We crossed into Canada from New York on July 3 and headed down the Richelieu River in the province of Quebec. Traversing the Chambly Locks and seeing the lovely towns along the way, we eventually turn into the large and busy St. Lawrence Seaway to get to Montreal for a weekend full of festivities.
Click the Google Map button below to open the map in a separate window. There you can zoom in/out, and click on the icons to see pictures and more info on the various places along our route.
St. Jean sur Richelieu, QC Canada
July 3, 2022
Excited to start our Canadian Loop Chapter, we followed our travel buddies Inconceivable out of the marina in Rouses Point. I noted one of our big round bow fenders wasn’t there. Dave said he hadn’t touched it, so somehow the fender holder must have broken and it floated away. Hopefully it wasn’t floating around in the lake confusing people that it was a red channel marker….
Crossed into Canada at exactly 9 am by sheer coincidence, and docked at the nearby customs station. We had already done our vaccine documentation and required reporting online, so just had to verify our documents and answer the usual drugs-firearms-booze-plants-reason-for-your-visit questions. What surprised us is that they actually board the boats and search. Good thing we hadn’t left have our laundry out or something else embarrassing.
Twenty minutes later we were headed down the Richelieu River, with it progressively narrower as we got progressively norther (yup, just made that up because it sounds good). Lots of small pleasure boats out on this long weekend, and the scenery was green and lovely.
Arrived at the Parcs Canada dock in St. Jean sur Richelieu around noon. Canada has a great Parks system, and we had purchased a season pass for the Canadian locks as well as a mooring pass for the Parks, allowing us to tie up on any of their many well-maintained docks along the canals. The St. Jean dock is right downtown just before a beautiful drawbridge, a work of art in itself that I’m pretty sure was designed by a Trekkie architect Once we were tied up Dave hailed the bridge tender on the VHF radio, who responds with, “I’ll be down in a few minutes.” When does that happen?!? Oh yeah – we’re in Canada now, so it will happen a lot. Sure enough, a couple minutes later Frédéric is there on the dock arranging for us to lock through when they first open at 9 am tomorrow! Wow.
St. Jean is beautiful, with a large downtown full of busy restaurants and shops. Such a dramatic and refreshing change from some of the struggling towns we had seen along the Hudson. There were people out biking or strolling along the canal path, boating, eating ice cream, and canal-watching from one of the many brightly-colored Adirondack chairs along the waterway. Flowers bloomed everywhere, from large hanging baskets on streetlights to container gardens in the parks to small window boxes on homes and storefronts. The pedestrian areas along the canal had periodic sentries of mesh Giant Walking Man sculptures wrapped in string lights and with morning glory vines trellising up from the feet. One plaza had colorful giant spinning tops made of bungees that you could sit in and twirl around until you were dizzy. It was Old Richelieu, as the signs proclaimed (in French), with vintage architecture, string lights, and bright colored facades.
The Chambly Canal in Canada , along with the Champlain Canal in the US, forms the Locks to Lakes Passage connecting the Hudson River with the St. Lawrence River. This was key to opening up trade in the mid-1800s and used commercially until the railroad became the transit of choice for goods.
Built over 150 years ago, the nine locks and 10 bridges of the Chambly are still manually operated just as they were back in 1850. Currently, they are used solely for tourism and pleasure boats. They are a Canadian National Historic Site and operated by Parks Canada (or Parcs Canada in the French-speaking province of Quebec), the equivalent of our National Parks Service.
