When Margaret first saw the bateau, she gasped in dismay. This was their “free” passage from Montreal to Kingston? The boat looked dangerously small and much less safe than she’d ever imagined, especially after being on a ship like the Tom Bowline. Yet taking this canoe-like contraption up the river was the only way to get to Uncle John and to their new home on Wolfe Island.
She grabbed James’s arm and whispered in his ear. “Ten days on that horrible boat? With no shelter from the hot sun? What about the children?”
“Hold fast, lamb,” James encouraged. “God be with us.”
James held her close as the family’s chest and crates and portmanteaus were loaded onto the bateau and secured in the middle of the boat. Then James guided her and the children as they boarded the forty-by-eight-foot, rough-hewn bateau.
Margaret surveyed her surroundings before sitting down. The boat’s bottom was planked and flat. That was good. And the bateau had a sail and gently sloping sides. But there was absolutely no shelter—and no railings—nothing to protect them. Nothing to hold them fast in the midst of a storm or in the deadly St. Lawrence rapids that she had heard fearsome tales about. And worst of all, there was no place for her children to safely stretch or move or even rest during the long days of travel up the great St. Lawrence River.
“This be worse than the ship!” Margaret whispered to James. She tried not to show her fear and concern, but she knew her eyes betrayed her dismay.
“Trust God, me lamb. We shall fare fine.” James held her close and she felt a shiver from her husband. He was afraid, too. “Besides, this be the only way. Robert and I will do our best to keep thee all safe.” She smiled weakly but said nothing.
As they pushed off from the dock and headed against the current, three other bateau joined in the journey. Across the water, the passengers greeted one another, glad to see a few familiar faces. “Godspeed to us all!” Robert bellowed in a cheery voice.
“You are a gift to us, Robert,” James said, patting his brother on the back. “You always find a way to buoy our spirits, that you do.”
Margaret nodded at her husband’s comment and took in her surroundings. She could tell that the other bateau transported mostly Irish families—a few of the passengers she had seen on the Tom Bowline. But the others must have been from other ships for she knew none of them. They were strangers in a strange and fearful land—with strange and fearful boatmen.
She glanced at the French-Canadian boatmen. Each one of them was a mammoth man, muscular and brawny and stern looking. They spoke only French to each other, and when they did, their deep booming voices frightened her and the children.
She began to fret about enduring a week and a half with these men on the bateau. Will we be safe with these wild-looking men?
As they began their journey up the mighty St. Lawrence, the crew began to sing in unison, all five of them. Margaret could hear the other crew members in the accompanying bateau singing as well.
The song was beautiful, enchanting, soothing. The pull of their oars became the beat of the music, and their loud, French voices filled the air. She assumed they were river songs and ballads made just for this mighty river. And even though she couldn’t understand what the men were singing, the hauntingly beautiful sounds helped them all relax and even enjoy the moment—as much as they could.
“What are they singing about, Father?” Susan asked. “It sounds quite melancholy.”
“I think they be songs about the river, lass,” James answered. “ ‘Tis beautiful, is it not?”
“Aye, Father,” Susan said just as Uncle Robert added his tin whistle to the tune. The boatmen smiled and nodded, welcoming the addition. Robert played along, following the Quintet in a fine pairing.
“You be an artful musician, brother!” Margaret said.
“ ‘Tis nothing,” Robert said humbly. “I simply follow their lead and join the music.”
“I want to play the whistle that well one day,” Susan said.
“You have already mastered the basics, lassie,” Robert encouraged. “Now you just keep practicing and you’ll surpass me feeble skills.”
“The boatmen are not as stern as they look, are they, Mum?” Ned asked.
“Nae, son,” she assured him. “It just might be a fair journey after all.”
When they came to the famous Lachine Canal, the headsman told them that the canal had recently been enlarged and modernized. James and his lads watched with amazement as hydraulic power was used to work the canal.
“Oh, Father! What a splendor this be!” Michael said.
He and the lads were fascinated by the marvel of it, but Margaret and the others huddled in fear. The canal was a noisy, strange, and scary thing, but in the end, the canal provided safe and secure travel past the treacherous Lachine rapids.
But that was only the beginning of a long and dangerous passage.
James talked with the boatman and learned that, during their 177-mile journey, the boatmen had to navigate five sets of rapids between Montreal and Kingston, a full 230-foot climb above sea level! James cast a weary glance at his wife, glad Margaret was busy tending the children and had not heard this news. Had she heard, he feared she might have gotten off the boat and walked to Wolfe Island!
The tall, dark headsman continued. “A few years back they built the new Williamsburg Canal to by-pass an entire series of rapids for near thirty miles. Afore that, it was a more fearsome journey, I’ll grant you that. Now the great St. Lawrence is open to seafaring ships of all kinds, and our work on the river has become much safer and surer.”
James took wee John in his arms and held him tight. He looked beyond the bateau toward their destination. Indeed, the strong current, the rough waters, and the lack of shelter would surely make the travel formidable, especially with the wee ones aboard. But, if needed, he would give his very life for Margaret and each of his precious brood.