The Keys to Spring

February 16, 2021

For some people it’s the first crocus poking through the snow. For others it’s the first sighting of a robin. For others still, it’s the longer hours of daylight. These are all signs that spring is just around the corner. For us, though, it’s the cutting of the keys on the Rideau River, above Rideau Falls.  Cutting the keys is part of the process of breaking up the ice above the falls, and it’s a rite of spring in the nation’s capital.

The City of Ottawa and the Rideau Valley Conservation authority work together to break up the ice to prevent ice jams and floods as spring approaches. This has been going on since the 1930s.

The program, which costs over half a million dollars, is necessary to prevent property damage and public safety problems. Most of the ice is broken up by a machine called an “amphibex”, a hydraulic excavating machine that’s mounted on pods that enable it to float on water. It can climb onto the edge of an ice sheet, like a giant crab, and its weight is usually enough to break the ice.

But they can’t get the amphibex into the stretch of river between the Sussex bridge and the Minto bridges, so this is where the dynamite comes in. Workers specially trained in explosives strategically place the charges in the ice and then set off the blast.

It is spectacular to witness the geyser of water and ice from the volcano-like eruption. It’s a rather violent reminder that winter is coming to an end and spring is just a few weeks away.

Cutting the keys. It’s a blast!