August 21, 2010

Summer Road Trip - New York: Kayaking River Waves & Crossing the Border

The day started off not looking so good.
I want to catch myself here, because who's to say what a "good" day is supposed to look like? If you are a wedding photographer you probably want an overcast day, but if you are a bride you want it to be sunny. If you are a macro flower photographer you want the air to be completely still, but if you are a sailor you want it to be windy. So instead of assigning certain weather a label of "good" or "bad" maybe I should just try to describe it, as it is, as a fact.

The day started off with massively oppressive, dismal skies; goose-bump inflicting, soggy air and a looming threat of torrential rain and monstrous thunderstorms.
Is that better? Maybe that's too much? Sounds a little bit like I don't approve of the weather, right? Okay, let me try again, with something more objective, if I can manage it, without being devoid of expression.

The day started off with heavy, gray skies and cool, humid air.
We took off, not too early in the morning, back to Clayton for kayaking. Since our camping trip was canceled, we decided that we would kayak for a few hours in the morning before the weather got bad around 2pm and then head to Montreal. At the kayak shop they warned us about the weather and then helped us into the water. The push off dock is a very calm inlet off the river and we headed along the channel out into the wide open Saint Lawrence River. With the wind at our backs, we started paddling along, downtown Clayton on our right. After some discussion, we decided to head across the river and around the bend. "Susan" had my handheld GPS to determine how far we had traveled and our speed. With an eye on the weather, we took off, the current pulling us in circles as we tried to head toward our agreed destination.
Paddling away from Clayton
The water was surprising clear, probably even clearer when the sun is out. The wide river had many islands, spread apart, some with houses on them and some only big enough for a few trees and shrubs. I was armed with my point-and-shoot camera, safely enclosed in its underwater case. I had packed my SLR camera in a dry bag secured at the end of the kayak. As soon as I got in the water, I could not understand why I brought it. I think I had some romantic notion that we would be able to kayak out to an island and on dry land, I could take some photographs. But that was not happening today.
Therese paddling past an island
As we got further and further out, the wind helping us with speed, the sky kind of cleared a little bit and it sort of got sunny. Or at least, the sky got a little blue. This was fun. It was fun seeing the flat islands and the houses built on them, although they were starting to kind of look the same. They were all pretty much covered with trees, but it was still neat. I wanted to go around the bend in the river to see what was there, so I continued in that direction, ahead of Therese and "Susan". I completely ignored the large, light gray swell of a cloud that was beginning to overwhelm the sky. It just didn't look like more than a rain cloud. We were already wet so why not kayak in the rain? Eventually, I decided too not get to far ahead of the other two and when they caught up Therese told me that "Susan" was worried about that cloud. I took a good look at it. What time is it? Is it almost time for the predicted thunderstorms? I decided that the cloud probably wasn't that threatening, but the water was starting to get kind of choppy so, I guess we could head back.
An island
I would like to say, for the record, that my judgment of the situation was, um, well, it was not operating at its peak. Okay, I underestimated the severity of the situation. I admit it! When we turned around, to face the wind, and kayak against the waves back from where we came, the story of kayaking the Saint Lawrence River completely changes. What was before, a fun, enjoyable, kayak trip in mild waves and weather, turned into a nerve racking, white-capped wave, hand clenching, lose-your-hat-in-the-wind, ocean liner dodging kayak trip.
Passing the steamship
Our speed back was much, much slower against the wind. The waves suddenly whipped up forcing us to greet each one head-on to avoid being overturned. Before, I had my camera clipped to the kayak and I would unclip it, at my leisure, to take a picture. Now, I didn't want to let go of the kayak paddle for fear of losing the paddle or fear of being rolled by a wave. I took no pictures. Luckily my hair was secured in a twisted knot and this was helping to keep my hat from blowing off my head. Suddenly, the "rain" cloud looked more menacing. How had I not read it properly? How easily I am fooled by my own desires and optimism.
