People & Places

First day of Spring: A kayaker’s harrowing, ‘half-baked’ but oddly meditative trip on Sawmill Creek

I started at South Keys and was just past Home Depot when I realized that I was speeding out of control, and that the tangle of trees blocking my path would probably not give way, and that reaching for and trying to put on my helmet would throw me off balance, and that tumbling into a frothy torrent of bacterial spring runoff was a better outcome than getting sucked under a log and losing my neighbour’s kayak — which was nonetheless a more suitable vessel than the toy dinghy I had originally considered for this expedition.

I don’t recall when — or why — I decided to paddle Sawmill Creek, from its source in south Ottawa to its mouth on the Rideau River just east of Bank Street. In fact, I wasn’t even sure where the waterway began. But after countless trips across its ravine on foot, by bike and in a car, my thirst to traverse the wildness a few minutes from home became overwhelming.

First, in a half-baked attempt at prudent preparation, I mounted a reconnaissance mission. I skied along the Rideau and up the creek after getting a tow to my Main St. mechanic. The ice in the long, dark culverts under the Transitway and Bank held me, but a series of beaver dams and deadfall ramparts on the approach to Heron Road sent me bushwhacking through thickets of willow and thorny shrub, so I scrambled up a steep embankment to the familiar footing of salted, plowed streets.

Sawmill Creek is a fissure that cuts across the edge of my neighbourhood. It is a constant reminder of the natural and historical currents we seldom notice. And a quick and dirty way to have an otherworldly adventure.

Sawmill Creek. Photo: Dan Rubinstein
Sawmill Creek. Photo: Dan Rubinstein

Named after a sawmill built in 1823 where the Billings Bridge Shopping Centre now stands, the creek is a 10-kilometre-long perennial stream that drains a watershed of more than 20 square kilometres. Its terminus was rerouted to the east side of Bank in 1960 to make space for the mall, and decades of development and untreated urban slurry have degraded the riparian corridor. But recent stabs at ecological stewardship, including a multi-use pathway beside Airport Parkway and the constructed storm-water ponds where I put in, are slowly rekindling an awareness of what Ecology Ottawa calls the “inter-connectivity of human and biophysical systems.”

The fearless Dan Rubinstein and his kayak. Photo: Dan Rubinstein
The fearless Dan Rubinstein and his kayak. Photo: Dan Rubinstein

After shouldering the kayak and walking through the South Keys bus station, I slipped into the water. Sawmill Creek actually begins south of here, in the woods near Leitrim Road, but because the flow is so low in the ditch-like sections straddling Hunt Club, I figured it was ‘ok’ to call this mile zero. Plus, there was convenient parking. Red-winged blackbirds whistled from the reeds, a small beaver swam across my bow and then submerged, and mallard ducks took flight as traffic whizzed along Airport Parkway. A man standing on a viewing platform lowered minnow traps into the pond. “For eating?” I asked while drifting past. He shook his head emphatically and mimed a casting motion. Bait.

When my new friend and a senior citizens’ walking group faded out of sight, I portaged across a rail line to a sudsy channel where the creek proper merged with the outflow basin. Almost immediately, I was swept toward my first hazard. The spill that ensued — slow, sideways, shockingly cold — was a baptism of sorts. I discovered a valve for draining water out of the kayak, and got used to smelling like sewage. The next logjam, and the next dunking, and the branch that broke free, sending the kayak racing downstream as I splashed after it, were more disconcerting. Defeated and bruised, with a sore back, I walked under Walkley for the next leg.

Lined by gabion walls — rocks in wire cages — the creek slowed to a muddy crawl and I started to feel more comfortable, maneuvering around submerged shopping carts and through a few rapids. Basketballs bobbed in a gyre of Styrofoam and plastic water bottles, which glinted in the sun. The kayak bottomed out just as the O-Train roared by, giving me a shock. As did the spikey brambles I had to push through north of Heron, on the final stretch toward Bank.

From there, it was a fast, wet and bumpy ride through the culverts I had skied in. The creek shot me under Riverside Drive and into the Rideau, and I dragged myself onto a lawn near Billings Bridge. People walked, cycled and drove by. They went into restaurants and waited for the bus. It was an ordinary weekday afternoon at an intersection I know intimately, but everything felt surreal, as if I had just emerged from an interstellar rift. Or maybe a bacterial infection was already setting in.

I left the kayak at a gas station, took a bus to South Keys and returned with my van to retrieve the boat. I was on the water for four hours. The drive took eight minutes.

Ottawa-based writer and editor Dan Rubinstein is the author of Born to Walk: The Transformative Properties of a Pedestrian Act (ECW Press, 2015). He usually sticks to dry ground.