The NCC multi-use paths along Ottawa’s waterfronts are a real treasure for Ottawa residents—and also for the tourists who are able to find them. But they are not well marked, not consistently identified as trails, and it is not uncommon in the summer to find sweaty tourists lost on the Western Parkway staring at maps with no idea where they are, or where they are going.
But in this bike tour, local storyteller and community activist DenVan asks: what if we could mark key central paths on the Ottawa River and Rideau Canal with a regular series of themed “Touchstone Places”? These small plazas or parklets would provide distance markers and directional signage for walkers, runners, and cyclists, but could also enliven the path system by creating interesting gathering spots, and provide a chance to highlight themes and tell stories about the Capital’s history and growth.
Along the way, DenVan will highlight some lesser known tales of our history that will surprise even Ottawa natives—epic tales of battles, betrayal, incredible heroism, and even a bit of well-deserved cannibalism. And he swears that (at least most of) these stories are completely true.
The rain was still relatively light and about 10 ladies joined our walk/bike leader, Dennis Van Staalduinen. It seems all the gents joined Britta at the Billings Estate bike tour, instead. I had the pleasure of hearing Dennis speak at Jane’s Talk Thursday night and in addition to enjoying his storytelling talents, as a regular runner, walker, and cyclist along the canal path myself, I was looking forward to the tour.
Dennis described that in past years, he noticed his walks and bike tours were perhaps a little negative towards the NCC. He went on to describe how he started to notice the almost perfectly measured kilometer markers along the path but also the missed opportunity to really provide public spaces and facilities at regular intervals. So started a project to begin mapping out potential locations and how their particular characteristics could be the launching point for enhancements to the space, eventually creating a string of “touchstones”.
This is something I noticed when I started running along the canal three years ago. I have a set of near exact run distances, naturally marked out so I don’t need any special expensive geolocating device. Using various combinations of the crossings at Rideau/Wellington, Corktown, Pretoria, Bank Street; I have a series of 3K, 5K, 7K, 10K, 12K, and 15K easily marked out loops to run.
The combination of rain and being on my bike limited my note taking ability but I will do my best to recount a few highlights of the tour. See the (planned*) bike route on Google Map.
The bike tour started on the Queen Elizabeth Drive side of the Rideau Canal Pathway at Patterson Creek (above, left). The now dried up western continuation of the creek is Central Park that runs through the Glebe; a popular dog park and one of my regular date night walks with my boyfriend and his dog, as mentioned in Walkie Talkie. Yet, the connection across QE Drive limits access to the park and an otherwise natural connection to Bank Street and the neighbourhood.
A local Glebe resident came to the bike ride armed with laminated heritage photos of the area and filled in some additional historic nuggets to Dennis’ story of the area before we hopped onto our bikes and continued North along the pathway.
Not quite at our first kilometer marker but the Pretoria Bridge (above, right) is worthy of a pause.
Our first kilometer marker is the stairs connecting the upper and lower paths a bit North of Pretoria. This location at McLeod would be a great spot for a local boat launch for the neighbourhood. Somewhat curiously, access to the canal at regular intervals is only allowed in the winter when the canal is open for skating. We are all conditioned to think of the canal as something we can walk, bike, or run along but why not have access to the water? Wouldn’t it be nice if boaters had a place to tie up their boats and walk to the nearby restaurants at different points along the canal.
Sometimes we (shared responsibility) seem more concerned with making the Canal a great postcard rather than a great utilized/utilizable space.
Our next stop was under the Laurier Street Bridge (above, left) and Confederation Park (above, right). And while Dennis went into some of the history of the area, I agree with his recommended reading and will defer you to the beyond exceptional and fascinating series on the History of the Rideau Centre over on Urbsite.
We took refuge from the rain once again at our next stop, the underpass at the Elgin/Wellington/Rideau Street Bridge. Is there a name for this bridge? No one in our group was able to think of anything other than the Sappers’ which was the old bridge that roughly followed the southern portion of the current bridge. It is a pretty interesting space, but once again probably underused mostly because its connection to the above ground space and NAC grounds is less than optimal. Though, when passing back through later, I did come across a hoola exercise group and a woman setting up a projector for the Places of significance to homeless people walk.
Across the canal at this point, is the old Union Station and the oft debated move by the NCC to remove the downtown station and pull up the train tracks on the East side of the Canal. Dennis was kind enough to admit that while the loss of a downtown transit hub is regrettable, it’s pretty hard not to appreciate the green space and de-industrialization which once further divided Upper and Lower Town than it is today.
Our wet brakes squealed as we rode down the hill following the set of locks that connect the Rideau Canal to the Ottawa River at the base of Parliament Hill. Looking back, you get another one of those postcard shots of the Chateau Laurier, the locks, and Bytowne Museum (above). Through the still unfoliaged trees on the hill, you could spot some of the stone walls that lined the old Lover’s Walk. It was closed in the 30s due to security concerns, on top of which the current soil instability of the Hill make it unlikely the heritage pathway will ever reopen.
Looking North (below), you have a great view of Nepean Point, the Alexandra Bridge, and Museum of History (formerly Museum of Civilization).
*Unfortunately, the temperature continued to drop, rainfall continued to increase, and our collective resolve to complete the tour on bike diminished. But I am certain that Jane Jacobs would not have objected to our Jane’s Walk(/bike) turning into Jane’s Pub. We locked up our bikes and retreated to the warmth, shelter, and beverage selection of D’arcy McGee’s where Dennis completed describing the remaining touchstone markers of the remaining intended tour.
- the inlet East of Portage Bridge, next to Victoria Island with the kayak course
- the lookout and interpretation area behind the Canadian War Museum
- the old train bridge (continuation of O-Train tracks) over Lemieux Island
- John Ceprano’s rock sculptures at the rapids, aka the “inukshuk park”
- the Island Park bridge
The NCC pathways are a wonderful feature of Ottawa. I agree with Dennis that rather than our tendency to be continually negative towards the NCC, we should celebrate these spaces while still recognizing room for improvement. Relatively small additions such as providing better public facilities including restrooms, shade, seating, play areas, etc. and improving the ease of connection between the pathways and the local neighbourhoods would go a long way to increasing our use and enjoyment.
Dennis’ idea to create touchstones along the Canal and River pathways immediately reminded me of the very successful and analogous project for the Promenade Samuel de Champlain in Quebec City. I made sure to suggest he look into the project.
The Promenade Samuel-De Champlain has been commissioned by Quebec’s government (Comission de la capitale nationale du Québec) and executed to celebrate Quebec City 400’s anniversary. The objective of the project was to revitalize 2.5 kms of coastal landscape and reactivates Quebec City’s access to St. Lawrence River. The project has been completed in June 24, 2008 and was immediately adopted by the public.
We can only hope Ottawa and the NCC might see the benefit to implementing a project of this caliber. (Or, for that matter, while they’re at it, something along the lines Daoust Lestage’s revitalization and pedestrification of Sainte-Catherine in Montreal).