Francophones know there are two French words for river: fleuve, which is reserved for the great, continent-draining rivers of the world, and rivière, which is used to define everything else. We — and everyone in Québec — may call the St. Lawrence a river, but it is officially a fleuve.
Even if it were not a fleuve, the river defines the city historically. From the First Nations who settled on the South Shore at Kahnawake, to the French and English explorers who followed the river into the heart of the continent, to the thousands of cargo ships that still make the Port of Montréal one of the most active in North America, this river has made the city what it is.
Human habitation has also brought pollution and degradation, of course. The problem reached a crisis point a few years ago when the Beluga whales — which migrate from the Gulf of St. Lawrence upriver to Québec City — died on route, and their poison-filled carcasses had to be disposed of as hazardous waste. Aluminum plants, which thrive on the cheap electricity provided by Hydro-Québec, took some of the blame. Citizens, politicians and industries were forced to respond, and there has since been plenty of debate, if not progress, on the clean-up effort.
Happily, though, these negotiations don't make Montréalers any less enthusiastic about their “big water.” Nothing seems to interfere with their simple enjoyment of the river — on it or from the shore. All summer long there are water-related events and sports aplenty around the entire circumference of Île de Montréal, but especially along the St. Lawrence.
A great place to start your own explorations is the Biosphere, right smack in the middle of the river on Parc des Îles. Not to be confused with the Biodome next to the Olympic Stadium, the Biosphere is a fantastic exhibition space located in and around the Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome built for Expo '67. Interactive and fun eco-educational exhibits are dedicated entirely to the importance of clean water, emphasizing the ecosystems of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes.
Here there are excellent multimedia shows and special exhibits, including one on Jacques-Yves Cousteau's Calypso explorations. The Biosphere offers a wonderful bilingual introduction to the geology, ecology and history of commerce in the region that is suitable for adults and kids. Managed by Environment Canada, it is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. all summer.
The significance of maritime commerce to the St. Lawrence region is apparent when visiting one of the many locks on the river and canals. The St. Lambert Locks, on the St. Lawrence Seaway, are directly across from downtown Montréal on the other side of the Victoria Bridge. Open year-round — when the seaway isn't closed by ice — these locks raise and lower the giant “lakers” that sail between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It's pretty exciting to watch the bridge you just crossed rise into the air to let the ships through. For kids of all ages who like “big machine stuff,” this is a real treat.
If you prefer to get out on the water, the cruise-excursion line Croisières AML operates a fleet of 15 boats in six Québec cities on the river, from Montreal to Petit Saguenay to the north. You can choose from a variety of excursion types — breakfast and brunch, full-day tours, sunset and romantic evening dinners. Some are keyed to special events, such as the jazz and fireworks festivals. Reach Croisières AML at 1-800-667-3131, or at croisieresaml.com/english/ind ex.htm.
There's also a Bateau-Mouche, modeled after the boats that cruise through Paris on the Seine. Bilingual guided tours, as well as dinner cruises, are available. Make reservations at 1-800-361-9952 or bateau-mouche.com.
A cheaper way to enjoy the river, and catch an extraordinary view of the Montréal skyline, is to take one of the water shuttles that ferry passengers between the Old Port and Park des Îles-Île St-Hélène or the suburb of Longueuil. There are regular departures all summer from the docks at the Pavilion Jacques Cartier. You can also take a bike along, tour the river's islands on wheels and return to Old Port by the Pont de la Concorde bicycle bridge and the Lachine Canal bike path, for a complete cycling circuit of the riverfront. If you forgot yours, bikes and in-line skates can be rented at several locations in the Old Port area.
Before the Lachine Canal was built to bypass them, the Lachine Rapids were one of the biggest obstacles to shipping along the river. For some real — and really wet — thrills, make this the summer you ride the rapids. Les Descentes Sur Le St-Laurent, a private excursion company, provides both rafting and Hydro-Jet boat trips through the foamy Lachine Rapids. Adventure rafting trips take screamers through the highest waves, while family raft trips use the calmer channels. Special Hydro-Jet boat trips are also scheduled to coincide with the fireworks festival, putting you underneath the fireworks on the river, then returning through the rapids — yes, in the dark.
Raft trips start from the City of LaSalle, at Pole des Rapides, and take out at Nun's Island, a.k.a. Île des Soeurs. A shuttle can get you to the LaSalle site from the InfoTouriste Center in downtown Montréal. If you drive to the launch site, you'll be bused back after the boat ride. For more information, rates and directions, visit mv-w.raftingmontreal.com or call 1-800-324-RAFT.
For a unique and exotic boating adventure — as a spectator — don't miss the 5th Annual Dragon Board Race Festival, July 22 and 23 at the Olympic Basin on Île Nôtre-Dame. This year's Festival promises to be spectacular, a multicultural celebration of the West's Millennium with the Chinese Year of the Dragon — a most auspicious union.
Dragon Boat Race Festivals are now celebrated all around the world, but they originated in China to commemorate the death by suicide of Qu Yuan. The poet and hero threw himself into the Mi Luo River in 278 B.C. as a protest against an emperor of the Zhou dynasty. His loving supporters went out in boats to search for him, then, failing that, tried to supplicate the evil spirits of the river by beating gongs and drums while dropping dumplings in the water to feed the fish.
In the modern version, rival teams of 22 hearty souls paddle like hell along the length of the basin in colorful dragon boats, inspired by the drumbeats of their coxswain. This year in Montréal, over 120 teams from across Canada, the U.S., Europe, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mainland China are expected to compete.
At last year's event, it was great fun to walk through the staging area full of teams preparing for their heats. The corporate and nonprofit teams are clearly there for fun, although friendly rivalries appear to exist among the banks and hotels. Local colleges also field spirited teams. Semi-pro teams, too, make the world Dragon Boat circuit — exceptionally buff and broad-shouldered, they're easy to spot. The reigning world champs were there last year, but considered Montréal just a “fun race” — a tune-up for their title defense in Nottingham later that month.
My favorites, though, were the breast-cancer survivors — Canadian women who have traveled to New Zealand and planned last summer to race in Vancouver, Montréal, Toronto and Ottawa. They were, to put it mildly, awesome competitors, full of spirit and heart.
The Dragon Boat Festival site has wonderful food booths — mostly Chinese — crafts, folk dancing and music. It's easy to access by the Metro, which I recommend because of limited parking and the confusing route through the river islands. Take the Yellow Line to the Île-St-Hélène station and you're there. The water shuttle from Old Town is another option, and perhaps more thematically appropriate. A terrific website, including photos and more details on the teams, can be found at aei.ca/-mdbrfienglish-/base.html, or call 1-514-866-7001.
Water is the way to go in Montréal in the summer. Just bring your own to drink.