In search of quiet on the Carp River

“It’s easy to be a holy man on top of a mountain.”

I don’t know the origin of this quote, or where I heard it.  But I recalled it a couple of weeks ago.  I had guided my canoe gently on to a shallow mud flat at the edge of the Carp river, and then leaned back on the bench, resting my elbows against the gunnels and stretching my legs in exquisite pleasure at the change in position.  A shrub leaned out from the shore, shading me.  For as far as I could see along the straightened channel, tall, thick orchard grass bent from the bank toward the slow, clear water.  Tufts of wild rice nodded slowly in the current.  In places, a thin band of pickerel weed and water lilies edged out from the bank.  Only the blue sky looked down on me; the rest of world lay beyond the green fringe.


A flock of geese passed noisily overhead.  Birds rustled and chipped furtively in the grass.  Grasshoppers buzzed in the bordering fields.  Dragonflies and damselflies danced over the water, their sharp metallic colors bright in the sunlight.  Minnows and creek chubb swirled and darted in small schools.

I couldn’t entirely escape the human element.  Distantly, I could hear traffic.  A tractor growled somewhere behind me, maybe at the golf course farther upstream, or haying in one of the fields.  A high, passing passenger jet sounded like a distant waterfall.  But tucked under the lip of my narrow, green valley, I felt hidden from the world.  I breathed in the rich perfume of late summer, and breathed out stale air, concerns and responsibilities.

Reflecting there, I thought how fortunate I was to have such a moment and such a place to spend it.  I thought how rare it must be.  How many knew of this place and had lingered in it?  A few minutes earlier, I had watched a green heron feeding on the mud flat and in the reeds under the ragged bark of a huge, leaning crack willow.  Oblivious to the quiet man in the still canoe, he had stalked the shallows for insects and frogs, pausing now and then to lift his head and bill, showing off the soft, brown streaking of his chest and neck.  An intimate show, private.

I don’t know what meaning, if any, that moment held.  But I have added it to a score of others to which I return in my memories and thoughts, when I need to find some distance from the noisy, crowded world about me.


Mud Lake, Britannia

Mud Lake.  Such an unappealing, dull name for such a beautiful, diverse place.  It conveys nothing of the delightful chorus of migrating warblers in the surrounding forest and thickets on a early May morning.  It gives no hint of the late, summer sun setting aglow the surface of the Ottawa River and silhouetting a lone fly fisherman on the shoreline’s rocky ledges.  It fails to capture the spectacle of hundreds of cackling Canada geese sideslipping over paprika and apricot foliage to land in the lake late on an autumn afternoon.  It says nothing of the hush of snow sifting through the towering pines on a winter evening.

A quiet back bay of lilypads and shoreline trees at Mud Lake.
Back Bay at Mud Lake
A tall white pine stands silhouetted against a navy blue, evening sky.
Mud Lake Pine
The placid waters of the Ottawa River near Mud Lake reflect sunset's glow and shoreline trees.
Ottawa River at Mud Lake with Westboro in the Distance
A fishermen casts into the Ottawa River near Mud Lake at sunset.
Last Casts

Mud Lake sits on the shore of the Ottawa River in Britannia, within a semi-natural area of approximately 70 ha.  A low ridge, a quiet access road and the lawns of the Britannia Water Purification Plant separate it from the river.  A thin band of deciduous trees screens most of the lake.  Behind this screen, on the east side, lie young swamp forests, thickets and old fields.  An older, mixed forest lies on the west side of the lake, dominated by large white pines.  Across the access road, the shale ridge supports a thicket of stunted trees, staghorn sumac, and other scrubby brush, that merges with a fringe of crack willow along the river.

Dark trees and a silver sky reflect in the waters of Mud Lake.
Evening Reflections
Two large pines stand beside a walking path in the forest at Mud Lake.
Pines and Pathway
A single tower rises beyond Mud Lake and a line of trees.
Place of Refuge

The lake, itself, abounds with life.  Cattails, shrubs and sedges crowd the shore, while lilypads and other floating aquatic plants carpet the deeper sections.  Muskrats and beavers cruise the lake in the evenings.  Painted turtles glide under the surface, while a few Blanding’s turtles still survive in some of the quieter backwaters.  Bullheads gather in the shallows.  Dragonflies and damselflies dance everywhere, with 65 species reported.

