It’s a beautiful summer day and I’m paddling my little kayak right down the main channel of the St. Lawrence Seaway. This moment, I have it all to myself--there’s a lighthouse just off my bow, and not a big ship in sight. And that’s good because today I’ve come to explore sort of a different side of this river, the side that existed for thousands of years before people started transforming the St. Lawrence.
I make my way slowly around Wellesley Island and soon I come across a delicate little marsh filled with birds. There’s a red-wing black-bird. Their little chevrons are just the reddest red you can imagine.
The truth, of course, is that the human footprint here is enormous and pervasive, from the big freighters that rumble past to the vacation cottages crowded on shore. In one bay, I pull up my kayak paddle and find it snared by a tangle of bright green weeds that shouldn’t be there. I see thick mats of an invasive plant called Eurasian water milfoil. It grows everywhere and squeezes out all the native plants. Invasive plants and animals that we brought here have literally changed the chemistry and the food chain of the St. Lawrence.
Scientists say the fact that the river level no longer fluctuates naturally has also damaged habitat along the shore. But for all that, I still catch glimpses of what this place must have looked like when the first European traders and explorers paddled their canoes upriver a couple of centuries ago. I’ve come across an osprey nest up in a white pine. I can see the mother osprey right now watching over her chicks and little osprey heads poke up out of the nest. A few minutes after that encounter, I’m sitting at the edge of another grassy marsh and an entire flotilla of baby Canada geese fumble right by my boat--so close I could pluck them out of the water.
Not all the wildness on the seaway comes in these small packages.This is a massive river that drains half a continent. Late in the afternoon I start to paddle for home. I find myself in a cut between two rocky islands where the current surges, throwing waves over my bow and tugging me away downriver. Now in this big seaway, the kayak I’m in feels pretty small.
Because we use these big rivers as highways and industrial sites, it’s easy to start thinking of them like that. All the policy debates and the talk about plumbing and engineering and commerce can sort of eclipse the fact that the St. Lawrence is still alive and powerful--and at least in places remarkably wild.