Wetlands

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.

A woman meditates on a deck overlooking a wetland in the Four Seasons Conservation Forest, Deep River
Wetland, Four Seasons Conservation Forest, Deep River
The sun sets on the Upper Poole Creek Wetland.
Upper Poole Creek Wetland

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.

Reknowned naturalist, Michael Runtz, walks ahead along a deer trail in the Phragmites Fen.
Entering the Phragmites Fen with Michael Runtz

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.

The autumn sun shines on an open marsh meadow and maple swamp.
Maple Swamp and Marsh Meadow, Stony Swamp

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.

A great blue heron flies over a marsh.
Restored Wetland, Carp River Floodplain

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.

An aerial photograph shows a long ditch bisecting the Mer Bleue bog.
Mer Bleue Ditching
A marsh lies in the floodplain of the Mississippi River.
Mississippi River Wetland

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.

A beaver lodge and food pile sit at the edge of thicket swamp.
Beaver Lodge and Food Pile

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.

In the dusk light, a beaver lodge is silhouetted against the grey lake water, with a pine-covered shoreline in the background.
Mud Lake Beaver Lodge at Dusk
A large snapping turtle rises for a breath of air at Mud Lake.
Mud Lake Snapping Turtle

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.

A beaver deceiver protects road culvert.
Beaver Deceiver Protecting a Road Culvert

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.

An endangered eastern prairie fringed orchid grows in a fen.
Endangered Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid
A blue sky shines down upon a floating fen in the Shirley's Bay area.
Floating Fen
A patch of flowering sundews grows on floating log.
Sundews
A purple pickerelweed grows in shoreline marsh.
Pickerelweed
A low, evening mist blankets a spruce swamp.
Misty Swamp
A solitary, pink rose pogonia rises from a fen mat.
Rose Pogonia
A marsh lies nestled amidst the trees of Gatineau Park.
Gatineau Park Wetland

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.

A male red-winged blackbird clings to a cattail in the Dows Lake marsh.
Red-winged Blackbird, Dows Lake
An ermine peers out from some brush in the Upper Poole Creek wetland.
Ermine, Upper Poole Creek Wetland
A common yellowthroat sings from a willow shrub.
Common Yellowthroat
A close-up photograph of a white water lily.
White Water Lily
A dragonfly perches on a shrub in a fen.
Dragonfly in a Fen
A garter snake slithers across a floating pond lily leaf.
Garter Snake
A green heron perches in a tree at the Beaver Pond in Kanata.
Green Heron, Beaver Pond, Kanata
A leopard frog sits at the edge of the Snye Wetland.
Leopard Frog, Snye Wetland
A close-up photograph of an orchid called Swamp Pink.
Swamp Pink

Deep River – Part One

An evening calm has settled over the Ottawa River as I paddle into a burnished, copper sunset.  I trail a fly behind the canoe, more from habit than hope.  If I really wanted to catch fish, I would trail a spinnerbait for pike, or rig a artificial minnow for walleye.  Mostly, I just enjoy the quiet, made more pronounced by the occasional powerboat thrumming in the distance.  On the Quebec side, I see lights begin to glimmer on the houseboats beached at the point.  Laughter carries across the water.  Nearer, on my left, I see a whitetail deer come shyly down to the beach in the deepening dusk, as a wood thrush begins to flute in the woods.  Abruptly, the sandy bottom rises below my canoe.  I ship my paddle and quickly wind in my fly.  Then I continue into the bay toward the boat launch, passing Lamure Beach and threading through the moored boats.  I pull out the canoe and drag it up to the trees with the others.  Then I stroll through the peaceful streets until I see home and the glow of warm, yellow light through the blinds of the large front window.

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

The town of Deep River lies an easy two hour drive northwest of Ottawa along Highway 17.  Sandwiched between the highway and the Ottawa River, it trails along the shoreline for a couple of kilometers.  The usual Tim Hortons, Canadian Tire, motel and small strip malls service the highway.  A busy grocery store, post office, shops, cafes, school, and town office anchor the small, downtown core, which sits just behind the waterfront, overlooking the river.  The marina and yacht club lie only a brisk two minute walk away.  Tidy residential neighbourhoods lie either side of downtown — a mix of small, renovated, post-war bungalows and more modern, multi-story houses.  The Deep River Regional Hospital marks the east side of town, while the Mount Martin Ski Club sits on the west side.

