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Along the Richelieu I: Up the River

September 23, 2009

Well, since there is nothing new in my life, I figure I’ll put out yet another tale of places I’ve been to. Closer to home, this time: a lengthy bike ride up the Richelieu river (that is to say, south, since the Richelieu flows northward), to the Chambly basin and Saint-Jean.

(I’d write the tale of my trip to Arkansas, but the fact is, I didn’t yet have my digital camera back then, only a throw-away cam, and I just don’t have the pictures to illustrate this. For the foreseeable future, local stories are more likely, but I do intend to return to Fayetteville someday!).

This trip up the Richelieu was a largely unplanned thing. Initially, I just intended to bike around Beloeil and Mont-Saint-Hilaire (and maybe Otterburn Park: just some fun riding around, nothing complicated. Certainly not a long ride. (Note for below: I’m using “we” because I’m taking you on this journey via the photos and text. At least that’s the general idea. NOT out of any desire to use the royal we!)

We, of course, starts our journey in Beloeil (because, see, that’s where I live). Of course, arguably the best place to wander in any of these towns is down the various riverside roads. They’re not the only part of each town that’s pretty (Although in the case of Beloeil…), but they’re pretty much the prettiest: lots of trees and shade. Our wandering through the streets of Beloeil and Saint-Hilaire we don’t pay much attention too (because I’m keeping that in reserve for another post, later!), but eventually we make our way to the riverside road in Mont Saint-Hilaire and Otterburn Park, the Chemin des Patriotes (eng: Patriots Way), so named because it pass through most of the villages that saw the greatest part of the Patriotes rebellion against the British in 1837 (but we won’t, because those villages are down the Richelieu, not up!).  Most every town in the region has a monument to its native sons who fought and died in the battles of the rebellion; the one in Beloeil, for example, list their names, along with a statement that read (translated) “Defeated in battle, but vindicated in History”.

Riverside monument in Saint-Hilaire. The text read "In memory of the Patriots of Saint-Hilaire, 1837"

Monument in Saint-Hilaire. The text read "In memory of the Patriots of Saint-Hilaire, 1837"

Beyond Otterburn Park, the road stretch on invitingly along the Richelieu, and the day is still young. We head on, down toward the next village south, Saint-Mathias.

Unlike Otterburn/Saint-Hilaire/Beloeil/McMasterville, which are to all practical purpose the same urban agglomeration, where going from one of them to the other largely involves walking across a street or river, Saint-Mathias is a very distinct town, surrounded by a few miles of open farmland in every direction. From Otterburn Park, it’s a good four miles through the countryside, along a road lined with farmsteads (and some country houses, mostly between road and river). To the east (the river being west), it’s a long, stretching plain, broken only by the occasional summit of the Monteregian hills.

The typical roadside sight.

The plains, with Mount Saint-Hilaire in the background.

Great stalks (corn, wheat? I’m not sure. I know we grow a lot of corn in the region, but what each farm grows…) line the road for much of the distance, with the occasional barn (or former-barn-that-is-now-a-shed, as the case may be) rising out of the sea of stalks. There aren’t many farm animals in this part of the world (which is a little surprising: dairy farms are reportedly by far the most common in Quebec). The one exception is a pair of sheep, who try hard to pretend they’re cows and we’re a train by the expedient of watching us intently, before resuming their sheeply activities (which, it seems, consist largely of starring at the river. It occurs to me that sheep life appears extraordinarily simple. Also boring.).

Baaaaaah. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Baaaaaah. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

The river is already fairly wide here: no Saint-Lawrence wide or Mississippi, (of course), but still several hundred feet across at least. As we go further south, however, it only gets wider, until, past a recent (and utterly boring) housing development or two, it flares out into an immense basin – a lake, really. It’s the Chambly basin, where the Richelieu meet both of its major tributaries, the Rivières des Hurons (on the eastern side) and the Rivière Acadie (on the western side). To the south, where the basin narrows back into the Richelieu, is the town of Chambly; along the shores you also have the town of Richelieu (directly across from Chambly), Carignan (north of Chambly on the western shore of the basin) and Saint-Mathias.

