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Cruising Canadian Waters

July 2024
5min read

I would like to apologize to my new Canadian friends for confirming their widely held suspicion that most Americans think of Canada as a great blank space to the north. For example, until lately I’d never even heard of Kingston, Ontario. I found out better last fall as I set out from Kingston for a six-day, 325-mile cruise along the St. Lawrence River to Quebec.

By the end of the journey I could fill in a lot of the blanks. I learned something about how Canadian history is tied into our own, and I found that the watery border we were traversing, far from being a line amicably drawn in some dim past, had in fact been forged by several centuries of war and diplomacy and even now shouldn’t be taken for granted. Overheard mutterings about the recently agreed upon Free Trade Agreement told me that once again things might be a little tense.


Kingston, a sparkling 1840s former provincial capital located on the northeast edge of Lake Ontario, is the meeting point for the scenic splendors of the Rideau Canal and the Thousand Islands, gateway to the St. Lawrence. It is also, home port for the Canadian Empress, a diesel-driven modern version of an old river steamer that carries sixty-six passengers on trips of various lengths along the river. Many of these passengers, both American and Canadian, arrived an hour or so before departure. But I found Kingston worth at least a day’s exploration and am glad I planned for it.

At first an Iroquois encampment, then a French fort as early as 1673, Kingston grew as a military garrison, a naval base, and a shipbuilding center because of its strategic location, commanding both the upper St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario. During the War of 1812 the American general James Wilkinson took a look at this area and announced his plan to “step down the St. Lawrence; lock up the enemy in our rear to starve or surrender.… to sweep the St. Lawrence of armed craft; and in concert with the division of Major-General Hampton to take Montreal.” Former President Thomas Jefferson was just as confident. “The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec,” he affirmed, “will be a mere matter of marching. …” It wasn’t, of course, and today four round stone martello towers spaced along Kingston’s waterfront testify to those stormy times—and to some that came after.

Dating from the early 1800s, Fort Henry and Fort Frederick were built on nearby islands to withstand young America’s intentions. And two bronze markers in the graceful park that borders Kingston’s marina convey memories of other flashpoints. One commemorates the June 19, 1776, raising of the King’s Royal Regiment of New York on that spot. This became the largest loyalist corps in the region during the Revolution, eventually consisting of two battalions that conducted raids against settlements across the border in New York. After the war was lost, the Royal Regiment established a base in Kingston for the flood of loyalist settlers.

Near the waterfront’s Shoal Tower, a stern sculpture amid placidly bobbing pleasure craft, a second marker stands as a “reminder of less peaceful days along the Canadian-American border.” Specifically it notes the “threat of war in 1845” that pushed British military engineers to expand the city’s fortifications. The year 1845 drew a historical blank with me. Later I realized that the reference was to the Oregon boundary dispute, which a year earlier had provoked the American cry, “Fifty-four forty, or fight”—all that most of us recall of this episode.

Despite the blood and thunder, Kingston shouldn’t be considered a city always on the brink of war. With sixty thousand inhabitants, a major university, a wealth of Victorian architecture, a small lakeside beach in the heart of town, and several first-rate historical museums, it is framed in peaceable comfort.

No opportunity arose to linger, however, because the Canadian Empress sailed out smartly on schedule just before sunset on an October evening.

Pulling up the window shades the next morning revealed dozens of the more than thousand islands that give the region its name. On deck I admired the narrow, winding route called the Wanderer’s Channel, where one can almost reach out and touch tree-clad islands in all sizes and shapes. It was cold and brisk, and the trees were in full autumnal dress. The sky was clearing to the east, and across the horizon the islands seemed to form a single wall, scattering into separate shapes at our approach.

We later cruised past an even fancier neighborhood. The island domains of George Pullman, Helena Rubinstein, and John Jacob Astor reflect the days when the region was the resort of choice for wealthy Americans. Today part of the Thousand Islands is a Canadian historic park, while many of the islands are privately owned. Just two of the great mansions are open to the public, one as a religious center. The other is Boldt Castle, where we tied up. Left unfinished when the owner’s wife died in 1904 and deliberately preserved by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority as a romantic ruin, the castle receives thousands of visitors annually. By mid-October it had closed for the season but was opened specially for passengers of the Canadian Empress.

Each day the ship stopped for shore trips. At Fort Wellington, another reminder of 1812, Ron Dale, the chief historian, spoke so compellingly that he left the passengers discussing the cold, the filth, and the murk of the lives that he had summoned up.

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

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