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I’m sure you have noticed some people hanging around the regattas near the water holding a small object that looks at lot like a popsicle. These people are measuring the wind direction and strength during races. Josh Goreham and Will George of the Canadian Sport Institute explain what they are up to:
Josh Goreham was at the recent OCSRA trials in Ottawa, where he was collecting performance related data for the athletes that competed at the event. Here is his report:
Thanks, Josh and will, it certainly does! Now I’m waiting to see buoys scattered along the course continually measuring wind and waves and other environmental conditions in the air and water, and sensors on the paddles measuring force exerted during different parts of the stroke, and....well, what do you think should be measured?
*(the author graciously acknowledges the assistance of Connie Downes, Noel Alfonso (Canadian Museum of Nature), Joff Cote (Ministry of natural resources) and Sean Landsman, who did his PhD thesis on Muskellunge at Carleton University under the supervision of Dr. Steven Cooke)
Another great morning! As you paddle upriver and just pass the 500 metre mark, suddenly, a huge swirl just off your bow startles you so much you almost tip. Just a reminder that you are not the only big critter out here. What is lurking down there in the murk?
The two biggest fish in the Rideau are also the two most unlike each other. One is a placid grazer of aquatic plants and slurps up aquatic insects and worms - a ‘bottom feeder’ ; the other the top predator in the Rideau’s watery jungles, the tiger of the river. One is chunky, dull coloured and slow; the other sleek and fast, a beautiful blue-grey ghost. One has no teeth in its mouth, the other teeth that are sharp like razor blades. Fishers dream about catching one and consider it a trophy; the other is considered a ‘coarse’ fish. One is the coolest of fish. If fish wore sunglasses, it would wear Oakleys. The other...well, let’s just no go there!
Of course, we are talking about the Common Carp and Muskellunge.
Consider the ‘lowly’ Carp, Cyprinus carpio. It is closely related to goldfish and Koi (actually an ornamental form of Carp), familiar in backyard ponds. It is a dull brown, with large scales. The mouth is small, with thick blubbery lips, and two barbells or ‘feelers’ hanging like whiskers from the lower jaw. It is not a pretty fish to our eyes. Our section of river is not the best for Carp, but they are present. Some years back, I saw a huge one - about 10 kg. - in a bathtub in an apartment building near Mooney’s Bay. No, it wasn’t living there. Someone had captured it in the river at Mooney’s Bay and was keeping it for a big feast. This carp weighed about 10 kg. They tenants were recent immigrants from Russia, where the Common Carp is not considered a ‘coarse’ fish at all, but rather a delicacy. Carp are native to eastern Europe and Asia, and have for centuries been a staple source of food and sport. They are a key ingredient in many European dishes, (think gefilte fish, a traditional Jewish food). In the mid 1880s, Carp were introduced to North American as a food fish. They were plentiful in the Rideau when my father was a young lad, over a century ago. He tells me of catching Carp in the Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa and selling them to European and Asian immigrants.
But these are pipsqueaks compared to Carp in Europe, which can exceed 45 kg. and live over a century!
The best place to see Carp is in the Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa. In early summer, you can watch them in a shallow pond just off the Canal between Fifth Avenue Ritz and Browns Inlet. In early spring, just after the ice goes out in Dows Lake, all the Carp (and that’s a lot of Carp, thousands and thousands) migrate out of the lake into the Rideau Canal. You can stand under the Bronson Street Bridge, where the Canal is very narrow and shallow, and watch the carp (not to mention other fish such as minnows, Perch, a few Pike, and if you are very lucky, maybe a Muskellunge or two) leave Dows Lake for their summer haunts in the Canal.
Let’s look at the other big fish, the Muskellunge. Now Muskellunge (commonly called ‘Muskies’) are without doubt the coolest fish in the Rideau. According to Wikipedia, the name comes from comes from Ojibwa word maashkinoozhe, meaning "ugly pike". The French common name is masquinongé or maskinongé. The scientific name is Esox masquinongy. There are two varieties of Muskie in the Rideau – the most common is silvery green, with wavy vertical dark bars or spots, like the shadows of water weeds waving with the waves and currents. . The Tiger Muskie is a hybrid between a Northern Pike and Muskie, and has much more distinct vertical stripes.
