In the northern hardwood forest, trout lily begins to bloom almost before the last snow melts in the deepest stands of fir or cedar. All winter, the root has slowly grown deeper into the earth; before the snow has melted, the shoot has begun to push through last autumn’s duff. The mottled, red and green leaves emerge all at once, seemingly overnight, to blanket the forest floor. Another day or two, and their drooping flowers unfurl to entice the early, forest pollinators. For a week, in the sun beneath the bare trees, they adorn the forest in yellow. And then they vanish before the spring has ended, withdrawn beneath the earth until the next awakening.
Although they form an almost insignificant part of the biomass of the forest, trout lilies — in fact, all of the ephemeral spring flowers — have evolved to play an important recycling role in the ecosystem. In the early days of spring, these fragile wildflowers capture much of the precious nitrogen and phosphorous that would otherwise leach away into the earth with the snowmelt and spring rains. They bind the vital nutrients into their tissues for a few, critical weeks. Then, when the ubiquitous fungi have spread their hyphal nets through the forest litter, and when the trees have again sent their fine roots growing and scavenging through the shallow, organic soil, the decomposing trout lilies release what they have conserved.
Ottawa offers many wonderful places to observe spring wildflowers. I recommend the older, hardwood forests on Canadian shield, like the South March Highlands Conservation Forest or the Crazy Horse Trail in the Carp Hills. Pink Lake, in Gatineau Park, offers one of the most varied and beautiful displays. As the trail circling the lake climbs from the low, rich shoreline to lichen-encrusted bedrock, it passes through a range of micr0-habitats and soils. Each unique combination of light, moisture, and nutrients supports its own flora. Early saxifrage, my favourite spring flower, grows on the cliffs along the east side of the lake. Proof that, “life finds a way” (to quote Malcolm from Jurassic Park), it roots in cracks and crevices with only a dusting of soil to support it. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the name itself, saxifragus, means “stonebreaking”. It embodies for me the resilience and tenacity of life, especially after the long winter.
Spring ephemerals remind me that every trial — every long winter, every dark night, every storm, every spiritual drought — comes to an end. On some afternoon, we will feel the sun on our faces and catch the moist, redolence of life emerging from the earth. The scent will rise in our chests and head. Our eyes will see a little more clearly. Our steps will feel a little more light.
They enter the new world naked, cold, uncertain of all save that they enter. -William Carlos Williams, By the Road to the Contagious Hospital
Never make life-changing decisions at 4 o-clock in the morning. Or in February.
For several years, I worked nights at a mental health facility for youth – the graveyard shift, 11 PM to 7 AM. Apart from my regular rounds and a once-nightly visit from the supervisor, I sat much of the time in silence and a fragile pool of light, with darkness hovering outside the window and bleeding down the halls. The dim lights of other buildings made the isolation feel more acute.
So often we hear, “trust your feelings”. I disagree. Know your feelings, but do not trust them – especially in the hours before dawn, when dark thoughts take wing and the black dog waits outside the window.
As a physician highly regarded for his humanity and care, William Carlos Williams must have known the loneliness of the pre-dawn: waiting at the bedside of a patient, or walking an empty hallway to his own echoing footsteps. But as an observer of Nature, he also knew that night and winter always end.
But now the stark dignity of entrance — Still, the profound change has come upon them: rooted, they grip down and begin to awaken
Those attuned to Nature always see the seed of the next season in the present one: death in life; life in death. In the height of summer, the first flocks of starlings foreshadow autumn. The bloom of asters and goldenrod in September – the swelling gall on the stem – hints at winter to come, even while the dust of summer still glazes the horizon. In the depths of winter, in February, when the sun seems remote and grey trees rattle in cold winds, the croak of high-spiralling ravens speaks of spring glimpsed far to the south. Just when the darkness seems interminable, a morning dawns with the sound of running water and the scent of earth.
I don’t know why Lauren lost hope. I knew her as the daughter of a friend and an occasional babysitter for my son. In those rare times that we would meet on the street, we always took time to stand and chat. She had a bright, summer smile. She reminded me of sunflowers.
I walked around the City today. In a patch of thawing earth against a south wall, I found a few, green blades pushing up through the soil from buried bulbs. A cardinal sang from a tree. A pair of chickadees flitted back and forth from a birdhouse on a front porch. House sparrows chattered gregariously under the eaves of an old house.
It probably would have made no difference, but I wish that I could have told Lauren about those nights when I waited for the faintest lightening of the eastern sky – for that moment when black pales to deep blue. I wish that she’d seen the almost imperceptible flush of green edging the scale of a leaf bud before it even begins to swell. I would like to have said to her, “wait for morning, wait for Spring”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What makes a large urban forest special, and to whom? How do you plan it? How do you manage it?