With anxiety, nervousness and determination, I pull my kayak towards the shore. If we could at least get close to the other shore, we could pull the kayaks out and maybe walk back to the rental place. I am keeping my kayak near the other islands, in case we can't make it and we need to get out of the water anywhere for solid ground. I am seriously considering one such island that has exactly three trees and some shrubs. It is tiny, but we could at least be out of the water there, in case lightning started. Then maybe, we could somehow get the attention of the coast guard to come get us, or a passing motor boat. I am making these plans, thinking, thinking, backup plans, Plan B, if all else fails. Or maybe, we will just make it across the river and be fine. Okay, let's shoot for that, we should try to avoid being stranded on an island in the middle  of the river.
"Susan" pulling the kayak out of the water
Feeling a little better about the "plan", I continue up and down the white-capped waves. Then it suddenly dawns on me that this too could be fun. Just think of it as a roller coaster, a thrill ride, a challenge, an adventure. Yes, this is fun. My anxiety, nervousness and fear vanished, all that was left was determination. With renewed energy, I paddled my way up each wave, digging in and enjoying the ride down the other side. The shore was getting closer and closer and then the weather starts to relax and the waves lessen. We make our way back into the channel, to our landing and pull our boats out of the water. The guy from the rental place comes out to help. "Its good you came back when you did, I just heard that a huge swell is on its way in." he says. Good thing? Maybe it would have been even more thrilling to kayak in that swell... or, maybe not. Maybe its better to add on thrills incrementally, to keep from jumping into something that you can't get yourself out of. Okay, maybe next time I'll go for more thrilling.
We drive into downtown Clayton for some lunch, stopping at Koffee Kove. We had scoped this place out the other day, there had been a line out the door, but it kind of looked like a dive, and it was, but the good kind of dive. There were old fishing relics on the paneled walls. There were harried waitresses rushing around. Therese and I ordered the Haddock Fish Sandwich, which was supposed to be what they are famous for, their fried fish. It was probably the biggest fish sandwich I have ever seen. It was long, with an equally long piece of perfectly cooked fried fish on it. It was amazing. I think I ate half and "Susan" who only got a salad, ended up eating most of mine and Therese's sandwiches. 
Okay, on to Montreal. It seems as soon as we get in the car to leave, it starts to rain. At the border, while going through the tollbooth-style customs, the young Canadian customs official grills us with:
"How does everyone in the car know each other?"
"Where do you live?"
"Why do you live in New York but have a Pennsylvania license plate?"
"Why are you going to Canada?"
"What are you doing in Montreal?"
"Why Montreal?"
"Where are you staying in Montreal"
"What's the address of your hotel in Montreal?"
To the last question, Therese feebly answers, butchering the pronunciation of the street name, Boulevard Rene Levesque. Suddenly, he seems satisfied with his questioning and smiles, "I guess you didn't have time to practice your French before going to Montreal. Its pronounced Ren-ay La-veck. Have a good time in Canada."
Small house island
Once in Canada, we miss the highway and end up on the scenic road that travels along the water all the way into Montreal. On a clearer, sunnier day, I'm sure this scenic road is well worth it, but it is pouring rain and we would prefer to get into the city before it gets dark. But even in the rain, I can see many islands in the river, some only big enough to hold the house which seems to cover every square foot of land. It is there that Therese suddenly remembers that she forgot to pack undergarments. We are off on a hunt for ladies undergarments. She uses their GPS to find the name of a store in a nearby town and punches in the address. We follow it into this town, downtown where everything is closed on a Sunday afternoon in pouring rain. We pass the darkened store which is our destination, "Pauline's Lingerie." The GPS seems to get into a hysteria about this and the computerized lady's voice says, "Arriving at Pauline's Lingerie. Recalculating. Turn around for Pauline's Lingerie. Recalculating. Pauline's Lingerie. Recalculating. Pauline's Lingerie. Recalculating."
Small island
Geez, I guess she really wants us to go to Pauline's Lingerie. I stare in awe at the small device which has the ability to be so emphatic, annoying and persistent, that you either want to throw it out the window or just do what it says. Well we finally find a store, like Target, and Therese took care of her garment needs. They did want to charge us 5 cents for the plastic bag, which I liked, but was a little surprised about too. Evetually, we made our way onto the Canadian highway, with unfamiliar kilometers per hour speeds. In the car I call Paul to find out the names of some restaurants for dinner. He looks it up on the internet and gives me some phone numbers. I call to make a reservation, where the man on the other line answers in French.
"Bonjour. Parlez-vous anglais? S'il vous plaît?" I say, nervously, while also trying to muster up my very best, yet awkward feeling, French pronunciation.
