Thomas McKay is one of those truly impressive figures from the early history of Ottawa. After immigrating from Scotland, he first made his name (and a fortune) in the region by building the eight locks at the north end of the Rideau Canal, down to the Ottawa River. He also built the Commisary that’s still there and home to the Bytown Museum. He went onto establish massive mills at the mouth of the Rideau River, and owned all of what is now New Edinburgh, as well as all of Rockcliffe, for good measure. He built the original Rideau Hall, now the residence of Canada’s Governor General. He also built Earnscliffe, now the residence of the British Ambassador.
So it’s fitting that McKay Lake (formerly Hemlock Lake) has been named after him. Located on the east side of Rockcliffe, the lake is a great place for a walk, and another one of those places that’s “lost in plain sight.” Open to the public, but unknown to most people in Ottawa.
You can walk along around the east side of the lake by entering the gate for the Caldwell-Carter Conservation Area on Hillsdale Road. Across the water to the right are all those mansions of rich Rockcliffe folk, but walking along the path is like walking the forest that time forgot.
It’s quiet. There’s birds, and forest, and animals. But even for conservation area, it’s all just more natural than you expect this close to the center of the city.
The lake itself is a natural formation, and was once a favored swimming hole. If you walk far enough along the path, however, you will eventually come to “The Pond,” which is not natural. It was formed, the story goes, when sand was excavated for the construction of the Chateau Laurier. When the excavations were over, the water later rushed in. You can even swim at the tiny “beach,” there during certain short hours of the day.
You can exit near the Pond and walk through a few very nice housing developments, and it’s kind of interesting to mix nature with architecture. Otherwise, you will have to retrace your steps to get back to your car.
If you think you might go, two words of warning. No bikes and wear hiking shoes, preferably waterproof. You’ll enjoy a pleasant hour or so in the woods, and if you’ve still got some legs you can walk to the Rockeries, not far away.