Deep River offers many lovely canoeing opportunities and destinations. For a relaxed evening paddle, I frequently head downstream from the town along the Ontario shoreline, past Lamure Beach. As the heat of the day dissipates, the wind dies down and the river often turns glassy and reflective. I follow the outer edge of the sand flats, past two rocky points, and into Welsh Bay, where Kennedy Creek empties into the river.
I frequently see young lake sturgeon and longnose gar finning in the shallow water of the bay, feeding on the bottom. I’ve spied bald eagles sitting sentinel in the pines along the shore, and listened to the chiding of ospreys as I glide past. Pulling my canoe on to the sandy shore, I like to cross the bar to the beaverpond behind the beach and watch for wildlife in the thickets. The shoreline, here, remains largely unchanged. I can imagine Samuel de Champlain and his Algonquin guides pulling their canoes on to shore 400 years ago to make camp for the night.
At least once during our annual visit to Deep River, I like to cross the river to the bay just inside Houseboat Point, where an overgrown logging trail heads up into the forest. A 20 minute walk takes me to the path to Mount Martin, almost hidden on the north side of the trail. An inconspicuous sign, placed by the Boy Scouts, marks the trailhead. On a hot, summer day, the climb up through the forest provides a workout, and mosquitoes whine incessantly. However, after a few false summits, the trail finally emerges on to an open, rocky lookout over the river and the town on the far side. The sand flats and shoals show clearly along the shoreline. Ravens and turkey vultures soar above and below, riding the breeze that rises over the escarpment. Breaking out a lunch, I rest and recuperate on the rocks, even lying back and closing my eyes for warm nap.
Another, more challenging paddle leads up the Ottawa River along the Quebec shoreline to Baie de la Presqu’ile d’en Bas and Lac a la Tortue. This 20 km long trip follows the rocky east shore of the river, where the long seismic fault of the Ottawa – Bonnechere Graben (the geological feature that we call the Ottawa Valley) and repeated glaciation has laid bare the tortured roots of the Canadian Shield. Broken only by a few short, sandy beaches, the old gneiss falls sharply into the deep waters. Fissures and cracks spit the billion year-old rock, along with coarse veins of crystallized quartz and other minerals. Sheered plates of stone form rocky walls and ledges. A forest climbs back from the shoreline, while a few hardy, slow-growing trees find a tenuous foothold closer to the water. The bay, itself, lies under a towering, shattered rock face, sheltered from the wide river by a long spit of sand deposited by an upstream tributary. At the head of the bay, shallow Lac a la Tortue provides superb habitat for pike, gar, turtles and shorebirds. Unfortunately, the bay has become very popular with campers and houseboats, who sometime line the beach in small flotillas. Nonetheless, the scenery provides ample justification for a visit, as do the healthy pike that feed along the rocky, Ottawa shoreline.
Of course, at the end of long day of hiking or paddling, nothing feels so good as plunging into the clean, clear river at Lamure Beach or Pine Point. Many times, I’ve waded into the water to the drop-off, then dived under. The distinct, wonderful scent of the water fills my nostrils. The water washes over me. I rise, turn on my back and float under the sunset sky, as the heat seeps from my skin along with sweat and weariness. The quiet envelopes me like the river.. Somewhere inside me, an ancestral memory stirs. I think about tomorrow’s adventure.
I never tire of paddling the Rideau River, especially the familiar section between Sandy Hill and Carleton University. I always find something to admire. I always reflect upon the human experience of the River, which still evolves, and which goes back at least 4000 years.
On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, while many of my friends participated in the Ottawa Race Weekend, I launched my canoe for the season’s first paddle on the Rideau. I usually make this excursion earlier in the spring, but this year’s high flows kept me off the river. Loading my canoe on the bike trailer, I rode down to Robinson Park, launched from the beach, and turned upstream.
The paddling proved relatively easy, despite the strong current. I passed under the Queensway and the footbridge, skirting the shoreline and reeds in search of wildlife. My new cherrywood paddle (a birthday gift from Sue) felt good in my hands, and the tensions of the past work week eased out of my shoulders.