Unlike most fish, Muskies have attitude we humans can relate to. When I was a boy, and crazy about fishing, I dreamed about catching the Big One. We would often see big Muskies, a big tail flipping at the edge of the weeds, or the reeds parting as a big one swam through them. Once, a muskrat swimming in the water suddenly disappeared with a splash and a swirl of bubbles – ambused by a Muskie. Muskies especially like to eat other fish, like suckers and perch (careful when you reel in a perch, you never know what’s following it!). And if you are a duckling swimming across the river with your family, it’s not a good idea to be the last one in line. Muskies are territorial. They stake out a hunting ground for the summer, but seem to move around more in the fall. Radio-tagging studies done in the Rideau showed that one restless Muskie travelled in one summer season all the way from the Long Island reach down through Mooney's Bay, all the way through the canal, into the Ottawa River and was eventually found near Petrie Island in Orleans. That fish must be an expert on going through locks.
There are Muskies present near the Rideau canoe club in our section of the river, but I haven’t personally seen one yet, but my Dad told me that Mooney's Bay was one of the top Muskie fishing areas when he was a kid growing up in Ottawa. Watch for them in the fall. Sometimes they lie quietly just under the surface, with their dorsal fin and the upper lobe of their tail just out of the water. Scientific surveys of the fish in this section captured Muskies – one was almost 12 kg in weight and a metre long, a seriously big fish. The biggest Muskie recorded in the Rideau, caught near the town of Kars, was over 23 kg. and was about as long as your sprint canoe paddle.
One of the best places for Muskie near Rideau Canoe Club is just downstream, in Dows Lake. Researchers from Carleton university tracking Muskie in Ottawa have recorded some really big ones here – more than 1.25 metres! It’s amazing to me to think that there is a healthy Muskie population in a little lake the centre of a large city like Ottawa - like having a pack of wolves living in your neighbourhood. These Muskies spend the winter, when the water level in the Canal is lowered, in Dows lake, where there is deep water, and then disperse in the spring throughout the Canal. The big whirlpool just below Hogs Back Falls is another favorite place for Muskies to hang out. For those of you who have run the Jock River Race, it may surprise you that there is a healthy population of Muskies in the Mighty Jock River.
One of the reasons the Muskie population is so healthy around Ottawa is that most fisherman practice ‘catch and release’. Studies done by Carleton University researchers show that the survival rate of released Muskies is almost 100%, much higher than for some other species. They are one tough fish. It looks like we will have Muskies lurking in the Rideau for some time, and they will only get BIGGER! But don’t worry. The stories of swimmers toes being sheared off by a Muskie are only urban legends. And as for the lowly Carp, with a warming climate and longer summers, carp will also continue to thrive, and grow even bigger and live longer in the Rideau. Now, if only they would eat zebra mussels...
(the author graciously acknowledges the assistance of Connie Downes and Noel Alfonso (Canadian Museum of Nature)
It’s not just water that is sliding under your hull as you paddle up-river from the club dock. You are also paddling over lots and lots of fish. A surprising number, both in terms of abundance and diversity.
Surprising because the stretch of river from Hogs Back to Black Rapids been changed so dramatically by people to suit our needs, not the needs of fish. First, the river has been transformed from a fast-flowing stream to a still-water pond by the building of the Rideau Canal almost 200 years ago. Two hundred years is not a long time in terms of ecosystem change, and the Rideau system is still adjusting to this new water regime, which favours some species more than others. To make matters even more stressful for the fish (yes, fish feel stress), the water level, as you well know, suddenly drops every fall. Surprisingly, studies have shown that few fish are stranded by the rapidly changing water levels, and most survive the winter low water just fine.
Common Water weed
As people moved into homes along the river, more than half of the shoreline has been ‘hardened’ to prevent erosion. Much of the erosion is caused by the wakes from motor-boats. No one likes to see their backyard disappear into the river, so they have dumped in rocks, concrete blocks, sheets of metal, logs treated with wood preservatives, gabions (wire cages filled with rocks), and other imaginative ways to stabilize the shore. Land-owners have replaced the natural vegetation growing on the land just back of the water with a monoculture of grass. This is good for creating a nice unobstructed view of the river, but not so good for fish and other creatures that live in the water.
