The stretch of the St. Lawrence River where a Montreal firefighter died during a rescue last week has been known for centuries as one of the most treacherous in the city.
Today, the Lachine rapids are primarily an attraction for surfers, sports kayakers, and riverside hikers, but the death of 58-year-old Pierre Lacroix is a reminder that Montreal owes its existence to its dangerous nature.
Lacroix was one of four firefighters who were in a boat that capsized Sunday night while trying to help a couple on another boat in distress. While the others were rescued, Lacroix died after being trapped under the boat.
Louise Desrosiers, a spokeswoman for the Montreal fire department, said rescue boats generally avoid venturing into the swift current of rapids.
“It is a sector that is dangerous, so the boats will go upstream to save people or downstream to recover people who have passed through the rapids,” he said in a telephone interview.
READ MORE: Montreal Firefighter Dies After Rescue Boat Capsized in St. Lawrence River
Desrosiers says that eight fire stations have nautical rescue units, all with specially trained personnel. Calls for help are initially classified as “engine trouble” or the most serious “marine emergency,” which usually occurs when someone is in the water or in immediate danger.
While boaters in the incident involving Lacroix had first reported an engine shutdown, Desrosiers said it could not confirm how the call had been categorized. An investigation into his death is ongoing.
Montreal firefighter dies after dramatic boat rescue
Michel Martin, a prevention officer with the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary, describes the rapids as “unforgiving” and “a trap.”
Since starting the service in 2014, he said he has seen more and more boaters, rowers and fishermen in the water, some of them inexperienced or not knowing when they start to get caught in the current.
He said auxiliary coastal boats, such as the fire rescue boat, do not venture into the rapids because the boats are not designed for the conditions he describes as rocky and unpredictable, with fast moving water ranging from a third of a meter to three meters deep.
“We will do everything possible to help people in danger, but not at the expense of the lives of our members,” he said in a telephone interview.
Lacroix is far from the first person to lose his life in the dangerous waters of the rapids. For better or for worse, troubled waters have shaped the city’s existence from its earliest days, according to historian Denis Gravel.
“Montreal wouldn’t be Montreal without the rapids,” said Gravel, who specializes in municipal history.
While the island was long used as a gathering and fishing spot for indigenous peoples, it served as an obstacle for European explorers, including Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain, who stopped after learning that their ships were unable to advance. further upriver.
Until the Lachine Canal was opened in 1825 to avoid rapids, merchandise heading towards the Great Lakes had to be unloaded in the Montreal area or transported, leading the city to develop as an area of commerce and settlement.
“Since the beginning of the European settlement, there are” many, many stories of shipwrecks and danger, of people who drowned or went fishing and did not pay attention, “Gravel said.
One of the first reported incidents involved a Champlain associate making his way to a nearby island along with two indigenous men. Their boat, loaded with birds, capsized on the way back and two of the three drowned.
While the rapids were nearly impassable to the west, boats would still attempt to run the rapids in the opposite direction. Some were rafts loaded with cargo and run by specialist pilots who, despite their skill, sometimes lost their cargo to the current. Later, steamboats transported tourists in search of strong emotions.
In 1873, one of those ships, the Louis Renaud, crashed into the rapids, supposedly averting tragedy thanks to the Mohawks from nearby Kahnawake who came to the aid of the passengers.
There have been other incidents in more recent years. A fisherman died after losing his balance in 2010, and a surfer died after falling into a popular surf spot called a standing wave in 2013. This summer, a man disappeared after falling from a boat.
The number of rescues in the waters off Montreal appears to be increasing, although setbacks on the rapids have remained stable. The Montreal fire department has seen a 30 percent increase in the total number of boating incidents since 2019, something that Desrosiers said could be attributed to the growing popularity of outdoor sports during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Desrosiers says it is important for boaters, especially the less experienced, to remember that the strong currents of the St. Lawrence make navigation difficult. She said that it is also crucial for boaters to familiarize themselves with their boats and the places where they sail, to avoid drugs and alcohol and to wear a properly fitted life jacket.
© 2021 The Canadian Press