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Along the Richelieu II: Saint-Jean

September 23, 2009

As the last entry ended, we had just arrived in Iberville…

Iberville, which we are still in, is a relatively small town: before it was merged to Saint-Jean, it had less than ten thousand inhabitants, about half the size of even Beloeil.
The Road goes ever on: the Route Verte, somewhere between Ottawa and the Gaspe Peninsula

The Road goes ever on: the Route Verte, somewhere between Ottawa and the Gaspe Peninsula

This would be the point where we begin seeing dozens of posters all around the town announcing the local hot air balloon festival, which happens every year at this time of the year, that is, the second week of august. (Something I should have known very well: I used to come here every year with my grandparents as a kid. Then I would go back home, cut myself two-dimensional drawings of hot air balloons (meticulous copies of those in the yearly guidebook from the festival, of course!) out of paper, and play at hot air balloons festival with them. My grandmother told me she still has several of those cut-outs. I should have known the festival would be this week, but it completely slipped my mind. Fortunately, I went with Saint-Jean anyway!).

Well, of course this calls for staying in or around town long enough to actually see the festival. This results in a change of plan. The idea of making it to Missisquoi Bay is largely questionable now – we might not be back in time to see the show. The idea of turning back for Beloeil is, of course, right out of the question. That leaves wandering around Saint-Jean and its boroughs for a while…

Which is not exactly a problem: this is is a beautiful corner of Quebec, where the Richelieu once again begins to widen into what will eventually be Lake Champlain. Or where Lake Champlain narrows into what will become the Richelieu. Nobody is quite sure whether that body of water between Rouses Point, New York, and Saint-Jean is the Lake or the River (generally, Quebecers say river and New Yorkers say lake. Wiki says lake, but that’s because it’s written by the aforementioned New Yorkers moreso than by the Quebecers).

I'm not actually sure what to call this. Lake Richelieu? River Champlain?

Not sure what to call this. Lake Richelieu? River Champlain? Big place with water?

Somehow, it still manages to be better equipped, park-wise, than Beloeil. Here, for example, there are riverside squares adorned with statues of important people, or long narrow parks along the biking paths of Quebec’s Route Verte (Green Way), a cycling network (the cycling network, as in most beautiful/#1, per National Geographic). One day, perhaps, we’ll tackle the particular challenge of the route that run to Iberville, but there is no time for that today: this is a road, in Tolkien’s immortal words, that goes ever on. If we were to let it carry us, it could take us west all the way to Ottawa (well, Gatineau, which is the city on the Quebec side of the border); eastward, it stretches on and on, past the shadow of Mount Orford, to Quebec City and beyond still, to strange lands and stranger sights, a thousand kilometers away and beyond.

Park in Iberville, along Route 2 the Green Route, Québec's cycling routes network

The Road goes ever on: the Route Verte, somewhere between Ottawa and the Gaspe Peninsula

Iberville, though, remains largely a small town – lots of housing development, a few small businesses. There is relatively little (besides the parks) to see here, although the parks, as I already noted, are pretty cool.

On the other hand, there’s Saint-Jean on the other side, and that’s another ballgame entirely. Saint-Jean is empathically not a small town, and emphatically not a place for typical housing developments. It’s a city that’s been around as a city for a while (nowhere near Quebec or Montreal, but still), and it shows in the sort of mood and architecture one find in town (eg, not endless hordes of suburbanite houses).

A street in Downtown Saint-Jean

A street in Downtown Saint-Jean.

Saint-Jean is, ultimately, a town that’s always been about the river. The first settlements here (well, European ones)  were forts built to protect the French colony from attacks by Iroquois (and later, English) along the Hudson/Lake Champlain/Richelieu route. Later on, the city developped largely because it was the commercial port at the northern end of Lake Champlain, and a cornerstore of trade between Canada and the United States, all the more so after a canal was built to avoid the rapids of the Richelieu River, between Chambly and Saint-Jean. There is still a large Customs building alongside the river (despite that we are more than twenty miles from the border in a straight line), and ships flying the Star and Stripes are not uncommon at the riverside docks in Saint-Jean.

(Saint-Jean is of some interest to space opera and naval history fans, because the history of one of the most famous names in both fields began here, when Benedict Arnold raided the place in 1775, and captured a sloop that had been built there, the George. He renamed it, and the name he used since went on to be given to the most famous world war two carrier, the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, a space shuttle (minus the USS prefix), and a huge lot of fictional starships…don’t think there’s any plaque or marker in town, though).

Downtown Saint-Jean, seen across the Chambly Canal

Downtown Saint-Jean, seen across the Canal

Wandering through the town, there are lots of early XXth century building (or thereabout); Saint-Jean was an industrial town (and there’s an enormous closed factory along the railroad that bear mute testimony to this, but though I thought I had taken a picture, it seems I did not).

There are also parks, of course – the Canal itself is now the site of a historic park, but there are quite a few others, among the streets and along the river. They provide good places to rest one’s leg after fifty kilometeres (or so) of biking.

One of the parks of Saint-Jean.

One of the parks of Saint-Jean.

Wandering through the canal and the narrow streets, the time fly by. It’s not long (or at least it doesn’t appear long) before the sky begin to fill with colorful toys (which is another stroke of luck: it takes fairly specific weather for the balloons to fly – enough wind but not too much, a clear sky, etc). There’s only a few at first, five or six, the first ones to rise. That doesn’t last long; this is a fairly large festival, though not quite so large as I remember it from my childhood.

A flight of hot air balloons seem over (and on) the Chambly Canal)

A flight of hot air balloons seem over (and on) the Chambly Canal)

Some of the flyers apparently know there are people on the shores of the river and by the Canal watching, and amuse themselves by doing low altitude pass over the river to say hello, too. (that, or else they’re having trouble actually staying in the sky). One of them, a “special shape” (as I used to call them. Though come to think of it, I think that’s how they’re actually called), pass very, very close to the shores of the canal.

Why, hello there!

Why, hello there!

The balloons only remain there for what feels like a fleeting moment; it’s not long before they vanish over the river to the east.

Which means it’s beginning to get late, and though it’s still summer, and an hour or more to sundown, it’s time to turn back toward Beloeil, since that’s at least two or three hours away, perhaps even more. So, we turn back toward the Chambly canal. It has a biking trail stretching all the way from the bridge in Saint-Jean to the old town of Chambly; that’s where we’re going now.

The Chambly Canal

The Chambly Canal

What comes next is a long trail. There is little to say of it: the canal to the left, the river (sometime) to the right, the trees, the occasional locks of the canal, and the plains stretching to the west on the other side of the canal is all there is to the world. The sky begins to turn shades of orange and darker blues, as skies tend to do at this time of the day, and, long before we’ve left the canal trail, sunset comes, and with it, twilight, (and the last of my pictures).

Twilight descends on the Chambly Canal.

Twilight descends on the Chambly Canal.

The reminder of the road is in darkness, and there is little that can be said of it. It’s the most trying part of the road, particularly past Chambly, where the riverside road becomes narrow, and poorly lit (not to say entirely unlit in parts) for the immense stretch from Carignan just north of Chambly to McMasterville, just south of Beloeil. (This would also be the part where I’m thirty and hungry, because I don’t have my wallet and therefore my money with me, so I have to make-do with what water fountains I’ve found).

And then, it’s the return to Beloeil and its familiar streets.

Until next time!

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