Swimming in the Ottawa River

Have you ever taken a plunge in the Ottawa River? If not, I suggest you do! This guide contains information about the river, safety, and issues affecting the Ottawa watershed. All the recommended swimming areas are in the Ottawa region, but the river is thousands of kilometres long! With a little research, you can find places to swim outside the Ottawa area.

My dog Moose and I pose for a photo after a swim in the Ottawa River.
Moose and I found a secluded place along the Ottawa River to take a swim. It was shallow and rocky, but pleasantly warm.

Is it safe to swim in the Ottawa River?

YES! Most of the time the Ottawa River is safe to swim in. You can get water quality information by visiting the City of Ottawa website, or calling 613-580-2424 ext. 13219. Water sampling begins in late June and ends in late August.

A rule of thumb is never to swim in the river during or after rainfall. This is because raw sewage from treatment plants overflows into the river when it rains. Swimming in water with unsafe levels of E. coli can cause infections, skin rashes, and gastrointestinal issues. The City of Ottawa explains, “swim advisories are issued based on water sample results from the previous day.” No swim advisories are issued if E. coli levels exceed 200ml per 100ml of water or if E. coli exceeds 100ml per 100ml of water for 2 days in a row.

Ottawa Public Health advises people not to drink the water while swimming, to wash your hands before preparing or eating foods, to shower after swimming, and to avoid swimming with open wounds.

Why swim in the Ottawa River?

Jumping in the river is a fun and low-cost way of cooling off. The Ottawa River is conveniently located with many beaches along bus routes and bike paths. Most beaches have free or low-cost parking.

City beaches are sandy and regularly cleaned. Many have amenities, walking trails, and places to eat. The city hosts events at public beaches, like nature guides and volleyball tournaments.

Where can I swim?

There are several beaches along the Ottawa River. Four popular options are Petrie Island Beach, Britannia Beach, Westboro Beach, and Fitzroy Provincial Park Beach. All of them monitor for water quality.

Public beaches can get overcrowded on weekends when the weather is hot. When researching, I noticed that beaches often receive mixed reviews based on their cleanliness. Beaches are regularly cleaned, but workers sometimes struggle to keep up with the trash left by visitors.

Dogs are not allowed at city beaches. If you want to swim with your dog, you’ll have to look for private or dog friendly areas.

Petrie Island Beach

Petrie Island Beach is located in Orleans. It’s a beautiful sandy beach with a roped off swimming area. The beach is supervised by lifeguards from 12pm – 7pm. There are washrooms and water fountains on site. There’s also a canteen with food and drink for sale. Parking costs $2 for 5 hours.

Besides swimming, there are plenty of other things to do on Petrie Island. There are trails to hike, interpretive walks, and children’s nature programs. You can rent volleyball nets and the city of Ottawa organizes beach volleyball games on weekends. To learn more about these and other activities check out their website.

Water wheelchairs are available free to rent. Call 613-824-5704 for availability or email beaches@ottawa.ca

Britannia Beach

Britannia Beach is located in the west of Ottawa. The shoreline is a mix of sand and rocky areas. The current can be strong, so be careful when swimming in this area. There are lifeguards on duty (12pm – 7pm) and there’s plenty of shallow water to wade through.

You’ll find washrooms, outdoor showers, children’s play structures, and volleyball nets at this beach. There are walking paths and the Trans Canada Trail passes through the park. There’s also a burger shack (Baja Burger) on site and an ice cream shop nearby (The Beachconers Microcreamery). I recommend catching the sunset or sunrise on the rock pier.

Britannia Beach is closed in the summer of 2020 for dredging.

Westboro Beach

Westboro Beach is the closest beach to downtown Ottawa. It’s a small sandy beach conveniently located within a 10 minute walk from the nearest bus stop. Lifeguards are on duty from 12pm – 7pm.

There are change rooms and washrooms on site. Many people visit the beach to grab a bite to eat at the Westboro Beach Cafe. The cafe has an outdoor patio and liquor license. On weekends there is often live music playing.

Water wheelchairs are available free to rent. Call 613-792-3875 for availability or email beaches@ottawa.ca

Fitzroy Provincial Park

There are two beaches at Fitzroy Provincial Park. The larger beach is open for day-use and the smaller beach is available for campers only. There are no lifeguards on duty at either beach. It cost $18 per day for parking.

The day-use beach has a comfort station with washrooms, potable water, picnic tables, and barbecues. You can rent canoes and kayaks on site. Walking trails take you through a century-old white pine forest. If you are planning to stay the night, the smaller beach is perfect for kids.

Caring for the Ottawa River

I encourage people to swim in the Ottawa River with hopes that they’ll enjoy it and become river advocates. Ottawa Riverkeeper puts it well, “the Ottawa River is the lifeblood of our community. It provides drinking water, supports a range of species and ecosystems, sustains economic activity, is a world-class destination for recreation, and is an important piece of our history and culture.”

You can help protect the river by putting pressure on the local government to clean up the river and find solutions to the sewage runoff problem. There are also opportunities with Ottawa Riverkeeper to join shore cleanups and learn more about the Ottawa watershed.

Unfortunately, sewage overflow isn’t the only issue affecting the Ottawa River. Pesticide and herbicide runoff harms aquatic life and the river’s ecosystems. Industrial runoff, like pulp and paper mill effluent, is another issue which affects fish and their habitats. Additionally, a 2016 study showed that microplastics from cosmetic products were polluting the river. These tiny plastics absorb contaminants and are eaten by fish.

We can work together to help improve and protect the Ottawa River.

Further Resources

To learn more about the Ottawa River and to get involved in cleanups and advocacy work visit Ottawa Riverkeeper.

You can find more information about water wheelchair rentals here.

Download the Swim Guide App for updated information about water quality in the Ottawa River and elsewhere.

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