Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 14, 2009

The St. Lawrence: A River Through Time

The water road to the interior of a continent

It is a magnificent river of life, born in a distant time, enduring, and abundant. The First Nations people called it Magtogoek; and the spirit of the mighty St. Lawrence still continues to nourish and replenish the life of an entire continent.

As the city of Québec celebrates its 400th anniversary, the river is a constant in the festivities, as it has been throughout time. Timeless, diversified, and in ways ethereal, the mighty St. Lawrence is always at the heart of the story.

For a geographical and continental perspective on the St. Lawrence, click here.

A force to be reckoned with

With the dimensions of a great sea, the St. Lawrence is a times powerful, tranquil, and seemingly inexhaustible as it flows from the interior of the North American continent to the Atlantic Ocean. Like all great rivers of the world, it has given birth to a civilization and our contemporary North American culture. Populations have grown up along its shores; almost 70 per cent of the population of Québec lives on the banks of the St. Lawrence, and half of these people draw their drinking water from it.

With the Great Lakes from which it springs and the Gulf of St. Lawrence into which it empties, the St. Lawrence touches a population of nearly 70 million people between Canada and the United States and forms a large part of what once was called the longest undefended border in the world.

An immense, and often daunting, navigational system, The St. Lawrence Waterway penetrates the heart of the continent stretching almost 4000 kilometres inland.

And in a practical sense it is many rivers in one. The speed and heights of its tides and current are almost constant throughout the year. From Trois-Rivières to Québec City, the freshwater current reverses with the tides. Near the mouth of the Saguenay, the flow of freshwater mixes with salt water. Farther downstream in the Gulf, the Gaspé current flows along the south shore around the northern tip of Cape Breton Island to form the Nova Scotian Current.

This prodigious river route to the sea is the principal transportation route to “the world’s granary”: the Canadian Prairies and the American Midwest. The strength and force of its currents, its extensive river basin (1,000,000 square kilometres), and its length (3770 kilometres) make it one of the great natural phenomena of the world. Its average flow is 10,100 cubic metres per second, and its largest tributaries the Ottawa, the Saguenay, the Manicouagan, the Saint-Maurice, and the Richelieu have also contributed throughout time to the flow of human commerce and culture throughout Canada. It was also by way of these great secondary water routes that history flowed.

And on July 8, 1608, when Samuel de Champlain arrived at what today is Québec City, it was both a beginning and a continuation of a cultural evolution that transformed the planet.

“There is a French spirit in every Québecer, and a Québec dream in every French person. ” — French Prime Minister François Fillon


Like the waters that flow along its route, the St. Lawrence has witnessed the passage of time and the great geological moments of the North American continent. These geological events gave birth to the river itself, a river that, geologically, is considered relatively young. Like the human cultures that the Québec 400th celebrations honour, great forces shaped this river and the land through which it flows.

Five billion years ago the Earth was created. Shortly thereafter (3.2 billion years ago) the northern edge of the St. Lawrence (the Canadian Shield) was formed. In the Paleozoic Era prehistoric seas covered the St. Lawrence Valley, and then the waters receded leaving rich sediment and the geological structure of the valley as we know it today. Through “isostasis,” however the entire St. Lawrence area continued to shift, be shaped, and take form. One hundred million years ago the Montregian Hills (of which Mount Royal in Montréal is one) were formed by ignaeous intrusions.

And then the Earth’s climate began to cool. The era of the great glaciers had began. It was these great glaciers that would be the architects of the St. Lawrence Valley. During the last of four periods of glaciation — the Wisconsin — the lands north of the St. Lawrence Valley and to its southern regions were entirely covered with ice, alternately advancing and retreating, thus sculpting what would be one of the most beautiful geographical regions on the planet.

During a final geological exultation, the glaciers withdrew entirely flooding the Valley, although residual, obstinate ice would obstruct the valley near present-day Québec City. But this too would eventually relent, break up, and allow the ocean to rush in creating the Champlain Sea. However, as the lowlands rapidly rose in response to the retreating glaciers, the sea also withdrew and what essentially was then the St. Lawrence would continue to dig a channel through which massive amounts of freshwater from a single great lake in the interior would pour.

Between 6500 and 3000 years ago, the present-day course of the mighty St. Lawrence was established. Its time had come.

