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Risen from the Ashes

by S. Bernard Shaw

The Ottawa Valley was traversed by Native people for at least 5,000 years, a link in their highway from Lake Superior to what is now New England. The first European excursions were by French explorers and missionaries, and on their heels came the fur traders. All were on their way somewhere else: no-one settled permanently in the vast watershed.

Napoleon's closure of the Baltic Sea to British ships, coupled with the insatiable timber demands of Britain's fleet and the United States' expansion rang the death knell of the Ottawa Valley forests. The supply of timber was naively thought to be unlimited and it was harvested hungrily in the belief that the cleared land would soon be transformed into bountiful farms. Conveniently close to waterways leading to the St. Lawrence River, 85 million white and red pine "sticks" were shipped between 1826 and 1894; many 60 feet long, trimmed to 24 inches square. The residue remained in the forest for kindling. Eager farmers carried out their own scorched earth policy to clear the land and make potash.

Logging changed the whole character of the valley within a few decades. It justified permanent settlements like Bytown, Arnprior and Renfrew. In 1857, an enthusiastic president of the Executive Council, Hon. P.M. Vankoughnet, who was also Minister of Agriculture and Statistics, predicted a population of eight million for the "Huron Tract," traversed by a colonisation road built from the Ottawa River west towards Lake Opeongo and intended to penetrate to Lake Huron. There was talk of railways, even a canal, once those pesky trees could be removed and the land cultivated.

Of course, the reality was very different. The Upper Valley lies within the Canadian Shield, characterised by rugged, rocky highlands with infrequent patches of gravelly soils and a chaotic drainage system. Ideal for pine, but totally unsuitable for root crops and grains. Erosion from the cleared, burnt lands completed the disaster for the settlers. Once the forest had gone, the men could no longer even obtain local winter employment in the bush. A few found enough soil to subsist on; others had to move on.

Nevertheless, the attraction of the upper Ottawa Valley remained. It is still ruggedly beautiful and offers the tranquil way of life and escape from city pressures that so many desire.

A new breed of immigrants followed the lodestone in recent years. While none are destined to become millionaires in financial terms, these entrepreneurs have succeeded in establishing businesses that support them and permit living in "The Valley." There are many new pioneers. The following are offered as a sample.

Heidi and Rolf Buehler's search for escape from crowded Europe led them from Switzerland via South Africa to their log home and workshop on the historic Opeongo Road, between Brudenell and Hopefield. Following them came a container load of 200 crates, most devoted to numerically-controlled machinery that the pair use to manufacture an astonishing range of 216 different wooden toys and puzzles. Designed by Rolf, they are sold under the name derived from his name - Robu Wooden Toys. He utilises waste wood, otherwise destined for the dump, from local mills. Typical of the new settlers, Rolf brought unique skills to The Valley. A skilled machinist and computer programmer, he can support the life style he and Heidi craved. With sales from their home and outlets at the Wilno Craft Gallery, the Arnprior Gallery Gift Shop and the Burleigh Island Gift Shop, the major problem the Buehlers have is satisfying the demand. Reluctant to take on the "paper work" responsibility of hiring workers, Rolf would like to establish a workshop for the disabled where he could pass on his ideas and have more time to invent in his workshop and to enjoy his 134-acre farm. They may be reached at 613-757-3682.

While in the Brudenell area, visitors may like to visit Windy Ridge Studios on the Letterkenny Road to Rockingham, where Ed Roman blows glass goblets, bowls and many other items in his own unique style. At the same location, Jude Crossland displays her fashionable Judy Blue denim clothes and accessories. They may be reached at 613-757-2545.

Tucked in the hills north-east of Ladysmith, Quebec, Cushing Nature Retreat is a semi-wilderness environment dedicated to relaxation, recreation, conservation and education. Highly-qualified owners Geoffrey and Jo Ellen Cushing, from Montreal and Alberta, respectively, purchased a rugged 408-acre property surrounding Indian Lake in 1990. They lived in an old log cabin while their home, including a large dining room and lounge, was completed. Within a year, a lodge was added with six self-contained units and a communal hot tub on the lake shore. All the buildings are smoke free. Only paddles disturb the lake and no snowmobiles whine. An additional 100 acres was soon purchased and 30 kilometres of walking, cycling, snowshoe and ski trails now tempt the visitor with strategic photograph and observation points. Bears, deer, wolves, beavers, muskrat, otters and racoons share the property. Golden eagles soar, and ravens reside all year long. Cushing Mews is Jo Ellen's particular pride. In the aviary she rehabilitates injured birds of prey, and breeds and releases endangered or threatened raptors. Their website is: and their phone 819-647-3226.

Realising the dreams of many young city couples, Tino and Luciana Costa moved with their two young children from Toronto to the Wingle Inn in the summer of 2001. Friends in the area recommended the B&B that Barbara Creaghan had operated for about 15 years; the Costas did not have to look twice. At Palmer Rapids they found exactly what they sought - an unspoiled landscape offering canoeing, white-water kayaking, swimming and hiking, free from the commercialism they hated. Adding a D for Dinner to their B&B, their fine Italian cuisine, featuring herbs from their own garden and locally-grown vegetables, soon attracted customers from as far afield as Pembroke. A reservation is essential. Four rooms, one en suite, are offered at the heritage home built in 1863 and the subject of a painting by A.J. Casson, one of the Group of Seven. No smoking is the rule, and no TV or phone in the rooms. No liquor licence either, but guests are welcome to cool their bottles in the Costa fridge. To wake up, view the mist rising over the Madawaska valley and delight in the aroma of fresh baking is an experience to be remembered. Winter has its own special attractions at the Wingle Inn, with skating on the pond and ski and snowshoe trails on the 177-acre property. Visit their website at or phone 613-758-2072.

