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Petrie Island beach. Photo: Michael Gauthier/Flickr.

613 Geotours: Petrie Island – Beaches and biology

By Bruce Burwell on August 10, 2020


We’ve done a geotour to a beach in a forest, but this week we’re going a little more traditional with a beach on a river.

Petrie Island doesn’t have much in the way of big geological significance but hey, it’s a beach! Two beaches in fact! And who doesn’t want to go to a beautiful sand beach during a global pandemic?

Petrie is actually a series of islands in the Ottawa River in the city’s east end. Its most popular features are two large sand beaches run by the city.

There are the usual facilities you’d expect at a city beach: lifeguards, washrooms, parking, snack bar, volleyball nets. But of course, these beaches are on the Ottawa River, so actually being open for swimming on any given day is definitely not a sure thing. You can check here to find out whether the beaches are open.

A day at the beach. Photo: bigbrowneyez/Flickr.

The Petrie Island area was created by the last glaciation, about 10,000 years ago. As the glaciers melted, the Ottawa River began to take on its current shape. Particles of sand were washed down the river and collected in places along the shores. In fact, Petrie Island has so much sand that as recently as the 1960s sand was collected here to be sold commercially. In the 1980s the area was declared an “area of significant and natural interest” and the City of Ottawa acquired it to protect it as both a recreational area and a nature reserve.

The beaches are nice, but the whole area has a lot of interest for biologists. The islands are quite low-lying and are subject to flooding each spring. The plants and animals that live there are well-adapted to the annual flooding and many are unique to this area. Compared to the surrounding areas along the river, the islands are relatively undisturbed, so biologists can observe an ecosystem that is very similar to the one that existed all along the river in earlier times.

Stay for the sunset. Photo: David White/Friends of Petrie Island.

So why go? Won’t the beach be crowded, making social distancing hard? Well even if it’s crowded, or you aren’t a beach person, there are significant attractions and lots of opportunities to spread out. There is a shaded picnic area close to the beach with views of the river. There is a children’s playground. There is an interpretive centre run by volunteers, where you can learn more about the local flora and fauna. There are guided naturalist programs and canoe and kayak launch areas. Fishing is available. There are 7 kilometres of nature trails around the island. And did I mention the turtles? There are a lot of turtles there.

See? Turtles. Photo: DaPuglet (Tina)/Flickr.

So how should you get to Petrie? There are bus routes that run close by. There is a lot of paid public parking on the island; however, the machines that dispense the tickets often seem to be broken and the bylaw enforcement officers are quite vigilant. So if it’s an option for you, I would bike there. Petrie Island is at the north end of Trim Road where the dedicated bike path that runs parallel to the river ends.

A dedicated group of volunteers called The Friends of Petrie Island maintain an amazing website that includes everything you’d ever want to know about Petrie.