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

I spend at least two weeks every summer in Deep River with my wife and our sons.  We make shorter visits throughout the year.  I spend most of that time outside, exploring the local forests and wetlands, or paddling the shoreline of the Ottawa River.  Deep River is a microcosm of whole Ottawa Valley, with almost every kind of ecosystem, habitat and wildlife species within easy reach.

Most trips to Deep River begin and end at the Four Seasons Forest Sanctuary, on the southeast side of the town.  This community-owned forest is part of an enormous, contiguous, protected natural area that includes the restricted lands surrounding the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (formerly AECL) in Chalk River, the Petawawa Research Forest, the training areas of Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, and Algonquin Park.  A short hiking loop begins across from the hospital and leads to a pretty, covered shelter overlooking a wetland.  Even on the buggiest days, the squadrons of dragonflies hunting along the marsh edge succeed at keeping most mosquitoes at bay.  Common yellowthroats sing in the thickets, while swamp sparrows skulk in the reeds.  An American bittern grunts deep in the marsh.  A blue heron fishes along the meandering stream on the other side. Turtles and frogs bask in the small pond by the shelter, where an occasional beaver, muskrat or otter makes an appearance.  I’ll bring a lunch and meditate on the scene, read a book, or bring a guitar.  Almost always, I’m on my own.

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

Longer trails lead deeper into the sanctuary, passing a variety of habitats:  upland forests of white pine, maple and beech; darker forests of spruce and balsam fir; pretty riparian marshes, and dark forest pools; bright, grassy clearings, and shadowed fern gardens.  One of my favourite destinations is Cranberry Lake, which stretches back into the AECL lands.  At the end of a half hour hike, a small bench looks out over the lake and a pretty, floating fen mat.  In late June and early July, white waterlilies carpet the water, and pink orchids (swamp pinks and rose pogonias) dot the fen.  I often skip the bench and stretch out under the white pine that graces the shoreline, closing my eyes for a nap in midday sunshine.  Occasionally I lift my head and look down the lake, hoping to see one of the moose that have found a haven on the AECL lands.

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

During the winter, the trails of the Forest Sanctuary become an active cross-country ski and snowshoe network.  Trails are well marked and maintained by the Deep River Cross Country Ski Club, who put on an active recreational and social program through the winter.  The forest and wetlands take on a different kind of beauty and quiet in the winter, always reminding me of the Robert Frost lines, “the only other sound’s the sweep, of easy wind and downy flake.”

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

The Petawawa Research Forest, just outside nearby Chalk River, also provides wonderful opportunities for exploration.  The Research Forest Museum, now inactive and partly abandoned, still remains open to the public — albeit quickly deteriorating.  An interpretive trail still loops from the museum through the forest, and an old boardwalk still offers a short, but pretty walk along the shore of the Chalk River.  A maze of access and logging roads leads deep into the forest, past a myriad of different tree communities, streams and wetlands.  In particular, the research forest includes a large number of well-developed fens and bogs, some of which are very accessible and yet still virtually unknown and pristine.  They provide a unique opportunity for a careful, conscientious visitor to explore the flora and fauna of these marvelous ecosystems.  Unfortunately, summer visitors can expect to be trailed by a cloud of deer flies, which swarm from the sandy roads and trails in numbers that are hard to comprehend.  Once off the roads and into the forests and wetlands, however, the deer flies give way to the usual mosquitoes and blackflies, which respond much more readily to repellent.  Of course, sensitive individuals can always choose to wear bug hats or bug shirts.  Either way, the research forest is worth a visit.

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

Mer Bleue

South of the Canadian Shield, Ontario has very few true bogs.  The two largest occur in Eastern Ontario, anchoring both ends of a 60 km long, regionally-significant, natural landscape corridor known as the Bog-to-Bog Link.  At the east end of this link lies the Alfred Bog — Southern Ontario’s largest.  At the west end of the link lies Mer Bleue — Southern Ontario’s second largest and, arguably, most accessible and famous.