Given the warmth of the day, I expected to see a lot of basking turtles. In the past, I’ve spotted large numbers of painted turtles, plus large snappers and even map turtles along the shore. Surprisingly, in almost six hours on the river, I only found two painted turtles up on logs, along with three snappers idling in the shallows amidst the reeds. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has several old records of Blanding’s turtle along the river, and despite a decade of disappointment, I still live in hope of finding one sometime on this stretch.
The hardest paddling of the day came at Billing’s Bridge, where the river flowed fast through the piers. Passing a small group of stand-up paddleboarders, I tried first for the central span, paddling hard in the eddy behind a pier and then shooting into the current. For a minute a two I held my own, but without making headway. Finally, I dropped back and moved to the next span south, where the current proved a little less challenging. One of the paddleboarders tried to follow me, but couldn’t muster enough speed. Just upstream of the bridge, several more stand-up paddleboarders practiced in the calmer pool. One of them, a very pretty young woman, struck yoga poses on her board, as her girlfriend snapped photographs.
After working slowly through the riffles above Billings Bridge, I slid my canoe into the reeds at Clifford Allen Island, so that I could renew my sunscreen. As I slathered on the cream, with a pair of geese eyeing me warily, I noticed a newly molted dragonfly drying its wings at the tip of broken, brown reed, still hanging from its discarded nymph skin. It’s colors had not yet fully developed, but the stripes on the thorax suggested some kind of darner. I had seen pretty, green darners dancing over the reeds during my paddle upstream, but they lacked the thorax stripes.
Carrying on from the island, I paddled past Brewer Park to the Dunbar Bridge. This part of the Rideau River hosts the most fascinating juxtaposition of culture in the City: literally 4000 years of history separated by barely 300 metres of river. On the north shore, nestled under the Dunbar Bridge, the House of PainT provides a venue for Ottawa’s hip-hop community, featuring its first legal graffiti wall and regular street dance festivals. Just upstream and across the river, on the south shore at Vincent Massey Park, lies a 4000 year-old, indigenous archaeology site. Excavated by the National Capital Commission over several years, the site marks the bottom end of an old portage around the Hogsback Falls. Paddling up the south shore in late afternoon, just below the rapids under the O-Train line, one can easily imagine those Early Woodland people pulling their canoes into shore to set camp for the night, perhaps casting their nets into the river, where fishermen cast their lines today. I suspect that they chose the spot as much for its beauty as for its convenience.
I turned back downstream in late afternoon, alternating drifting and paddling gently. For awhile, I watched two jets circling over the City in formation as part of the race weekend celebrations. Gradually, as the light mellowed, the wildlife became a bit more active. Just above Billings Bridge, a female mallard shepherded her large brood of ducklings. I could not help but think of the large muskellunge known from the area, and wonder how many ducklings would survive the summer. Further downstream, a muskrat plied the shoreline in the shadows of the trees. Finally, near the end of the paddle, I came upon a mink feeding on the carcass of a carp at the edge of the shore. I shot a few, quick photographs, then circled back to take a few more, only to see the mink slip back into the shadow of the trees.
I pulled back into Robinson Park, just as the evening sun was dropping behind the City. I looked down the peaceful waterway to the Adawe Crossing at Strathcona Park. The serenity of the scene encapsulated the beautiful dichotomy of this wonderful urban river.
An evening calm has settled over the Ottawa River as I paddle into a burnished, copper sunset. I trail a fly behind the canoe, more from habit than hope. If I really wanted to catch fish, I would trail a spinnerbait for pike, or rig a artificial minnow for walleye. Mostly, I just enjoy the quiet, made more pronounced by the occasional powerboat thrumming in the distance. On the Quebec side, I see lights begin to glimmer on the houseboats beached at the point. Laughter carries across the water. Nearer, on my left, I see a whitetail deer come shyly down to the beach in the deepening dusk, as a wood thrush begins to flute in the woods. Abruptly, the sandy bottom rises below my canoe. I ship my paddle and quickly wind in my fly. Then I continue into the bay toward the boat launch, passing Lamure Beach and threading through the moored boats. I pull out the canoe and drag it up to the trees with the others. Then I stroll through the peaceful streets until I see home and the glow of warm, yellow light through the blinds of the large front window.
