Field tripping in Ottawa

As part of the environmental history seminar I’m teaching this spring/summer, I have included a few field trips. Field trips are fun and beneficial ways of engaging with landscape and place, putting history into practice, and engaging with one’s immediate environment.

The first two field trips took place over the past few weeks. The first was a tour of the Rideau Canal and I had the help of Will Knight (a Carleton PhD candidate and co-developer of a great app for the history of the Rideau Canal). The canal bounds one side of the Carleton campus and we were able to easily walk from our classroom. Hartwells locks are just out the door, and it was an easy walk to other parts of the canal that significantly altered the landscape: Dow’s Lake and Hogsback Dam/Falls.

We started at Hartwells and Dow’s Lake – the latter was actually a huge swamp when the canal was constructed, but was turned into a lake by bounding the swamp. The class then headed for Hogsback, and was met by some heavy rain – luckily we made it to the pedestrians tunnels on either side of the dam and under the road in time.

The students were tasked with exploring the landscape of the dam and Hogsback Falls, to try and distinguish between what was “natural” and what was “manmade,” what was first nature and what was second nature. Indeed, most people are surprised to find out that the falls, generally seen as one of Ottawa’s great natural gems, was actually carved out of the riverbank in the 1820s as part of the construction of the canal. Additionally, the former path of the river, and the dam that blocked it, are overgrown and unknown to many visitors.

The second field trip was the Lebreton Flats and Chaudiere mills area. I had Phil Jenkins, author of a wonderful book on the history of Lebreton flats called An Acre of Time, lead the tour. Starting at the Canadian War Museum, we walked to Pooley’s Bridge, and across the Chaudiere Bridge, ending at the Mill Street Brewery. Phil told about us about the history of the flats, particularly how it was transformed via industrialization, and then expropriated and razed in the 1960s. Also discussed were the decades of planning to “develop” the area, all of which came to naught (e.g. aquarium, HQ of National Defence, etc), until the War Museum and the high-rise condo developments.

We also applied our previous readings about sawmills, lumber, and hydro-electricity to consider the landscape and waterscape of the Chaudiere region. Interestingly, just before leaving home for this tour, I saw on the news that Hydro Ottawa had bought the hydro plants owned by Domtar.  This is unfortunate, as the area could easily become an Ottawa equivalent of Granville Island or the like – imagine a great tourist area on islands in sight of the national capital buildings! The view of Chaudiere Falls is all but blocked by industrial buildings (those driving across the bridge will get a quick glimpse if they look to the west at just the right time), but perhaps this is best since the grandeur of the falls were many years ago reduced to little more than a cement weir and some rocks.


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