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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The forest holds no more magical sound than the song of the hermit thrush at dusk. In the calm of evening, when the breeze drops and the leaves hang still, it flutes through the trees: a short, liquid, melancholy song. You stand transfixed in the twilight of the trail, grasping for a lost memory or emotion. Perhaps some ancestral memory of the primaevel forest. Time pauses.
For anyone living in Orleans, in Ottawa’s east end, a short walk down the pathway into Bilberry Creek Ravine leaves behind the sounds of the City and carries one into the world of the wood thrush. The steep, wooded slopes of the ravine create a quiet haven. The chuckling of the creek rises from somewhere below. The thick duff of the forest floor rustles with hidden growth and life.
On an early, warm Spring morning, I stood quiet and still beside the trail in Bilberry Creek Ravine, hoping for a hermit thrush to come within photography range. I had stopped at the fuss of chickadees and nuthatches in the pines ahead, thinking that an owl or hawk might be hidden in the dense boughs. The hermit thrush foraged nearby on the forest floor, teasing. It moved from shadow to shadow, clearly visible in my binoculars, but just beyond the reach of my pocket camera’s small lens.
As I waited patiently for the thrush to come closer, I caught another movement in the corner of my eye. 30 metres farther up the slope, almost screened by underbrush, a red fox climbed on to a rotting log, into a fleck of sunlight piercing the pine canopy. Very slowly, I turned my head to watch it. It sat upright in the rare patch of warmth, the light glowing in its fur. As carefully as possible, I inched my binoculars back up to my eyes. But not carefully enough. The fox turned its head toward me, lowering itself warily to the log. I froze. For long seconds, we both stood still, our gazes locked on each other. Then I moved slightly, just a shift of balance. With a quick turn, the fox rose and vanished into the brush. Thinking that the fox had prompted the chattering of the songbirds, I started again along the trail and jumped a small tributary brook. Just at that moment, in the pine trees behind me, a barred owl began to call: “who, who, who-calls-for-you”.
Once surrounded by development, most urban forests lose their wildest elements within a few months or years. The noise and visual disturbance drive away the most sensitive animals. Cats prowl along the wooded edges, hunting songbirds and small mammals with ruthless efficiency. Neighbours dump lawn and garden waste into the forest, introducing exotic and invasive plants. Returning fishermen dispose of unused, invasive nightcrawlers (earthworms), changing the soil and nutrient cycles. Temperatures in the forest rise, light increases, and humidity drops. The slow-growing trees that once prospered in the cool, damp woodland give way to faster-growing, sun and heat-loving species.
Such woodlands still have value to a community and a city. Both the forest and the community find a new balance. The chickadees that brighten the winter woodland will still delight children, as will the play of the squirrels in the summer. The leaves will still rustle in the wind. And if trilliums give way to bluets, will anyone but the most ardent naturalist notice or really mind?
But those urban forests with the capacity to resist such change deserve special reverance and protection. Nestled in its ravine, Bilberry Creek is such a place. The ravine retains humidity and cooler air, shields the forest from traffic noise and prying eyes, retains its secrets. Although a graded, multi-use pathway cuts through the forest at one point, the steep clay slopes limit much of the ravine to rough, narrow nature trails. Mature, “super-canopy” white pines and hemlocks thrust through the deciduous trees, harkening back to the ancient, pre-settlement, northern hardwood forest that once blanketed most of central Canada. Tall, pockmarked snags provide nesting cavities for animals and birds. Massive nurse logs lie decaying in undergrowth, returning their nutrients to the soil, holding moisture for insects and fungi, and sheltering amphibians, mice and voles. The air is redolent with the rich odour of life.
Bilberry Creek, itself, appears surprisingly healthy for an urban watercourse. On a spring morning, erosion and slope failures appear all along the creek, turning it grey with silt and clay Woody debris litters and clogs the channel. But did development cause these things, or do they result from the natural process of a young creek cutting into deep, clay soils? Probably both. Certainly the presence of old log crib walls along the creek suggests that the processes aren’t entirely new. In any event, they don’t appear to have discouraged the local beaver.
I would like to visit Bilberry Creek Ravine again in the winter. I can imagine strapping on a pair of snowshoes and walking softly down the trail into the hush and swish of snow sifting through the pines. Up ahead, perhaps, a pileated woodpecker would hammer on an old hemlock. Perhaps the trail of a fox or fisher would cross the track. After a while, I’d find a comfortable place to pause. I’d pull a flask of coffee from my small pack, and a sandwich, and I’d stand there lost in the woods until the cold finally drove me onward or back.
The Rideau River doesn’t flow down to Camelot, although the old City Hall, perched on its island just upstream of the Rideau Falls has its own, nostalgic mistique. But my romance with the Rideau River has not waned in the twenty-odd years that I’ve lived in Ottawa. In fact, it has deepened.
The Rideau River runs for almost 20 kilometres through urban Ottawa, although the section along which I spend most of my time is the 12 kilometre stretch from Carleton University to the Rideau Falls. Several times a week, from late spring until mid-autumn, I ride my bicycle along the bordering pathways. Once or twice a month I put my canoe in at Strathcona Park, and paddle up the river, with camera and binoculars beside me and a big fly trailing behind in the current in the vain hope of picking up a muskie. Or I walk down with my rod and waders to a favourite ledge, where I cast to the big bass that lurk at the edge of a deep channel.
On any day, I never know what wildlife I will find at the river. In the winter, mallards and goldeneyes congregate in the swift, open reaches. In the spring and autumn, migratory waterfowl pass through: buffleheads, loons, black ducks, common and hooded mergansers…. In the summer, the river and the woods teem with birds: more mallards, wood ducks, great blue herons, mergansers, double-crested cormorants, spotted sandpipers, and songbirds of every kind. More than once, I’ve lifted my head to the piping alarm of blackbirds to watch a Cooper’s Hawk fly swiftly across the river. The Royal Swans, released from their winter captivity, glide along the shoreline.
Not just birds frequent the Rideau. Bullfrogs groan in the shallows, and muskrats wind between lilypads and pickerelweed. I’ve cruised my canoe up to somnolent snapping turtles, and cautiously edged toward wary painted turtles. On an evening bicycle ride, I’ve exchanged curious stares with an otter. In the dawn of another day, I’ve paddled quietly past a doe and fawn drinking at the water’s edge. The Rideau River provides a natural refuge and a ribbon of life through the heart of Ottawa.
The abundance and diversity of wildlife attests to the health of the Rideau River, especially considering the number of people that come to enjoy its offerings. Some people come to fish. Some come to cool their feet in the clean current — especially at the shallow, limestone ledge that spans the river at Strathcona. Some come to feed the ducks. Some come for exercise, to walk, run or ride along the pathways. Some come merely to enjoy the views, to quiet their minds beside the water, or to hold hands with a sweetheart.
I have lived in Victoria, Vancouver, Halifax, Edmonton, and Toronto. I have visited most other Canadian cities at one time or another. I don’t know any urban, natural space that exceeds the beauty of the Rideau River. In another place — a New York, a London, or a Tokyo — it would be celebrated and promoted. In books and movies, lovers would embrace and part on its shady banks. Photographers would immortalize it. Poets would write of it. In modest Ottawa, though, it rolls on almost unheralded. Perhaps we like it that way. Perhaps that’s the secret of its charms.