People and Places

Great Lakes: A Top 10 list for Eastern Ontario (a.k.a. lakes I’d take Henry David Thoreau to see)

A top 10 list that crosses the Ottawa River, goes in different directions, and tells 10 different stories. From the Champlain Sea to Boy Scouts, cold-water fish to a man-made miracle, these are the lakes I would take Henry David Thoreau out to see

American author and poet Henry David Thoreau was so crazy about lakes that he spent the better part of two years writing about one — a single one — which, to be perfectly honest, wasn’t much of a lake. More of a pond, really. Still, some of his thoughts about lakes weren’t bad. Anyone from eastern Ontario or western Quebec, where there are nearly 50,000 lakes, will recognize a kindred soul when they meet one. And Henry David was a kindred soul — a person who understood lakes, who loved them.

Flower Lake. Photograph by Andre Forget / Sun Media

Here is something else the great New England author and naturalist had to say about lakes: “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”  Sure, you’d express that differently around Ottawa. You’d get thrown out of any self-respecting bass boat if you started talking about the depth of nature or the earth’s eye (if you were lucky — it could get worse). But stop and tell us if it isn’t it true, what the man is saying. Is there a more beautiful landscape feature? Is there a better place to spend a summer’s day or more fun in this world than a lake, a boat, and a free day?

A year ago I was asked to write a summer series on lakes around Ottawa — the Great Lakes, if you will — the title growing on people so much that I was eventually asked to replicate the actual number of Great Lakes. So five. My list has grown since then and I now have a top 10 list. (Although I still feel guilty about the lakes that didn’t make it. Sorry — one last time for the world — to Aylen Lake, Lac Bernard, Lac Philippe, and that pretty little lake in the Gatineaus where we once tried to reframe the constitution.)

Still, I like the list we came up with. It crosses the Ottawa River, goes in different directions, and tells different stories. From the Champlain Sea to Boy Scouts, cold-water fish to a man-made miracle, these are the lakes I would take Henry David to see.

Big Rideau Lake
When the Rideau Canal was designated a World Heritage Site in 2007, the United Nations said its builder had pulled off an act of “human creative genius.” The pat on the back for John By was given pretty much because of this lake.

A quick bit of history. Following the War of 1812, the British government began looking for an alternative supply route between Upper and Lower Canada, one that would not use the at times perilous St. Lawrence River. That route became the Rideau Canal, a 202-kilometre link of rivers, lakes, and canals that would stretch from Lake Ontario at Kingston to the Ottawa River, where there would be safe passage to Montreal. The man given the task of building it was Lt.-Col. John By, a retired Royal Engineer.

It is estimated that 1,000 men died while building the canal. It is further estimated that the majority of those deaths came not from drowning or explosions, but from a mysterious illness believed to have been malaria. “Swamp fever” decimated the work camps at Ottawa, Kingston, and Merrickville, but nowhere so badly as the camp at Rideau Lake, the massive lake that stood at the high point of land along By’s canal route. Here, the workers were trying to carve out a canal on an isthmus between Mud Lake and Rideau Lake, a stubborn chunk of Canadian Shield that was refusing to bow to the black powder and picks of the workers.

By was stumped by the isthmus. It would take years to build a traditional canal through that rock. The potential loss of life was staggering. He fretted and worried until he came up with an audacious solution that has wowed both engineers and boaters ever since.

John By built the Big Rideau.

First he built a dam, cutting Rideau Lake into two and, in the process, raising the water level of nearby Mud Lake by nearly five feet. The south shore of the new lake became the Upper Rideau. The north shore, now the much larger of the two lakes, became the Big Rideau. The isthmus disappeared under water. The unfinished canal cut, along with many unmarked graves, disappeared along with it.

Today the Big Rideau is one of the busiest lakes in eastern Ontario, home to five marinas and a provincial park (Murphy’s Point).

Flower Lake
The Great Lake you’ve never heard of. Flower Lake sits near the end of a corduroy road that dead-ends the next lake over. (After that, nothing — corduroy roads were being built throughout eastern Ontario in the mid-19th century, none of them ever going anywhere.) They got their name because the roads were so rough and muddy — and nearby timber was so plentiful — that logs were used to surface huge swatches of the new “highways.” The look of the lined-up timber reminded people of corduroy fabric. The roads themselves were colony roads, mapped and funded by the government in Upper Canada to try to push settlement away from the St. Lawrence River.

The roads basically connected lakes, there being no villages to speak of. Some of the lakes were unknown, so they were named during the mapping process in Toronto, the mandarins of the day simply drawing arbitrary lines into the heart of the Canadian Shield. The Opeongo Line is a corduroy road. Same with the Hastings Road, Addington Road, Snow Road, South Lavant Road, and parts of the French Line, which you travel down to reach Flower Lake. This lake sits in the heart of the Lanark Highlands, where no colony road ever succeeded. The land was too wild and the promise of farming too much an inside joke, and every road was abandoned by the 1880s.

Some people were stubborn, though. The Scots who came to the Lanark Highlands were such a group. They stayed and farmed on this hardscrabble land even after the roads were given up as a lost cause. In the process, they missed every significant demographic and migratory trend of the next 100 years (with the exception of a rail line — the K & P — which was abandoned in the late 1960s).

There are no highways to take you to Flower Lake; no real estate developments nearby; no hockey rinks or parks, property owners’ associations, gas stations, visitor centres, and certainly no stores (you want anything, you’re driving to Perth). There is no through traffic. You don’t wander down here on a whim, which, from the first day I saw this lake, was something I rather liked about it.

High life: François Leduc, manager of interpretation, information, and marketing services for the NCC in Gatineau Park, looks out over Pink Lake from a vantage point along the Pink Lake trail. Photography by Errol McGihon / Sun Media.

Pink Lake
This postage stamp-sized perfect turquoise lake 20 minutes from downtown Ottawa is one of the oddest lakes you’re ever going to visit. Where to start? How about this? The entire Ottawa Valley was once covered by a body of salt water called the Champlain Sea. When the glaciers finally retreated 11,000 years ago, the sea backed off to the Atlantic Ocean. The lakes that were left behind — on what became the Canadian Shield — all started out as salt water. Most of them turned to fresh water within a generation. At Pink Lake, the change took thousands of years. No one can explain it. Why this little lake stayed a saltwater pool for so long. It is — in every real sense — the last remnant of the Champlain Sea.

Or how about this. When the biologists at Gatineau Park started analyzing the lake, they discovered there was no oxygen in the bottom third. Divers who have ventured into the lake say there is a noticeable demarcation line where the oxygen ends. Beyond that line, it is like entering a prehistoric world. There is a strain of bacterium in Pink Lake that is one of the oldest living organisms on the planet. There are fish species, like the threespine stickleback, that swam with the dinosaurs.

You can’t swim or fish at Pink Lake anymore (one of the consequences of all these strange discoveries), but if you want to marvel at a lake unlike any other in North America (complete with NCC-built lookouts), this lake can be fun on a Sunday afternoon. Take a camera. The views are spectacular.

Christie Lake
Welcome to summer-camp country, where a bell summons you to meals, pranks are pulled every fortnight, and children spend their evenings telling stories around shoreline campfires.

Perth is known for its summer camps, and Christie Lake — located just 30 kilometres southwest of the city — has two of the longest-running summer camps in Ontario. Scouts Canada opened Camp Opemikon in 1938. Christie Lake Camp was started in 1922 by a juvenile court judge in Ottawa who thought all kids deserved some time at a summer camp, whether they could afford it or not.

The lake has 646 hectares of water surface, which makes it a relatively small lake for the region. It is ringed by cliffs at the northern and southern shores and by flat lowland at the eastern drainage (where it empties into the Tay River). An interesting fact about Christie Lake: it has 28 islands (10 of them privately owned). In addition to the surprising number of islands, there is enough steady wind to merit a sailing club and enough sandy beach to justify two tent-and-trailer camps.