The town of Deep River lies an easy two hour drive northwest of Ottawa along Highway 17. Sandwiched between the highway and the Ottawa River, it trails along the shoreline for a couple of kilometers. The usual Tim Hortons, Canadian Tire, motel and small strip malls service the highway. A busy grocery store, post office, shops, cafes, school, and town office anchor the small, downtown core, which sits just behind the waterfront, overlooking the river. The marina and yacht club lie only a brisk two minute walk away. Tidy residential neighbourhoods lie either side of downtown — a mix of small, renovated, post-war bungalows and more modern, multi-story houses. The Deep River Regional Hospital marks the east side of town, while the Mount Martin Ski Club sits on the west side.
I spend at least two weeks every summer in Deep River with my wife and our sons. We make shorter visits throughout the year. I spend most of that time outside, exploring the local forests and wetlands, or paddling the shoreline of the Ottawa River. Deep River is a microcosm of whole Ottawa Valley, with almost every kind of ecosystem, habitat and wildlife species within easy reach.
Most trips to Deep River begin and end at the Four Seasons Forest Sanctuary, on the southeast side of the town. This community-owned forest is part of an enormous, contiguous, protected natural area that includes the restricted lands surrounding the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (formerly AECL) in Chalk River, the Petawawa Research Forest, the training areas of Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, and Algonquin Park. A short hiking loop begins across from the hospital and leads to a pretty, covered shelter overlooking a wetland. Even on the buggiest days, the squadrons of dragonflies hunting along the marsh edge succeed at keeping most mosquitoes at bay. Common yellowthroats sing in the thickets, while swamp sparrows skulk in the reeds. An American bittern grunts deep in the marsh. A blue heron fishes along the meandering stream on the other side. Turtles and frogs bask in the small pond by the shelter, where an occasional beaver, muskrat or otter makes an appearance. I’ll bring a lunch and meditate on the scene, read a book, or bring a guitar. Almost always, I’m on my own.
Longer trails lead deeper into the sanctuary, passing a variety of habitats: upland forests of white pine, maple and beech; darker forests of spruce and balsam fir; pretty riparian marshes, and dark forest pools; bright, grassy clearings, and shadowed fern gardens. One of my favourite destinations is Cranberry Lake, which stretches back into the AECL lands. At the end of a half hour hike, a small bench looks out over the lake and a pretty, floating fen mat. In late June and early July, white waterlilies carpet the water, and pink orchids (swamp pinks and rose pogonias) dot the fen. I often skip the bench and stretch out under the white pine that graces the shoreline, closing my eyes for a nap in midday sunshine. Occasionally I lift my head and look down the lake, hoping to see one of the moose that have found a haven on the AECL lands.
During the winter, the trails of the Forest Sanctuary become an active cross-country ski and snowshoe network. Trails are well marked and maintained by the Deep River Cross Country Ski Club, who put on an active recreational and social program through the winter. The forest and wetlands take on a different kind of beauty and quiet in the winter, always reminding me of the Robert Frost lines, “the only other sound’s the sweep, of easy wind and downy flake.”
The Petawawa Research Forest, just outside nearby Chalk River, also provides wonderful opportunities for exploration. The Research Forest Museum, now inactive and partly abandoned, still remains open to the public — albeit quickly deteriorating. An interpretive trail still loops from the museum through the forest, and an old boardwalk still offers a short, but pretty walk along the shore of the Chalk River. A maze of access and logging roads leads deep into the forest, past a myriad of different tree communities, streams and wetlands. In particular, the research forest includes a large number of well-developed fens and bogs, some of which are very accessible and yet still virtually unknown and pristine. They provide a unique opportunity for a careful, conscientious visitor to explore the flora and fauna of these marvelous ecosystems. Unfortunately, summer visitors can expect to be trailed by a cloud of deer flies, which swarm from the sandy roads and trails in numbers that are hard to comprehend. Once off the roads and into the forests and wetlands, however, the deer flies give way to the usual mosquitoes and blackflies, which respond much more readily to repellent. Of course, sensitive individuals can always choose to wear bug hats or bug shirts. Either way, the research forest is worth a visit.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
I sometimes wonder if I could still learn to paddle whitewater. Then I remember how much my knees complain simply climbing into my open canoe. Could I really fit myself into a whitewater canoe or kayak? Could I get out? Nonetheless, whenever I watch the paddlers on the waves at Bate Island, the hankering strikes again.
