Orléans, east of Ottawa, is a typical suburb. Identical houses that line up as far as the eye can see, strip malls, intense morning and evening traffic… As I spent my youth in the countryside, the suburbs have always appeared to me as a suffocating and disconcerting place to live in.
But it does not mean that a suburb is a no-man’s land when it comes time to discover places that are worth visiting. The suburbs are often shunned by tourists, but that does not mean they do not hide some well-kept secrets. And to prove it to myself, I went to visit Petrie Island in Orléans for the first time.
Petrie Island is actually made up of several islands, located on the Ottawa River north of Orléans. It is a rather popular place with the local population. There is a fairly busy summer beach, picnic areas and a few kilometres of hiking trails. In winter, the place attracts many ice fishers. But beyond its appeal to outdoor enthusiasts, Petrie Island is also a geologically and naturally interesting place.
Petrie Island was formed on sand deposits left at the end of the ice age. As this was a swampy and wet area, the islands were frequented by Aboriginal people as they were a great place for fishing. In the 19th century, the islands became the property of Scottish Captain Archibald Petrie, who bequeathed his name to them. The islands subsequently changed hands several times. In the 1950s, a mining company extracted sand there. In the 1960s, the size of the islands decreased considerably when the Carillon Dam was built further down the river. Finally, it was in the 1980s that Petrie Island became a public property and an organization (the Friends of Petrie Island), now provides protection and takes care of the small interpretation centre that can be found on the island.
Petrie Island is usually flooded in the spring, creating a wetland habitat that supports unique flora and fauna. Ontario has classified the island as an Area of Natural and Scientific Interest. It is actually one of the last places in the region to discover what the Ottawa River ecosystem looked like before the urban development of the nation’s capital.
When I went there, one morning after a snowstorm, I was the only one on the trails. There was not a sound, only the noise of my footsteps on the snow, and sometimes a bird. Hard to believe at that moment that I was in Orléans, only ten kilometres from downtown Canada’s capital. Maybe the suburbs aren’t too bad after all!