by Vermont State Representative Michel Consejo
TUESDAY, AUGUST 5, 2008
Even though I woke up in a bed, in a room graciously loaned to us by the Corporation du Fort St-Jean, having access to the luxury of a readily available bathroom or shower is not common for the crew of the Lois McClure. I spent my first night inside the bowel of the boat on a cot. Between the mosquitoes having a banquet and my back telling me that this was not right and to exit the position or risk having the jaws-of-life extracting me in the morning, I realized that being a crew member is not an easy proposition. It requires will, sacrifices and above all, determination. None of the people here are doing it for glamour and recognition. It's more about pride and love of the boat, what it will all represent for them, and for the outside world.
Before I go further, let's rewind the story a little to explain how I got to be in St. Jean on board of the Lois! It was another morning in the Statehouse in Montpelier, another day of committee discussions, meeting people, doing my job. Not quite, as there was a wonderful display in the card room of the House, the kind of display that made you proud of being a Vermonter and tickled your imagination as well. Along with the display came the storytellers, Erick and Art, talking with stars in their eyes about the upcoming trip to Quebec, the history of the Chambly Canal, the meaning of the trip besides the ride, the need to connect with the French Canadians, and the need for translators, so we could address the questions and explain the meaning. Being born French, I had a definite edge over my colleagues, and I was asked to help if I could. Saying no was never an option. Of course I would love to have this once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience something that most of us will never have a chance to do.
(right) Denis Couture of the scuba shop Aqua-Futur was invaluable during Lois McClure's stay in St. Jean. Photo by Kerry Batdorf.
At 7:00 a.m., the day started with a bright sunshine and with a wonderful breakfast put on for us by Denis Couture and his partners from the diving shop Aqua-Futur sitting across the street from where we were docked. Denis is a great man, involved in the Friends of the Chambly Canal, among other social activities in his community. The table was worthy of the French Canadian reputation of quality food and hospitality. All this made for a good start to the day. By 10:00 a.m., we were ready and people were already lined up to go inside.
The connections with the canal boats that the people of St. Jean have is a lot more than just curiosity. It goes down deep to their roots and history. They have memories and stories, from their parents, grandparents, sometimes their own, witnessing the original intended purpose of the canals. They learned about the boat; we learned about the way it was used and what it meant to the economy, the community and the everyday life in times gone by. One constant comment I heard over and over again is how appreciative they were that not only did we have brochures in both languages, but we had people explaining it in their own language.
The whole day was sunny, tiring and enjoyable. At the same time, it takes a tremendous amount of organization, knowledge and preparation for the whole experience to be successful for the visitors. The crew knows how to make it unforgettable, and I heard only praise and joy coming out of the visitors at the end of their visit, true testament of the hard work put into this operation.
We ended with a tally of over 450 visitors, and for what I have been told, it was a pretty good day for a midweek day. We closed at 6:00 p.m., and it became very obvious that we could have added another hundred to the tally if we had stayed open for another hour. They kept on coming, looking, standing, asking, their desire to find out more, learn, and share, obvious to all of us that had stayed on board. Some of those latecomers were treated to an impromptu concert given by our own banjo player, Matt, with Erick at the spoons, Zach at the washboard, Jean, Tom, John and I banging and clapping on anything available, and having a grand old time. You don't plan an event like this; it just happens. Both those in it and those watching it realized it and made the best of it. How is this for real interaction between nations and people? It does not get any better than this.
Nine p.m. found us all tired and ready for bed as tomorrow would be just as intense and we needed some rest to be ready for it.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 6
What a difference a day makes. As good, bright and sunny as yesterday was, today is dark, rainy and as non-enticing as it gets. We started the day under a gray sky and rain that sometimes bordered on a deluge. Our hopes were not very high as it looked like nobody in their right mind would come out to visit a boat that was as wet over as it was under. We were wrong in our assumptions, as people came. Not as many as the day before, but they came not out of hazard, but because they knew we were there. They knew what we were and they wanted to see it and experience it. From the 83 year-old men that could remember the motorized barges and vessels of the early century, to the baby in his mother's arms, strangely enough it seems, at least to me, that the questions they were asking were more technical, more precise, more related to the history, somewhat as if the interest level had been elevated a notch or two. We ended up with a little over 160 visitors and by all accounts, it is a credit to the people of St. Jean and the Chambly Canal Region.
