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.