But just like trying to sprint 1000 m with half your lung capacity, loss of natural shorelines diminishes the capacity of the river to achieve its potential for abundance and diversity of life. Half the shoreline gone; half the life gone, as a rule of thumb.
To top all this off, the water quality is not, shall we say, pristine. There are too many nutrients in the water, mostly from agricultural fields and run-off from the city streets and storm sewers (that’s why the beach is often closed), which promotes lots of plant growth in the water - sometimes too much, which results in the mats and blobs of algae we see in the summer. The algae we see in river are single-cell ‘primitive ’plants. The algae mats eventually die and sink to the bottom, where they decompose and use up a lot of oxygen in the water, oxygen that the fish need. It’s all in the balance.
Another factor working against the fish is the recent invasion of Zebra Mussels. Zebra Mussels first appeared in the Rideau in 2000, and they have significantly changed the ecosystem.. Zebra mussels filter single-celled organisms, such as bacteria, algae, and protozoa from the water. The most noticeable result of all this filtering is clearer water. This might look good to us, but its not so good for the fish. Before zebra mussels were here, baby fish and tiny aquatic invertebrates ate the single-celled organisms, and were in turn eaten by bigger fish. Now all this energy goes into growing zebra mussels, and almost no one eats them (mallard ducks actually do, but no fish in this section of river eats zebra mussels). That means less food for baby fish!
But the Rideau is amazingly resilient. Scientists have collected more than 20 species of fish from this section of river. There is a healthy population of ‘game fish’ . Smallmouth Bass are very abundant, and grow to a healthy weight of more than a kilogram. But largemouth bass, a species that is increasing rapidly in abundance in most of the Rideau, is not common here. The weedy shallows they prefer are not present in this section of river.
Smallmouth bass pickerel
Another sport fish species found here is Pickerel (also called Walleye) . Pickerel are prized as the best-tasting fish in the Rideau. These mostly nocturnal feeders spawn in the fast water below Black Rapids dam. Northern Pike up to 2 kilograms, and Muskellunge over 12 kilograms (that’s a whopper!) were also recorded here. Muskellunge are the biggest and most ferocious predator in the river, and are the topic of the next RCC nature blog. I haven’t seen any ‘muskies’ while paddling here, but watch for their tails flipping up, or a duckling mysteriously disappearing under the surface in a big swirl. They are expert ambush hunters, and often lie still in shallow water ready to pounce on their victims.
All the ‘pan fish’ are found here – Yellow Perch, Rock Bass, Black Crappie, Pumpkinseed Sunfish and Bluegills. These are the most likely fish you will see while paddling, especially bluegills and rock bass.
The Pumpkinseed Sunfish is the most beautiful fish you will see, with its red spot on the gill cover, and its bright orange belly. They are particularly colourful when they are spawning, in late May and June. Watch for their circular ‘nests’ in shallow water.
Carp are an introduced species (they are native to eastern Europe, but have been here for at least 100 years, probably released on purpose as they are considered a great delicacy by folks from Asia and Europe. ), For some reason they are not abundant in this section, although they thrive in the canal below Hogs Back – probably the most abundant fish (by weight at least) in the canal from Hogs Back to Ottawa Locks. I did see one in a bathtub in the apartment buildings across from Mooney’s Bay that weighed about 12 kilograms (it's a long story. It wasn’t living there (even a big carp can’t afford to rent a bathtub) – it was captured in Mooney’s Bay.
Fish that are less familiar are also found here – Red Horse Suckers, which can grow up to more than five kilograms – watch for them along the dock at night and listen for the distinctive ‘kissing’ sound they make as they suck snails from the vertical face of the dock. Brown Bullhead (small catfish up to 30 centimetres long, also known as Barbotte (French term) or Mudpout, and Channel Catfish are also present.
Interestingly, there are very few minnows – perhaps because of the zebra mussels. But several species of little fish (little in size and little-known to most people) were captured in one study – Killifish, Darters, Sticklebacks, and Sculpins, likely in the tributaries coming into the river.
