Located an hour north of the New York or Vermont border, Montreal is an island metropolis designed for the paddler who wears a dry jacket by day and a suit jacket by night. It is one of Canada’s largest cities and most significant cultural centers. Jacques Cartier laid claim to New France in 1535, and in 1642 settlers claimed the city of Montreal from the Iroquois Indians. A melange of old European and North American colonial architecture, the city has attitude, personality, and diversity that is hard to describe. It might be the je ne sais quoi of a French province on the North American continent. Or it might be that the city, built on a volcanic island, has so much green space that it can be confusingly rural. Montreal is proud to claim one tree for every two of its 3.4 million residents. One wouldn’t think a large industrialized city would beckon to paddlers, but man-made waterways and frothy, tumbling rapids make it a paddling destination for whitewater and flatwater aficionados alike.
Getting There: Fly in to Aeroports de Montreal, or take any of the major highways into the city. I-87 goes north from New York City to Montreal, crossing the border into Quebec and becoming highway 15.
Logistics: The Lachine Canal is open from May 14 through October 14. For hours of operation and current fees for canoe and kayak usage, call (514) 283-6054. Information on the canal, including schedules, fees, and annual events and festivals, can be found at www.canaldelachine.qc.ca. For the best map of the Lachine Canal, Ple des Rapides, log on to www.poledesrapides.com, or call (514) 732-7303. The map shows the canal and the bike path, and has a host of other relevant information for visitors. On the flip side is an overview of Montreal, showing how to get to Iles-de-Boucherville. For details, call (450) 928-5088 (summer), (450) 928-5089 (winter), or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
While You’re There: Montreal has restaurants to satisfy every appetite. If you’re hungry as you paddle along the Lachine, stop for strong coffee and a snack at one of the canal-side cafes. A couple of blocks from the canal is Atwater Market, a European-style breadbasket of vendors. Tucked midway down the first floor is PizzAncora, which offers a delicious assortment of gourmet pizza by the slice. For those with more refined tastes, La Prunelle (bring your own wine) is a traditional family-owned restaurant featuring rich and fragrant French cuisine at Canadian prices. Call (514) 849-8403. For a local experience and lunch, stop at Claude Postel for quiche, soup, sandwiches, and great pastries. Call (514) 844-8750.
For details on festivals and events, contact the Montreal Tourist Information Center at (877) BON-JOUR or www.bonjourquebec.com and www.tourism-montreal.org. The tourist bureau publishes a quarterly booklet called “What to Do in Montreal.” It’s an invaluable guide to local music, art, dance, and cultural festivals and events. Details on the Montreal Jazz Fest can be found at montrealjazzfest.com. If you’re in the market for supple Italian leather shoes, Moroccan trinkets, or avant-garde art, wander the streets around St. Denis. It’s where the action is.
Lodging/Camping: With so much to do in Montreal, you may want to stay more than one night. Try Auberge Bonsecours, a small, locally owned B&B. Call (514) 396-2662. If bigger is better, go to the Montreal tourist Web site for a complete offering of larger properties. On the Rouge, camp or stay at Norwood Lodge ( norwoodlodge.com).
Outfitters/Resources: H20 Adventures rents boats on the Lachine and the Rouge. In summer 2003, they will open a campground on H2O Island at the bottom of the Seven Sisters. Log on to h20adventures.comwww.h2Oadventures.com or call (877) WE-KAYAK. For a more complete list of outfitters, please see our Adventure Paddling Directory.
The greatest draw of Montreal paddling for waterbound culturophiles is that after an hour, an afternoon, or a day on the water, you’re minutes from fabulous foie gras and French wine, superb shopping, and a music scene on a par with that of New Orleans. Summer festivals, ethnic restaurants and shops, and an exquisite perch in the middle of the St. Lawrence Seaway all make Montreal an enticing place to visit. If it’s not the intimate outdoor cafes along cobblestone streets, or the world-class jazz that wafts from every smoky club come the summer jazz festival, it might be the price. With the American dollar strong, the vacation piggy bank goes a long way here.
Lachine Canal: It’s a leisurely Sunday along the Lachine Canal. Yellow leaves flutter in a light September breeze, occasionally floating to the ground to partially carpet the bike path underneath. Cyclists meander chatting in Quebecois, while we paddle through the center of Montreal.
The 14-kilometer canal is one of Montreal’s landmarks. It was built to keep commerce, particularly the fur trade, alive in this port city. The Lachine rapids, which today delight playboaters, were the ruin of more than one trading vessel. So the canal was laboriously carved through the island of Montreal. We follow the Lachine through its five locks and find ourselves in the Vieux Port (Old Port), where sturdy stone buildings line narrow cobblestone streets. Formerly the commercial center, the Old Port is now an excellent place to buy souvenirs, sit at a sidewalk cafe and people-watch, or take a walk along the waterfront.
As trade patterns changed and pollution from factories poured into the LaChine, it fell into disrepair and disuse. Cleaned up, revitalized, and reopened for boat traffic in 2002, the Lachine is just being discovering by paddlers. Canoeists and kayakers can put in at any of the locks and paddle at their own pace or, for a little local history en bateau, begin from the McAuslan Brewery at lock four and paddle the Lachine with a guide well versed in local lore, as well as Montreal’s microbrews.
Iles-de-Boucherville Parc Des Iles de Boucherville: At the east end of Montreal, just 10 kilometers from the city center off Highway 25, is the Boucherville Islands Park. Kayakers can spend a day paddling through the islands, observing the Canada geese, ospreys, great blue herons, foxes, and deer that live here. Though the park is a nature preserve, there are plenty of places to beach your craft and spend the heat of the day in the cool grass sheltered by the shade of seaway-side trees. Boaters taking a break can stretch their legs on 15 kilometers of walking and biking trails.
Rouge River: An hour and a half west of Montreal, the Rouge River flows into the Ottawa where the Adirondack Mountains rise from the earth. Here, the river runs red after the rains, reminiscent of the American Southwest. The upper Rouge, called the Canyon, is one of the area’s best-kept secrets. Despite the increasing popularity of paddling, the Canyon, which runs Class IV in the spring but drops to Class II in the summer, is one of those rare finds where you can paddle all day and not see another soul. The closest you’ll come to signs of civilization in the canyon might be a rusty waterwheel or black residue on the rocks from bygone blasting, both remnants of the logging industry that ruled the roost on the Rouge. There is no more logging on the waterway, just high canyon walls, sandy beaches, and solitude. The lower Rouge, called the Seven Sisters for its seven waterfalls, runs Class IV in the summer, but in the spring is a solid Class V, and sometimes Class VI. There are good scouting opportunities for all Seven Sisters, and the most challenging rapids can be walked by those too weak in the knees to slide into their spray skirts. In high season, midweek is the best time to go to avoid rafting traffic. There’s camping at H2O Island at the end of the river, and a local lodge, or it’s a short trip back to Montreal for urban fortification.
Lachine Rapids: For those who want an exciting ride, the churning Lachine rapids, which are visible from shore, are a Class V play spot that will challenge even world-class whitewater boaters. Expert kayakers surf this wave from May to October. In the warmer summer months (July and August), local outfitters take visitors into the rapid by raft and jet boat. Try it only if you have a strong stomach. Paddlers not quite ready for Class V can paddle 20 minutes upstream to Vague a Guy, a Class II play spot.
Wherever you decide to paddle in Montreal, you’ll go home with your belly full, and your desire for adventure sated. Despite Montreal’s wealth of water resources, paddling seems to be just catching on in the city and its environs. It’s always fun to be one of the first. And where else can you have an international experience close to home?
Berne Broudyis a outdoor writer and photographer in Richmond, Vermont.