With temperatures climbing into the low teens, I’d set out to cycle along the Ottawa River, up Pinecrest Creek, back to the Experimental Farm and Arboretum, and then home along the Rideau Canal. I didn’t make it. Enough snow lingered along the pathway beside the river to convince me that Pinecrest Creek would be impassable except on a fat bike. Instead, seeing the cars parked at Bate Island, I decided to detour for a look at “The Wave”.
It lies just below the Champlain Bridge, on the west side of Bate Island: a standing wave, only a few metres offshore, curling perpetually in the swift current. Actually, in Spring conditions, several waves stand out from the shore. However, “The Wave”, as it is known, has just the right curl to cradle a paddler, while the adjacent boil provides the perfect conditions for tricks. Canoeists, kayakers, stand-up paddlers and surfers line up along the retaining wall to take turns lancing into the current. More experienced paddlers advise the novices on which line to take and how hard to paddle. Each paddler takes a couple of minutes carving the water, and then bails out for the next person to slide into place.
Sometimes several paddlers will launch together in a competition to see who can hold their place amid the bumping of the kayaks. The losers roll over the wave and bob away down the short chain of rapids into the lee of the island, while the winner celebrates with a few spins.
The stand-up paddleboarders impress me the most. Although they seem relatively tame in comparison to the kayakers, I admire their skill in manoeuvring their long boards through the whitewater, with only a paddle and the feel of the river through their feet to guide them.
My heart, though, lies with the canoeists. Leaning into their single-bladed paddles, and rocketing their streamlined craft into the surf, they seem like the greyhounds of the waves. I love to watch the spray knifing from their hulls and blades as they hiss across the face of the wave. Perhaps one of these days, I’ll join them.
Bate Island can be accessed from the Champlain Bridge, heading west toward Quebec. Parking is abundant. Whitewater paddling is inherently risky, and the Ottawa River is cold, even in Summer. Never paddle alone, and always wear a wetsuit, flotation device and helmet.
In late summer, when water levels drop in the Ottawa River, a fascinating glimpse into ancient history emerges into view. The Ottawa River stromatolites lie below the Quebec side of the Champlain Bridge. 460 million years ago, in a shallow, salty embayment of a tropical sea, colonies of blue-green algae cemented together sediments and calcium carbonate into low mounds of limestone (http://www.ottawagatineaugeoheritage.ca/subsites/4). They survived the geological cataclysms of next half billion years to be scoured clean by the river and exposed on the pretty, wooded shoreline. Perhaps nowhere else in the world can one leave a damp footprint on such tangible evidence of ancient life.
No river figures so strongly in Canada’s history as the Ottawa. For Aboriginal peoples, for early European explorers, for fur-traders and for pioneer loggers, the Ottawa River provided the most direct route into the heart of Canada. The first Aboriginal sites along the Ottawa River date back 6000 years. Samuel de Champlain’s Aboriginal guides led him up the Ottawa River in 1613. The last timber raft floated under Parliament Hill in 1908, and log drives continued on the Ottawa River until 1990. During the last half of the 19th Century and well into the 20th Century, power from the Chaudiere Falls supported thriving industries along the Gatineau and Ottawa shorelines. The river gave birth to Canada’s atomic industry, at the Atomic Energy Commission Laboratories in Chalk River. Hydro-electric dams continue to operate along the river, while the lakes behind them provide recreational boating and fishing that help to support thriving communities up the Ottawa Valley. A paddle along the Ottawa River is literally a paddle through the history of the country.
Fortunately, almost all of the Ottawa River lies open to pedestrians, cyclists and paddlers. Multi-use pathways line both shorelines through the urban core, with numerous lookouts and beaches providing access to the water. Most of my favourite cycling routes begin beside the Ottawa River Locks, on the Rideau Canal, sandwiched between the Parliament Buildings and the Chateau Laurier hotel. From there, a National Capital Commission cycling path travels beside the river, under the bluffs of Parliament Hill, below the Supreme Court of Canada and past the historical Aboriginal site of Victoria Island. At the Portage Bridge, the trails begin to branch, some continuing along the Ontario shoreline upriver past the Chaudiere Falls and the Canadian War Museum, some crossing over the Portage and Chaudiere bridges to the Quebec shoreline. The National Capital Commission publishes a map of its trail system, showing the available destinations and routes (http://www.ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places-to-visit/parks-paths/things-to-do/cycling-capital-pathways).
