Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Friendly St. Lawrence

The St. Lawrence is one of North America's great rivers, but it's not easy to pin down. It grows gradually wider at its mouth and it's hard to say where the river finally ends and the Gulf of St. Lawrence begins. Upstream from the gulf, it passes the attractive French-speaking cities of Quebec and Montreal  and several impressive archipelagos of islands before arriving at Lake Ontario; the waterway continues to be navigable, in a manner of speaking, all the way to Duluth. It is with a degree of irrational pride that I can report that the "headwaters" of the St. Lawrence River watershed lies at Seven Beavers Lake, in a remote area of northern Minnesota southeast of Hibbing. The lake is accessible only by canoe or snowmobile.

No doubt more interesting than the boggy shoreline of Seven Beavers Lake is the civilized and picturesque section of the river that runs downstream from Montreal past Quebec and the Ile d'Orleans, the Saguaney Fjord, Tadoussac, and Trois Pistoles to the Gulf. It isn't muddy and confused like the Mississippi Delta, but expansive and sharply defined, due to the fact that it follows a rift between the Appalachian and Laurentian mountain ranges. Anacosti Island, lying beyond the horizon at the mouth of the gulf, is much larger than Prince Edward Island but only 240 people live on it. Most of them are lighthouse keepers.

From the wooden boardwalk in front of the Frontenac Hotel in Quebec City, the river looks truly expansive. Ferries are always visible moving commuters and tourists back and forth across the river from nearby Levis, and there is likely to be a cruise ship parked in the port down below.

As you wander the narrow streets of the upper city, the river is somehow always nearby, and down in the lower city it's often visible.

Hilary and I spent a full day of such wandering, but the next morning we left the city, heading upstream along the north bank of the St. Lawrence in search of her ancestors. Or at least, in search of the flavor of her ancestors.

I had my doubts about how much flavor had survived from the mid-seventeenth century, when Nicolas Sylvestre arrived as a soldier in Quebec City, served his term of duty, and received a strip of land facing on the St. Lawrence in nearby Neuville.  But once we'd threaded a few miles of suburbs on Highway 138, we found ourselves in a surprisingly pastoral setting, with old-fashioned stone buildings set back from the narrow two-lane highway here and there, and the broad expanse of the river, still more than a mile wide in many places, in plain view to the south intermittently through the trees.

The town of Neuville itself is a very loose conurbation. Though it has a gas station and a community center, its most prominent features are a marina along the river and a large stone church halfway up the hill. There wasn't much going on at the marina, and the church was locked. A Victorian-era house with a big front porch stood nearby, which I took to be a rectory of some sort, though as we approached it I saw a sign that said Bibliotech. Just as I was climbing the steps onto the porch to peer into one of the windows a woman emerged from the front door.

"Parle vous Anglais?" I said. (It's my best line.)

"Yes," the woman replied. "In fact, I'm teaching an English class inside right now. It's the first lesson. Would you two like to join us?"

We went inside and were greeted by eight or ten of the most cheerful faces I had ever seen. We told them that we were tourists from Minneapolis (basically just across the border from Winnipeg, donja know?) and Hilary explained that one of her distant ancestors had been given a grant of land in Neuville after serving with the Carignan-Salières Regiment back in the mid-seventeenth century.

He arrived on the second ship, not the first ship, Hilary mentioned.

"Oh, that was the Atalante," one of the women replied. (These folks evidently know their local history.)

As we chatted I became increasingly curious about who these bubbly people were, and I asked them finally if they'd each tell us briefly what they did for a living. I had imagined the community would be populated with farmers and merchants, but that was not the case: psychologist, parole officer, social worker, elementary school teacher, electrical engineer. One woman identified herself as a secretary, but her neighbor corrected her. "She's just being modest. She's the secretary of the Quebec Provincial Court."

We made our exit in a haze of good cheer, urging everyone to put Minnesota on their list of travel destinations—"It's just like here...but without the grand river, the gorgeous mountains, or the 300-year-old walled city"—and continued our way upstream.

To judge from all the exposed rocks and sand on the bank, the river is still tidal at this point. (Or perhaps the water level was just low due to the dry season.) We briefly explored a spit of land near Portnuef identified as a "site ornithologique" but saw few birds, and we spent some time wandering an antique church in the quaint village of Deschambault, where an art crawl was also underway devoted to aspects of flax and linen production.

But we didn't dally, because we were intent on reaching the village of Saint Barthélemy, which lies well back from the river on the far side of the city of Trois Rivière. That's the village from which Hilary's great-grandfather departed on a journey west to Crookston, with a winter stop in the lumber camps near Brule, Wisconsin. Isiah came from a large Catholic family, but he was the only one of his generation who emigrated, and Hilary's dad and uncle had always wondered why. After visiting the village, the reasonable answer would seem to be, "Why not?"

There isn't much in Saint Barthélemy, aside from a large church, a robust grocery store, a shady town square, and an antique store with old bicycles and oil drums spread across the front porch. The village sits in the midst of flat fields, and there doesn't seem to be much of a reason for it to be there, other than the fact that it lies on the Chemin du Roi—the "royal road" connecting Quebec City and Montreal that was built between 1731 and 1737. The Chemin du Roi is a sort of  Canadian Route 66, though it's only 170 miles long. There are signs here and there all along Highway 138 pointing travelers down narrow back roads that follow the original trace more closely than the highway does. It's become a tourist route, complete with visitors' center, historic signs, and a website.

We stopped in the grocery store hoping to buy some gas for our camp store, and I asked the woman at the cash register if she knew of anyone thereabouts named Sylvestre. She summoned the butcher from the back of the store; his mother was from Miami and he'd worked for three years in Brooklyn.

"I know of one Sylvestre. He owns a bar in St. Barnaby. But let me ask the women. They know everyone around here." A brief conversation ensued in French, after which the butcher said, "They tell me that long ago a man named Sylvestre once owned a store that stood right on this very spot."


At the antique store we got a different response. When I inquired about the name Sylvestre, the man replied, "Which one? They're all over the place!" Hilary showed him a list of family names, but they were all about a hundred years old, and none of them rang a bell.

The important thing was that a village which had previously been nothing more than a name in a data base had now become a place with streets, businesses, inhabitants, and a distinctive character.

It was late afternoon by the time we got on the freeway and headed north into the mountains. And hour later we arrived at the ranger station in La Mauricie National Park—just in time to secure a campsite and, more importantly, buy a bundle of firewood before the park closed for the day. We visited some lovely lakes and chatted at length with a man who'd been out all day in his hand-made canoe looking for moose.

"I have seen many many moose, but not today.  I look, I look, I look, I look. But I no see a moose."

I told him we have moose in Minnesota, too, and also lots of canoes.

"What kind of canoe?" he asked.

"Ours is aluminum," I said.

"Ah, yes. But the wood canoe is better. It makes ... the music ... of the water."

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