Golden Lake
Golden Lake is a big lake, with beautiful sunsets and enough wooden boats prowling around to make you feel as if you are somewhere in the Adirondacks. It also has beautiful sandy beaches and a resort (The Sands on Golden Lake) with a mini-putt course that hasn’t changed since the ’50s. It has two campgrounds. The fish are coming back. There’s a lot to like about Golden Lake. The deciding factor for including this lake, though, is that I figured many readers would already know it or at least have glimpsed it.

Many lakes are tucked away down country lanes or rural roads, glimpsed only because that’s your destination — the lake at the end of the road, the place you’re staying and not going anywhere for a few days. Golden Lake, however, can be seen rather nicely right off Highway 60. It is part of any drive to Algonquin Park. There is even a lookout just outside Deacon where you can pull off and eat lunch. You sit at a picnic table in the shelter of a mature red pine stand and look at the water. On even the hottest day, it is cool there. The trees shelter you but don’t crowd (red pine is perfect for that). There is a breeze coming in off the lake.

Although the land here is mostly flat, you can see on the far shore an undulating treeline, can see the promise of highlands nearby. From Ottawa, this is roughly the half-way point to Algonquin Park. We suspect Golden Lake is part of many people’s memories. And, yes, the debate is still wide open as to how it got its name: either John Golden (an early pioneer) or the spectacular sunsets you see on the lake just about any evening.

Mud Lake
Before I tell you about Mud Lake, there are a few things you should know. For starters, although it may sound absurd at first, Mud is one of the most popular names affixed to a lake.

In the United States, there are nearly 1,000 Mud lakes. The state of Michigan, alone, has more than 150 of them. Ditto for Minnesota and Wisconsin. Ontario has more than 30 Mud lakes, as do New Brunswick and British Columbia (the latter — forever, it seems, claiming to be bigger and bolder — even has a chain of Mud Lakes).

None of these lakes were named recently, which might not surprise you. If you’re selling waterfront property, naming a village, or trying to entice tourists, Mud is not the name you choose for a lake. (Mud Lake, California, was recently renamed Fleener. It sounds better. There is still a lot of mud.) Mud is a name from another time — honest, forthright, without pretence or modern aspirations to be called something like Spectacle or Vista.

Many communities have grown to love their Mud Lake. You can add Ottawa to the list. You reach our Mud Lake by driving through the old village of Britannia. Near the end of Britannia Road, just before you reach the Britannia Yacht Club, you make a right onto Cassels Street. At the end of the street is Mud Lake. The lake is not man-made, although it is near a water filtration plant and several high-rises, so you might get that impression. We’re not used to seeing lakes in the middle of a city.

The shoreline around the lake is densely forested, mostly with hardwood trees. A few years ago the entire area around Mud Lake became the Britannia Conservation Area. There are hundreds of species of wildlife in the few acres surrounding Mud Lake, including foxes, three kinds of turtles, and every migrating songbird and water bird that passes through the city. It has become a popular spot for birdwatchers.

Blue Sea Lake
It’s hard not to like a lake with a sea monster. The Algonquins called the large, fast seahorse at Blue Sea Lake Misiganebic, or “grand serpent.” Nearly a century ago many people claimed to have seen the creature, most of the sightings coming between 1913 and 1930. The last sighting of Misiganebic came in 1980, at the Baskatong Reservoir, which is much farther north although still connected by water to this beautiful lake 90 kilometres north of Gatineau. And, yes, it is a sea monster the locals have been looking for all these years, or so the story continues. The lake, you see, gets its name not only from its tremendous size (10 kilometres in length, nearly four in breadth) but also because there are few visual obstacles (islands, mountains, cliffs) on any horizon. Standing on the shores of Blue Sea Lake, you can easily get the impression you are staring out at a vast sea. It must have tricked the monster, as well.

