Over the years the Hudson–Oka ferry is the one I have most used on the Ottawa River. Taking Hwy 417 from Montreal to Ottawa is fast but boring, so when we've had visitors it makes a much more interesting trip to drive to Hudson, take the ferry to Oka and continue along the north shore of the Ottawa. And the added bonus is that you then arrive in Gatineau and can look across to Parliament Hill dominating the river as you cross on one of the bridges.
Until about 2008 the service was provided by flat-bed, unpowered barges, each towed by a powerful, open, diesel-powered boat. Significant skill was needed by the operators as the towing boat had to manœuvre when approaching the shore so that the barge was swung correctly to align with the dock. (See the link to the video below.) In 2008 two of these barges were sent to a shipyard in Matane and significantly modified and enlarged to turn them into classic diesel powered, end-loading ferries. But the trip is still the same. This is the widest of the ferry crossings on the Ottawa, and gives you the chance to look back downstream and see the high-rise buildings of Montreal in the distance.
Oka on the north shore is well know to the people of Montreal. The adjacent Provincial Park has a large sandy beach which extends through shallow water well into the lake, and being close to the city is always popular in hot weather. The monks at the Oka Abbey (Abbey of Notre-Dame du Lac) produced a semi-soft cheese which became very popular, and the rights were sold to Agropur which now produces a range of cheeses under the Oka brand. And then there was the Oka Crisis of 1990 when a land dispute between the town of Oka and local Mohawks developed into a violent standoff that lasted for 78 days, spread to other native areas around Montreal and brought the Oka name to the top of the news across Canada and around the world.
On the south shore the ferry docks at Como, which is nowadays just considered a part of Hudson, the commercial centre of which is a couple of miles upstream. In fact the service used to be called the Como–Oka ferry. Hudson has the reputation of large, expensive houses, but they are less ostentatious than some other local waterfront communities and blend more in to the landscape. The village is always a very pleasant place to visit, and the surroundings still quite rural. This is where anglophones move to when they have the cash and the desire to live in the country but within range of the big city. The town achieved a little fame recently as the hometown of the late leader of the NDP, Jack Layton.
The ferry is much less well known than all these! The Oka terminal is just off Hwy 344, the main road that runs along the north shore and through the centre of Oka, and is right beside the church and town hall. The ferry couldn't be more different from its downstream neighbour, Île-Bizard. The large diesel powered boats operate to a schedule back and forth every 15 minutes. The crossing time of 10 minutes is the longest on the Ottawa, and at $11 (2017) the most expensive.
But this crossing isn't just for a pleasant day out. It serves a useful short cut between the northern Montreal suburbs such as Terrebonne and Blainville, and Hwy 417 to Ottawa or Hwy 401 to Toronto and on. Or as in my case when I crossed in September 2018 it was to go from Pointe-Claire to Saint-Augustin, near Mirabel. After landing at Oka I took the back roads up and through the hills behind Oka, and then through farmland all the way. There are large orchards in that area and being September the trees were laden with red fruit and the apple boxes were stacked high beside the road ready for the harvest. Anything to avoid the Montreal bridges, especially at rush hour.
It's a seasonal ferry, as this part of the river is wide, shallow and slow, and usually freezes very solid in winter. But that means there is an ice bridge on the same route when the winter conditions are favourable. An ice bridge is just a passage across the ice that has been marked out and tested so that vehicles can drive across safely. Ice conditions are very variable, so some years the ice bridge operates and some years it does not. But when it does it is a fun way to cross—
worth the detour.
for more on the ice bridge.
Winter—the ice bridge
Come winter the ferries are withdrawn from service and pulled up onto the shore at Hudson. Because the river is wide here the currents are low and it freezes relatively easily, so a commercial ice bridge has operated here for a long time.
Same as the ferry
Hudson–Oka Ice Bridge Inc.
$8 car and passengers
Most recently February 2018
Nominally it's open from January to March, but this is very variable depending on the weather each winter. Warmer weather shortens the season, but also too much snow can insulate the ice and prevent it getting thick enough. A minimum of 12 inches thickness of ice all the way across is needed before the bridge opens. The global warming trend is making the season shorter and less predictable. Some winters it never opens.
The Hudson–Oka Ice Bridge is operated by the Léger brothers, whose father once owned the ferry and who still work on the ferry during the summer. They are responsible for testing the ice, marking out the lane with a line of Christmas trees and keeping the snow ploughed off it. The snow is not just an impediment to driving—it is a good insulant, keeping out the cold air and leading to thinner ice.
Our last visit was after a period of warming and heavy rain which had caused it to be closed for a couple of days. The temperature had dropped back down by the time we crossed, making the surface hard and slick—almost impossible to walk on. Always phone or check the website to see if it's open or not.