Christa and Hermann Kerckhoff were drawn from Germany by the lure of the open, northern wilderness in the late 1960s. Pioneers in white-water kayaking, they soon established the Madawaska Kanu Centre south of Barry's Bay, teaching the fine art of paddling safely in rough water. In 1974, Hermann took his young daughter Claudia on one of the first kayak trips through the infamous Rocher Fendu, 12 kilometre-long rapids on the Ottawa River south of Pembroke. Many men died here during the logging era; pioneers of that period could never have imagined that six companies would be established to serve thousands of tourists eager to pay for the privilege of voyaging through the white water in rubber rafts, canoes and kayaks. One of the companies is Owl Rafting at Foresters Falls, run by Dirk Van Wijk, an international white-water champion, born in Holland, and husband of Claudia, who now manages the Kanu Centre. A staff of about 100 is hired each season, half white-water experts from all over the world and the remainder local people. For more information, visit

Representative of the families that did not leave The Valley is Dub Juby, whose great-grandfather delivered mail along the Ottawa River from Fitzroy Harbour. Now, Dub sits at his work overlooking pastoral farmland where his ancestor carried two revolvers for protection along the bush trails. Always a whittler, Dub translated his hobby into a business in 1973 and hung up his shingle, The Valley Carver, by a home and showroom he built at 56 Loch Winnock, just off River Road, west of Braeside. Dub does the whole thing—fells white pine on his own wood lot, saws them into carving blanks, and dries them, either in the sun or on his wood stove. With no need now to advertise at craft fairs, Dub can devote his time to carving, mostly on commission. He does express his preference to carve horses, at which he is particularly good after many years of study, steering the plough on the family farm. He may be reached at 613-623-6421.

Once a riotous logging centre, Burnstown, located on a particularly scenic stretch of the Madawaska River at Hwy 508, has attracted a unique community of artists and devotees of The Valley life style. Richard Gill, born in England and much-travelled over North America, collected his degree in architecture at Penn State University, but had a driving urge to express himself artistically in clay. He decided that Burnstown was the ideal place to raise a family and founded Fog Run Studio in one of the original farms. He soon established an international reputation with his unique, one-of-a-kind, sculpted wall plaques, murals, bookends, candle sticks and lamps. They can be viewed at Cheryl Babineau's Bittersweet Gallery, along with the works of 35 other local artists and artisans. General Store Publishing House, publisher of an eclectic mix of local history, military, sports, self-help and cookery books, is next to Heather Miller-Wolff 's Somethin' Special gift shop. Farther up the hill is Images, the studio of Stephen Haigh who creates stunning marquetry images with wood veneers. Bonnie Aspin has transformed the old school house at the crossroads into her home and Florella's Antiques and Treasures. To round off your tour of this revitalised community, check in with Gordon Jennings at the old general store, now a restaurant, The Four and Twenty Blackbirds.

Three-year-old Gus Zylstra came to Canada from Holland with his parents in 1953. They arrived with $90 in their pockets and the dream of a better way of life than was possible on the tiny island of Texel in the North Sea. Gus achieved the family ambition to own land in 1975 when he bought 110 acres along the York River, near Boulter, which he now shares with his wife Nancy and daughter Awna. On it he built a log cabin, now the headquarters of Pinecone Publishing, a comprehensive design, printing, photographic and publishing company; one of the major products being The Country Connection Magazine. The Pinecone Gallery displays Gus’ photographs of the Madawaska Valley and beyond, depicting heritage, architecture, majestic scenery and nature. The Zylstras have nurtured their pine forest and developed it into a nature sanctuary to which visitors are welcomed. A cabin on the property and tent sites are available for visitors who want to take a little time to experience the sanctuary or explore Conroys Marsh, but, in accord with the principles of their veganic nature sanctuary, visitors are asked to bring only plant-source food when they come to visit. Gus reflects the views of all the people consulted for this article in saying, “My vision is of restoring and preserving the natural beauty of the land, while seeking to make a living from it, all the while respecting its natural boundaries and willing to share it with others in a non-exploitive way.”

The catchment area of the Ottawa River—the Ottawa Valley—covers 57,000 square miles, reaching north close to Lake Abitibi, west to the edge of Lake Nipissing, and south almost to the banks of the St. Lawrence. It is larger than the combined area of Britain and Wales, and the Ottawa's average flow of some 70 thousand cubic feet per second is said to exceed the combined flow of all the rivers in these two countries. From its source with the musical name of Capimitchigama, deep in Quebec, 155 miles north of Ottawa, the la Grande Riviere, as it was named by Jacques Cartier, gathers reinforcement from a myriad of rivers, streams and lakes on its 700-mile journey to join the St. Lawrence at Montreal.

The European textile industry had an insatiable appetite for potash during the 19th century. This offered the settlers an opportunity, probably the only one, to get a quick cash crop from their land. Liquid leached from hardwood ashes was boiled and stirred for as long as a week in large iron vessels (hence potash) until it reached the consistency of porridge when it was hardened into "cakes." The ashes of 60 large maple trees made a barrel of potash. In 1821, some 35,765 barrels, mostly from the Ottawa Valley, were shipped from Montreal.

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 39, Spring 2002. Copyright S. Bernard Shaw.



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