Not planning and managing it won’t do. “Just leave it alone,” the City often hears. That might work in the Marlborough Forest, or the Carp Hills. In an urban forest, though, we don’t have that choice. Whether the City plans it or not, people will use and change the forest. People will walk their dogs. Kids will ride their bikes, build forts, and climb trees. Homeowners will dump yard waste along the edges. Over time, a network of shortcuts and dusty, packed paths will develop. Soon the blanket of wildflowers will thin and fray into a scattered patchwork, while invasive periwinkle and buckthorn creep inward from the edges. Where massive maples and pines once aged and rotted, providing homes for woodpeckers and other wildlife, Forestry Services will remove any tree that could be a hazard to public safety. Skunks and raccoons, enjoying the bounty of adjacent yards and gardens, will proliferate. Where shaded forest pools once vibrated with the chorus of spring peepers and tree frogs, a silence will fall.
We would like to avoid that fate for the Manotick Drumlin Forest. Acquired by the City from Minto over the winter, the Manotick Drumlin Forest (also known as the Mahogany Forest) comes as close to an old-growth, northern hardwood forest as one can find in Ottawa. In his original evaluation of the forest, the renowned biologist, Dan Brunton, commented on its outstanding beauty, especially the proliferation of wildflowers. In a more recent evaluation, the biologists of Kilgour and Associates noted the remarkable diversity of the woodland. Within its relatively small area, the forest includes not only a mature stand of sugar maple, but also a healthy hemock grove, a red maple swamp, and large specimens of every other tree species commonly found in northern hardwood forests: white pine, beech, yellow birch, basswood, white ash (albeit infected with EAB), black cherry, red oak. Not surprisingly, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has long identified the forest as a candidate Area of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSI). Together, the City of Ottawa and Minto have begun planning the preservation of these qualities, while enhancing the value of the woodlot to the surrounding community and the City as a whole.
Over the next ten years, a new subdivision will grow up on the east side of the forest, with thousands of new homes and residents. The City has a rare opportunity to work now with the land developer to decide how the forest and the new community will fit together. Where will trails go, and how will they look? How can we bring children into the forest and make it safe for them? Where can we allow dogs, and can they be off-leash? Can we turn the forest into a living classroom, and if so, how do we bring students to it? Where will people find quiet, cool shade for contemplation? And, most important, can we accomodate all of these uses while still protecting the trees, wildflowers, wetlands, and wildlife that make the forest unique?
Some answers already seem apparent. If we don’t plan and create trails, then future residents will create their own. By planning trails now, we can direct traffic away from the most sensitive places and leave space for natural forest processes to continue. By considering the viewscapes along streets and across open spaces, we can highlight the natural beauty of the forest as a centrepiece of the community. By working with the shape of the forest, we can create smaller, more intimate scenes for retreat and gentle appreciation. Most important, in my mind, we must also plan for kids, for the creation of spaces and zones along and within the boundary of the forest, where free play can occur. In doing so, however, we must consider the risk posed by Ottawa’s new status as a Lyme disease area. This emerging issue emphasizes the need for particular attention to “edge management” in the transition zone between the forest and adjacent landscaped areas, both for protection of residents from natural hazards, and for protection of the forest from residents.
We know that no matter how carefully we plan, we cannot protect the woodlot from all impacts — whether intentional or incidental. Very sadly, unauthorized tree cutting and harvesting of wild plants has already caused substantial damage to the most sensitive portion of the forest. In the end, the fate of the forest will lie in the hands of the community. It will reflect the love and care that the community residents provide. If they value and respect the beauty and wonder of the woodlot, then they will preserve it. If not, then no amount of planning and City management will compensate. As the City and Minto move ahead with planning, we will seek community partners in stewardship and conservation.
The Manotick Drumlin Forest preserves a glimpse into the forests of the past. Not a pristine glimpse — sadly the chestnuts, elms, and now white ash of old have fallen victim to imported pests and diseases — but one that conveys a strong sense of how the forest must have appeared to the Algonquins. Majestic in scale; intimate in sense; timeless in experience.
When I visit the woodlots of South Nepean, I think of my years growing up in Esquimalt, Victoria, British Columbia. I didn’t know, living in Esquimalt, that I was privileged to have one of Canada’s most endangered ecosystems in my backyard. Highrock Park, or the “Cairn” as we knew it, was simply the place where we played after homework on a school night or rode our bikes on the weekend. It rose above my neighborhood: a rock bald, surrounded by a skirt of open woodland.
I didn’t know about Garry oak parkland and savannah. No-one told me that I couldn’t play in the Cairn because it was special, or because I might damage myself. Sure, I came back with skinned knees and bee stings. And on warm summer evenings, when the local teens would sometimes gather in the twilight under the trees to consume beer or other elicit substances, my parents didn’t forbid me the adventure of the dark. We climbed the twisted oak trees and played hide-and-seek in the thickets.
