Angle to Key West: Lachine (7/12)

Montreal, Quebec – July 12, 2013

The western end of the Lachine Canal sits above a set of rapids on the St. Lawrence. The smooth grey sheet of water turns white, splits apart at the seams, and drops fast for a half mile around the outside of Montreal.

Before the canal, people carted goods by horse around the rapids. Now freighters slip past the far side in the St. Lawrence Seaway, their hulls taller than buildings against the far shore, and the Lachine’s five locks are used for pleasure boats and city parks. There is no unloading and loading, no bales of trade goods stacked by 36-foot long Montreal Canoes, no voyageurs setting off into the interior.

This was the end of the fur trade line once. Beyond Lachine, big ships replaced canoes and sailors replaced voyageurs. Bales of pelts joined the streams of commerce flowing from the New World to reach hat makers and gentleman’s heads in Europe.

I paddle out as the sun rises, imagining what it must have looked like in early spring as the giant Montreal Canoes set off, eight to ten voyageurs in each, singing songs, paddling hard, and hauling 3 tons of goods in their giant canoes.

From Lachine, the Montrealers pushed up the Ottawa and Mattawa Rivers, across Lake Nipissing, down the French River to Huron and Superior until they reached their trading posts on the western shore a thousand miles away. There they’d meet crews from the interior who brought furs from as far away as the Canadian Rockies in the smaller, more agile North Canoes. The Montrealers would pass over the goods to the Northmen, load their boats with furs, and return to Lachine.

The St. Lawrence tugs at my bow as I paddle away toward the Ottawa River. Near the junction, I stash the boat and return with friends to Montreal. We end up in a park watching fireworks explode over the water. Blue-green bursts, sunflowers of yellow, and red stars shoot out across the night.

Montreal feels electric.

I think of voyageurs in their canoes, of my kayak stashed and waiting against a backyard fence, of the route west.

It feels electric too.

6 thoughts on “Angle to Key West: Lachine (7/12)

  1. Montreal Canoes, North Canoes and a Yellow Looksha Kayak. What a connection. A quick look in Wikipedia, the great source of “maybe true” information, found the following entry that completely turns our idea of a canoe on its head: “The Montreal Canoe, or canot de maître (Master’s Canoe), was used on the Great Lakes and the Ottawa River. It was about 36 feet (11 m) long and six feet wide, and weighed about 600 pounds and carried 3 tons of cargo or 65 90-pound standard packs called pièces. Crew was 6-12, with 8-10 being the average. On a portage they were usually carried inverted by four men, two in front and two in the rear, using shoulder pads. .” Also mentioned that “hernias” were common among the voyageurs. Go figure!

  2. Definitely a shortcut which avoids Niagara Falls and most of the zig-zagging Great Lakes. The voyageurs would’ve given all their eye-teeth for the wheelies on your kayak! The Canadians just provide “transport services” to clear “the obstacles to smooth navigation.” Don’t let Wally know about these portage bypassers! Glad they have Riverkeepers, too.

  3. Forget all that! Just eat some French pastries and chocolate for me while you are in Montreal!!!

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