It was sunny on August 17th when we departed Montreal for the thirty-seven mile trip down the St. Lawrence River to Sorel-Tracy. There we would turn south on the Richelieu River, and Mandala would finally have her bow pointed toward home.
There was no directional sign at the mouth of the Richelieu! When we arrived, there was only what appeared to be a small basin at that location, with a freighter tied to a quay and a dilapidated old seawall on the opposite side of the channel. We cruised by, undecided, before turning back to poke our bow in to explore. Sure enough, a narrow channel led under a couple of bridges, and soon we were in rural suburbs with manicured lawns reaching down to the banks.
The tranquil scenery lulled us into complacency, and we lost a chart overboard to a sudden gust of breeze. We fished it out with a boathook and laid it on a cockpit seat to dry: wrinkled but useable. Eight miles farther up river, we secured for the night at Marina Camping Parc Bellerive, where we enjoyed small pork steaks from the grille.
The next morning, we started learning French in earnest by stumbling our way through the breakfast menu at the marina’s small café before ordering oeufs (eggs) and jambon (ham). We transited the Saint-Ours Lock several miles upstream and continued our trip past a number of small country villages, each with its own distinctive church spire rising above the riverbank. At St-Charles-sur-Richelieu, we docked near a small cable ferry landing where we found the advertised restaurant closed and no other eateries available in the small town. We moved on to Beloeil where a courtesy dock was provided and by mid-afternoon, we were enjoying an outdoor patio lunch of grilled chicken wraps with fresh salad.
Half an hour after leaving, a sudden crunching noise told me we had found a rock or some other unmarked obstruction in the channel where there should have been only deep water. I quickly jerked the tiller to one side, and we managed to bounce away without grounding solidly. But what was the damage? I handed over the helm and went below to check the bilge areas for any visible holes or water coming into the boat. This required a frenetic search past the items stowed in the bilges, which were hastily thrown aside wherever there was space above the floorboards. We seemed to be watertight, or at least not in any danger of flooding. But caution dictated an hourly check of the bilge areas as we moved on to the picturesque Chambly Basin where we would spend the late afternoon and evening walking around historic Fort Chambly and watching the sun set over yet another church spire. Another mixed day of comfort and crisis had passed below the keel.
The following day we began the ten- mile Chambly Canal with its nine locks and series of low swing bridges. Most of these obstructions were hand-operated by the attendants who turned large wheels to open the gates, or stopped traffic for our passage through an open bridge. A bicycle path followed the canal on each side. At each lock, we found bicyclists who had stopped to watch and ask questions about our voyage, as we were lifted in the locks.
At Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, we exited the canal by gingerly sliding under an unopened, bridge a mere eight feet off the water. Although relatively sure we had several feet to spare, the clearance appeared to be less than indicated during those last couple of feet before going under! A few onlookers watched each boat’s passing, no doubt anticipating that one would eventually become stuck. We passed the practical examination and again stopped at the courtesy dock for some lunch and a walk before moving up river to find diesel at Marina Gagnon, about nine miles above the New York Border.
We decided to spend the night rather than risk the thunderstorms and larger waves predicted for Lake Champlain that night and the following morning. An afternoon clearing, the forecast for the following day, might make for a safer passage down the lake after the front passed over.
The following morning, we waited for the rain to stop and the sky to clear some before departing for the border under overcast skies. We managed to just make the bridge at Rouses Point before getting doused by a final scattered shower that created low visibility as we made our way back into the United States and cleared customs at a nearby marina, before setting off down the Lake at 3:00 p.m. into one to two foot waves still lingering after the storm.
The last fifty-mile leg was in many ways, the most enjoyable portion of our 550- mile voyage through nearly fifty locks, five canals, four inland lakes, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway. We were ever closer to home as we passed Isle La Motte, the ferry crossing at Cumberland Head, and motored past the eastern side of Valcour Island. As night fell, we glided quietly down the channel between the New York shoreline and Schuyler Island, picked our course into Willsboro Bay between the darkened masses of land on either side and slowly approached the marina. I used a spotlight to pick out the empty space promised us at the end of a dock, then switched it off and slowly steered us alongside the dock in the darkness as several people came out to help us secure the boat. We were home.
“That was really a great job,” said one dock helper, as I stepped off the boat.
“I’ve had a bit of practice,” I said, secretly enjoying the praise as I thanked him. But next year, I thought, like life itself, there will always be more adventure out there somewhere—just over the bow.