Wednesday June 18
We had reached Lake Champlain's northern most navigable point, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec after two days of travel from the museum at Basin Harbor. At Saint-Jean you have a choice, bear left into the entrance channel of the Chambly Canal on the west bank of the Richelieu, or go with the flow down the river and make the approximately 100 foot elevation drop over the Rapids of Chambly. Wisely, Roger chose the more common and much smoother route, the Chambly Canal, rather than running the rapids with Lois
. Although we undoubtedly missed quite an adventure by not bearing right I can now say the Chambly Canal also had much in store for us.
Tug C.L.Churchill tows the schooner through the canal, near Bridge 10. Photo by Parcs Canada Bridge Operator Carol Gagnon.
Completed in 1843, just twenty years after her American counter-part on the south end of Lake Champlain, the Chambly Canal marked the completion of the "Northern Canal" system. Now canal boats could navigate from the St. Lawrence River to New York City without ever having to unload their heavy cargos. This opened the vast agricultural and timber resources of Canada to the United States. Trade flourished, as did cultural cross-over. The canal system truly embodies the "Our Shared Heritage Along the Waterways" message that we carry on this tour. Unlike the New York State Canal System which was enlarged to accommodate steel barges in the early twentieth century, the Chambly Canal remains in the 1800's, having never been enlarged. Some may consider this an inconvenience; however our crew considered this one more tangible link to an incredibly rich past.
The Chambly Canal
is operated by Parcs Canada. Although this canal is fully functional for recreational traffic they have maintained its historical integrity. The historic nature is one of the truly great charms of traversing the system. For Lois McClure
it was also one of the great challenges. The evening before entering the canal we had passed the first two bridges, one a draw bridge, the second a swing bridge. Both harken back to a day when all the bridges on the Chambly Canal could be moved out of the way for vessels sporting masts. This was a vast improvement over the Champlain and Erie Canal Systems in which sailing canal boats were forced to remove their rigs for each passage. I'm sure Theodore Bartley and his peers greatly appreciated this time and labor saving feature the Canadians had incorporated into their system. As the automobile took precedence over water navigation fixed bridges were installed over the Richelieu, necessitating Lois
's rig being struck and lashed onto the 'oh-too-familiar' overhead 'T' brace system. Having squeezed through these first two bridges the reality began to sink in as to just how small the nineteenth century system was going to be. I stood on deck that evening, staring at the wooden doors of Lock #9, playing out my vision of how I thought we should proceed with this unfamiliar territory.
Thursday June 19
The Parcs Canada staff arrived right on time. Roger and I discussed our plan with Carol, who would oversee our passage through the first half of the canal. Rather than having different staff at each lock and bridge they have a team follow your passage. Every Parcs Canada employee along the Chambly Canal would prove to be professional, helpful, and courteous as we made our historic passage. We had lots of practice with locks in 2007 since we did over 116 lockings in the New York State Canal System, but our usual technique of our tug Churchill
"on the hip" and the inflatable Oocher
at the ready alongside Lois
's bow got shot out the window. The locks on the Chambly Canal are 110'x 21'. Plenty for Lois
's 88' x 14.5', but there was no way Churchill
was going at the same time. Also, the prism, or canal itself, is very narrow and would be nearly impossible for Churchill
to remain tied to Lois
's side. We decided to try towing Lois
from ahead on a short hawser (tow cable). Of course a significant problem arises when you need to stop, since Lois
's mass just keeps on going and will gladly run down Churchill
or anything else in the way. The answer to 'brakes' became Oocher
with its trusty 50hp Honda
outboard. We made our way through the narrows of the canal more like a traditional tow of canal boats, and with a surprising amount of control.
First Mate Erick Tichonuk (left) and his father John (right) hand-line the schooner through the lock system of the Chambly Canal.
As we approached a lock the train of boats would slow and the hawser would be tossed off. Churchill
would enter the lock as Lois
coast to a halt on the side of the canal just outside the lock. As Churchill
descended we would rig two lines from Lois
's bow to either side of the lock and center her in front of the lock doors. When we saw Churchill
exit and the bottom doors close we knew it was time to put Oocher
into reverse. It's an incredible thing that hand cranks are still used to open the doors and the gates to flood and drain the locks. Before opening the gate on the lock door to refill the lock they would check to see if we were ready. Oocher
would goose it in reverse to prevent Lois
from rushing forward as the gates opened creating massive suction as water rushed into the lock. Once the lock had filled the lock doors would open and the lines would be passed forward and repositioned so we could haul ourselves into the lock by hand. I controlled the line handling on the bow while Roger talked to the Oocher
crew on the stern to control our entry. The lock doors closed behind us after Oocher
had been mushed in and down we'd go.
Once the lock was drained and the doors opened Churchill
would back up to Lois
's bow and pass up the hawser so they could take up the tow again. This laborious scene played itself out nine times over, ending in the magnificent descent of three consecutive locks into the Chambly Basin. We once again encountered the curious and enthusiastic crowd who came out to watch the process in the scattered showers. Folks from the Friends of the Chambly Canal
as well as employees of Parcs Canada gathered along the canal in a scene we had seen unfold along the Erie Canal over and over again. The entire 12 mile journey of the Chambly Canal lasted eight hours, but we weren't finished yet.
There were still about 10 miles of navigation on the Richelieu before we made our destination of Mont-Saint-Hilaire. Although we were tired it seemed so very close considering our day thus far. Roger took the helm while the rest of the crew and I made the boat ready for the public greeting we knew lay ahead. The Richelieu had one last trick up her sleeve for us that late afternoon. As we approached the magnificent rocky mount signifying our destination we saw a railroad bridge. The charts indicated that the channel lie on the far west bank. It appeared somewhat narrow and from the approach was nearly blind. The closer we got the more ominous the scene. Not only was it a narrow and blind corner but the white water of small rapids could be seen. There was little time to react and certainly no way to stop. It was Roger's excellent boat handling skills and cool head that kept us on the straight and narrow as we passed through the bridge abutments at a healthy clip. With a collective sigh of relief we looked down river at the public dock of Mont-Saint-Hilaire crowded with people to greet us.
As we approached the dock I could see the smiling faces of people I'd come to know through meetings over the winter and continued phone and email communications in an effort to make Lois's first stop on the tour a success. My first contact with the community was through André Michel and Chantal Millette of La Maison Amérindienne
. This exquisite museum focuses on the native culture of Quebec with a flair for traditional foods. Both André and Chantal are dedicated and passionate about their subject and the community. This spring they introduced us to the Mayor of Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Michel Gilbert. Together, Ville de Mont-Saint-Hilaire
and La Maison Amérindienne gave us an incredible welcome with official greetings, a gift basket of local products, and finally an incredible meal and social event at the museum. They are incredible hosts, providing us with considerable logistical support.
I had been anxiously anticipating how we would be received in Quebec, particularly without speaking French. This first evening in Mont-Saint-Hilaire brought me right back to last year's incredible voyage of hospitality and good will. Mont-Saint-Hilaire's people are as proud as the magnificent mountain they live beneath. Their friendly and outgoing nature has made us feel incredibly welcome. Our first stop on the tour truly embodies the spirit of "Our Shared Heritage".
Special Thanks To: