Whatever the season, a day by the riverside is a perfect day. The riverside draws me, mesmerizes me, leaves me beyond words. When I am there, I make sure I have Dave Grusin on my Ipod and my Bose headphones. Dave Grusin, the world’s greatest jazz pianist and composer. I invariably start with his ‘Migration’ and go on to his ‘Old bones’.
Say Hi to the Saint Lawrence, the neatest, cleanest, prettiest river in the world.
Canada’s colonization began along the Saint Lawrence. It was at a time when folks were flocking east to get rich. The only hassle was that, in those creaky wooden galleons and caravels back in the 16th century, it took an awfully long time to get to Asia, the voyagers having to survive months on open waters, enduring typhoons, fighting off pirates, staving off mutiny and disease, with the chances of a safe return as low as 20-25%. In the 16th century, the Cape of Good Hope was anything but that.
But when did humans ever shy away from the daunting? They say that there’s a waiting list for the Mars trip that is already fifty pages long. 16th century European monarchs were obsessed and willing to fund attempts to discover a shorter route to the wealthy markets of Asia – the land of silk, spices, diamonds and gold. If you were an able mariner and you survived your voyages, you could die super-rich.
One such guy, a hardened Frenchman named Jacques Cartier (1491-1555), earned a commission from the French monarch, Francis-I, to explore a new direction to Asia, an effort that was becoming fashionable then – west, instead of east. Holding the view that the world was round, no longer meant that you might get drawn and quartered. If sailing east down the West African coastline and round the Cape of Good Hope took so long, surely the other way must be shorter, they figured.
It took three centuries more before that dream was realized – by Norwegian Roald Amundsen, in 1905, when he skirted the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, navigating the treacherous pack ice and opened up a route that came to be known as ‘The North-west Passage’. However, by then the Suez Canal was already fully operational and the Panama Canal was just a few years from completion. Skirting the Arctic hardly seemed attractive anymore.
Three centuries prior, Jacques Cartier became the first European to map the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the shores of the Saint Lawrence River, which he named ‘The Country of Canadas’, after the Iroquois names for the two big settlements he saw at Stadacona (Quebec City) and at Hochelaga (Montreal). The first thing he did when he set foot on land was drive a cross into the ground, claiming Canada for France.
In all, Cartier made three voyages up the Saint Lawrence, reaching up to Montreal, but he failed to set up a permanent settlement. The Iroquois and the Mohawks were a deadly force and no one in his crew wanted to face them alone on a daily basis in this strange land.
But things didn’t remain that way for long and a permanent outpost finally came up near Montreal when another Frenchman, a seasoned navigator, cartographer, draughtsman, soldier, explorer, geographer, ethnologist, diplomat, and chronicler, Samuel de Champlain, came over in the early 17th century. He named Canada ‘New France’ and founded Quebec City in 1608. Champlain is revered here in Quebec.
All those initial inroads into Canada wouldn’t have been possible had there not been this humongous river that began at the Lake Ontario and ran 1200km north till it discharged itself into the Atlantic.
Jacques Cartier named the river the ‘Saint Lawrence’ because he sailed into the estuary on Saint Lawrence Feast Day, the day of the martyrdom of a 3rd century AD Italian monk named Lawrence. You will find him in bas reliefs and frescos wearing a long-sleeved dalmatic and chained to a gridiron (BBQ grill) – the gridiron, because he was actually BBQed alive, for defying Rome.
The legend goes that in AD258, the Roman Emperor, Valerian, commenced a pogrom of persecution of the church, ordering that all men of the cloth be put to death immediately. Those days there was no Supreme Court to file an appeal.
Pope Sixtus was seized and executed. Believing that his own death was also imminent, Lawrence (who served as the Catholic Church’s treasurer and oversaw all the Church funds), threw open the Church coffers to the crippled and the poor.
When Valerian demanded the keys to the vaults, Lawrence presented them empty and you can imagine how that might have pissed the emperor off. Lawrence was burnt alive on a gridiron. Canonization followed. If you were a BBQed Catholic priest, canonization would be a sure thing.
That was way before the Catholic ‘men of cloth’ began banging little boys. They should bring back that gridiron now – to skewer errant Catholic balls.
I have formed a deep attachment with the Saint Lawrence over the eight years that I have lived right next to it. The attachment is an intense one, sometimes so intense that it brings tears to my eyes – of wonder and awe (and a little regret, that my late parents in my country of birth, India – river lovers both – never got the chance to sit by the river and enjoy its beauty up close).
Sometimes, when I’m staring out at the Saint Lawrence, I imagine how it must have looked, to the eyes of Jacques Cartier or Samuel Champlain – pristine and undulating. Here are some pics of her in winter and summer. They seem mighty pristine to me even now. I’ll add some more when the countryside turns bright orange in the fall.
The other day, a freshly-arrived-from-Florida Canada goose, waddled up to me and shook herself vigorously, sending a spray in my direction. Canada geese are incredibly daring and might barrel by you saucily, so close that it feels like you could reach out and grab one. She then tilted her head and let out a loud squawk, as if ta say, ‘Jeeze, the water’s great. C’mon, jump in with us.’ Had the waters not been cold, as they usually are all year round, I might have taken her up on that.
How did I know it was a she? With a fanny like that what do you think it was?