While the boat was in Montreal, both Zach and I left for a bit, so when it was time to rejoin Lois and crew, the two of us met up in Burlington and drove north, destination Sorel-Tracy. We've all become familiar with this town by now, having stopped twice before. And here, like the rest of Quebec, we've found friendly and hospitable people, curious about this odd vessel from the past, and quick to encourage some of us for our faltering efforts at French, even when they do so with not-very-well disguised amusement.
Sorel was, in its heyday, a significant shipbuilding town and a vibrant port. The old photos show a harbor so packed with vessels that you couldn't have found a spot on the wall for so much as a rowboat. Everywhere there were steamers, tugs, and barges. Like so many North American port cities, those days are long gone, and this former industrial city has had to find new ways to make a living. Times may get a little tough, but the resilience of this city's people, their good cheer, and their sense of what really counts in life is evident everywhere.
There is an authentic pride of place here, like the rest of Quebec, that shows in the many outdoor restaurants and cafes, bike paths, and a beautifully tree-shaded park. There's a market on a pedestrian concourse, and before leaving we picked up produce and sausages from some farm stands set up outside. For a post-industrial town still mapping out its future, we're all impressed by the amount of life we've found, and the quality of that life. See Quebec, land of right priorities.
But the reason that my return has been scheduled for this date is much more down-to-earth. For those with no map at hand, Sorel sits at the junction of the Richelieu River and Le Fleueve Saint Laurent, so it's here that Lois will start her homeward journey. And to do that, the schooner's sailing rig has to be struck once again.
So at five o'clock Monday morning (!!!) our crane arrives, ready to go to work and bearing coffee, no less! That would be Michel of Grues Guerin, equally talented at crane operations and being of good cheer. True to the character of this town and province, Michel works with deft skill and good humor, but also patience as he waits for us to do the tasks we need to do in between crane picks, and a ready suggestion when it might be helpful. His easy-going attitude strikes just the right chord, and the work goes smoothly and steadily.
The crew of Lois McClure are joined by the crane crew of Grues Guerin to de-rig the boat in Sorel. Photo by Kerry Batdorf.
Off come booms, gaffs, and sails, all in a package, mainsail first. Then off come the mainmast and foremast, everything laid out on the dock. While one work party turns to the job of lashing and binding the loose shrouds and running rigging, up go the trestle trees that support the spars over the deck. And when the trees are in place and preventer stays rigged, up go the spars once again, this time laid out lengthwise over our heads and securely lashed in placed. And so, in just a few hours, Lois once again makes the transition from sailing vessel to canal boat, which is, after all, at the very heart of what she's about.
Rigged for canalling, we get underway the following morning, southbound on the Richelieu for St. Ours and Darvard Island. There, between the island and the river's east shore, is the northernmost lock on the Richelieu. The St. Ours canal and dam, not to be confused with the Chambly Canal, was originally built to raise the water level on that part of the river, allowing deep-draft steamboats, often towing canal boats like ours, to travel between the St. Lawrence and the locks at Chambly. Today it's a National Historic Site of Canada with park and picnic areas around the lock, and is also, not coincidentally, a great place to spend a night.
We tie up in the afternoon, and the crew settles in for a little R&R, strolling around the park, visiting Parks Canada's interpretive center, talking with other boaters, and checking out the modern fish ladder at the dam. There's even (gasp) an episode of South Park on the boat that night, watched on a computer via DVD. Then, after sleeping in a bit the next morning, we're underway again, bound for Chambly.
After our time on the busy St. Lawrence, with all its challenges, we'd expect this transit to be relatively simple and unexciting. And it would be - except for one little thing. Regular readers of this log might remember our earlier passage under the , a railroad crossing between the towns of Beloeil and Mont St. Hilaire. Not expecting much from this place on our northbound trip, we discovered, very suddenly, that the channel beneath the bridge was A) extremely narrow B) had no visibility around the C) very sharp bend D) filled with a disturbingly fast current and E) broken pieces of steel sheet piling right about waterline level, jutting up on the outside edge of the channel. It's a real mariner's paradise.
Now, we had to go back through. What fun! On a historical note, we'd also learned that this same bridge was the site of a major train crash in 1864, when a westbound train plunged through the open swing bridge and fell on top of the boat that the bridge had opened for. Train vs. boat - who knew? Almost a hundred were killed, most of them recent German immigrants. So it's not for nothin' that the crew has jokingly taken to calling this the "Bridge of Death."
Passing under the Beloeil Bridge. Photo by Kerry Batdorf.
The main part of our plan to safely overcome this obstacle was to stream the hawser and have Churchill tow astern. This would reduce our beam by a good twelve feet or so. The second part of the plan was to deploy Oocher, our 18ft inflatable tender, ahead and around the bend to stop any and all downbound traffic. In a decidedly un-Lois-like fashion, their orders were "Be aggressive. Stop them. Don't let anyone through, no matter what."
It's safe to say that heart rates quickened as we passed between the towns of Mont St. Hilaire and Beloeil, the bridge looming before us, and sent Oocher on ahead. There were boats everywhere on the river, and we knew Kerry and Tom would have their work cut out for them. Zach, our official translator, was on board with them to do any necessary explaining to the confused and most likely annoyed boaters they stopped. With Roger at the helm of the tug, and Erick at the helm of the schooner, we worked our way into the current and took aim for the underpass.
The current was significant, to be sure, and the bend still sharp, but after all our worries and discussions about this challenge, it really was a little anti-climactic. Just the way we like it. Once again our little tug proved herself to be the "little tugboat that could," chugging steadily and sure-footedly through the rapids. Oocher's crew carried out their mission admirably, applying just the right mix of loud horn-blowing, wild maneuvering, and otherwise obnoxious behavior to stop a number of vessels which waited as we emerged from around the corner. Any skepticism those boaters had about the situation probably evaporated right about then, as first the Churchill came into view, and then Lois, with her high sides and impressive bulk seemingly filling the entire channel.
Then, wouldn't you know it, what should pass overhead but a train, just as the schooner was towed under the bridge. But apparently they hadn't ignored their history, for they were not, as it turned out, doomed to repeat it, and neither were we. This time train and canal boat managed to steer clear of each other, and we each went our separate ways unscathed.
And so, with the "Bridge of Death" safely astern, we made our way to Chambly. After steaming out on the Chambly basin, a wide, lake-like area of open water, we could "flop around," as the commercial tugmen say. We dropped the hawser, letting the schooner drift, while Churchill circled around back to Lois' starboard quarter in preparation for towing alongside.
Tug and schooner reunited, we crossed the basin like that, the town of Chambly and locks one, two, and three just ahead. Another passage behind us, we were back on the canal, approaching home turf once more.