When not searching for Misiganebic, the people living around Blue Sea also enjoy some of the best swimming, boating, and fishing in the upper Gatineau. This is cottage country, and the town of Blue Sea is the hub for the entire region. One last odd fact about Blue Sea Lake: nearby is another lake that goes by the name Lac de la Mer Bleue, or Blue Sea Lake. To avoid any confusion, the much larger lake is called Blue Sea, in English or French. Has been for years. The Quebec language police have yet to drop by and complain.

Lake Opeongo
A bit far, perhaps, for a Great Lakes of Ottawa list, but a sentimental favourite, is the largest lake in Algonquin Park, well known to any serious canoeist in the nation’s capital — plus, it should be included for its history alone.

Opeongo Lake was the final destination for the colony road, started shortly before Confederation, that was supposed to lead from the far western shores of a new capital into the heart of the Canadian Shield. The Opeongo Line, as it came to be called, never reached the grand lake in the Algonquin Highlands, but it did spur settlement up and down the Ottawa Valley. Towns such as Arnprior, Barry’s Bay, and Eganville all owe their existence to the Opeongo Line.

The lake itself is a monster. There are three distinct arms spread out over 5,800 hectares of water surface. The arms form a rough Y shape, and the tips of the Y are popular jumping-off spots for canoe trips into Algonquin Park. There is a fisheries laboratory and an outfitters shop, and even though boats with any size of motor are allowed on the lake (a rarity for the park), there are beautiful secluded campsites as close as two kilometres from the access road. The access road runs right off Highway 60, and the lake is a fairly easy three-hours-and-I-start-my-long-weekend drive for people living in the nation’s capital.

The name of the lake, by the way, comes from opeauwingauk, the Algonquin word for “sandy” narrows. If the long-forgotten Algonquin name giver had decided not to include the word sandy and just called it “place where the water narrows,” he would have ended up with the word kebec. Which was later changed to Quebec.

Charleston Lake
This is as far south as we’re going on our journey. Charleston Lake is just north of Gananoque and drains into the St. Lawrence River. It is in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Lowlands Forest Region and is a hodgepodge of different rock formations, forests, and changing climates. You don’t need to know all that (such as, there are two distinct bedrock formations on the lake, one northern [granite] and one southern [sandstone]) to appreciate this lake. Instead, picture beautiful hardwood forests, lovely islands, and some of the best fishing in eastern Ontario.

There is a provincial park on the lake and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Again, don’t be frightened. All you need to know about this lake is that it breaks down into some of the most interesting landscape and boating possibilities in the region.

Dow’s Lake
A strange choice, perhaps, to finish the list, but a body of water that is dear to the hearts of many people in Ottawa. And I use the phrase “body of water” because you can debate whether Dow’s Lake should even be included in a Great Lakes list.

What is a lake? Sounds like a silly question, but think about it for a minute. Pick any definition for lake, and you will have no trouble finding a lake that doesn’t fit it. If a lake is “a large area of water surrounded by land” as Oxford contends, then why are there so many lakes in the middle of a river (like Lac Deschenes, in the Ottawa River). And if a lake has to be a non-moving body of water, as other dictionaries contend, then explain the current in the Big Rideau or why an idle boat will drift even on a windless day. Does a lake have to be fresh water? Not necessarily. Underground lakes are often salt water. Does a lake need oxygen? Not Pink Lake. Does it need islands, to distinguish between a lake and a pond? Lake Dore, in the Algonquin Highlands, is the largest lake in North America without an island.

So what can be called a lake is rather loose. And, given this, we would like to take this opportunity to nominate Dow’s Lake as a Great Lake. Because it’s in the heart of the city, two lock stations away from the Long Reach stretch of the Rideau Canal. Because you can catch muskellunge there if you’re fishing from a boat (scout’s honour). And because it used to be, according to Lt.-Col. John By, a three-day hike from downtown Ottawa.