What lies in the future for the fish in our little section of the Rideau? The environment is constantly changing and we can only speculate. Zebra mussels are abundant today, but their time will pass – something will find them good to eat! The fish in this section are a mix of cool-water and warm-water species (eg. Pickerel and Northern Pike are cool water fish), so global warming may favour the warm-water species. There are several invasive aquatic species looming just beyond the horizon – Asian Carp, Snakeheads (yikes – these guys are really scary!), Round Gobies, Eurasian Ruffe, which one day may make us all forget about the Zebra Mussel.
But one thing is certain...If we take care of the shorelines and the water quality, there will be plenty of fish to catch and watch in the years to come. And another thing is certain. Rideau paddlers will still be slicing through the water, but they may be just a little more aware of the watery world beneath them.
Have you ever thought about this water we paddle on. Where it comes from and how it came to be this way – a perfect 1-km race course, and a flat 6.6 paddle to the Black Rapids lock station. If the Rideau Canoe Club had been built here 200 years ago, it would more likely have been a slalom club. Of course, all this changed in 1826 when the British Army decided to build a water route connecting what is now Ottawa, which at that time was a remote spot in the wilderness across the river from the recently established town of Hull (now Gatineau), to the city of Kingston on Lake Ontario. The British Army’s Royal Engineers (also known as the Sappers and Miners) built it to provide a circuitous but safe travel route for ships and barges to transport troops and food from Montreal to Kingston that avoided the St. Lawrence River and the cannons of the Americans - Just in case war broke out between the US and the British colonies, which seemed likely in those days.
Colonel John By was tasked with this job, and he did it in only six years, with picks, shovels, mules, and gunpowder. He got the job done, got a city named after him for a while (Bytown), but ended up going over budget and only four years after completing the most amazing construction project on the continent, he died in disgrace. Today, his accomplishments are celebrated as a World Heritage site, A Canadian Heritage River, and as an incredible engineering feat. The Rideau is the only canal left in the world from this era that still works, using the original hand-operated system of locks and winches to allow the passage of boats.
The brilliant engineering mind of the good Colonel changed the waterscape we all paddle on at the RCC. Before he got here, the section of river then flowing by our club was a series of shallow rapids stretching all the way from Hogs Back to Black Rapids (where there was a much bigger rapid!) In winter, when the lower water levels brings some of the rapids back into life – about 1.5 km upstream, we get a glimpse of how the river would have looked.
In front of today’s club house would have been the start of Three Rock Rapids. A ridge of limestone that the river cut through gave rise to the name “Hogs Back”, since in the imaginations of early visitors to the site it looked like the backbone of a pig. Just upstream, and now under the water of Mooney’s Bay, was another set of rapids – then called Three Island Rapids.
There were no “Hogs Back Falls” then. The falls that are such a popular place today were created when Colonel By ordered the construction of a dam at the top of Three Rock Rapids. That dam raised the water level just over 13 metres and flooded all the rapids between Hogs Back and Black Rapids, turning a fast-flowing river into a long flat-water pond – a perfect sprint paddling course! The good Colonel almost lost his life there when the first dam was washed away in spring flood, right from under his feet! He scrambled to shore as the rocks and earth crumbled out from below his feet.
Drawing by Thomas Burrows, just after the collapse of the first dam at Hogs Back in 1830. You can still see the jumbled, broken rocks below the dam today. Archives of Ontario
Today, thousands of people drive their cars each day on Hogs Back road, which follows along the top of the dam that almost cost Colonel By his life. No one even notices that they are driving across a dam. The bicycle path runs along the front edge of the dam. Photographers taking pictures of the races are standing on the earth and clay used to construct the leading edge of the dam. If you scramble down the hill on the other (north) side of Hogs Back Road, you can still see the broken rock used to build the first dam that got washed away. Just to the east is the weir – the spillway for the river, now forced into a new (new as of 1830, anyway) channel that tumbles over Hogs Back Falls. The rapids below the falls appear as they did before the construction of the dam.
So the next time you paddle on the river, think about the water, and the hopes and dreams of those who came before, of fortunes won and fortunes lost, and lives lost, to make the water flat. Think about getting sucked down Three Rock Rapids in a canoe, as the Billings family, one of the area’s first settlers, did in 1814 (there was no portage, but at least there also wasn’t a Hog's Back Falls).
And the railway bridge you paddle under – built in 1913.
Sources; Legget, Robert, Rideau Waterwa1955
www.rideau-info.com (ken watson’s excellent website on everything there is to know about the Rideau!)
