Cruising Canadian Waters

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Upper Canada Village had also been closed for the season but was opened for us. This outdoor museum consists of historic homes, farm buildings, and shops that were saved when towns along the river had to be flooded during the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the late 1950s. About forty structures were moved to form the village, which memorializes the life of rural Canada around 1860. On our visit many of the displays were closed, but as a trade-off, the country town was utterly peaceful; it belonged to us. In season as many as four thousand visitors a day pass through its gates.

We sailed past island domains that had belonged to George Pullman, Helena Rubinstein, and John Jacob Astor.

We docked overnight in Montreal, with just time enough for a whirlwind bus tour and dinner at a fine restaurant. This is no way to get to know a major city, but on its own terms the bus tour was delightful. Like many of the guides along the way, our Montreal bus driver is a special friend of the Canadian Empress and regularly asks to be assigned this tour. A self-described “French mixed-up Irishman,” he raced through the city he clearly loved, trying to get to all its high points before dark. Montreal is a place to return to, but that isn’t the reason to select this cruise.

The reason, of course, is the St. Lawrence itself and the chance to savor the slow transit of one of the world’s great waterways. Jacques Cartier, who first ventured here in 1534. later named a portion of the river for the saint’s day on which he first saw it. To Samuel Champlain. whose 1605 arrival signaled more permanent settlement, the river appeared “as beautiful as the Seine, rapid as the Rhone, and deep as the sea.”

For the present-day visitor it can still be that, and more. Many of us learned that some of our nation’s earliest and bloodiest history was forged here along its course. Then, too, the channel we navigated—the St. Lawrence Seaway—was described to me by a knowledgeable fellow passenger as an even greater engineering accomplishment than either the Panama or Suez canals, permitting international shipping to penetrate deep into North America. We transited seven locks, and except for the first barely noticeable drop, we descended about forty feet in no more than ten minutes each time.

Moving downriver, we watched the colors of the water turn from deep blue to steely, wave-whipped green. The landscape changed, too, as the resort islands gave way to a pastoral world of barns and silos and French Canadian villages that inevitably cluster around outsize churches. “They are wonderful navigational aids,” said Patric Ryan, the first mate. “We take bearings on church spires.” At one point we sailed into the Battures country, a flatland of water-logged grasses under an enormous Dutch sky. Elsewhere we meandered from broad lakes to narrow canals with neat, stony walls. And twice we waited out on deck to see the great cities rise into view.

Having worked this route for five years now, Capt. Ratch Wallace has had time to consider the pleasures of this kind of historic traveling. “There’s no sign of the boat as it passes through,” he said one afternoon. “Or of the passengers after they leave. What they take away is what matters.”

—Carla Davidson