Magtogoek: the road that moves

Thousands of years before the “discovery” of the river by Jacques Cartier, the mythical river was an axis for aboriginal life and culture. For these First Peoples, a spirit world was at the core of human existence; the spirit or soul was not the exclusive property of humans but was also inherent in “inanimate” objects such as plants, fish, and rocks.

The mighty Magtogoek, engendered by five great interior “seas,” indeed had the qualities of a god. In their mythology, when the Great Spirit created the world, he dug the St. Lawrence riverbed with one finger nail. Later he asked one of his angels to decorate the land and waters he had created. Having completed his artistic task, the Great Spirit’s assistant angel found himself with a sack full of giant unsued rocks. As they were too heavy for his return trip to the heavens, he threw them into the St. Lawrence, thus creating a thousand islands.

By 1492, there were three main language groups living in the St. Lawrence region: Iroquoian, Algonquian, and Inuit. These first peoples were already integrated into this resource-rich ecosystem; it was they who knew the spirit river as Magtogoek. However, by the time Samuel de Champlain arrived at what today is Québec City (the name in the aboriginal language meant “where the river narrows”), most of the permanent First Nations settlements along the river had disappeared. Historians continue to debate why population shifts, migrations, and a sudden and dramatic change in lifestyle occurred at this time, but some speculate that the flourishing fur trade with Europeans pushed many of the aboriginal peoples into the interior of the continent in search of furs. And given the internal route that the St. Lawrence and its principal tributaries offered, human habitation and exploration flowed quickly throughout the entire continent.

Champlain’s challenge

At the beginning of the 17th century, it was the Hurons (from the Iroquoian language group) who controlled the fur trade, and Champlain found himself in a no-man’s-land and very quickly allied himself with the Hurons on Georgian Bay of Lake Huron a considerable distance to the interior of the continent, but an accessible region nonetheless and the point of departure for further exploration to the west.

Conflict and hostilities between most of the Amerindian groups in the interior were of course exacerbated by the presence of France and England in this “New World,” a complex struggle for dominance that would shape the history of the continent as did the great geological forces. Some historians speculate that if Champlain had not chosen to protect the Hurons against the Iroquois, he would not have pushed the latter nation into the English camp and France therefore would not have lost its new colony in the Americas, a colony by the way that stretched all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Although we are not sure exactly what Samuel de Champlain actually looked like, there are many images of him in Québec all of which show him in various stances and attitudes. My favourite, and I suspect it may also be that of many Québécois, is the image of him from the famous wall mural in the old port of Québec. He is shown here as a rather dapper chap who could well be en route to a party … perhaps a 400th anniversary.

The St. Lawrence ecosystem: from micro-organisms to human beings

It is the largest navigable waterway on Earth and also part of the largest body of precious freshwater on the planet. The river itself is an enormous ecosystem in which approximately 3000 animal and plant species live, supporting a fertile “new world” appropriate for human habitation, and the expansion of human culture.

The St. Lawrence, however, often has not been treated kindly by the generations that grew up living on, near, or from it. Although it is an immense ecosystem it is, like all ecosystems, fragile and subject to pollution and degradation in many forms. Unfortunately a number of species that once called the river home, have disappeared from these waters; and the toxins and chemicals that in the 20th and 21st centuries found their way into the river have contributed to a process known as bioamplication which increases the concentration of contaminants in organisms higher up the food chain. In this regard the beluga became the “poster child” for the campaign to return the river to a better state of health.

The result of environmentalist and conservationist studies and actions have resulted in The St. Lawrence Plan for a Sustainable Development 2005-2010. On this website you will find a wealth of additional information about this “world-class” river and why it is a unique and almost endless ecotourism destination.

Resources and the travel itinerary of a lifetime

(a) The official provincial website of Québec, Bonjour Québec (“providing emotions since 1534”) is a one-stop-shopping planner for multiple St. Lawrence travel itineraries.

To follow the flow of the St. Lawrence River through its immense valley, click here.

(b) To supplement your trip planning, St. Lawrence Touring also provides traveller-friendly resources and additional information.

(c) For those who are interested in the biological and environmental science of the great river The St. Lawrence Plan for a Sustainable Development 2005-2010 will give you important information.

