Old and New Along the Rideau River

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.

A canoe rests on a towed trailer behind a bicycle.
Wike Canoe Trailer

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.

A blue sky and fair weather clouds hang over the Rideau River and the Hurdman Transit Bridge.
Rideau River Downstream of the Hurdman Bridge

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.

A painted turtle basks on a large log in the Rideau River.
Painted Turtle, Rideau River

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.

A group of four strand-up paddlerboarders cruuise up the Rideau River.
Stand-up Paddleboarders, Rideau River

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.

A newly hatched dragonfly dries its wings on a reed.
Unknown Darner, Rideau River

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.

Two artists work on the graffiti wall at the House of PainT under the Dunbar Bridge.
House of PainT, Dunbar Bridge, Rideau River
Huge crack willows line the shore at the site of a 4000 year-old, Early Woodland archaeology site.
Early Woodland Archaeology Site, Rideau River
The sun glints through a large crack willow on the shoreline of the Rideau River at Vincent Massey Park.
Shoreline, Vincent Massey Park, Rideau River

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.

Two L29 Delfins fly in formation over the Rideau River.
L29 Delfins, AMC Warbirds
A female mallard shepherds her ducklings.
Mallard and Ducklings, Rideau River
A muskrat swims along the shore of the Rideau River.
Muskrat, Rideau River
A mink stands on the shore of the Rideau River with the carcass of a carp.
Mink, Rideau River

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.

The evening sun casts its last rays on the Rideau River and the Adawe Crossing footbridge.
Adawe Crossing, Rideau River

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


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.