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Our Shared Heritage Tour
Notre Patrimoine Le Long des Voies Navigables
Schooner Lois McClure | SHIP'S LOG
Matt Witten
Matt Witten
Matthew Witten has worked for the Maritime Museum since 1994, when he was a co-leader of the Champlain Discovery summer kayak-building program.
He took a hiatus from 1997-1999 to get his masters degree in Natural Resources from UVM and to serve as a Sea Grant Fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C.
His sailing experience includes crewing on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater (1985-88), and crew member about Te Vega on a trans-Atlantic sail in 1989. In 2000 he started the Paddling Ecology program here and also is a coxswain for Champlain Longboats.
In 2003 Matthew produced with the Museum the compact disk recording, Life on Lake Champlain: Songs and Stories, which includes material he performs around Vermont as the "Champlain Troubadour."
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Quebec City - Part I | June 30

Matt Witten
June 30
Entering Quebec City

Entering Quebec City. Photo by Kathleen Carney.

The front of our brochure that we offer to the people on our trip up here to the Richelieu River, Chambly Canal, and St. Lawrence estuary claims we have a shared heritage along these waterways ("Notre Patrimoine Le Long des Voies Navigables").  On the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain's founding of Quebec, we have come to help honor the person whose name also graces our own beautiful body of water. Yet here we are in this fortified city, restaurants and streets teeming with tourists, people sitting in cafes for long conversations, street performers as wacky as you could imagine accosting and teasing the hordes, the French language with its particular Quebecois twang and "ts-ts-ts" syncopation everywhere, and a dominance of fashionable clothing and wafts of perfume.  This is more Mediterranean and cosmopolitan, surely, than our Vermont north country!

Interpreter Jean Belisle with a young visitor at the wheel.(left) Jean Belisle at the wheel with a young visitor.  Photo by Kathleen Carney.
As my week in Quebec City progressed, I was able to interact with the locals and gather a sense of these people and what indeed we do share.  Typically it takes people a few minutes after coming aboard to understand that the Lois McClure is not a seafaring vessel, that she is a replica of shipwrecks we found on the bottom of Lake Champlain, that sailing canal schooners carried only cargo such as marble, coal, and lumber, and that it has indeed been possible for almost 200 years to travel by boat from New York to Montreal as well as farther east on the St. Lawrence.  Once these facts sink in (certainly no pun intended), some people respond with great curiosity to the details of their surroundings, and at times show great passion for boat life, craftsmanship and regional history.

Those who connect with our story love to survey the cabin and imagine the captain's family living there.  Or they relate to the technology of the time, nodding their heads at our descriptions of derricks loading and unloading cargo, at the constraints placed on boat size by canal locks, and at the realities of how these work boats were built quickly of pine, white oak, and spruce in an age when labor was cheap. Or they have memories of their own that confirm that this history is only a generation or two in the past.  This last group of people (usually well seasoned and weathered) often appear to have an especially poignant experience as they make their way around the schooner.

For example, one man told me about Micky Powers, a man of Irish descent, who lives in the former lockkeeper's house in Chambly along the canal.  He insisted I stop there to see Mickey's collection of canal memorabilia. Another man, when I was describing all the different types of cargo carried by canal boats, confirmed that eels were shipped, and urged me to see photos confirming so at Fort Chambly.  Yet another man, this one in his seventies, remembered seeing wrecks of old canal boats sticking out of the water in Trois Rivieres, and made sure I understood the location. 
Matt Witten engages visitors aboard Lois McClure 

Interpreter Matt Witten engages visitors aboard Lois McClure. Photo by Kathleen Carney.
As I speak with these Francophone people (with my somewhat reasonable command of French with a European accent), I receive their warmth, humor, and interest, and I feel in my heart the connection that we advertised in our publicity.  They crack jokes, squeeze my arm as they leave, they shake my hand; they have a special glint in their eyes.  What a wonderful people!  Then it dawns on me that we in Vermont are connected to this French-based culture, not only by waterways but also by this Mediterranean-style culture where people kiss each other on both cheeks, linger for long conversations, and work as hard as any people in the world.  Have you ever noticed that Vermonters have not caught the disease of being in a hurry all the time?  That we talk to each other, enjoy good food, and listen to a lot of live music?  Maybe some of this, at least, exists thanks to the thousands and thousands of families among us of Quebecois heritage.

One other notable quality I find here that I'd like to think we share in Vermont is prodigious creativity.  This is embodied in no better way than by the spectacular masterpiece to which we were treated seven nights in a row: "Le Moulin a Images."  This film takes place outdoors, projected upon a grain elevator and its dozens of silos - a screen that is more than a quarter of a mile wide!  The soundtrack is broadcast on high-quality Bose speakers mounted on lampposts all around the harbor as well as huge, booming subwoofers buried under the boardwalks.  The film, produced by acclaimed playwright Robert Lepage, is an intricately woven and multi-layered history of the province since the arrival of Champlain.  It is a visual feast tied together by four themes: Chemin de l'eau (water way), Chemin de Terre (Land way),  Chemin de Fer (iron way or railroad), and Chemin de L'air (airways).  The first night, my jaw dropped, and each night thereafter I kept finding things I'd missed before.  This was enough to make me fall in love with Quebecois culture.  I would like to hope that in our own humble way, we offered them a reciprocal gift.

(There are many clips of Robert Lepage's unbelievable work on YouTube - Here's One Clip)

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