A hand holds a baby snapping turtle.
Baby Snapping Turtle
A dense bed of ferns shines bright green in the sun.
Moss on a grey stone emerges from snow.
Elements of Life
Peaceful Mud Lake lies under a blue, summer sky, with a yellow pond-lily in bloom in the foreground.
Yellow Pond-lily

But Mud Lake is best known as one of Ottawa’s great, urban birdwatching sites (a favourite of the Ottawa Valley Nature and Wildlife Photographers).  In the spring, the location, along with the diversity of vegetation and habitats, draws in birds of all shapes and sizes.  Warblers, flycatchers and hummingbirds flit through the trees and underbrush.  Thrashers and catbirds, sometimes even cuckoos and mockingbirds, chatter in the thickets.  Swallows and martins dart over the fields and the lake.  Great blue herons and black-crowned night herons stalk frogs along the shoreline.  Ducks, geese, gulls and shorebirds of all kinds visit or reside through the spring, summer and autumn months.  Sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks, merlins and kestrels come to hunt.  Peregrines sometimes pass through, as do bald eagles and ospreys.  Screech owls haunt the woods in the summer, and and great horned owls have wintered in the woods.

A close-up photograph of a beady-eyed, white-breasted nuthatch clinging to a branch as it seeks a handout.
White-breasted Nuthatch Looking for a Handout

Mud Lake lies only a ten minute walk from Britannia Park, with its large, shady picnic area, sandy beach, and views of sailboats, kayaks and kiteboarders on the Ottawa River — an ideal place a family outing.  The Ottawa River bicycle path runs past it, connecting to kilometres of trails through the City and the 20,000 hectares of the National Capital Greenbelt (National Capital Greenbelt).  It’s the perfect place to listen to the wind in the pines, to find a quiet moment with nature, to watch a child laughing at a turtle, or to get that perfect photograph of a wood duck.

A boys sits on the reclining limb of a crack willow on the shoreline of the Ottawa River.
Idyllic Seat

The dog days of summer

According to various sources, the phrase, “the dog days of summer” originated with the Romans.  The Romans noticed that the hottest days of summer tended to occur during a period when the “Dog Star”, Sirius, rose in the morning with the sun:  a period from mid-July to mid-August, by our current calendar.  The phrase has remained in use, I suspect, because of the image it provokes:  a lazy dog, a hound maybe, lolling in the shade of a lilac bush, beside a drooping, screened porch at the front of a weathered farmhouse.  Cicadas buzz loudly in the trees along the lane and along the hedgerows in the fields.  The hound twitches his velvet ears now and then to unsettle the biting flies, which buzz for a moment and then settle back down.  Under the unbroken blue sky and midday sun, nothing moves except for waves of shimmering heat flowing off the hard, baked earth.  Time crawls like a tortoise.

Country scenery

The dog days of summer lie heavily over Ottawa.  The fields, forests, wetlands and wildlife whither under the worst drought in decades, with the past twelve months having produced the least precipitation on record.  Brush fires flare around the City.  Farmers suffer terribly, with poor hay yields and the prospect of failing corn and soybeans.  Wilted trees seem common, and those on drier, thinner soils have begun to change color from the stress.  Many smaller streams and creeks have shrunk to strings of stagnant, remnant pools.  One can walk across the cracked, clay beds of some marshes.

Cobden flowers

And, yet, in many ways, it seems the best of summers.  The hot, dry days hark back to halycon times, simpler, slower times of lazy contemplation.  Cool morning outings.  Afternoon siestas.  The ecstatic plunge into a fragrant lake.  The thrill and promise of a lover’s fingertips trailed along a forearm in the long, lingering evening.  Times that probably never existed as we remember them, but exist now as we desire them.




Monarch 2

These days will impress themselves upon us, and especially on our children.  For them, this summer will stand for all their youthful summers.  They will recall that the sky never seemed so blue, the grasshoppers so numerous, the world so expansive and free.  No lake will sparkle again so brilliantly under the sun for them.  The rustling of the trembling aspens will never again sound so bright, nor will the poplars smell so pungent.  No sunset will ever again burn so rich.  Our children will carry these memories, and these memories will shape their lives.  And someday, in the dog days of another summer, they will relive and renew them.

Lunch on the mountain