Rapids Park, Montreal’s White-Water Reserve

The rapids as seen from the park’s main lookout

photography by: Omri Westmark

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Rare are the cities whose natural environment has dictated their development as Quebec’s largest metropolis, Montreal. Given the city’s location alongside a series of whitewater torrents known collectively as the Lachine Rapids, Montreal occupies a strategic position between the two navigable stretches of the St. Lawrence River. While nowadays, this uncrossable obstacle can be bypassed by a pair of manmade canals, it still remains a prominent feature of Montreal, offering its fair share of sweeping sights to awe at. For those not venturing across by canoe, the closest vantage point of this wonder is the aptly named Rapids Park, from where visitors can witness the full might of the roaring waters.

To the untrained ear, the thundering sounds one can hear at Montreal’s southeastern riverfront, between the South Shore and the Island of Montreal, might be akin of a waterfall. Contrary to expectations, though, the culprit behind the uproar is a 4.8-kilometer-long string of rapids, better-known today as the Lachine Rapids.

 

Historically, these violent torrents served as a natural barrier that separated the upstream and downstream parts of the St. Lawerence River, preventing the passage of vessels from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean and vice versa. It was for this reason that Montreal was established at this very location, making the city a significant point for goods to be unloaded, portaged around the rapids, and then reloaded onto boats for further transport.

 

As the city became a regional trading hub, this practice was no longer feasible and a large-scale solution was desperately needed. To overcome this centuries-long predicament, the Lachine Canal, a 14.5-kilometer-long waterway, was constructed across the city in the 1820’s, offering a safe bypass for ships crossing the river for the first time. In 1954, the far larger St. Lawrence Seaway was inaugurated, replacing the old canal as the main artery for ships circumventing the rapids.


In the years that followed, the rapids were no longer seen as an impediment for economic growth but rather as a unique attraction for locals and tourists alike. As part of the city’s endeavor to rebrand the site, a 30-hectare park was created a mere stone’s throw away from the prodigious waters, on the western bank of the St. Lawerence River.

 

Crisscrossed by multiple hiking trails and bicycle paths, Rapids Park offers several lookouts from where visitors can gaze at the rapids up close, including a verdant amphitheater whose main protagonist is the river, and more often than not also plucky paddlers attempting to cross the raging waters. Within this verdant enclave lie the remnants of the former Lachine hydroelectric plant, erected in the late 19th century and razed in 1948, alongside the vestiges of several water mills, all of which once harnessed the rapids’ immense power.

 

Since the park (along with the nearby islands) is designated as a bird sanctuary, it serves as a refuge for 225 species of birds, chief among them are the great blue herons who flock the area during the summer months.