My favourite ride makes a loop through Gatineau, on the Quebec side. From the Chaudiere Bridge, it heads briefly upriver, then turns north into Gatineau Park, makes a quick detour to Pink Lake, heads east to the Gatineau River, goes back down through Lac Leamy Parc to the Ottawa River, and then crosses the Alexandra Bridge at the Canadian Museum of History. It’s a challenging ride through beautiful scenery: steep climbs and descents along forest trails and roads, winding pathways past wetlands, boardwalks and bridges over creeks and along shorelines.
For a shorter, easier trip, I like to ride upriver along the Ontario shoreline to Mud Lake and Britannia Park. Along the way, I sometimes stop at Lemiuex Island to view the colonies of gulls, cormorants and night herons on the adjacent, smaller islands. I stop at Remic Rapids to admire the balanced rock sculptures in the shallows of the river. Near Westboro Beach, I often take a detour into Westboro Village for coffee at Bridgehead, a browse through Mountain Equipment Co-op, or a meal at one of the cafes and restaurants. Reaching Mud Lake, I may dismount for a walk through the natural area or carry on to Brittania Beach or Andrew Hayden Park. I usually time my ride back home for the evening, when the sun sets behind the Quebec shoreline, sending its apricot glow across the river.
On calm mornings, I will often load my canoe on to a Vrtucar (a local car-sharing business) and head off to one the river’s quieter areas. Petrie Island, in the east end of the City, is a wonderful destination. The provincially significant wetland inshore of the island provides sheltered canoeing, with opportunities to photograph the area’s many birds, turtles (including the threatened map turtle), and beautiful swamp forest. Downstream of the island, the mouth of Cardinal Creek provides one of the river’s most important fish habitats. A low squeeze under the Highway 174 bridge takes one into the lower reach of Cardinal Creek: a marvellous, meandering paddle through a superb floodplain wetland entrenched in a deep valley.
At the opposite end of the City lies Constance Bay, which deserves a full blog post of its own. Lying at the upper end of a relict, post-glacial flow channel paralleling the Ottawa River, Constance bay forms a wide, shallow, sandy-bottomed crescent at the mouth of Constance Creek. Cottages and homes line the shore, but access to the Bay is possible from City road allowances at the end of Greenland Road on the east side of the bay and Lane Street on the west side of the bay in the Village of Constance Bay. The shallow, sandy bay is delightful for wading, warm in the summer and easy on bare feet. In the spring, just east of the creek mouth, longnose gar spawn and hunt in mere centimetres of water, “finning” in the shallows. Pike lie in ambush in the reed beds. Catfish wait in the channel of the creek, and walleye hunt along the dropoffs. Waterfowl abound. Herons hunt frogs. Gulls and terns patrol the shallows, waiting to plunge onto schools of small minnows. Within the mouth of creek, along the edge of the silver maple swamp, songbirds flit and sing. It may be the prettiest spot on the river.
The Ottawa River simply offers too many places to visit and things to do to describe in one short post. Just within the boundaries of Ottawa and Gatineau, one can find places enough to fill a summer with exploration: Morris Island Conservation Area, Fitzroy Harbour Provincial Park, The Quyon Ferry, Piney’s Point Historical Site, Sheila McKee Park, Shirley’s Bay, Andrew Hayden Park, Bate Island, Lemieux Island, Victoria Island, Rideau River Falls, Rockcliffe Park, Green’s Creek, Upper and Lower Duck Islands, Lac Leamy Park, Baie McLaurin, Baie Lafontaine. Beyond Ottawa, even more opportunities abound, such as whitewater rafting in Beachburg, only 90 minutes north of the City, camping in Voyageur Provincial Park or Driftwood Provincial Park, an hour downriver and two and half hours upriver respectively, or houseboat cruising on the Upper Ottawa River. Somewhere, there’s a deserted beach waiting.
