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

Wildlife

Hiking the Crazy Horse Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constance Creek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bilberry Creek Ravine, Orleans

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.

A narrow footpath runs under the trees deep in the Bilberry Creek Ravine.
Footpath in Bilberry Creek Ravine

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”.

White pines soar along Bilberry Creek
Bilberry Creek White Pines

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?

A cluster of bright, yellow trout lilies bloom on the forest floor.
Trout Lilies Bloom in Bilberry Creek Ravine

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.

Woodpecker holes and cavities pockmark the gnarled trunk of a white pine.
Woodpecker Holes in a White Pine
A large, collapsed log rots on the forest floor.
Woody Debris on the Forest Floor
A footbridge for a multi-use trail crosses Bilberry Creek.
Multi-use Trail Crossing Bilberry Creek
A nature trail leads up through conifers into sunlight.
Sunlit Path Through Conifers

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.

Bilberry Creek cuts through the upper ravine.
Bilberry Creek
About 20 metres of the slope has slumped toward Bilberry Creek, carrying trees with it.
Slope Failure on Bilberry Creek
A slatted footbridge crosses Bilberry Creek.
Footbridge Over Bilberry Creek
A protective crib wall protects a small section of bank along Bilberry Creek.
Crib Wall on Bilberry Creek
A beaver has chewed through one trunk of a large, multi-stemmed tree, and cut most of the way through the other stem.
Beaver Work on Bilberry Creek

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.

Pine trees tower over Bilberry Creek.
Pine Trees Towering Beside Bilberry Creek
A trail leads through some trees down into the forest.
Down into the Forest

Morris Island and the Snye River

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

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

Flooded sinkhole - Snye River
Flooded sinkhole – Snye River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ottawa River

A low angle view across the cobbled bed of stromatolites, with the river, shoreline and a sun flare in the background.
Ottawa River Stromatolites

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.

A close-up photograph of scarlet, Cardinal flower blossoms against an out of focus background of the Ottawa River and shoreline.
Cardinal Flower

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.

On a breezy day, a regatta of sail boats tacks in the background, while a raft of Canada geese float in the foreground.
Regatta on Lac Deschenes, Ottawa River

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.

Leafy branches frame a photograph of a marsh with a great blue heron standing in the reeds.
Gatineau Park Wetland

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.

Under a beautiful, blue sky, balanced stone sculptures crowd the exposed shoreline rocks at Remic Rapids.
Remic Rapids
In the foreground, a balanced stone sculpture and a goose stand silhouetted against the glowing water of the river, while a fisherman stands in silhouette on a point in the distance.
Rock Balancing
Four wood and rock sculptures stand silhouetted against the blue and orange of the river at sunset.
River Sculptures
The Alexandra Bridge and Statue of Samuel de Champlain stand silhouetted against wispy blue clouds and glowing pink bands of the dusk sky.
Alexandra Bridge and Statue of Samuel de Champlain

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.

A solitary map turtle basks on the tip of an old log in the middle of the Ottawa River at Petrie Island.
Map Turtle at Petrie Island

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.

An aluminum boat floats in the shallows of Constance Bay at the end of Greenland Road, with sail boats and the Quebec shoreline in the distant background.
Constance Bay from Greenland Road
A young boy fishes from the bow of a canoe amidst the reeds in the marsh at Constance Bay.
Fishing at the Mouth of Constance Creek
The author of the blog sits in the stern of a canoe, holding a small pike that he has caught on a spinnerbait.
Small Pike on a Spinnerbait

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.

For more information on enjoying and protecting the Ottawa River, please visit the Ottawa Riverkeeper website at:   http://www.ottawariverkeeper.ca/ 

A stand of pine trees, glowing in the early evening sun, reflect in the perfectly still water at Morris Island Conservation Area.
Morris Island Reflections
A boy fishes from a rocky shoreline in the twilight at Morris Island Conservation Area.
Evening Fishing
A group of people look out over the Ottawa River from the deck of the Quyon Car Ferry.
Quyon Ferry
A sailboat tacks into a stiff breeze off Sheila McKee Park, with the Quebec shoreline in the background.
View from Sheila McKee Park
Exhibitors in period costume stand before a reconstruction of a traditional river sailboat at Riverfest at Pinhey's Point Historical Site.
Riverfest at Pinhey’s Point Historical Site
A surfer and a kayaker Ride "The Wave" at Bate Island
Riding “The Wave” at Bate Island
A warmly dressed woman sits in the bow of a canoe as it glides up Green's Creek on a grey, Spring day.
Green’s Creek

 

The Rideau River

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

 

The Rideau River doesn’t flow down to Camelot, although the old City Hall, perched on its island just upstream of the Rideau Falls has its own, nostalgic mistique.  But my romance with the Rideau River has not waned in the twenty-odd years that I’ve lived in Ottawa.  In fact, it has deepened.

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

The Rideau River runs for almost 20 kilometres through urban Ottawa, although the section along which I spend most of my time is the 12 kilometre stretch from Carleton University to the Rideau Falls.  Several times a week, from late spring until mid-autumn, I ride my bicycle along the bordering pathways.  Once or twice a month I put my canoe in at Strathcona Park, and paddle up the river, with camera and binoculars beside me and a big fly trailing behind in the current in the vain hope of picking up a muskie.  Or I walk down with my rod and waders to a favourite ledge, where I cast to the big bass that lurk at the edge of a deep channel.

On any day, I never know what wildlife I will find at the river.  In the winter, mallards and goldeneyes congregate in the swift, open reaches.  In the spring and autumn, migratory waterfowl pass through:  buffleheads, loons, black ducks, common and hooded mergansers….  In the summer, the river and the woods teem with birds:  more mallards, wood ducks, great blue herons, mergansers, double-crested cormorants, spotted sandpipers, and songbirds of every kind.  More than once, I’ve lifted my head to the piping alarm of blackbirds to watch a Cooper’s Hawk fly swiftly across the river.  The Royal Swans, released from their winter captivity, glide along the shoreline.

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

Not just birds frequent the Rideau.  Bullfrogs groan in the shallows, and muskrats wind between lilypads and pickerelweed.  I’ve cruised my canoe up to somnolent snapping turtles, and cautiously edged toward wary painted turtles.  On an evening bicycle ride, I’ve exchanged curious stares with an otter.  In the dawn of another day, I’ve paddled quietly past a doe and fawn drinking at the water’s edge.  The Rideau River provides a natural refuge and a ribbon of life through the heart of Ottawa.

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

 The abundance and diversity of wildlife attests to the health of the Rideau River, especially considering the number of people that come to enjoy its offerings.  Some people come to fish.  Some come to cool their feet in the clean current — especially at the shallow, limestone ledge that spans the river at Strathcona.  Some come to feed the ducks.  Some come for exercise, to walk, run or ride along the pathways.  Some come merely to enjoy the views, to quiet their minds beside the water, or to hold hands with a sweetheart.

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

I have lived in Victoria, Vancouver, Halifax, Edmonton, and Toronto.  I have visited most other Canadian cities at one time or another.  I don’t know any urban, natural space that exceeds the beauty of the Rideau River.  In another place — a New York, a London, or a Tokyo — it would be celebrated and promoted.  In books and movies, lovers would embrace and part on its shady banks.  Photographers would immortalize it.  Poets would write of it.  In modest Ottawa, though, it rolls on almost unheralded.  Perhaps we like it that way.  Perhaps that’s the secret of its charms.

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