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



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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2 Responses to "Dipping into the ribbon of life: A short history of swimming in the Rideau River"

  1. Roberta Hagar says:

    My family moved to Beckwith Road in 1945 and Brantwood Beach was where we spent our time on hot summer days. On hot summer weekends, there wasn’t a parking spot to be found because of the cars parked up and down the streets close to the beach. There were so many people on the beach, it was impossible to find a spot to spread a towel. My father ran the canteen on the beach for a couple of years in the late 40s. I would go around the beach and ask people if I could have their empty bottles. For every bottle I turned in, I would get two cents and I usually collected enough to buy a bag of chips and a drink from the canteen. Evelyn Miller was the name of the lady who ran the cloak room for a few years and George Woods was a lifeguard. I would get up early in the morning and head for the beach to help George put out all of the equipment and he actually taught me to swim. I would swim back and forth between the piers pretending to be Marilyn Bell swimming the Engligh Channel. On some of the summer nights they would show movies on a screen attached to the side of the canteen building where children and parents would all sit on the grass and enjoy the movies. Every now and then we would wander through the woods to Brighton Beach, but not very often because we had to pay to swim there. When we had our fill of swimming for a while, we would run across the field and play on the swings in the playground. Once or twice during the summer, the city would have a special day at the park for the kids. We could win prizes by running races or bean bag and horse shoe throwing, etc. One year we had a yoyo expert show up and wow us with what he could do with the toy. Of course, there was the rink In winter, where we would skate until our toes began to freeze. Then we would head into warm up in the canteen building. There was a great wood stove burning and we would try to dry our mitts on the stove before going out again. Of course, it usually turned out that our mitts got scorched. Our parents would warn us not to go out on the ice on the river, but being kids and having no fear, we would slowly walk out until the ice started to crack and then run back to the shore. On the other side of the river, directly across from Brantwood Beach, there was an old man who lived in a tar papered shack. We called him Frank the Tramp and people from the neighbourhood would periodically go across and give him food. He stayed in that shack winter and summer, and on the coldest days, we could see the smoke coming out of the shack’s chimney. Rumour had it that he was a World War One veteran, and I always wondered what became of him. In the early spring when they blasted the ice, the sound of the explosions could be heard throughout the whole neighbourhood. Hearing the sound of the train whistle as it ran along the tracks on the other side of the river as I lay in bed at night, is another wonderful memory. What a great neighbourhood to grow up in with so many wonderful memories of Brantwood Beach.
    I hope you enjoy hearing some of my memories of days gone by on the beach!.
    Roberta Hagar

    • Thank you so much for sharing your memories and stories Roberta! This is truly wonderful to read. Sounds like quite a place. I’d like to think generations today still same the same thing about it being such a great neighbourhood to grow up in. And yes, I wonder what happened to Frank too? Thanks again for sharing Roberta. Best, Meredith

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