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By Katharine Fletcher
How often, when we paddle our canoes and kayaks, are our spirits lifted by sounds and sights of the wild?
I’m sure you and I share cherished memories of sublime epiphanies where, with true serendipity, Nature reveals her wonders. Sometimes, we truly seem to be just at the right place, just at the right time…
When I reflect upon paddling Windigo – the cedar strip Chestnut Prospector my husband Eric Fletcher and I made in the mid-eighties – I recall many intense encounters with wild animals.
If it looks like a duck…
Eric and I will never forget our maiden paddle in Windigo. We put in at a small lake and, after exclaiming “She floats!” and marvelling at how she handled, I spied an odd-looking duck off in the distance.
Investigating, we advanced cautiously and, as we neared it, I gasped: No duck, here! Instead, it was a dappled young fawn, swimming across the lake with its little muzzle and nostrils held aloft, out of the water. Astonished, we hung back because we didn’t want to alarm the young white-tailed deer. Exhausted, it reached the far shore and staggered out of the water, flanks heaving and white dots gleaming against its soaked, chestnut-brown hair. Then, it vanished into the wall of the forest. We gazed at one another, in silent awe.
What an apropos baptism for Windigo.
Another time, we enjoyed watching shimmering V ripples created by a beaver’s body as it swam alongside Windigo, while overhead, honking Canada geese echoed the slick formation. We ceased paddling, appreciating the “whooo, whooo, whooo” of wingbeats –one of our favourite sounds of nature.
I must have involuntarily moved. With a startling splash, the beaver hit the water’s surface with its tail, disappearing into the inky depths.
A moment in time; sheer wonder.
And mind the time when we were revelling in the early morning mists, watching them boil and curl heavenwards. We sat, transfixed, as glimpses of shoreline appeared and vanished like a misty mirage.
Suddenly we heard the laughter of loons. Not one, not two – eight, we counted. Were they four nesting pairs? Who knows?
Unimaginably, they commenced a magical dance around us, diving beneath Windigo, surfacing, calling their haunting cry, beating their wings in the air and rising from the water, scooting on its surface with their feet as their sparkling white breasts gleamed in the strengthening sunshine.
And calling. Calling, calling, calling. Again and again their laughter echoed through the air, into our souls, crystallizing into pure loon-magic memory.
Just as suddenly, they took flight. Gone. Tears poured down my cheeks and, as I turned to look at Eric, I saw his tears, too. Oh, splendid moment.
But what was that, floating over there? Dazed, we paddled over to find their gift. A single loon feather, black with two white dots.
Splish splash play!
A sleek dark chocolate, rippling form scampers along the shore then up and over an embankment. Slithering downwards towards Windigo, the shape plummets, hauling itself across the band of beach and then swoosh, disappearing into the river. A whiskered face breaks the surface, chatters, then repeats the process. Another form bounds along the beach, runs up the little bank, then swoosh! Down it comes, too.
Otters. What’s more, otters at play!
The Birds of Brewery Creek
While researching my latest book, Capital Rambles: Exploring the National Capital Region, Eric and I paddled Brewery Creek – that watercourse which makes an island out of old Hull. It’s surprisingly tricky – very difficult to navigate in spring runoff as water levels are dangerously high, particularly at bridges and overpasses. (Beware…) We put in (not as we’d hoped, at old Hull’s Voyageur Park at the mouth of the creek) downstream of Theatre de l’Isle and the Ecomuseum (corner Montcalm and Papineau in Gatineau).
The eventful paddle during a chilly November afternoon saw us navigating Windigo alongside embankments where great blue herons were still fishing, poised statuesquely along the riverbank.
As we neared the creek’s confluence of the Ottawa River, the watercourse widened. And then we saw them: flocks of wood ducks – males and females – as well as groups of common mergansers, resting, feeding, and flocking before flying south for winter. We drifted, observing the shy wood ducks, marvelling at the males’ brilliant plumage.
For me, our afternoon paddle was a personal homage: homage to Malcolm Macdonald, British high commissioner to the UK stationed here in Ottawa during the Second World War – and one of Mackenzie King’s confidants during Canada’s crisis over conscription. – My homage, however, was to the naturalist side of author and canoeist, Macdonald. Brewery Creek kept him centred during those war years.
Macdonald would launch his canoe at Earnscliffe (still the residence of the British High Commissioner), paddle across the Ottawa River and scoot into the protected, magical world of
Brewery Creek as much as he possibly could. Every month he paddled here, chronicling his discoveries in his classic book, The Birds of Brewery Creek. Read it – and paddle in his paddlestrokes.
We are a guest of nature: behave
To me, our natural world is full of epiphanies, moments in time where nature reveals her magic and mystery.
Paddling offers us all an intimate look at the Ottawa River and its denizens. Go, enjoy – and help preserve our river not just for our needs and wants, but for the home it provides our resident and non-resident species.
Austrian artist Frederick Hundertwasser once wrote, “We are a guest of nature: behave.” Not a bad principle to live by.
Katharine Fletcher is a freelance journalist and author of several historical and ecological guides. Her latest book is Capital Rambles: Exploring the National Capital Region – find her guides at regional bookstores or at MEC.