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Chaudière Falls at sunset. Photo: James Peltzer / Flickr.

613 Geotours: Fall into history at Chaudière Falls

By Bruce Burwell on July 27, 2020

This week’s staycation geotour is a voyage into the history of our region. It’s a little lighter on personal adventure but heavy on spectacle and urban renewal. This time our trip will be to the Chaudière Falls.

The Chaudière (as it’s known to its friends) is located just north of the Canadian War Museum in the Ottawa River. At the falls, the river drops about 15 meters over limestone rock. The falls have a width of about 60 meters.

Chaudière Falls. Photo: James Peltzer / Flickr.

Let’s start with some time travel. Set your time machine back 400 years from today and visit what will eventually become downtown Ottawa. You won’t see a lot of evidence of human habitation in the Ottawa area except for the area around the Chaudière. The Anishinaabe people considered the area sacred and called the falls Akikpautik, which translates as “Pipe Bowl Falls” or Akikodjiwan, “Kettle Falls.” Rivers were the highways of the day, and Indigenous people from all over Turtle Island (today called North America) met and traded and held ceremonies here. Just down the river, in Jacques Cartier Park, Indigenous artifacts from over 3,000 years ago have been discovered.

The explorer Samuel de Champlain was the first European to view the falls. In 1613, he described them this way: “At one place the water falls with such violence upon a rock, that, in the course of time, there has been hollowed out in it a wide and deep basin, so that the water flows round and round there and makes, in the middle, great whirlpools.”

Up until 1908, the Chaudière had been a major tourist attraction that rivalled even Niagara Falls. Some people even preferred it to Niagara.

Fast-forward your time machine a few hundred years to 1908. Up until then, the Chaudière had been a major tourist attraction that rivalled even Niagara Falls. Some people even preferred it to Niagara. But the area was being built up with lumber operations and, in 1908, a ring dam was built around the falls to provide power to the growing city. Over the next hundred years, the industrial ugliness of the lumber industry persisted in the area, and it was surprisingly hard to get a good view of the massive dam and falls.

Uncredited photo of the ring dam just after it was built in 1909.

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Three years ago, the view was vastly improved, as a large viewing platform on Chaudière Island beside the falls was opened up to visitors. Around the same time, the hydro generating capacity of the run-of-the-river hydro station that is underneath and around the viewing area was increased and it opened for tours. I did the Doors Open Ottawa tour of the new power station two years ago and especially enjoyed their “eel ladder” which enables the threatened American Eel to move upstream “through” the hydro station. They even have clear plastic tubes where you could, if you were lucky, see the eels moving upstream!

Just as nice in winter. Photo: Michael Gauthier / Flickr.

So have a seat on the viewing platform and enjoy the falls. The whole area looks nothing like it did 400 years ago, but it’s still very impressive. Next year, you will be able to take a high-speed zip line from Ontario to Quebec starting from a spot just a few metres away from here. I wonder what Champlain or the Anishnaabe people would have thought of that.

The Chaudière Falls viewing platform is just north of the War Museum on Chaudière Island. There is no dedicated parking there so you will have to walk or, even better, bike from the Ontario or Quebec sides. There is a lot of construction going on in the area and, on the day I visited recently, I had to find a path to the main viewing platform between construction fences on the south side of the area.


Editor’s note: A previous version of this article omitted the significance of the Chaudière Falls to the Anishnaabe people. The article has been amended to include this information. To learn more about the history of Akikpautik (Chaudière Falls) and its significance to Indigenous communities, we recommend reading this article by Dr. Lynn Gehl and this one by Greg MacDougall.