A living link to early Canadian history

The Champlain Oaks of Champlain Park can be confidently described as the oldest collection of native bur oaks in Ottawa. They are 50 years older than the oldest at Canada’s Arboretum (the oldest tree at the Arboretum was planted in 1897) and greater in girth. They are bigger than all but a few specimens we have located on NCC lands on the south side of the river (although there is a very old red oak along the pathway just metres east of the Island Park parking lot).

Because of their great age, cheapest these trees have in their genes the memory of surviving every Ottawa winter, spring, summer and fall for 150 or more years, including all the calamities that came with the seasons. This gives them great flexibility and proven long life here on the northern edge of the species’ range. Unlike many other trees in our neighbourhood, they were obviously planted by God, whatever that term means to us.

We also know that these trees were saplings in an oak forest standing here in the 1850s, before Confederation. The map of Nepean (above) made in 1879 shows the land where we are located as a property of Skead, or perhaps Pinhey, between Mechanicsville on the east and Skead’s lumber mill (and later Westboro Beach) on the west. It seems unlikely that it was cleared agricultural land as these individuals focused on the lumber trade of the Upper Ottawa River. Des Chenes (lake of the oaks, or perhaps oak rapids) is shown on the map as well. The ‘lake’ had an upper and lower side, divided by Des Chenes Rapids. A portage road on the north side of the Ottawa linked Wright’s Town (Hull) to the upper Ottawa Valley, and from Wright’s Town to Bytown (Ottawa) via a series of bridges completed in 1844 across the islands at Chaudière Falls. The south side of the river at this longitude seems to have been in a natural state.

An oak forest on the Ottawa River between Chaudière Falls and Lac Des Chenes was first referenced in 1686 by Pierre de Troyes, a captain in the French army also known as ‘the Chevalier de Troyes’. While portaging around the rapids on the north side of the river he remarked:

“Then I returned to the oak portage, so called because of the number of these trees which are in the area, which is about a league and a half from the plunge of the Chaudière Falls. I climbed the many rapids which are encountered between the two on this road, and made the portage which is at nearly a league from that of the Chaudière, which is a quarter of a league as long as that of the oaks”.

He then went on with a party of over 30 canoes to successfully expel the English from James Bay.

These references are like stepping stones from today, to the mid 1800s, to 1686. While more evidence and points in between this timeline would enrich the story, the basic sketch is there. The magnificent trees so much a part of current community history are also a living link to early Canadian history and a longstanding ecosystem.


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