On entering the St. Lawrence estuary from west to east, that no-man’s-land where the fresh meets the brine, you will immediately become aware of the tide. If it is with you (the ebb), your passage will be swift, if against (the flood), a slog. As the river widens into the Gulf, the texture and appearance of the water will change. The ship’s wash will become frothier than it is on the lakes and the caps of the abundant waves, foamier, fuller and whiter. Even if its an unseasonably warm November, (it is), and you were wearing a t-shirt yesterday (you were), be aware the temperature will drop for each eastward mile you make, so that by the time you pass Escoumin it will be hovering just above zero. It will be impossible for you not to notice the Laurentian Mountain range on the port side. It’s rolling drumlins dwarf any vessel sailing close to the north shore. There are villages nestled in the clefts of those bosomy peaks. At night you will see them from a great distance. They’ll appear as clusters of white and yellow lights in all the darkness. If you are lucky, you might see dolphins and whales; beluga, blue, humpback and minke. Look out for their blown spume, their slick blue/black forms cutting the sea’s surface, their polished, mighty bodies leaping from the waves; but be alert, blink and you might miss them. If you’re seeing all this for the first time you might feel a stab in your chest. Don’t be alarmed. This is just the quiet violence that such moments are apt to exert. If you are a religious person, you might be tempted to invoke your maker. If you are not, but like me, a reader of books, predisposed to poetic gesture and grand turns of phrase, you may utter or simply think,
‘O Heart. O my heart.’
Over the past nearly 30 years (30 years!) I have up and downed and been all around the St. Lawrence river and the Gulf on vessels of all size, description and utility. Many of the French names of these cities and small towns are familiar, having stopped at some of them for weather, provisioning, rest, festivals and the discharge and loading of cargo. Such memories.
-Riviere Du Loup, where at 18, one could legally buy beer. And I did. And where two of our party, quite drunk, jumped into the freezing Harbour waters in October. They sobered up immediately.
-Anticosti Island, where the deer were plentiful as squirrels and a glance in any direction could not help but reveal at least one.
-Matane, where I helped a friend build a cabin in the woods near the shore. We slept in tents and as I lay awake at night in my sleeping bag I could hear the tread of bigger mammals than me.
-Havre-Saint-Pierre, where I happened to be quite in love with a girl I was sailing with and where I shot some of the best pool of my life at a bar while a husband-and-wife duo sang jaunty French folk songs. We walked back to the ship, she and I, just the right kind of tipsy. My arm around her waist, her arm around mine. When she laughed, and she did often, she would tip her head back, lean into my arms and go BAHAHA at the stars.
We are returning from Port Cartier, a port west of Sept-Iles that lies on the north shore of the gulf of St. Lawrence. The port was constructed by the Quebec Cartier Mining Company in 1958 and has become a major hub for ocean going vessels collecting iron ore or grain. But while a common destination for ‘salties’, trips out here for us are rare. The town is also home to a maximum-security prison where a veritable who’s who of Canadian villainy are incarcerated. Paul Bernardo, Russell Williams and Robert Pickton are all there.
A round trip from Hamilton, Ontario to Port Cartier without delays (and there are always delays) takes up a goodly portion of my month-long rotation and makes for a change to the normal, quick pace of the Great Lakes’ northern routes.
Last night I wore long johns for the first time this season and bundled up, layer upon layer. It was only 4˚C but with the wind it felt much colder. I hustled up and down the deck to stay warm and then sought shelter in the heated control room up forward where Fitzy, the mate of the watch, was sat staring at a computer screen, controlling with the click of a mouse, the rate and volume at which our cargo of soybeans was being discharged.
As you begin the journey back upriver into a strengthening gale, keep an eye out for whales. On the southern horizon you will be able to make out the Appalachian Mountain range. Perhaps it is the eve of another birthday which makes it all the more important to acknowledge moments such as these. Steal yourself away. Go outside and breathe in the ocean air. Dab a finger on the rail. Put it to your mouth. Taste that salt. Accept this as an early birthday gift and take note because who knows when or if you’ll get the chance to pass this way again.
And on the starboard side of the vessel, again you’ll see the Laurentian Mountains. Trace their cursive line of profile one more time. Look at how they gently lope along like the erratic EKG of your aging, restless heart.