By Reinhard Zollitsch

I have always enjoyed reading Robert McCloskey's books about the Maine coast to my four kids, as well as Holling Clancy Holling's classic Paddle-to-the-Sea, among many others. I just became a double grandfather and thought how nice it would be if I could add a personal note to those seafaring, coastal, boaty books.  I already visualize myself looking into those wide-open, dreamy eyes of my young audience, and while gently closing each book hear myself quietly adding “You know, I have been there too in a tiny little boat just like this one here.”

Down the mighty St. Lawrence

As far as the mighty St. Lawrence River is concerned, there were actually two very  good reasons for me to finally tackle the 350 miles from the last of the Great Lakes (Lake Ontario) to Québec city:

The stretch to Sorel had eluded me in 1999 on my 1,000-mile journey from Lake Champlain into the St. Lawrence and around the Gaspé peninsula back to New Brunswick and the Baie des Chaleur. I felt I had to do this upper stretch of the mighty St. Lawrence so I could finally say I had paddled the entire river from the Great Lakes to the sea, as in the children's book mentioned above.

But the real reason for doing the trip this year, in May 2007, was the fact that the city of Québec was getting ready to celebrate its 400th birthday. In 1608 Samuel de Champlain had built a very modest settlement on Cap Diamand, where today's downtown, Le Citadelle and the famous hotel, the Chateau Frontenac, are located.

May would also be a good time to be on that big river, I thought. I would beat the boat traffic and tourists in the Thousand Islands segment, as well as the black fly and mosquito season, and find plenty of water to flush me downstream towards my goal.

Paddle to the Sea, then and now

From my 1999 trip I knew that the St. Lawrence was huge and intricate to navigate and that it was a major shipping route for large container ships and equally huge Great Lakes bulk carriers, throwing significant wakes. But the major obstacles for a small boat like mine were the seven big locks, which would not allow any "motorless boat smaller than 20 feet, weighing less than 900 kilos" in the locks. I could not believe the info websites of the St. Lawrence Seaway, but numerous e-mails as well as phone calls confirmed my suspicion: they really meant it, no exception - “Non!!!"

Did that mean one could not “paddle to the sea” any more in traditional man-powered crafts like a canoe or sea kayak, and that on the "Canada River", as  the St. Lawrence was known for a long time, in a craft synonymous with Canada, a canoe, a "Canadian”, as this type of boat is known world-wide"? I was shocked. That could not be! “Non!!!”

I know from my home state, Maine, for example, that when a power plant dams a river, they are responsible for supplying a portage trail or even a car shuttle around their man-made structure. The St. Lawrence Seaway people, on the other hand, sounded annoyed when I pressed the point, downright hostile.

I desperately needed a plan B or even C to pull off my trip, because I was going to paddle to the sea, no matter what, especially when I get challenged.
So before I left on my trip I had arranged various ways to get through or around those big 233.5 by 24.4 meter (766 by 80 feet) large “boxes” that could lower big 25,000 metric ton freighters down about 10 meters (30 feet) each time in 7-10 minutes. (How do you like all those numbers?)

Planning this was definitely the hardest and most frustrating part of my entire trip, but it was necessary to guarantee a smooth, hassle-free trip, and in the end was worth my effort. So, if anybody else is planning to go down the upper St. Lawrence River, don't leave home unless you have a definite plan of action. Portaging boat and gear through big cities or towns is no option, since you will lose at least half of your gear to eager “takers” – it has happened to several paddlers (who should have known better instead of  complaining about it afterwards in their articles or books). So here is my plan.

Click to enlarge map

The trip begins
In the early morning of May 18, 2007 I put in on Lake Ontario at the Tibbett's Point Lighthouse, at the very tip of Cape Vincent, NY, some 600 miles away from my home in Orono, Maine.  I had set myself up with a daily goal of 25 miles, which would mean I would get to Québec in 14 days or two weeks exactly.

Put-in at Tibbett's Light on the edge of Lake Ontario
Put-in at Tibbett's Light on the edge of Lake Ontario

I had ordered a full set of 18”X24” nautical charts (less expensive black and white reprints of the standard NOAA charts from a chart supplier in Bellingham, WA), which fit my chart case beautifully and proved to be absolutely necessary for the St. Lawrence, which is a truly big river, choked with islands and rocky shoals and multiple channels.

My course for almost the entire trip was northeast, 45 degrees true, or about 60 degrees magnetic, on my compass. I had planned to follow the New York shore till about Massena/Cornwall, where I would enter Canadian waters.