(d) Some very special locations and stories in the St. Lawrence region can be found my clicking on the links below:

The Québec Maritime Museum

Located within easy driving distance of Québec city near the lovely town of Montmagny on the south shore of the river, this multimedia, archival, and open-air museum is a must see for anyone interested in maritime culture in general, wether it be the St. Lawrence or anywhere in the world.

Grosse Île: The Human Drama of 19th-Century Canadian Immigration

An excursion by boat to Grosse Île will give you a perspective on Canadian history, on immigration history in general, and wonderful views of the St. Lawrence.

See also:

Tourisme Chaudière-Appalaches

Québec is also un pays de villages and following the south shore of the mighty St. Lawrence to this region is heritage travel at its best.

Parc maritime de Saint-Laurent-de-l’Ile-d’Orléans

On the Île d’Oréans (the cradle of French civilization in the Americas), you will find a wonderful working museum that tells the story of boat building on the St. Lawrence and how this industry still plays an essential role in the world’s longest inland waterway.

Agritourism, Farmers in Chef Hats on Québec’s Ile d’Orléans

The Ile d’Orléans is also quintessential Québec from an agricultural point of view. If you love food and are interested in how the agricultural industry has always played a crucial role in human history, a tour de l’île is highly recommended. (See Julia Bayly’s review of the book by clicking here.)

The natural “network” of the St. Lawrence

The major tributaries and many other smaller rivers that join with the St. Lawrence create a wide expanse of natural spaces in which you can truly get away from the madding crowd. The following are especially recommended.

See also:

Tourisme Jacques-Cartier where adventure travel (soft and hard), ecotourism, birding, great water routes, and great getaways are very accessible.

(e) Hôtellerie Champêtre

This association of independently-owned and operated hotels is interesting in itself from a cultural design point of view; it is also an interesting business story and a travel industry role model. The French word champêtre evokes a rural setting (champ means field), however in terms of décor and design it also suggests earth tones, heritage architectural features, and an ambiance that is not over the top and unnecessarily chi chi. One feels quite at home at each property. Each establishment has a unique architecture and physical setting. And as gastronomical destinations in themselves, the three we stayed at on our recent visit to the St. Lawrence region (Manoir des Érables, Manoir du Lac-Delage, and Hôtel Royal William — the latter in the St. Roch area of Québec City which is being restored and is less touristy than other areas of Québec) were excellent points de départ for exploring the regions they are locate

The Mighty River, by Frédéric Back

Frédéric Back is one of Canada’s most celebrated film-makers. An artist whose works have won almost every award in the world of animation (his classic The Man Who Planted Trees won the Academy Award), he is also an environmentalist who embodies the principles and practices of ecologically sound lifestyles.

I was honoured and privileged to write the teacher’s guides for most of his films, including The Mighty River, a magnificent film that traces the history of the St. Lawrence River from its geological beginnings to modern times.

To watch this wonderful film in segments and to learn more about the river and the artist Frédéric Back, click here.


From CBC News Thursday, November 13, 2008

A map of Eastern Canada drawn by French explorer Samuel de Champlain has sold at auction for $286,570 Cdn, three times its estimated price.

Sotheby’s auction house in London said the work sold to a private collector, but did not give the home country of the new owner.

The rare map of the St. Lawrence River and Eastern Canada, including what is now Newfoundland, was originally estimated to sell for $75,000.

Drawn in 1612, it includes four figures of First Nations people, illustrations of fish, seals and vegetation the French explorer encountered on his voyage to the new world.

Sotheby’s called the map “the most important single map in the history of Canada” adding that Champlain had used it in a political struggle to get resources for further voyages and eventual settlement.

“Champlain is more than a cartographer,” said a Sotheby’s expert. “He is also Canada’s first exploration artist. The great map of 1612 shows for the first time the diversity of Canada ‘s wealth.”

By the time Champlain drew this map and wrote his Les voyages du Sieur de Champlain, he had explored the Fundy Coast, Cape Cod and the St. Lawrence region and established Quebec as the site of a settlement.

The London auction house said several bidders, calling in from different continents, bid up the price of the rare document.

Library and Archives Canada has a copy of the Champlain map, one of several copies that survived from a 1613 print run of his map and travel accounts.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: