetted against the evening sky, trees and shoreline reflect in still water.
Evening at Morris Island Conservation Area
A teenage boy fishes from the shoreline, silhouetted against the river and sunset.
Evening Fishing at Morris Island Conservation Area

The Snye River, in contrast, deserves a morning paddle in the richness of full summer.  Sunlight penetrates deep into the clear water.  Longnose gar warm themselves in the shallows, and smallmouth bass lurk as dark shadows at the edge of boulders or beneath undercut banks.  Turtles glide below the surface.  The river cuts through bedrock, alternating between deep pools and short, shallow riffles.  In some of the longer, wider runs, enough sediment has built up to form small marshy areas and wet meadows.  It may be the most picturesque river in Ottawa.

A shallow riffle runs through a green canopy of trees.
Snye River Riffles
A small cluster of purple irises blooms on a marshy shoreline.
Iris versicolor Blooming on the Snye
A torpedo-like longnose gar basks just below the surface of the water.
Longnose Gar
A canoe rests on the edge of a sedge meadow beside the Snye River.
Sedge Meadow
A log, ferns and rocky shoreline reflect in the water of the Snye River.
Reflections along the Snye
A snapping turtle rests on the bottom of the river.
Snapping Turtle

Morris Island and the Snye River provide one of the best places in Ottawa to find and photograph wildlife.  The mix of forest types, the presence of wetlands, the confluence of two major rivers, and the close proximity of West Quebec’s enormous wilderness areas, give the area an amazing diversity of habitats and species.  Many of Ottawa’s species at risk enjoy relative protection and abundance in the area — a condition which deserves respect and sensitivity.  Visitors should heed the old Sierra Club motto:  “take nothing but a photograph; leave nothing but a footprint.”  If we treat the area gently, then it should remain a haven for future generations of wildlife and visitors.

A dot-tailed whiteface dragonfly rests on a lilypad.
Dot-tailed Whiteface
An eastern pondhawk dragonfly clings to a reed.
Eastern Pondhawk
A widow skimmer dragonfly clings to a reed.
Widow Skimmer
Two small, blue mushrooms grow on the forest floor.
Mushrooms in the Forest
A great blue heron takes flight from a marshy shoreline.
Taking Flight
A musk turtle hisses as it is held between a thumb and fingers.
Musk Turtle

Barron River, Algonquin Park

Boulders reflect in the still water of a mist covered lake in early morning light.
Still Life, St. Andrew’s Lake

On a still summer morning, the lake lies like glass.  The sun has peeked over the hills to light your campsite and warm the air.  The mist begins to burn off, drifting like lace before an imperceptible zephyr and swirling up in wisps.  You almost regret fetching water for the morning coffee, because of the ripples that mar the perfect reflections of stone, tree and sky.

The Barron River flows east out of the quiet, north side of Algonquin Park.  Being much less accessible to visitors from Toronto, the north and east sides of the park receive much less use than the Highway 60 corridor.  For visitors from Ottawa, they offer a chance to experience the park free from crowds, tour buses, and other traffic.  The campgrounds feel more open, cleaner and less claustrophobic.  Everything seems slower and more simple.

Two people paddle across a calm lake in an inflatable kayak, with a pine-covered shoreline in the background.
Paddling With Friends

The turn-off for the Barron River lies just over an hour and half north of Ottawa on the Trans-Canada Highway, 13 kilometres past the Town of Pembroke.  A turn on to Doran Road, followed by a quick right turn, leads to County Road 28.  After nine or ten kilometres, the pavement changes to a good gravel road and County Road 28 becomes the Barron Canyon Road.  The Sand Lake Gate to Algonquin Park lies another 18 km up the road.  Day trippers can obtain a visitors permit at the Sand Lake Office, while those with reservations can pick up their camping or backcountry permits.

Many visitors to the Barron River travel only 2.5 km past the gate to the Squirrel Rapids parking lot and access point, for a day paddle up to the Barron Canyon.  The flat water trip takes about six to eight hours return, factoring in an easy 420 m portage around some falls, maybe a try at the bass in the marsh above the falls, with time for a relaxed lunch and swim in the canyon.

A teenage boy holds a largemouth bass.
Barron River bass

The Barron Canyon formed after the last ice age, carved by an immense, sand-laden river of cold, glacial water draining from the Great Lakes.  100 m high cliffs climb straight out of the water, stained with orange lichen and topped by dense pines and cedars.  Ravens soar overhead.  Trailing a free hand along the stone of the canyon wall, one feels the age and weight of the earth.

Stone cliffs tower over a river.
Barron Canyon Cliffs

Several canoe-in campsites lie along the river below the canyon, available by reservation.  Other resting spots offer themselves along the way.  But I prefer to stop for lunch in the heart of the canyon, where a tumble of huge boulders offers a small pull-out, a swimming hole, and a flat picnic spot just above the river.  Eating a sandwich in the warmth of a 4.5 billion year-old star, on billion year-old stone, in a 10,000 year-old canyon, I find comfort and satisfaction in the triviality of my own existence.

Through a frame of pine and cedar branches, a figure stands looking down from midway up a boulder-covered slope.
Bouldering Above Picnic Rock

Backcountry camping is available all along the Barron River.  Achray Campground, 25 km past the Sand Lake Gate, offers a good starting point for a trip down to Squirrel Rapids.  A one-way trip could be accomplished in anything from one to four days, depending on how hard one wished to work.  Personally, I prefer to take a full day to traverse the five portages between St. Andrews Lake and Brigham Lake.  None are long or onerous, but they add up.  Even more, I can’t imagine missing the evening paddle along the shoreline in twilight, after setting up camp, eating and washing the dinner dishes.  Or rising before dawn to watch the dawn wash the hills and sunrise glitter on the dew of a cobweb.

A crescent moon looks down from a deep blue twilight sky on band of dark trees and white canoe beside a still lake.
Evening at St. Andrews Lake, Barron River
Trees slowly reveal themselves as morning mist lifts off the surface of a river.
Morning on the Barron River

Scenery along the Barron River equals that of any place in Algonquin Park.  Wildlife abounds, although moose are infrequent.  Waterfalls and cascades separate the stretches of flat water.  The autumn colours dazzle against the dark conifers and reflect in the still river.  Bring a camera, canvas and brushes, paper and pencil.  Bring an open heart and time to fill it.

A shallow stream runs under leaning cedars trees in a stony channel.
Stream
A small rapid spills into a reed-line pool.
Cascades
A stream tumbles over stones in a small waterfall.
Brigham Chutes
A great blue heron perches on a dead cedar leaning far out over a calm stream.
Great Blue Heron, Barron River

 

The Rideau River

“Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver,
Through the waves that run for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot”
– Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Lady of Shallot

 

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 bow of a canoe points along the shoreline of the Rideau River
Canoeing on the Rideau River

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.

A spectacular, multi-coloured male wood duck swims in the river.
Wood Duck
A pair of white swans swim along the grassy, far shore of the Rideau River, which ripples in a breeze.
Royal Swans on the Rideau River

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.

A pair of painted turtles bask on the shoreline of the river.
Painted Turtles
An enormous snapping turtle basks on a whitened log, her clawed, rear leg dangling toward the water.
Snapping Turtle

 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.

Balloons float over the Rideau River, while two wading fishermen cast lures into the stream.
Sights Along the Rideau
Two children and their mother play along the shoreline under the boughs of a tree.
Back to Nature
A young couple sit together on a log on the far, wooded shore of the river. Several towers loom in the distance.
A Quiet Refuge

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.

Early on a misty, Spring morning, trees recede into fog along the shoreline.
Misty Spring River
A slightly out-of-focus swan floats on the river behind a screen of tall grass.
River Dreams
The sky reflects in the waters of the Rideau River.
Reflections