During one of my breaks, I had the pleasure to talk more with Denis Couture, President de Les Amis du Canal de Chambly. As he mentioned to me, the mission of that association is to foster the sense of ownership of the canal with the population surrounding it. As he said, for a long period of time, the canal and the drawbridge, the locks and the barge's traffic, was seen by the locals as a nuisance, a pain that they had to endure in the course of their everyday lives. Les Amis du Canal de Chambly, is changing that perception by educating the people of all the benefits, not only monetary, but of quality of life as well. In 2005, a one-year study conducted by Parks Canada on the usage of the canal and all peripherals found that over 350,000 people, including pedestrians, bicyclists, walkers and boaters were enjoying the benefits of having that 20 kilometer canal. This study, after interviewing over 10,000 people, clearly showed how important the canal is to the local community, both in terms of commerce and human interaction.
After three days on the boat, I hate to admit that I am still as ignorant of navigation and boating terms as I was when I first came on. For me, port side is still left, and I already have forgotten what right, front, and back are designated in the lingo of the trade. I guess they will have to invite me again if they want another chance at teaching me some of their language. As it is, I have all I can do to try to remember all the first names of the crew. By the time I get it, I will be on my way out. But one thing is sure, they all have made my stay so far very enjoyable and exciting. What else can a newcomer ask for?
THURSDAY, AUGUST 7
Once again, it was obvious that the weather was going to be an important factor in the way the day would end up to be. The wheel of luck had stopped in between, cloudy and sunny, which compared to the previous day, seemed like a gift from heaven. The magic, or should I say, the hope number, was 246, as this was how many visitors we needed to make a total of 25,000 visitors during the trip. As I found out later in the day, the prediction and expectation for this outing was in the 15,000 range, so we already had more than exceeded the mark. However, being humans, we were all wishing for more.
Early in the morning, we had a visit from Lucille Methe, the St. Jean Representative of the Quebec Assembly. She wanted to find out about our stay in St. Jean, and talk about a possible return in 2009 during the 400th Anniversary of Lake Champlain. We also had a visit from Claude Bachand, a Federal Representative. The obvious interest from these politicians from the region highlighted how important it was for them to increase the collaboration between branches of government on both sides of the border in order to reinforce how much Vermont and Quebec are linked not only on an economic level, but also in a historical and cultural level.
(right) Lois McClure's 25,000th visitor on the 2008 Our Shared Heritage Tour, Madame Edith Lecavalier, is greeted by Executive Director Art Cohn.
With the sun shining by 2:30 p.m., the number 245 was logged in, and we were all waiting for the next click on the counter for visitor number 25,000. I was working the gangway and had been watching a woman reading all our outside posters with great interest. At the conclusion of her reading, she came to me and in a soft voice and a gentle smile, announced that she wasn't going to go inside, but handed me a $2 donation anyway. I told her that she should be the one putting the donation in the box inside the boat. I gently escorted her toward the entrance of the dock and told her she owed it to herself to go inside and enjoy the display. On my insistence, she crossed the line. That is when we told her that she was the 25,000th person to do so and that we had some gifts and a celebration for her. To see her face light up, and to see her smile, was worth all the efforts in the world. All the hard work and dedication the entire crew had put into this trip was summed up in that moment. It does not come any better than this. So, congratulations to Madame Edith Lecavalier from St. Jean. She is now part of the history of this trip.
Our great friend, Denis Couture, President of Les Amis du Canal de Chambly, still was working tirelessly, helping us make the best of our stay in his town. He had one more surprise for us with a reception at the end of the day, taking place at the Musee du Fort St. Jean . We were treated to a buffet, speeches and acknowledgement from Parks Canada and many other organizations.
The crew of Lois McClure have many talents! Photo by Kerry Batdorf.
In a way to reciprocate, we delivered the premiere of an original song, written and played by our crew artist Matthew Witten. Most of the crew helped with the rendition with the noted performance of Erick at the spoons, and Zach and Jean at the washboard. It was great fun. Also to be noted on this day was the turning 21 years old of Zach Ralph, for whom we had a couple of surprises in reserve. I had to leave the party early due to commitments the next day, and had to miss the presentation of the movie made by Bernard Hallé from Parks Canada. The total for the day ended up to be 377, to show you we did not need to worry !hum !! We did.
I want to thank Erick and Art for giving me the opportunity to be part of this trip, the crew for so readily adopting me, all the visitors of St. Jean, and my new friend, Denis.