text and photos : Norma A. Hubbard (October 2020)
The bridge on Montée Giroux has been closed for about three years now and in a few weeks is finally going to open. Generally, we don’t think about crossing bridges until one is closed and then suddenly, we have these huge detours to take to get anywhere else! During these past few years of the bridge closure, I mostly parked my car on the 202 side of the bridge and walked to my mother’s. It was so much faster, and I have to say it is always pleasant to spend time on the bridge looking at the river. There is something special about rivers, and the English River is very special to me.
It was when I was in elementary school that I realized that not everyone knows how to swim. I can recall asking another student, “How come you can’t swim?”. The student had replied something about not having a pool. A pool? What does that have to do with learning to swim? In those days, I thought everyone had access to fresh water and that everyone learned how to swim in a river. I spent my summers in the English River that runs through my family’s land. The river was practically in our backyard. I didn’t realize then how lucky we were to have that river. My parents always warned us to stay away from the river in the springs when there was cold, deep, rushing water; also to keep away in the winters as it never completely froze over and there was always dangerous open water to slip into and be dragged under the ice. Somehow, we never listened, the dangers never seemed real to my siblings and me; this was our river, in our backyard. We loved our river in every season, which was probably something my father understood as he made sure each of us could swim at a very young age.
The English River is a tributary of the Chateauguay River and is a cross-border river. I think it was in the 1960’s, some level of government decided that the river needed to be dredged and widened or straighten, or something like that. I was very young, yet I can clearly recall all the trees that use to hang over the river were gone, and the shores were now covered in rocks. Lots of rocks. The damage from the digging was extensive and I do not think it improved the flow of the river, signs of the digging can still be seen today along the shoreline, over 50 years later. Over the years we used the rocks to build dams to make our swimming areas deeper. Each spring the river would wash away our dams, a constant reminder about the power of water.
Over time, the trees have taken hold again among the rocks and a diversity of plants continue to spread along the shore, by midsummer there are plenty of beautiful flowers for insects to visit. Cranes and Kingfishers dine on the fish in the river; geese and ducks enjoy good nesting areas along the shore. Although deer flies buzz around us as we wade in the river, so, too, do damselflies, dragonflies and butterflies. Various animal tracks can be discovered in the wet sand proving many animals drink from the river. Turtles and lizards can be found, along with too many snakes for my liking. A river supports so much biodiversity, which I hope was protected by the dams the construction crews installed during the rebuilding of the bridge.
In the last few years, the river has gone almost dry in the summers. It is difficult for me to imagine anyone learning to swim in such shallow water. It is even harder to imagine that we actually drank from this river. Today when I look at the murky water of our river, I am reminded of the lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Water, water everywhere, / Nor any drop to drink”. While these lines were said by a sailor surrounded by salt water with no fresh water, it still seems appropriate as our fresh waters are becoming less ‘fresh’ each year. As the bridge construction comes to an end and the bridge opens to traffic again, I am thankful to have easier access to my family’s farm, however, I am more thankful for the water that flows beneath it, our English River, and for all the life-giving water that flows through our area.