On the Shores of Dow’s Lake

One of my favourite spots in Ottawa is Dow’s Lake, yet I rarely went there when I lived in the city – not even when I was attending university just a short walk away. So when my friend Wendy invited me back home for a long weekend and asked what I’d like to do, I asked if we could go there. She was happy to oblige, and so straight from the airport, we headed for the lake.

The weather was gorgeous, with bright sun and a cool breeze offsetting the warm temperature. It was, in fact, exactly as I always remembered it being – because even though I didn’t go to Dow’s Lake a lot, certain of the memories I have from there are standouts.

Among the biggest stem from when I was very young. I had brothers in the Naval Reserves, and my parents and I used to attend various demonstrations they were involved in at HMCS Carleton, which is located by the lake. Those were always very exciting outings for me, as I loved seeing my brothers work, plus there was often something special for any kids in attendance. It was there, for example, that I once rode on a Jackstay Transfer. I burst into tears afterwards – at first my father had refused to allow it, then relented at the last second, and I got overwhelmed by excitement – and a very kind lady asked me to point out my brothers to her to distract me and calm me down.

Memories of sunlit evenings by the lake with band music and marching demonstrations came flooding back the instant I saw the HMCS Carleton building – even though it’s not even the same building I used to visit. That one was torn down after I left Ottawa. (I vaguely recall that, towards the end of the time I spent going there, parts of it were cordoned off because they were unsafe. The roof was unstable, I think.) Being a military installation, we couldn’t go inside the new building to check it out, but I did press my nose up against a window to get a peek at the interior. It has the same vibe as the old one did, with lots of anchors and plaques and images of ships for decor.

Near HMCS Carleton is the Dow’s Lake Pavilion, the heart of activity on the lake. When I was in primary school, our annual field trips to go skating on the Rideau Canal began and ended there, and once on a high school band trip, this is where we rented paddle boats and canoes. Early May being far too late for skating, and slightly too early for boating, the Pavilion was quiet, the boardwalk occupied only by us, a flock of seagulls, and a spectacular view of the lake.

The best part about Dow’s Lake, though, is that it’s at the centre of the Canadian Tulip Festival. Every year, over a million tulips bloom in Ottawa, several hundred thousand of which are around the lake. Beyond the displays being gorgeous in their own right, the story behind them is also lovely, and one I grew up with, as it appealed to my mother’s love of royalty.

Tulip bulbs are an ongoing annual gift from the Netherlands in thanks for Canada providing a safe haven for future Queen Juliana and her family during World War II. Perhaps the coolest, and definitely my mother’s very favourite, part of the history is that when then-Princess Juliana gave birth in Ottawa, the hospital maternity ward was temporarily declared extraterritorial so the baby could have solely Dutch citizenship.

The Tulip Festival began in the 1950s, and has become a huge celebration, often including outdoor concerts. I still remember the morning in 1988 when, out of nowhere, my mother asked if I’d like to go see The Nylons perform at Dow’s Lake that afternoon. The only caveat was that I had to drive. (My mother hated driving, especially in the city, and once I got my license, under the guise of my getting experience, it became my responsibility to get us from point A to point B.)

I, of course, jumped at the chance. And, being my mother and I, we arrived hours early to beat the traffic. There was barely anybody there, so we got seats on one of only half-a-dozen park benches in front of the stage. My mother happily sat there all afternoon, patiently waiting for the show to start, soaking up the sunshine and enjoying the steel drum band performing on a smaller stage off to one side. I, meanwhile, in an early fit of independence, kept running off to explore, returning every once-in-a-while to check on Mom, before taking off in another direction to look at something else.

Oh, and the concert, which was the first time I saw this favourite band of mine perform live, was fantastic. To this day, when I hear The Nylons version of The Lion Sleeps Tonight, I think of a perfect intersection of blue sky, sunshine, and freedom.

Beyond just tulips, the Netherlands has also gifted Ottawa a sculpture called The Man With Two Hats, the partner of which stands in the Dutch city of Apeldoorn. In recognition of the role Canadian soldiers had in the liberation of the Netherlands in WWII, part of the inscription on the sculpture reads:

The twin monuments symbolically link Canada and the Netherlands; though separated by an ocean, the two countries will forever be close friends.

Although the sculpture has been in place for 20 years, it was new to me, as I moved to Nova Scotia longer ago. And while I recognize it’s actually about large scale geopolitical forces, it felt very personally appropriate. It’s about connections, and it turns out that I have a lot more connections with Dow’s Lake at the hub than I ever realized.

Since I moved, it’s felt like my old home is very far away. Perhaps there’s not an ocean between us, but I did move to the shores of one, to a place where even everyday language emphasizes distance. (When someone from outside the province visits, for example, we say that they’ve ‘come from away.’) That I was essentially running away from the past only added to the feeling of distance between my old world and my new one.

But that distance was never a physical one. I can drive from my now home to my old one in a day, after all, and often have. Here, on the shores of Dow’s Lake, I realized that the distance had always been an emotional one. I’d pulled away as a defense mechanism, to give myself space both to overcome past trauma and become who I wanted to be. But I loved so many of the people I left behind that, in order to justify my leaving to myself, I built up a real dislike of Ottawa as a city in my head.

Turns out, it’s just not true. It also turns out that I’m far enough along in my journey that I can visit my old home and see it through new eyes. And best of all, for the first time, the stress about being in a city I ran away from wasn’t looming over my stay.

We can never really escape our past. The best we can hope for is to integrate it into our present in a healthy way. What was intended to be a casual stroll around Dow’s Lake showed me that I’ve taken a big step in that direction. So I couldn’t stop smiling as Wendy, one of my dearest and longest term – no way in hell am I saying ‘oldest’ – friends struck poses next to The Man With Two Hats. Here I was, connecting with a beautiful, treasured friend of near on 40 years, complemented by a piece of art about connections, surrounded by things that reminded me of connections with family and nature and music and history.

Blue sky, sunshine, and freedom, indeed.

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