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If you’ve ever driven eastbound on the Queensway, past the Carling/Kirkwood exit, you’ve probably seen that big hill. Once a ski slope, the hill is part of Carlington Park, a public park developed in the 1960s on top of an old landfill, and that includes one of the city’s largest drinking-water aquifers.
Photo: The view from atop a portion of the Carlington escarpment near the Staircase Garden, one of two pollinator gardens created by the Friends of Carlington Woods.
The Carlington Hill is one of the highest natural points in Ottawa, with an elevation of 107 m—20+ m taller than the surrounding areas. The view of the Gatineau Hills is superb, plus it’s the spot to be at for astronomical events such as meteor showers and lunar eclipses.
Wrapped around the hill is the Carlington Woods. It's an alvar environment, a type of ecosystem characterized by shallower soils over bedrock, in this case limestone. Today, alvar environments are extremely rare in Ontario because they were and are in areas where humans quarry. The City yard on Clyde North was once a quarry that supplied some of the stone used to build the Lord Elgin Hotel.
Alvars don’t mean that it’s all dry and dusty. Parts of the Carlington Woods were once mapped as wetlands before residential development was added onto its southwest portion. Vernal pools—areas that fill up with water to create ponds in shoulder seasons, or after wet weather—still exist, providing habitat, food, and breeding conditions for several species, including salamanders.
To the untrained eye, some might think that the Carlington Woods has little value, due to the predominance of two species, one native, one not. The native Eastern white cedar is the most common tree species in the South woods, while non-native buckthorn is the most dominant shrub. But if you look more closely, the cedars happily co-exist with large oaks, maples, ironwoods, and a massive butternut; and as for the buckthorn, well, the Friends of Carlington Woods and the NCC are working on that!
For the past two years, Friends volunteers have been clearing an area of buckthorn and planting native species, mostly shrubs. This September, we planted 15 trees, all of which were donated by Ecology Ottawa in the fall of 2022 and overwintered by volunteers.
Watch as we plant the first Eastern white pine (YouTube link), and check out the other videos that show the area before we cleared it.
This past summer, the NCC cut down the non-native vegetation along the Experimental Farm path that runs through the Woods and reseeded with native grass species. These measures should help to reduce buckthorn regrowth and keep the native but noxious poison ivy from expanding.
The trees in the North woods hang onto a steep, rocky slope, their ropes of roots poking through the soil and hugging the stones. To the west, sumac, juniper and the ever-present buckthorn bushes dominate, but here we can also find rarer tree species such as Rock elms and, if we’re lucky, a snake or two.
The wildlife is abundant! Foxes den here – this past spring, a mum and four kits were spotted several times – and, as habitat to the southwest becomes scarcer, there have been more reports of coyotes. Ravens can be heard and seen all year long, croaking and circling the quarry, and barn swallows zip up and down the Carlington Hill from spring to late summer.
Over the years, far too many people have told me that the Carlington Woods is nothing but scrubland. I feel sorry for those who can’t see all that I can: a marvel that’s been hiding in plain sight for more than half a century.
But don’t just take my word for it, come see it for yourself! Explore on your own or book a tour with the Friends of Carlington Woods by emailing [email protected].
Sharon Boddy is a director with the Friends of Carlington Woods.