July 4 - 5
At 0900, Frédéric calls us on the radio to say we can proceed to the first of our six locks of the day. Parks Canada manages the historic locks, and do a phenomenal job of traffic control in the historic narrow locks that are all manually operated. When we got the green light (literally) to enter the lock, Dave threaded our 18’ wide boat into the 22’ wide chamber of Lock 9 while I manned my post at the bow. Once all the way forward, a friendly lockhand handed me a line attached to the wall on the starboard side to hold the bow in position, while Dave turned off the engines and ran back to the cockpit to take a second line there. Inconceivable then squeezed their smaller boat in behind us with their bow right on our butt and the lockhands handed them lines on their port side. The two of us just fit into the lock in this manner. Once we were both secured, the lockhands turn cranks to close the doors behind us then move to the front of the lock and hand turn another set of cranks to open sluice gates, letting water flow out of the chamber and into the lower canal. We then slowly and gently descend, playing out our lines, 8-10 feet with each lock. When water levels are equal on each side of the heavy lock doors, the lockhands move to the door cranks and crank them open. Dave runs back to the helm, starts the engines, I toss our lock lines up to the wall, and off we go.
After passing through our first lock the canal was very narrow and had a few crazy scary turns for our wide body. There was a busy bike path running right along the canal all the way to Chambly, with bikes usually traveling faster than us; at one point we were passed by a guy on a mobility scooter. Initially the view was mostly of modest homes, with the landscaping gradually changing to more farmland.
The bridge and lock operators talk to each other and coordinate boats all along the canal. You must maintain a speed of 6 mph (10 Km/hr) so they know when to expect you. As we approached, bridges magically swung open without us even having to ask. At one bridge, the operator asked us to tie up at a floating dock right after we passed through. She then came down to explain there was some southbound traffic and this area was the widest spot for them to pass. She then hopped in her official car to drive north to the next bridge to open it for them. About 20 min later, the bridge operator waved as she drove back, the upstream boats passed by, and we continued on our way through Locks 8 & 7.
Locks 6-5-4 were only a couple hundred yards apart, and we could see the stepwise drop down to Chambly. We tied up at the Parks Canada dock right before the last three locks. Two more Loopers followed later: Happy Daze, who we had met on Lake Champlain, and SLO Dancer, who we knew from the St. Johns River trip back in February. We all went to dinner in town that evening.
Like St. Jean, Chambly also capitalizes on having the lock in the center of town. There are plenty of restaurants, ice cream shops, and well-utilized bike and pedestrian paths. We walked Roxy along the lake path, admiring the gardens and shaded plaza with free Wi-Fi, and back along the main drag with its mix of retail and residential spaces and lots of flower boxes. I especially loved the use of large wooden container gardens as road barriers, planted with herbs, veggies, and flowers — pretty and functional.
We bootered to the other side of the canal to Fort Chambly, learning of the role it played in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and surprisingly even the American Civil War. On the other side of the fort was a lovely residential area, with old historic homes overlooking the river rapids. Of course, we managed to find the local boulangerie (bakery) along the ride.
St. Ours, QC
The last three Chambly Canal locks were a ‘flight’ down to the small lake, meaning we went down in Lock 3, and when the forward doors opened they were the rear doors of Lock 2, then the same going into Lock 1. We locked through with Inconceivable, crossed the small lake and continued north on the Richelieu. The view was one of homes on both sides with gardens of daylilies and astilbe in bloom , and the ubiquitous church with a tall shiny silver roofed steeple dominating every little town. We continued to dodge cable ferries crossing the river. These are small car ferries that run along a cable underneath their hull. The cable sinks down at least 6’ below the surface so other boat traffic can go by, but you need to keep your distance. The ferries boldly cross the river, waiting for no one. Once it looked like the car was still moving and the ferry was on its way across our bow. Another time, we were preoccupied with watching a cable ferry when suddenly a float plane landed a quarter mile ahead of us. Can’t say planes were ever on my list of hazards to navigation.
We had read some vague posts about a railroad bridge being narrow with lots of current, but nowhere could we find the definition of ‘narrow.’ So we approached it with an abundance of caution. Standing on the bow armed with a boat hook, it occurred to me that in a contest between cement bridge trestle and short aluminum pole, the boat would be the big loser. In the end, it proved to be much ado about nothing. But always pays to have a defensive strategy, even if a middle-age broad with a boat hook is the best you can muster.
