Dipping into the ribbon of life: A short history of swimming in the Rideau River

Branwood beach area and Rideau River. Photo by Jamie Brougham

Branwood beach area and Rideau River. Photo by Jamie Brougham

 

THERESA WALLACE 

Old Ottawa East is rimmed by a river whose headwaters are in the Rideau Lakes system and whose mouth is at Rideau Falls in the heart of Ottawa. This article is the first in an occasional Mainstreeter series looking at our connection to the body of water the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority has called the ribbon of life. 

Neighbours wander down to Brantwood, towels around their necks. They wave to the lifeguard up in his high chair and enter the change house, where the attendants know them by name. They stow their stuff, head for the sandy beach, then wade into the water.   

This isn’t a beautiful fantasy—it’s a scene from the memory banks of those who were there at the beach in a rapidly growing Ottawa East after the Second World War, decades after the beach was first established.  

From their house on Burnham Road, Barbara and Maurice Jette, now in their 80s, can see the beach where they first met in 1956. It was in the cleared area just south of where the tennis courts are now. She was a playground supervisor and he a lifeguard. “Maurice likes to say he saw me in Brantwood Park one day and the rest is history,” Barbara explains. 

Old Ottawa East resident Barbara Jette reads to childeren in Brantwood Park in this 1956 photograph. Source RCAF Pamphlet 96

Old Ottawa East resident Barbara Jette reads to childeren in Brantwood Park in this 1956 photograph. Source RCAF Pamphlet 96

Peter Murray, 63, grew up near Brighton beach on the other side of the Smyth bridge. The retired Immaculata teacher says Brantwood, Brighton and other beaches along the river had a huge impact on the community. “You’d spend your days taking swim lessons, and playing in the water. The summers would fly by. It kept us out of trouble and made our neighbourhoods cool places to grow up.” 

All that changed in the early 1970s when the beaches along the Rideau, except Mooney’s Bay, were permanently closed due to declining water quality. “The river has had its ups and downs,” observes Paul Hamilton, a Canadian Museum of Civilization algae expert who has studied the Rideau for decades and who took part in the landmark Rideau River Biodiversity Project, completed in 2003. “Right now, it’s pretty good, but very much in need of protection. Within the city, the biggest problem is the e. coli levels, which come from mammalian bacteria.”  

At Mooney’s Bay, there’s a pumping system to take water from the faster-flowing middle and release it across the beach area. But some adventurous souls don’t bother going all the way to Mooney’s Bay for a dip. When John Bennett moved to Old Ottawa East in 1991, he noticed several older ladies in flowered bathing caps swam in the river using flutter boards. A few years later, he started swimming too. Bennett, 59, swims a few times a week, unless there’s been a heavy rainfall. “I find it just wonderful. If it’s a hot day, you can just walk down to the river.”  

The Glengarry Road resident dons his goggles and stays close to the shore, journeying as far downstream as Springhurst Park. “Once you get through the mud along the shoreline, it’s fine. Later in the season there are some weeds, but they don’t bother me.” Bennett does avoid the swans. “The male swan can be particularly territorial.”  

In 2014, the OOE community activities group started kayaking and canoeing camps where the Brantwood beach used to be. There’s a dock in the river at the end of Clegg. Stand-up paddleboarders use the river now. Laura Zak, who owns Ottawa SUP at Bank and Riverdale, says she’s had her best season yet on the river in her four years of operation, and notes a higher percentage of her customers in the past couple of years have rented SUPs to swim with. “For example, there was a group of 10 women swimmers on one of our last days of operation in September who were gone for two hours. SUPs are ideal for combined swimming and paddle boarding because they are attached to your ankle and easy to climb back up on, unlike a kayak or canoe.”  

During his swims, Bennett has noticed the increased number of kayaks, canoes and SUPs near Brantwood and says the more people playing on and in the river, the better. “People who use the river appreciate it and want to take care of it. The river belongs to all of us.”  

Do you have a memory of Brantwood beach to share with Mainstreeter readers? Are you one of the unidentified neighbourhood children in the 1956 photo with Barbara Jette or do you recognize them from your own childhood in Old Ottawa East? If so, leave us a comment below!

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