I think that I first learned my love of rock on the Cairn. I couldn’t identify the hill as an exposed “pluton” of granite — a lump of igneous rock formed far down in the earth’s mantle 400 million years ago. I didn’t know that the cataclysmic formation of western North America had thrust it to the surface. I traced the long, parallel grooves on the smoothed rock without knowing about the pebbles that had gouged them under the weight of two kilometres of glacial ice. I just loved the feeling of the hard stone under my hand, as I scrambled over the flanks of the hill or sat with my legs pulled up to my chest, looking out over my home.
Perhaps that’s why tree-forts and home-made mountain bike tracks usually don’t trouble me, even when I find them in some of Ottawa’s protected natural areas. When I see bike trails, jumps and obstacles worn and carved into a place like the Chapman Mills East forest, I think of how much I would have enjoyed them as a kid.
Most people driving past on Strandheard Road and Prince of Wales Drive likely give little more than a glance to the three adjacent patches of forest. Few of them would suspect that these emerald gems contain some of Ottawa’s largest trees: maples, beeches and oaks that rise like the pillars of a cathedral. Under their boughs, a profusion of wildflowers bursts forth in spring: trilliums, trout lilies, false solomon’s seal, violets, jack-in-the-pulpit. Vireos sing high overhead. With their windows rolled up and air conditioners running, few of the passing drivers will ever feel the coolness of the woods, or hear the susurration of the leaves as a breeze passes through the canopy.
The neighbours, I suspect, would prefer to keep it that way. Walking through Chapman Mills East on a warm, weekday afternoon, I marvel at the lack of traffic. I pass a few dogs and their owners sauntering the trails. The occasional runner pads past me. Most of the time, though, I have the woods to myself. Apart from the distant sounds of traffic, I might be alone in the world.
Hopefully the evenings and weekends see more visitors. Each of the South Nepean woodlots has its own charms and attractions. Chapman Mills East, along Cresthaven Drive and Serena Way, is the easiest to love, with its towering maples, huge decaying logs, and dense mat of herbs and wildflowers. Deep shade gives way to a patch of sunlight, where a snag has finally crumbled to the forest floor. In the sunny gap, new growth reaches to the sky. Bumblebees travel from flower to flower, then circle and drone off to a hollowed, old tree. A pileated woodpecker hammers at a rotten white birch, while squirrels scold the intruder. Old stone walls lie along the perimeter, marking the edges of old farm fields.
Chapman Mills West has a different character. Lying astride Clearbrook Drive, it consists of two very different forest types. In the southern, larger section, a dry cedar forest surrounds and hides a small, pretty, swamp. Frogs croak along the marshy edges, while pairs of mallards raise chicks in the dense underbrush. Just inside the south edge of the woodlot, the City’s Park Planners have cleverly threaded a fitness trail from Mancini Park. Next door, where the School Board has allowed a small portion of the woodlot to remain in the yard, the worn earth under the cedars attests to affinity of children for trees.
The smaller, north portion of Chapman Mills West appears younger, higher and drier. Between scattered patches of cedar, an open forest of light-loving shrubs and trees creates a more pastoral feeling. And, indeed, the woodlot may have provided pasture for cattle or horses before Chapman Mills was transformed from farmland to suburbia. Over time, the forest canopy should fill in, especially now that the Ottawa Stewardship Council, with help from local schools and Ward Councillor Michael Qaqish, have taken an interest in managing and improving the woodlot.
Heart’s Desire, on the north bank of the Jock River, appears superficially like Chapman Mills East. Here, though, massive oak trees dominate the forest. And whereas blue cohosh seemed to blanket the floor of Chapman Mills East, false solomon’s seal carpets Heart’s Desire. However, Heart’s Desire really gains its charm from the Jock River. Spilling over a small weir and then flowing under Prince of Wales Drive, down to the Rideau River, this reach of the Jock runs along a stoney bed, with alternating riffles and pools that beg for a well-placed fly. Through the summer months, large boulders provide tempting stepping stones to the other side. The steep, wooded south bank provides an idyllic backdrop and creates a sense of wildness and privacy that belies the surrounding suburbs.
When I visualize South Nepean’s woodlots, I see children. I see them racing bicycles along the paths, searching for frogs, and leaving damp footprints on white riverstones. I hear unrestrained shouts and laughter under the trees. Perhaps in my heart, I still feel myself with them.
I certainly feel torn. When I look at the damage that already occurs to our woodlots — the trash, the yard waste, the bags of dog faeces — I wonder if the wildflowers and other delicate organisms in the forest floor can also withstand the trampling of young feet. I think of myself as a boy, wriggling through the underbrush in Highrock Park and bouncing my bicycle off tree roots on dirt tracks. Perhaps, along the way, I trampled something rare or special. Perhaps the butterfly in my jar shouldn’t have been there. But those experiences, and my other childhood explorations, taught me to love the natural world. They set me on the path to where I am today.
Yes, we need to protect our urban natural areas from careless and unnecessary damage. We should educate our children to cherish and respect these marvelous places. We can even try to direct their enthusiasm. But we should never tell them that they can’t ride their bikes or build tree forts, imply that they don’t belong among the trees, or frown on their ebullience. We need more children in our urban forests, not fewer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I cross the Corkstown footbridge each morning to work. The City built it across the Rideau Canal several years ago, to take pedestrians from Sandy Hill to Centretown. From the centre of the bridge, one can look north along the canal toward Rideau Street. The scene is beautiful and ever changing.
The Gatineau Hills peek through from the background. The Chateau Laurier dominates the center of the view, while the Peace Tower stands against the sky on the left and National Defence Headquarters looms on the right. In the foreground, a continuous line of mature maples and basswood screens Queen Elizabeth Parkway and broad band of well-tended grass spreads beside Colonel By Drive. Walkers and cyclists wander the paths atop the canal walls. From late spring through to mid-autumn, the canal captures and reflects the colors of the leaves and the changing sky. On some evenings, a half dozen photographers may gather on the bridge to capture the sunset. In the winter, the dark ice contrasts against the snow and the grey tree limbs, except on milder days when skaters come in the thousands to fill the canal from side to side with bright jackets and touques.
Even dreary, overcast days have their moments. In the past week, I’ve paused in the morning to watch a waterfall of leaves tumbling into the empty canal before a cool, damp wind, and stopped in the evening to admire the way that a grey light reduced the landscape to a simple, but elegant lesson in perspective and geometry.
Last autumn, Sue and I disposed of our car and turned to VrtuCar (a local car-sharing business) for our transportation needs. Consequently, this spring, I’ve lacked an easy way of transporting my canoe around Ottawa. I have yet to fish for pike in Constance Bay, or paddle up the Rideau looking for the big snapping turtle that basks on a sagging crack willow, or fall on my butt in the muck while hauling over a beaver dam along some narrow creek in the Marlborough Forest. In fact, I feel a bit stir crazy.
I didn’t like Ottawa when I arrived here twenty years ago. I had grown up in Victoria and Vancouver, with the sea and the mountains close at hand. I had lived for eight years in Edmonton, with frequent forays to Jasper or out into the prairie parkland. I revelled in the sky, the space and the light. Ottawa, in contrast, seemed to have none of these: the forests were beautiful, and I appreciated the chance to swim in deep, clean lakes after years of prairie potholes; but I missed the horizon and the bevelled edge of the rockies. I missed the gothic skies: the vast, blue dome of the sky on a still, deadly-cold winter morning, or cathedral pillars of thunderheads mounting over fields of wheat. In Ottawa, it seemed, every sightline ended with another row of trees.
Then, a few years ago, I bought a canoe. Light enough to portage and control myself, but long enough to float over all but the shallowest rock. I launched it on lakes, rivers and streams around the region, exploring side channels and bays, tucking under leafy banks and cruising tight, winding channels through marshes and swamps. In it, I discovered the secret of Ottawa’s beauty: intimacy.
If the prairies are a cathedral, then Ottawa is a chapel. Whispers replace echoes. Everything feels immediate. I skirt lilypads along the bend of creek and watch a painted turtle slip off a log just ahead. I watch dark shadows of pike and gar dart from under my bow as I edge through rushes along the Ottawa River. Or I drift slowly, while a muskrat swims past with a mouthful of reeds and a heron watches serenely from the shore. On foot or on my bike, I dip into a damp, cove forest and stop to admire a garden of ferns, impossibly green under the dense maple canopy. Oyster mushrooms spread over a rotting log (and I curse that I’ve again forgotten to bring a paper bag). A red-eyed vireo sings incessantly overhead. A small brook chuckles nearby. I follow the banks, admiring the liverworts and turning over small logs to look for salamanders. The damp odour triggers hovering memories, like the scent of incense.
Even the vistas seem intimate. Standing on the prairie, the vastness takes away my breath. I feel like a visitor, tolerated but never entirely welcome. A distant hawk, spiraling on a thermal, calls out his accusation (as Whitman would put it). Whereas, standing on an escarpment, looking over the Ottawa Valley or the Madwaska Highlands, I feel the distance shrink and the details grow. The forests and fields each have their own character, and I can imagine walking through them. I know where I’ll find the sagging line of an old, split rail fence, the craggy bark of burr oak, and a lichen-crusted mossy rock outcrop on which to eat my lunch.