Ottawa is an interesting city. Relatively young as cities go, it was chosen to be Canada’s capital city back when it wasn’t much more than a rough logging town on the banks of the river. But if you look into Ottawa’s early history, before the days when the French and English were battling it out to decide who would get to claim this vast land of ours, you discover that Ottawa was home to the Odaawaa First Nations people, who traveled the region hunting and gathering. If you go back 10 000 years in Ottawa’s history, as the glaciers from the last ice age were retreating, Ottawa was covered by seawater — the Champlain Sea.
When we moved to the ‘burbs in the east end of Ottawa 8 years ago, we kept hearing about the Mer Bleue Conservation Area and we added it to our list of things to do. Somehow it took us 8 years to actually get around to going, even though it is less than 10 minutes away by car and friends kept raving about it, but we finally made it this summer. It was definitely worth the visit, and is somewhere we are going to have to go back to again and again and again.
We decided to do the boardwalk the day we went, rather than one of the longer and more rugged hiking trails, given that I wasn’t having the most pebble-free day health-wise (if you don’t know what I mean by pebbles, read this blog entry). The boardwalk is a 1.7 km long boardwalk through the Mer Bleue peat bog, which is a remnant of the Champlain Sea that has turned into an acidic peat bog where the peat reaches depths of up to 5 metres.
We parked our car in the dusty gravel parking lot and set off down the trail towards the boardwalk proper. About a hundred metres in, the woods opened up into the bog proper, and what we saw was this:
It felt like the bog stretched on forever. Even though we were less than ten minutes from our house, an ordinary house among many in a busy suburb of a big, busy city that is home to over a million people… it felt like we had stepped out of the world we knew and into something completely ancient and wild and foreign. Ten minutes from our house.
The water was covered in tiny little lily pads that were in bloom:
Fish and turtles splashed and swam to the tunes sung by the bullfrogs:
Did you spot the turtle? No? Here’s a closeup:
From what the signs said, there are several species of turtle, frog, fish, and birds that make the bog their home, as well as many plants including blueberries, cranberries, heathers, and nine species of native orchids. Nine! Had you told me last month that there were orchids native to Ottawa, I would have laughed you out of the room. Here’s one of them:
I wish I had the photographic skills to show you how tremendously beautiful it was. And that I had been able to capture all the many creatures we saw on film. Or that I had remembered to photograph the peat moss before the batteries on the camera gave out. Or the beaver lodges. But I did photograph this tree:
In looking back through the photos I did take that day, I’m struck anew by the amazingly disconcerting feeling that you had left civilization far, far behind. That you had launched yourself into the sort of wilderness that takes hours and hours to find your way out of, if you ever do.
The sounds of the city were not just far away, they were absolutely nonexistent. We were in a bubble of silence where the only sounds were the water and the bullfrogs and the birds. The buzz of a bee hive busily working in a tree was loud enough to make us stop in our tracks and try to identify where the buzz was coming from. I’d never seen so many bees at once, pouring in and out of a knot hole in a tree as they went about their business, completely ignoring the humans who were staring at them with jaws agape.
Later, when we had been immersed in the noisy silence of nature for long enough that our ears had become accustomed to it, a Hercules cargo plane lumbered slowly overhead, the industrial roar of its propellers making us smile ruefully as we were reminded that we were mere minutes from the city with all its noise and bustle and traffic, because in the beauty of the moment (and despite the fact that we were walking an obviously manmade boardwalk) we had forgotten.
While walking the bog, I was struck by how very large the world seems when you walk through the wild places. We read in the history books about the native peoples who have lived here for thousands of years. We read of the French settlers exploring and settling in Bas Canada. We read of the British settlers who built a presence in Upper Canada. We read of the explorers, the coureurs de bois, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the tentative early days of confederation…
Throughout all of that reading, not one of the history books ever adequately explains what it must have felt like to be one of the explorers. To be one of the Algonquin or Iroquois who claimed this region as their home in the time before “discovery.” Not one talks about the sheer aloneness of the experience. Of the knowledge, deep in your gut, that you are but one small creature among many on this earth. Of the visual impact of a lone house in the middle of a vast forest. Or an entire village of longhouses surrounded by a palisade wall and cultivated fields.
Two hundred years ago, this country was a wild, wild place. Ottawa was a small shanty town where loggers worked their trade and John By supervised the building of the Rideau Canal that would eventually connect Ottawa and Kingston, coming out just below those gorgeous martello towers below Old Fort Henry.
Today, much of this country still is wild, but city girl that I am, my conception of wilderness is one that has been tamed by farmland, highways, and lovely little pathways that show you the way home. The bog, civilized as it is by the boardwalk, felt wild in a way that our usual explorations can’t even touch.
That evening we shared a lovely barbecue dinner with friends accompanied by potatoes and zucchini picked that morning and bought at the roadside stall and lettuce and carrots and green beans from our own backyard. The azure sky drifted easily into that rich, dark cobalt that heralds the coming night, and the feeling of the bog lay nestled firmly in my heart, connecting me more solidly to the earth than I had been for a while.
I can’t wait to go back.