Nearly all of today's hike was along a paved, two lane multi-use trail that was part of both the Capital Pathway Network and the Rideau Trail. This network connects Gatineau Park to Downtown Ottawa and the Greenbelt, and on this bright sunny day it was well used by cyclists, joggers, and hikers. We'd like to say that we "crushed" our first 25 km of trail, but in reality we mostly just learned all the ways that being in quarantine for six weeks hasn't helped get us in shape. Today, far from being the lightfooted persons who could trek 50 km a day at the end of 2019 we are instead two persons who struggled and limped throughout their first trek of 2020. Added to that, we found many interesting opportunities for birding, which did nothing to help our pace.
We headed out of Ottawa by following the Rideau Canal down to the Ottawa River, and following a shaded section of trail running along the bottom of Parliament Hill. The river was calm, reflecting the trees and buildings on the far shore like a mirror. A pair of Common Mergansers dove for fish in the still water, only a few meters from shore. The capital seemed very peaceful in the morning light.
As we made our way out of downtown Ottawa we saw several large groups of goslings being shepherded across the busy trail by their parents. Tree Swallows were fishing above the river, and we got a close-up view of one of the Ring-billed Gull colonies just off-shore.
As we made our way along, we were met with smiles from many people we passed. It was a good feeling to be a source of happiness to others, even if only for a fleeting moment. One couple who stopped for a socially-distanced chat ended up sharing some exciting bird observations from farther along the trail, including a Great Egret and a pair of Common Mergansers with babies that they carry on their backs. It was exciting to meet up with other birders and nature lovers.
A few steps farther down the trail we met a wonderful lady of colour who stopped to share her story. She asked where we were hiking, and shared a story about visiting the Luray Caverns near Washington, DC. She described the cathedral-sized caves with ceilings 10 stories high, towering stone columns and crystal pools, and a huge organ made of stalactites. She spoke about her visit like she'd been there yesterday, and about all the natural beauty that exists everywhere in this world, and provides a lifetime of inspiration and memories. She also spoke about how these natural wonders should be for everyone to enjoy, but that people of colour don't feel welcome in many places. She reminded us that people like us couldn't possibly understand what it is like to be her, or how she experiences the world. We are hoping to use our hike to help encourage diversity in the outdoor community, but until recently we didn't realize just how much courage it takes for non-Caucasians to join outdoor groups. These two conversations seemed to affirm the goals of our hike, and made us realize we all have so much farther to go.
Shortly after this we passed Westboro Beach, which turned out to be a large stretch of light grey sand. Quite a few people were out enjoying the sandy beach and large treed park while practicing social distancing.
Next stop was the Britannia Conservation Area. Right at the edge we stopped at a small marsh to watch a Great Egret catching and swallowing live fish. Like Great Blue Herons they stalk prey in slow motion and then strike with lightening speed. We watched as the Egret swallowed four live fish, which could be seen thrashing around as they traveled down its neck. A few steps farther on we saw a beautiful Hooded Merganser female diving for fish in a tiny pond.
We diverted off the Great Trail to walk the forested pathway around Mud Lake. It was alive with birds, including several pairs of spectacular Wood Ducks paddling around in a wetland. A lively Yellow Warbler was foraging in the green canopy overhead.
In a stand of tall white pines a family of loud and demanding juvenile American Crows was causing a ruckus. Along the path a Hairy Woodpecker was drumming on a snag. We were happy to see quite a few birders and wildlife photographers out and about, and wished we could have spent more time birding the park.
As we emerged from the conservation area we were thrilled to find the Beachconers Microcreamery. It was open, and offered a tantalizing selection of coffees, baked goods, and ice cream! We were able to purchase cold drinks and a tub of raspberry lemon sherbet from a cooler outside, and gratefully sat in the shade of tree at Britannia Beach to enjoy them. It was a wonderful break from the heat. The trail had little shade, and today was sunny, without a cloud in the sky that looked more blue than it has in years, and it was 28 °C. It was hot! Where did spring go?
By the afternoon we were both pretty badly sunburnt, and starting to feel the heat. We were ready to be done about seven kilometres before we reached Bell's Corners, which coincided with a point where the road would have taken us straight to the town, but the trail took us in a 7 km loop. We stuck to the trail, and were happy to discover that it took us through a beautiful maple and beach forest. It was eerily quiet, with only a single Red-eyed Vireo singing, but we did see a baby garter snake slithering hastily into the leaf litter, several adorable baby chipmunks trying and failing to be invisible, a few grey squirrels foraging on the ground, and a beautiful rock art sculpture.
By the end of the day we were definitely "hurt walking." We expect the next few days will be tough, but once we make it through them, things will hopefully get easier. At least we are in a beautiful area, on wonderful trails, and the terrain is relatively easy - as things go, it is a gentle re-introduction to trail life.