Canada’s Magnificent “Moving Roadway”
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN CANADA
“What river is this?” “A river without end,” replied the native guide
THE year was 1535. Little did the inquiring explorer, Jacques Cartier, know that the waterway he was about to chart would one day be one of the most important in North America. This river came to be the first spacious “roadway” for early fur traders and colonists and eventually for modern-day giant ocean freighters. It is over 80 miles [130 km] wide at its mouth and extends inland some 745 miles [1,200 km] from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Ontario.
History books credit Cartier with naming this majestic waterway the St. Lawrence. Eventually, that name was applied both to the river and to the gulf at its entrance.
Some of North America’s most beautiful landscapes are found along the St. Lawrence River. Rocky cliffs and rugged valleys run down to the water to create one of the world’s longest fjords, the Saguenay Fjord, which spans almost 60 miles [100 km]. The mighty Saguenay River swirls into the St. Lawrence from the north to produce an estuary where the ocean tide mixes with the river’s flow.
It is here, marine biologists say, that two worlds meet beneath the surface. Cold, salty ocean water flows in through underwater channels as deep as 1,300 feet [400 m], then rises and mixes with fresh water from the rivers. Marine life flourishes in this estuary. Relatively close together are belugas (small white whales), minke whales, fin whales, and gigantic blue whales. Usually these four types of whales live hundreds of miles apart. No wonder more than 70,000 tourists took whale-watching trips on the St. Lawrence in one recent year.
The combination of plants, animals, and birds along the river is one of the most unusual on earth. There are hundreds of species of fish, more than 20 types of amphibians and reptiles, and 12 kinds of marine mammals. Close to 300 bird species are said to frequent its marshes and shores. Migratory birds such as ducks and snow geese flock to these waters by the thousands.
Further upstream, tranquil blue-hued mountains rise beyond its shores. Dark forests line its banks. Stately islands stand watch in its broad channel. Farms, villages, and cities perch on its shores.
Inland from Montreal a series of rapids punctuate the river for a hundred miles [160 km]. Beyond the rapids, navigation becomes more leisurely through a 40-mile [60 km] stretch of water dotted with what are named the Thousand Islands (actually closer to two thousand in number).
Traffic on the “Roadway”
As early as 1680, European settlers talked of extending the “roadway” to ocean traffic beyond Montreal by means of canals to get around the rapids. Nearly 300 years later, the dream was fulfilled with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959. It is hailed as one of the world’s great engineering accomplishments.
To complete this 182-mile [293 km] stretch of waterway, seven new locks were built between Montreal and Lake Ontario. This required the excavation of more than 200 million cubic yards [150 million cu m] of earth and rock that if evenly piled on a football field, would create a mountain over 22 miles [35 km] high. The amount of concrete used in the locks could build a four-lane highway between London and Rome.
Jacques LesStrang, author of Seaway—The Untold Story of North America’s Fourth Seacoast, quoted a sea captain who said: “There is no waterway like it in the whole world. It’s no easy traffic, but the grandeur of the river, the roaring of Niagara Falls, the endless chain of lakes and islands makes it highly attractive.”
Ocean ships that travel up the extended “roadway” to Duluth-Superior on the United States side of Lake Superior make an elevatorlike climb to 600 feet [180 m] above sea level, the height of a 60-story skyscraper. The total journey inland is 2,300 miles [3,700 km] from the Atlantic Ocean.
Such sea traffic has brought commercial prosperity to cities along the route. The book The Great Lakes/St. Lawrence System comments: “Within its bi-national boundaries lie the industrial heartland of both Canada and the United States, population densities in excess of 100 million and the single largest source of industrial and manufacturing wealth in the western world.”
Among the more than 150 ports that line the waterway from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Superior are (in Canada) Quebec City, Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, Sault Sainte Marie, and Thunder Bay and (in the United States) Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and Duluth-Superior. Ships from Casablanca, Le Havre, Rotterdam, and elsewhere transport millions of tons of cargo on the St. Lawrence each year. Use of the “roadway” generates tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue each year.
Cries of Alarm
However, after more than 30 years of navigation on this “roadway,” cries of alarm have been sounded. For centuries the St. Lawrence River along with its Great Lakes reservoir “has been used as a sewer and a dump,” maintains Environment Canada. The “Great River” could handle it, until recently.
Large ocean freighters have voided their ballast in the freshwater lakes and the river. Industries and cities along the seaway have added toxic chemicals to the river. Agriculture has contributed its runoff. The cumulative effects have endangered the river.
As more pollutants poured into the river, species of fish gradually disappeared. In time swimming was prohibited. Then came bans on eating certain fish and shellfish. Drinking tap water taken from the river came into question. Certain types of wildlife became officially endangered. Dead belugas washed up on shore, victims of illnesses induced by poisons in the water.
Cleaning Up the “Roadway”
The river was sending a clear message. The magnificent “moving roadway” needed repairs. So in 1988 the Canadian government responded by launching the St. Lawrence Action Plan designed to clean up the river with a program of conservation, protection, and restoration, particularly from Montreal to the Atlantic Ocean.
There is now ongoing development of survival plans for endangered species. Conservation areas are being established to hold on to what remains. The innovative Saguenay Marine Park, where the Saguenay River meets the St. Lawrence, was established to preserve the exceptional marine environment and wildlife.
New rules were established. Industries were given target dates to reduce river pollutants by 90 percent. New technologies are being developed to reduce pollution. Sites contaminated by toxic substances in river sediment or from dredging are being cleaned up. In some areas new wildlife habitats are to be established along the shores using treated sediments. Measures are being taken to control the number and movement of the thousands of tourists who come every year to view the river.
The damage can be reversed. For one thing, unlike man-made roadways, the river will repair itself if people stop polluting it. The greatest need is to change the attitude of both industrialists and ordinary consumers, those who benefit from the commerce generated along the river and the Great Lakes.
One indication of success in reversing the deterioration is the beluga whale. Although still endangered, belugas are making a comeback after having dropped from 5,000 to only about 500.
There is new public awareness of the damage that has been done to the natural richness of the river and its past glory. Will this appreciation be strong enough to sustain restoration efforts in the future? It will, when human creatures respect and appreciate God’s creations.
[Picture Credit Line on page 20]
Courtesy of The St. Lawrence Seaway Authority