Mark Scriver running Hogs Back Falls
The water is finally up to summer levels. It is great to finally be able to paddle beyond the 1000 metre mark all the way to Black Rapids. Everyone is focussed on training for the upcoming competitions. But it is good to take a break now and then to look and listen (but don’t let your coach think you are slacking off!). There is a lot going on along the river this time of year.
The bow of your canoe or kayak cleaves calm water, leaving the traffic noise and concrete of the RCC dock and the Parks Canada
locks, and the Canada Geese (who already have families) and mallard ducks, in your wake. Let your gaze be unfocused, and you can imagine you are paddling from the urban world into the world of nature...and indeed, you are. Barely five minutes have passed, and you are close to the 1000 metre mark. On your left side is the artificial beach and manicured lawns of Mooney’s Bay, but on your right, on the west side of the river, there are logs where you can see painted turtles catching a few rays. After a winter spent buried in the mud breathing through their butts, it must feel great. Keep your eyes peeled for the head of a snapping turtle poking out of the water like a gnarly floating stick. They are here, but I haven’t seen any sunning on logs yet. Often there are Spotted Sandpipers, small brown birds poking around the water’s edge with their long thin beaks, bobbing their butts up and down, and then they take off, skimming over the water, wings (credit: Brian E. Small; www.audubon.org) flashing white. High in the trees, you might hear a clear musical whistle, the call of the Baltimore Oriole. Look for a flash of brilliant orange and black in the branches of the deciduous trees. These birds look like they are right out of a Costa Rican rain forest.
You should also hear the calls of the Yellow Warbler (“sweet-sweet-sweet-I’m so sweet”), a tiny brilliant dandelion-yellow bird with red streaks on its breast. Look for these little guys in the low shrubs along the river.
credit: Charles Francis, Canadian Wildlife Service
Often there are Great Blue Herons stalking the shore here, fishing for frogs and minnows. I’ve seen their smaller cousin, the Green Heron, patiently waiting for an unsuspecting frog (I imagine that the last thought of many frogs is: “Hey..look at those two funny-looking sticks!) Green Herons usually hang out in the branches of trees close to the water.
credit: Gerry herd, Bird Forum
Where the stalks of last year’s bull rushes form a band of light brown between the water and the forest, you can hear the trilling of American Toads. Yes, the same toad you see in your garden. The male toads each trill at a different pitch, looking for the perfect pitch to attract a mate, combining to make a musical chorus. Toads lay their eggs in pools near the river that dry up in the summer, so it’s a ‘race’ whether the small black tadpoles will turn into little toads before the water dries up. You would think they would lay their eggs in the river, but clearly there are too many critters there that will eat up baby toads.
As you paddle farther up river, you will hear more toads calling near the dog-beach, on the east side of the river just before the hydro lines. You will also hear lots of Red-Winged Black Birds here, calling from the bull rushes. They can make quite a racket (Conka-a-REEE!).You might also see a large black bird silhouetted on the water that looks like a loon. If its head and beak pointed slightly upwards, it’s a Double-Crested Cormorant. These fish-eating birds are relative newcomers to the Rideau. They used to live mainly on the east coast of Canada.
As you paddle past the railway bridge (Are you getting tired yet?) towards Hunt Club Bridge, on the east side of the river there is a large area of bull rushes and several dead trees in the water. There are always Painted Turtles sunning here. In the evening, you can hear the ‘snoring’ calls of Leopard Frogs, and later in the summer, the deep grunting of Bull Frogs. There are several trees close to the water that the bark has been stripped by beavers. I don’t know where their lodge is. If you see it, let me know. Other mammals that live here include mink, a small dark brown ‘weasel-like’ critter seen running along the water’s edge, slipping in and out of the water, equally at home in both).
As you paddle back to the club, watch for swallows flying low over the river. There are several different species, but all are sparrow- sized birds with pointed wings and all are very acrobatic flyers. They catch insects ‘on the wing’ as they swoop and dive over the water. Sadly, all species of swallow are decreasing alarmingly in Canada. If you want to know why, ask Connie.
If you see or hear anything unusual, let me or Connie know and we will try to identify it.
Next blog, I’ll be talking about why the RCC is not a slalom racing club. Seriously.
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