Ville de Quebec
The Parc Linéaire de la Rivière St-Charles, completed only last September, extends for 20 miles along the winding banks (as one local commented on a Web site, the “linear” of the name hardly even means “straight”) of a river that might be compared to Seattle's Duwamish.
The St. Charles River should not be confused with the much bigger St. Lawrence River, into which it drains and which serves as the imposing backdrop of Quebec, still tidal hundreds of miles from its mouth. The St. Charles estuary now provides habitat for birds and fish and bike paths for local humans. A picture of it 15 years ago, like the lower reaches of the Duwamish now, suggests possibilities only to the most wild-eyed environmentalist.
The bleak, sterile concrete banks of those days, in fact, marked a step forward from the little river’s longer, more sordid past. Nineteenth-century shipyards and tanneries and twentieth-century industry used it as a dump and an open sewer. Wastewater still emptied into it after the factories closed; in 1996 it ranked as Canada’s most polluted river. Now it looks idyllic.
The new park begins near the site of Jacques Cartier’s first winter in what became Quebec City, in 1535-36. Winding along on foot or by bicycle among office workers happily eating sandwiches, you find thoughtfully written explanations of the nesting habits of birds and why the gravel banks in the river have been left exposed. English appears only rarely on the signs — a sure indication that the beautiful walled “centre ville,” 400 years old last year and rightly packed with tourists, has quickly dropped behind you.
Historically, the St. Charles helped provide a livelihood to the residents of the poorer neighborhood of St-Roch. Now, if you leave its banks and wander inshore a bit, you can find Vietnamese restaurants and much of Quebec City’s small but growing nonwhite population, along streets where vintage-clothing stores are making their first inroads.
A mile or two upstream, the bike path ends and the riverbed gets steeper. The trail takes you up and down staircases and through terrain that ranges from lush suburban parks to forested slopes. Bands play summer concerts at the Maison O’Neill, ancestral home of Irish horse enthusiasts who bought what had been farmland from the English-speaking elite who controlled Quebec after 1759. Further upstream, you can learn about Huron life in the village of Wendake.
Parallels between Quebec City and Seattle kept occurring to me as I made my way along. Quebec boomed in the 19th century thanks partly to the now-moribund timber industry. More recent prosperity, much of it driven by abundant, state-run hydro power, has generated vast ribbons of freeways and tracts of hastily built condos and cookie-cutter detached houses in Quebec’s suburbs. In the last few decades, these commuters, descendants of farmers and lumberjacks who supported huge families, have attained enough leisure to think of the outdoors as a playground. At one point, the Parc Linéaire trail passes under a highway. Birds, almost insultingly easy to spot even at noon, throng the narrow greenbelt within a hundred yards of the steady grind of trucks.
Without leaving the linear park, I could have walked all the way to the headwaters of the St. Charles in the foothills of the Laurentian Mountains, made of the oldest rock on the planet. More signs told me about the Indians’ and colonists’ reliance on the river for transport. I read about the hibernation patterns of groundhogs—in Quebec, quite sensibly, they emerge many weeks after February 2. During the long and bitter winters, the paths serve cross-country skiers.
This latest incarnation in the long history of the little St-Charles seems worth emulating in Seattle, especially if it means skipping the intervening centuries of pollution. Some steps have already been taken, along the Mountains to Sound Greenway and the Burke Gilman Trail. The industrialized Duwamish would seem a more formidable challenge — or so I felt, having grown up in Seattle, until I saw what imaginative planners were able to do with the once-forsaken St. Charles.
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