The Village of Pakenham, just outside Ottawa, lies on the gentle Mississippi River. Most visitors come to photograph the famous five-arch, stone bridge, or to eat ice cream at the Pakenham General Store, the oldest general store in Canada (open in the same location for 170 years). A few dragonfly enthusiasts know it as one of the very few places to find the endangered Rapids Clubtail, a small colourful dragonfly that breeds in the shallow pools and rapids below the bridge. I think of it as the perfect place to begin an excursion on the Mississippi River downstream to Cody Creek.
The quiet backwater beside the Conservation Area at the bridge provides a good location to launch a canoe. The river meanders gently through a rural landscape of wooded banks and farmland, a fringe of marsh along the sh0reline. In places, old oxbows flank the main channel, hidden behind a screeen of willows. Wildlife abounds along the banks, in the wetlands and the shallows. Smallmouth bass, pike and walleye hunt the weedlines, the dropoffs and deeper pools.
Not far downriver from Pakenham, perhaps a twenty minute paddle, Cody Creek joins the river from the east. As one approaches the creek from upstream, the eastern shore becomes more hilly and heavily wooded. Small, pretty wetlands lie behind the shoreline, draining to the river through small, muddy channels. A wooded sandbar provides a place to pull out and stretch one’s legs. Thick sedges and marsh grasses cover the banks, while beaver and muskrat tracks crisscross any patch of open ground. Frogs scatter into the water at every step. A narrow, greasy flood channel connects to a small beaver pond, overlooked by a large snag and stick nest. A red-tailed hawk sounds a “keerrr” of protest. The shade of a silver maple provides an idyllic location to sit, eat a snack, and watch a heron stalking in the shallows downstream.
The marsh at the mouth of Cody Creek deserves appreciation for its diversity, beauty and productivity. An artificial frog or a wooly bugger tossed along the weedline is likely to provoke an aggressive strike. Dragonflies and damselflies cruise over the lilypads, coming to land on the side of the canoe, the end of a paddle, or the brim of a hat. Mayflies cling to reeds. A swirl in the water betrays a snapping turtle feeding on a dead carp in the murk of the bottom, while sun-loving painted turtles line up on logs.
Very few people know of Cody Creek. From its headwaters in Long Swamp, it flows west, draining much of the southwest corner of Ottawa’s rural landscape. It remains remarkably healthy, despite passing through some extensive agricultural lands. By the time that it nears the Mississippi River, it has carved a steep-sided, overgrown valley. In its last reaches, it meanders through a spectacular, black maple swamp. This provincially significant Area of Natural and Scientific Interest is, so far as I know, unique in Ottawa. The accomplished and well-known biologist, Dan Brunton, deserves much credit for documenting the outstanding natural value of the swamp and bringing it to the attention of the Province.
The swamp appears almost primaeval. The brown water moves slowly, swirling slowly around large downed trees. Animal prints crowd around dark holes in the slick, clay banks. Tracks lead through sunlit ferns to the dark forest beyond. I’ve come upon otters swimming in the shadows, as well as the ubiquitous muskrats and beavers. Emerald and ebony jewelwings flit along shore. Bright birdsong burbles in the underbrush and in the high canopy above, while the air below seems very still.
The creek can be paddled as far as the bridge at Hanson Side Road in low water, and a bit further in high water. Log jams and fallen trees block the channel in some places. The banks consist of slick clay, and it is probably easier and safer to climb on to the log jams and haul the canoe over than to try going around. Access to the creek is also possible at the bridge, but there’s no easy put-in.
A hurried visitor can paddle the round-trip from Pakenham to Cody Creek in less than an hour. But I wouldn’t take less than three hours, to allow time for sightseeing, photography and fishing. A drifting canoe can float up to wildlife that a impatient paddler would never see. And I’ve spent 45 minutes simply resting, bow into the weeds, with my head hung over the side of the canoe watching a microcosm of life play itself out in the water. I suggest a morning trip, when birds and other animals are most active, and the air is a bit cooler. Picnic by the stone bridge, then walk up the General Store for some ice cream and fresh-baked bread.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.