Therese on the Subway
"Yes, I speak English." he says. Oh good, and I make a reservation for nine o'clock.
Near Sherbrooke station
After a couple of hours we navigate our way to the Travelodge on Boulevard Ren-ay La-veck. The rain is coming down in sheets as we lug our already wet stuff inside and up to our room. Then we head out into the foreign city jungle. We wander, a little lost, Montreal's underground, a series of underground hallways and passageways from building to building. I imagine it was intended for cover in the extremely cold winters, but it works out quite nicely in pouring rain as well. Then, we manage to buy three subway tickets, get on the right train and get off at the Sherbrooke stop.
"Authentic" Montreal?
We walked the streets of "authentic" Montreal, I believe this is the Latin Quarter. It is raining, but I can still admire the old buildings, which remind me of other older sections of East Coast cities, but our architecture is different. This definitely feels more, French. After several blocks we arrive at our restaurant, a rather small one, called L'Express.
L'Express has a black and white checkered floor, brass fixtures, men-only servers and a long, dark wood bar. It reminds me a bit of the Tadich Grill in San Francisco, kind of old-fashioned. It is nice to get out of the rain, but the waiting area is muggy and hot and they can't find my reservation. The maître d' assures me there is no worry and we are sat at a table about fifteen minutes later.
Pickles & Mustard
We talk about appetizers, we somehow figure out the menu in French, I order a bottle of wine, a Côtes du Roussillon. We must reek of English, because no one even attempted to speak to us in French. Maybe they heard us speaking to each other in English, I don't know. After ordering, they bring over a large glass jar of baby pickles and a jar of spicy mustard. I don't know this custom, but we used the wooden tongs to fish out the pickles and the small spoon to slop some mustard on them. They are quite good and we are starving so we probably ate far too many, but I was really trying to hold back. 
Bone Marrow Appetizer
Our appetizer came, we were adventurous and ordered bone marrow. Yes, bone marrow, I think Anthony Bourdain calls it "butter of the gods" or something like that. So we slathered our "toast" and bread with bone marrow. I have had this before, but tonight it wasn't striking we with awe like it has in the past. It has a very rich, oily, meaty taste but does not spread as nicely as I would like. We finish maybe half before giving up. 
Then comes our entrees. I had ordered the lobster risotto, which was okay. The lobster pieces were good, maybe a little overcooked but the risotto could have used more flavor. Therese ordered the duck confit, which was amazing, with amazing wild rice. "Susan" ordered meat & mushroom ravioli, which were probably the best of the three entrees. After all that we even ordered dessert, which was hazelnut chocolate torte. 
Feeling very full, we decide to attempt a cab ride home, since we are really not that far from our hotel. Miraclously, we do find one and he even understands some English. In a slur of French, I only managed to recognize the sounds of the street our hotel is on and it sounds like a question, so I guess he is confirming the address. 
"Oui." I say, and we are off. 
Montreal from our hotel
Now, before I go most places, I will study the map. Even in San Francisco, when I have to drive to a part of the city which I am not familiar with, I will study the map. I will memorize cross streets, parallel streets, one way streets, number of blocks and estimated distances so that I have some reference when I try to find my way around. But I am not afraid of getting lost in San Francisco and not finding my way back. In other places, especially when I don't know the language or the place could be somewhat dangerous, I will study the map beforehand and often discreetly, while turned away or under a table. This is helpful when trying to figure out which bus stop to get off at, or which direction to walk in when exiting a train station, without looking lost. It is also very helpful when you don't want to get ripped off by a cabbie.  Our cabbie seemed to head off immediately in the right direction and, although he did got a way that I thought was a little bit out of the way, we did end up at our hotel without an exorbitant fare. I am glad there are honest people in this world.
I pulled out the sofa bed of our tiny, shared Montreal hotel room. Before turning in, we are all exhausted, I take a few photographs out the window, since this will be my only opportunity to see a Montreal night.  I reflect to myself, "What an odd day. We kayaked amongst islands through white-capped river waves before a storm. Then we had a gourmet dinner in a French-speaking city. Now I am going to sleep on a sofa bed in a cramped hotel room in Canada."

Sackets Harbor to Clayton, New York to Montreal, Quebec, Canada:

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