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

Mer Bleue occupies an old, post-glacial flow channel of the Ottawa River.  Two forested ridges — immense, old river sandbars — thrust into the heart of the flat, peaty wetland.  Cold, nutrient-poor groundwater seeping through the sandy ridges, along with the poor drainage of the old clay channel, creates the perfect conditions for the formation of peat, which lies almost 10 metres deep in places.  Toward the centre of the wetland, the peat has built up into an almost imperceptible, low dome.  Out of contact with the underlying water, most of few, hardy plant species growing in the centre of the raised peat must survive entirely on trace nutrients deposited by rain, snow and dust.  One or two carnivorous species, like the pitcher plant, supplement that diet with captured insects.  This reliance on aerial deposition of nutrients is what makes Mer Bleue a true bog.

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

Mer Bleue welcomes visitors in any season.  In the spring, the ridges attract migrating songbirds, while the watery moat along the edge of the peat mat (technically known as a “lagg”) attracts migrating waterfowl.  Hawks hunt high over the ridges or low over the wetland.  A dozen or so sandhill cranes stop in the area annually on their way north, with a few perhaps nesting somewhere deep within the bog.  Beavers and muskrats ply the waters in the morning and evening to a chorus of frogs.

Through the summer, the shady, ridge trails provide a cool, relaxing hike.  Vireos and pewees sing overhead.  Ferns push up through the underbrush.  Where a trail skirts the edge of a field, grey catbirds mew in a hedgerow, while a brown thrasher scolds from the treetops.  Along the boardwalk, the heat of afternoon fills the air with the perfume of Labrador tea, bog rosemary, bog laurel, and leatherleaf.  The scent of a few tamarack needles rubbed between the palms calls forth old memories.

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

In autumn, the contrast of vegetation communities makes Mer Bleue one of the best places at which to enjoy the fall colours.  The bog turns a deep red, accented by the paling tamarack.  Red and gold maples line the edge of the ridges, brilliant against backgrounds of pine and spruce.  Variegated thickets of young birch stems support an awning of yellow leaves.  The forest floor rustles with life, as squirrels, thrushes, sparrows and other creatures prepare for the long winter.  Flocks of blackbirds and starlings pass noisily overhead, while strings of geese call plaintively in the distance.

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

In winter, well-stocked bird feeders guarantee that the bright chatter of chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers and finches will greet visitors at every trailhead.  Animal tracks criss-cross the trails:  squirrels, snowshoe hares, mice and voles, coyotes, weasels, deer, and even moose.  Those hoping to lay down their own tracks in fresh snow will need to rise early.  Later in the day, when the parking lots begin to fill with visitors, the compacted trails provide an easy walk in the woods or out onto the boardwalk.

The NCC does not provide heated shelters or warm-up huts at Mer Bleue, so winter visitors should dress appropriately.  The boardwalk, in particular, lies exposed to the wind, which blows unhindered across the bog.  At those times, frostbite becomes a real risk.  On calm days, however, particularly those brilliant blue days of January and February, when a frigid Arctic high sits over the City and the snow squeaks underfoot, the moisture rising from the peat will sometimes crystallize in a delicate, morning hoarfrost on the bog, sparkling in the sunlight.  On those mornings, one hardly feels the cold.

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

Mer Bleue lies only fifteen minutes from Parliament Hill and just five minutes off Highway 417 — the Trans-Canada Highway (http://www.ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places-to-visit/greenbelt/mer-bleue).  Every trailhead has a small parking area, where visitors will find basic outhouses.  There is no charge for parking or use of the area.

Visitors should remember that the international community has recognized Mer Bleue as a globally significant wetland under the Ramsar Convention (www.ramsar.org).  Please stay on the trails and the boardwalk.  The bog may look inviting, but it is both delicate and hazardous.  A stray footstep can destroy decades of painstakingly slow plant growth or lead to a fatal plunge through the mat into the tannic waters below.  Such a plunge would lead to an immortality of sorts, as the tannins of the bog preserved and slowly transformed the unwary soul into a leathery mummy.  However, such immortality would be unappreciated both by the victim, the victim’s family, and posterity.  Take a photograph instead.

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