Getting to know Kichi Sibi (Ottawa River)

Author: Willa Mason, Boreal River

This impressive river runs through the heart of the National Capital Region. Cyclists, swimmers, walkers, and sight-seers pass by the river every day, but there’s much more cultural and natural history in these waters than meets the eye. Below, we’ve outlined some major characteristics and information to build your understanding of this dynamic waterway.

About Kichi Sibi (Ottawa River)

Names: Kichi Sibi (Anishinàbemowin) | Ottawa (English) | Outaouais (French)

A large group Kayarafting on Kichi Sibi (Ottawa River) in front of parliament buildings.

Photo: Martin Lipman

Home to Algonquin Peoples, habitat for more than 24 at-risk species, hiding the longest underwater cave system in Canada, and serving as an interprovincial border, Kichi Sibi (Ottawa River) is a truly unique waterway. Leader of the Ottawa Riverkeeper organization for 14 years, Meredith Brown is an advocate and activist for Kichi Sibi. When asked what makes Kichi Sibi so special, she emphasized its intricate impact on its surroundings: “The river shapes our land, impacts our well-being, and is the lifeblood of our communities.”

Name origin:  Kichi Sibi means “Great River.” In Anishinàbemowin, “adàwe” means “to trade.” This led to the English name, “Ottawa.”

Headwaters: Lac des Outaouais, 250km north of Ottawa, and 290km northwest of Montreal

Length: 1,271 km

Elevation: Kichi Sibi drops about 400m from an elevation of 430m above sea level at the headwaters to 20m at its mouth.

Watershed (Area of drainage basin): 146,300 km2

A whitewater instructor showing students where to paddle from the shore of Kichi Sibi (Ottawa River).

Trading and Transport: Covering a large geographic area and with direct access to Kaniatarowanenneh (St. Lawrence River), Kichi Sibi has always been an important trade route for First Nations. Later, it became a major route for the fur trade, before morphing into a central transport route for the logging industry.

Landscape: Flowing through more than 27 provincial parks and wildlife reserves, Kichi Sibi travels through boreal forest near its headwaters and then across Canadian Shield before flowing south through mixed forest and into Kaniatarowanenneh (St. Lawrence River). There are more than 50 major dams in the Kichi Sibi watershed. A map of those can be found here.

Fauna: Kichi Sibi is home to more than 30 species of reptiles and amphibians, 53 species of mammals, and 85 species of fish, as well as 300 species of birds. About half of these birds migrate through the area each year, but migration isn’t just for the birds! Some aquatic species, including American eels, migrate as well. 

Wildlife spotlight: American eels spawn in the Atlantic Ocean before migrating to freshwater for most of their adult lives, and Kichi Sibi is an important migration route and destination for them. The construction of hydro dams has interrupted their migratory route. Notably, the Carillon dam near Hawkesbury left American eels isolated from other areas of the watershed. In collaboration with the Canadian Wildlife Federation, 400 eels have been trapped near the Beauharnois Dam in the St. Lawrence and released into Kichi Sibi (Ottawa River) near Petrie Island, bypassing the Carillon Dam and helping to combat the interruption of their natural migration path.

Individual carrying their kayaraft back to the top of the rapid to go for another run down the rapid on Kichi Sibi (Ottawa River).

In addition to the American eel, Kichi Sibi is home to 23 species on the Ontario Species at Risk list, such as the Spotted turtle, Cerulean warbler, and Blanding’s turtle. 

Places to visit around Kichi Sibi (Ottawa River)

Explore Kichi Sibi on foot along its paths in urban centers, through the lens of your swim goggles, by canoe or kayak in the Nation’s Capital, in remote provincial parks, or by roadtrip. This map can help you plan your trip to historical and cultural points of interest, while this map will help you plan your water-based adventure. 

“It has been easy to fall in love with the Ottawa River and her tributaries,” says Meredith Brown. “People protect what they love, and I certainly feel a great sense of responsibility to protect and restore Kichi Sibi, the great river, the Ottawa River.”

Though we are striving to be as accurate and respectful as possible in our use of Traditional names of places and Peoples, we recognize that we are bound to make mistakes. Please reach out to us anytime – we welcome the opportunity to listen, to learn, and to connect with you. info@borealriver.com


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