Our stop for the night was the Parcs Canada dock just on the other side. Happy Daze came through on the next lock opening less than an hour later, and so we had three Loopers there. Through the Looper Network, we had heard about the small Ecluse10 Café (the only business near the Parc) and that we could pre-order fresh croissants for the next morning, so we all traipsed over, indulging in ice cream before dinner while there. The rest of the day was spent relaxing.
Patty picked up our fresh croissants when Ecluse opened at 8:00, and our threesome (Happy Daze had joined us) was off by 8:15. It was a beautiful calm day with blue skies, and our still-warm croissants made for the Best Underway Breakfast Ever. We picked a VHF channel to monitor and used that to communicate between the boats, warning of things like cable ferries ahead, other boat traffic, or pointing out things along the way.
The Richelieu dumps into the large St. Lawrence Seaway at Sorel-Tracy. At one point, we were less than two miles from Montreal by car. However, by boat we had to continue on the Richelieu due north then do a hairpin turn onto the St. Lawrence to essentially backtrack toward Montreal – a total of 25 miles. Our first glimpse of the St. Lawrence was a large container ship moving along from west to east about a mile in the distance. Oh boy, this was going to be fun. But Dave was pretty used to running with the big boys in busy channels, navigating through the traffic without even coming close to any swear words
We turned into an inlet to get to our planned anchorage out for the night just off the St. Lawrence, but when we approached we were surprised to see a bunch of mooring balls where the anchorage should be that were not listed in our guides. I called the number on the mooring balls and got Stephane, the owner of the nearby marina who spoke fluent but very fast English. He said the moorings were new and not yet certified, so we couldn’t use them. He did have room at the marina, so we tied up there. The marina really was nice and very reasonably priced, and Stephane came down later in the evening to chat with us – a really nice guy.
Contrecoeurs is mostly a residential suburb of Montreal, but had a small downtown area with a very nice park nearby featuring beach umbrellas and comfy chairs overlooking the water. And of course there was the required big church with the metallic steeple. We sat in the park for a bit with Inconceivable and Happy Daze and were serenaded by Angelo on his guitar. Of course, we knew there was going to be a pitch and sure enough in the end he asked if we could help him buy some new guitar strings. We gave him what few dollars we had and chalked it up to helping the local economy. Afterwards, we set off to find the Thurs afternoon farmers market with John and Maureen. It turned out to be smaller and further away than we thought, but we did enjoy the live music and no one in the band seemed to be in need of new instrument parts. We stumbled upon a ‘cantine’ (food truck) on the way back that specialized in hot dogs and had a line a dozen people deep, which made us wonder if there was something special about Quebec hot dogs. There most definitely is not.
Our next stop is Montreal. We’ll spend the weekend there with the crews of Inconceivable and Happy Daze. It will be a dramatic change from the small towns along the rivers, lakes, and canals we’ve seen these last few weeks.
Canada has been beautiful cruising and seems to get better with every stop. Fantastic canal staff and welcoming townspeople, indulging our attempts at communication and then speaking to us in their English which is way better than our French. There is a simplicity of living along the river and canals, from the mid-1800’s technology of hand cranked locks to art in the parks to the well-kept vintage homes. And we still have a lot more of Canada to see.
Now if we could just find a marine supply store that has big red ball fenders.
Pops’ Stats Corner*
- No of Days: 5
- Travel Days: 4
- Miles Traveled: 96.9 (84.3 nm)
- Locks: 10
- New States Visited: 0
- New Provinces Visited: 1 (+1)
Cumulative Great Loop
- Started March 17, 2022 in St. Augustine, FL
- Travel Days: 42
- Miles Traveled: 1888.6 (1642.3 nm)
- Locks: 23
- States Visited: 11
- Provinces Visited: 1
*Pops is what the family affectionately called Dave’s dad. He had a mind for sports statistics, earning him the nickname Numbers from the coaches of several Stillwater teams with whom he worked. This regular section of the blog is in his honor, because it’s the kind of thing he would love.