The Chambly Basin, looking from St-Mathias toward Chambly.

The Chambly Basin, looking from St-Mathias toward Chambly.

The village of Saint-Mathias proper is here, along the shores of the basin (and by a very nice riverside park. Not something the generations of pencil-pushers that have (mis)managed Beloeil would have bothered with, really).

It’s an old village, or small town, in the Québec style, centered on the roman Catholic church that gave its name to the parish and then the town. (I’m not going to picture the church here; that’s because I have some plans involving my shots of churches, especially Catholic churches, all around the region. One of these days, I intend to write up something on the landscape and architectural legacy of Catholicism in Quebec). Most old French-Canadian (Yes, I’m using it. Why not? There were, and still are (among the older generations especially) people who identify as such, and they have every right to do so. It’s me I don’t want called French-Canadian, not them) villages are rather like that, and, in the region, most of them have the same old stone houses with metallic roofs, too.

Old Saint-Mathias. Largely like Old Beloeil, but with less bloated suburbia around it.

Old Saint-Mathias. Probably what Beloeil looked like, before it caught acute suburban bloating.

The question then becomes, once again, where to? We need to cross the Richelieu again in any event to return to Beloeil, and there are relatively few bridges across the river: excluding expressways and railways (which are not bike-friendly), there are five bridges across the entire lengths of the Richelieu; the closest are back in Beloeil, and in Chambly. Beyond those are the bridge at Saint-Jean sur Richelieu (twenty kilometers to the south), at Noyan (Sixty kilometers south) and at Sorel (seventy kilometers north). Of course, given it’s still early, and it would be nice to see more, the southern bridge in Chambly is much more interesting. And who knows, there’s nothing that say we have to stop in Chambly, is there?

So we press on past Saint-Mathias, and over a narrow bridge across the Rivière des Hurons. (For those of you who have read the Saint-Hilaire article, the waters of Mont Saint-Hilaire and Lake Hertel drains in this river).

The Rivières des Hurons

The Rivières des Hurons

Needless to say, once we reach the bridge, it’s still very early in the day. And, for once, ther eis almost no headwind in any direaction, making it a wonderful day for biking…and, therefore, a shame to stop now. Why stop here, when we could instead press on at least to Saint-Jean (a town I used to love in my childhood, for reasons that I will discuss later due to a wonderful stroke of luck on timing). Perhaps we could even press further: to Venise-en-Québec (Venice-in-Quebec), at the mouth of Missisquoi bay, the one part of Lake Champlain that’s in Quebec, or maybe even all the way to the American border (but not any further, for want of passport).

So press on we do, still along the Richelieu. It changes noticeably here: no longer a wide and deep river (to say nothing of the basin), the Richelieu that runs besides us now is a roaring river, foaming white as it hurl pasts long stretches of rapids.

Not the best part of the rapids, but the best I could manage from the main east-side road

Not the best part of the rapids, but the best I could manage from the main east-side road

The landscape, too, change as we move further south. We are still in the plain, but where, further north, the plain was dominated by the Monteregian Hills of Saint-Hilaire, Rougemont and Saint-Bruno, all broad-shouldered, and the first two relatively high, here there’s almost nothing. Almost, of course; in the distance we can see a single hill, standing solitary in the plain. It’s not a big hill like the others: in fact, it’s the smallest and tiniest of the Monteregians, and it certainly does not dominate.

Saint-Grégoire, seen from the road.

Saint-Grégoire, seen from the road.

An oddity that begins to develop around here, as we get closer to the border (and that I have no picture of) is that, in addition to the occasional Quebec flag floating above a house or building, and the occasional-er Canada flag, we now have the occasional-est Star and Stripes, too. Not so odd when one thinks about it: the Richelieu-Lake Champlain-Lake Georges-Hudson River axis was for a very long time the main road between New France/Canada and the English Colonies/United States, and the closer we are to the border, the more it shows.

It’s not long now, before we get out of the farmlands, and into a town: this is Iberville. Or rather, this was the town of Iberville: now it’s the Iberville borough of the city of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.Either way, we are in Iberville.

Of which I will say more in the next installment…

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