As instructed in Cape Vincent, NY, I would call a certain Canadian immigration phone number from the first Canadian marina I got to, to legally enter Canada. The current was slight to negligible and did not seem to compensate me for the steady north to northeast headwinds that blew till and including my last day on the water.

Following the south shore, the American side

The first couple of days took me through the Thousand Islands area, scenically a very pretty and promising area for weekend boaters. But New York residents found this vacationland a long time ago and have bought up every last foot of shoreline, including all islands and rocks, and have built summer homes, estates, even castles, on them.

It reminded me of the shoreline of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, on my 2005 canoe trip back from New York City to Boston. I do not appreciate or admire that type of developed shoreline and just kept on paddling till I got to my first big obstacle, the locks and dam at Iroquois.

Big freighter in the American Narrows, 1000 Islands
Big freighter in the American Narrows, 1000 Islands

Running the flood gate in a dam

My charts told me that small boaters could run the control dam through gate #28 downstream (or through gate #30 upstream). I could hardly believe that. I googled this place through “MapQuest”, and got a great aerial view of the dam. I counted the gates, and yes, #28 was the fifth gate from the left and had a clearance of about 8', according to my chart.

The third gate from the left was gate #30, the upstream gate. But how much of a drop was there? How violently would it flow? It couldn't be more than 7 or 8 knots because if it was, no small pleasure craft or fishing boat would make it upstream. That thought convinced me that I could do it too – just stay in the middle and be ready for a low brace, I told myself. I tried to hail the lockmaster on my VHF radio to inform him about my plan, but he must have “stepped out for a moment”.

Iroquois control dam: 5th gate from the left down, 3rd one upstream
Iroquois control dam: 5th gate from the left down, 3rd one upstream

And I felt great doing it all on my own, approaching slowly, carefully, looking through the gates to see how much the water level would drop. Then I saw a fishing boat below the dam, almost on my level, and I went for it – and it was a cinch. And just think: no portage, no locks, no fuss – my kind of dam. I then figured that the dam was only here to guarantee water in the dry season later in the year, when the upstream Galop Island rapids would run dry if water wasn't held back. This time of year the river was flowing through the dam almost unimpeded. Bigger boats, however, would still have to lock through.

Trouble in the locks

The following day took me to the next big obstacle, the U.S. Eisenhower and Snell locks. I had planned to check out the spillway dam a tad north of the canal in Robert Moses State Park, to see whether I could portage it and take care of the two locks with one "short" carry. Well, the take-out was through trees and over a rock bank, but worst of all, the downslope was endless, dropping almost 150 feet, terminating in a steep drop over huge boulders, an ankle breaker. I tried the marina on the other side for help, but: "Sorry, we are closed". So I got back in my boat, and decided to sleep on my problem and tackle the task tomorrow.

Entering Eisenhower/Snell locks
Entering Eisenhower/Snell locks

I had to try plan C the next day, i.e. paddle to the locks and remind them that I had gotten a verbal OK from their head office to raft up with another pleasure craft, so that I would be allowed in the locks. The crews at the first lock, however, were very reluctant to let me in, even tied up alongside a sailboat whose home port happened to be Lübeck, Germany, a few miles away from where I had grown up. Thanks, Andreas and Sabine!  They were extremely helpful, but not so the lock staff. They ordered me out of my boat onto the sailboat and to stay there till we were through both locks.

Between the two locks a service tugboat was shadowing us and then decided to pass us at full speed on our port side where my boat was rafted up. What was the skipper thinking? There was no emergency he had to attend to. He was just having fun harassing us, hoping to see my boat fill with water and roll over, and bang against the side of the sailboat.

He was obviously out to prove his point that small motorless boats do not belong in the shipping locks and canal. I was upset, to put it mildly, but saw it coming in time, and felt challenged to thwart the aggression and have the last laugh. I quickly adjusted my stern line and hand held the bow line of my boat so I could coax and manhandle my boat over the huge wake and keep it from slamming against the sailboat.

It was most despicable and unseaman-like behavior on the part of the tugboat skipper - obvious chicanery. But I just smiled back at him like a Cheshire cat – our boats were that close - since I knew I could handle the situation with my type of boat and win the contest.

I could have yelled, reminding him that powerboats are responsible for their wake, but I was just glad to get out of there. It took an endless 4 hours 15 minutes for me to get through the two locks (a total of 3.5 miles). They were the most unhelpful staff and crew I have ever met on any seaway anywhere, and I used to work on freighters in Europe. By the way, the sailboat and I each had to pay $60 for the two locks - which both of us considered highway robbery, especially considering the treatment we got. Shame on you guys!

I then had to put my head down to get to my 25-mile-marker for the day, which I eventually did. By then it was 5:00 p.m. and I had to stop and call Nancy via satellite phone, our predetermined contact time. The small beach and bath-towel-sized grassy patch behind it on Clarke Island suddenly looked like an inviting overnight spot, and I stayed.

Crossing Lake St. Francis to Beauharnois, Canada

Every day is full of new challenges, and the next one was no exception. First there was big Lac St. Francois which I had to cross; it took me two hours. In the early afternoon I arrived at the marina in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, just before the next two locks and huge dams in French-speaking Québec province. When I phoned the Beauharnois locks before the start of my trip, their response was a very uncompromising and emphatic one-word answer: "NON!!!" That was clear enough and ended our conversation, even though I had worked out and mouthed a number of great sentences in my best high school French ahead of time.

With that attitude, I moved right on to plan B. I contacted the closest marina at Salaberry-de-Valleyfield and met a very accommodating harbormaster. He assured me he would car-shuttle me around the locks from his place to the nearest ramp below the dams/locks - no problem. Thanks for your positive and helpful attitude, Michel. You are a gem.

After my mandatory call to the Canadian immigration office to check into the country legally, I transferred my gear to the trunk of his little Honda, put the boat on a couple of life jackets on top of the car roof and tied down the entire shebang  through the open door frames with a couple of docking lines he came up with. It worked, and I arrived at the ramp in Beauharnois at 5:00 p.m. - time to call home again, and also time to stay for the night.           

Lake St. Louis and the Lachine Rapids in Montreal

Sunrise next morning saw me back in my saddle again, traversing big Lac Saint Louis towards Montreal and the infamous Lachine Rapids.  These were the rapids that stopped all early explorers like Cartier and Champlain, who seriously thought that China would be on the other side of this "Northwest Passage", the "Canada River"  (therefore the name "China Rapids").

I absolutely had to see and hopefully even be on these historic "Lachine Rapids". But how? Who is out there on this maelstrom? Only big rafts or jet boats could handle them, I mused.

That was it. I googled the problem and found two jet boat outfitters who run the rapids. I chose the company at the head of the big rapids rather than the one which starts its trips from the Old Port in downtown Montreal. And again, I got a most encouraging and helpful e-mail back from the owner, Davide. Thanks, my man!

I carefully drifted down the easy upper segment, under the first two bridges to Davide's place on Lasalle Blvd. and 75th Ave. (see info), and there he was, about to have lunch with his eager group of young raft guides. He gave me a quick tour of the big drop, "Big John", named after “Big John Le Canadien”, a Mohawk native from nearby Kahnawake who used to guide steamships down the rapids quite some years ago.

The drop is right in the middle of the stretch between Lasalle proper and Heron Island. This is also the place where the canoeists Louis and his native guide drowned during one of Champlain's earlier visits. I tried to block out that last tidbit of information, while looking for a sneak way along shore to get down this stretch, but I could not find any safe way because of the power station water intake there, and opted for a swift piggyback on the jet boat.

Davide's cheerful crew jet-baoting me through
Davide's cheerful crew jet-boating me through "Big John"

And the drop was BIG, REAL BIG, as the jet boat slammed into a train of humongous standing waves, getting us soaked and bouncing my loaded boat, which we had put on top of the backrests of the empty passenger seats, on life jackets to soften the bounce. The Kevlar expedition lay-up of my boat came in handy, also when we tried to ease it back into the water below the last ledge drop. "C'est ca!", Davide pronounced. "This is it, you can handle it from here on.”

Yee-ha!  Hitting
Yee-ha! Hitting "Big John"

Unloading a full boat over the side in the middle of a fast-flowing river, is not easy. Suffice it to say, we managed to angle the boat back into the St. Lawrence and me into the boat...and I was off again, with a big smile and a big thank-you.

The whole operation was done in no time. I found myself in the middle of the river, or better "Le Basin", eager to hold on to the left shore again, which I had studied on my nautical charts. I had to go to the left of Isle Des Soeurs under the Champlain bridge, in order to avoid the big "ice control structure" across the wider right river arm, and eventually go under the Victoria bridge and tackle the Saint Normand rapids. Suddenly the current picked up again noticeably; my chart indicated 6 knots, and rapids with rocky drops. But I was sharp and in a great “good-aggressive” mood and felt I had to prove Davide right.

I made it fine through the ledge drops, but only half-heartedly tried to swing into the Old Port to see more of the downtown city. I smiled as the current blew me by it. I went with the flow under the Cartier bridge, and along Isle Saint Helene with its huge amusement park with giant roller coaster. At the tip of the last island, I crossed over to the right shore, including the entrance to the Canal de la Rive Sud, to the Cap-sur-Mer in Longueuil. The same big freighter came out of the locks that I had seen enter the canal when I crossed over to Lachine at the head of the falls.

I had paddled through and around Lachine Rapids one hour faster than a boat can go around them through the canal and two locks.  What an amazing thought. And no more locks and dams from here to Québec! I felt buoyed.

Back on the River again

The remaining 150 miles were a piece of cake, of sorts. But do not kid yourself: the St. Lawrence is a very big river, choked with islands and sand/rock banks ("battures"), which demand careful navigation, especially near Sorel.  And do take care crossing 20-mile long (and 9-mile wide) very shallow and thus very wavy Lac St. Pierre.

Big Lac St. Pierre
Big Lac St. Pierre

Trois Riviére bridge
Trois Rivière Bridge

On my last day I was almost stopped in my tracks by a 45 knot headwind, which after a 3-hour wait finally dropped to 15-25 knots. It was a long, hard and wet 21-mile pull to the ferry dock at Lévis where Nancy was to pick me up. But the night in the Chateau on the bluff across the river, where Champlain's first fort and settlement of 1608 once stood, more than made up for the "hardship". 

Dual bridges at Québec City
Dual bridges at Québec City

Take-out at Lévis/Québec
Take-out at Lévis/Québec

Celebrating Québec's 400th birthday in the Chateau Frontenac

A lovely dinner in-house with an appropriately named glass of beer (La Fin Du Monde, The End of the World) completed the evening; I fell into bed and drifted off into lala-land in no time. The last images I remembered were facets of my 1999-2003 trips in my little boat, drifting on towards the Gaspé, through the Gulf of St. Lawrence, around New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, and eventually through the Strait of Canso into the open Atlantic, just as the little wooden boat had done in the book Paddle-to-the-Sea. I now had done it too ...

View from my
View from my "humble abode"

What a trip, what a river, what an adventure! I enjoyed myself immensely, even at age 68. And I was delighted to see Québec gearing up for the big event, the big 400-year birthday party in 2008: the boardwalk was being repaired, and even the huge statue of Champlain was being cleaned up and refurbished for the big occasion. And it surely will be a big and joyous celebration; don't miss it.

Salut to Samuel de Champlain and the hardy first 28 settlers of 1608, of which only 8 survived the first harsh winter, I am sorry to say. But this here is the cradle of today's 18 million North Americans of French descent.

Salut to the City of Québec and its deeply rooted French culture and language.
And salut to the mighty St. Lawrence, the Canada River.


For author's bio and previous trip reports, see:

Boat and gear: Covered 17'2” Kruger SEA WIND sea canoe with rudder and spray skirt, see:

Lensatic radar reflector from West Marine, and bicycle wiggle stick (both to           enhance visibility)

Camping gear and all food for 14 days; two 2.5 gal. water containers

NOAA charts for the entire river, 18”X24” black & white copies from Bellingham Chart Printers Division (Tides End Ltd.):

Road maps and aerial views of specific areas:

St. Lawrence Seaway info:

NY State Parks (1000 Islands) info: thousandis.asp

Jet Boat rides on the Lachine Rapids: (Les Descentes sur le St. Laurent); (ask for Davide)

H.P. Biggar (ed): The Works of Samuel de Champlain. Vol. I, Toronto, 1922.
W. Goetsmann/G. Williams: The Atlas of North American Exploration.
Swanson Publ. Ltd, 1992.
Janice Hamilton: The St. Lawrence River. Price-Patterson Ltd., Montreal, 2006.
Holling Clancy Holling: Paddle-to-the-Sea. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston/New York, 1941/1969.
Robert McCloskey:
One Morning in Maine
. Viking Penguin Inc, 1952/1980.          
Time of Wonder. Viking Penguin Inc,1957/1985.
Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man. The Viking Press, Inc, 1963.


© Reinhard Zollitsch