Sawmill Creek got its name legitimately. Back in 1823, one of Ottawa’s earliest pioneers constructed a sawmill on the south side of the Rideau River where the creek empties. The settlement grew from the timber trade along its other river – the Ottawa – but logging, lumberjacks, and log-drivers built the communities to the south of the Rideau, too.
Gradually land was cleared for farms and the town spread out on either side of the Bytown and Prescott Carriage Road, now busy Bank Street, and in 1985 our small townhouse development was built into a hollow between two cemeteries. Running through it is Sawmill Creek. I like to call our neighbourhood Sawmill Hollow.
Beside the creek is a path that is part of my daily dog walks. All around us the flushed city rushes hasty and harried, but on the path there is a tunnel of trees and brush that fools you into thinking you’re deep in the forest. Downey and Pileated Woodpeckers, Chickadees, Great Blue Herons, Flickers, Crows, the occasional Raven, Red Tail Hawks, coyotes, otters, squirrels, and chipmunks occupy the ribbon of green twined around the creek.
Most of the forest was filled with Ash trees – big mamas. Thick trunked, crusty old beauties with arms interlaced with neighbours on the other side of the creek. Heavy limbed homes for squirrel nests arranged like hanging baskets floating near the canopy top. A few maples and pines were sprinkled between them but the Ash ruled.
Sometime in the last five years the Emerald Ash Borer beetles invaded. Sometime in the last two years they finished killing all the Ash trees along the creek. The woodpeckers flourished. They battered the bark, beaks rapping and knocking holes into dead trunks. Then strong winds downed the formerly indestructible old dowagers and left them lying in the path. Heavy snow snapped branches. Squirrels jumping branch to branch broke their teeter-totters.
Last summer city workers arrived and marked the dead trees with x’s and o’s. Then the lumberjacks returned to Sawmill Creek last month, felling every marked tree. Although I heard the screech of chainsaws, I didn’t register what was happening until the dog and I went for a walk. Our way was barred by yellow tape stretched across all the entrances to the trail and the smell of newly cut wood and the high-pitched whine of saws disrupted the normal city smells of diesel, the normal drone of cars and trucks, the huff and roar of air brakes on Bank Street. Sawdust turned the snow yellow and the canopy was dented by sky and sun. Log piles filled the spaces where trees used to grow.
Spring will fill the space soon. I suspect our resident coyote will move on since there’s not much cover left for her to make a home. The dog and I will keep walking the path watching for the annual return of the Great Blue Heron. I’ll curse the squirrels and hold my sunflower seed filled hand out to the chickadees. Wildflowers will grow.