I first visited Sorel nearly 40 years ago — I was new to the country and we were exploring the Quebec map. The Richelieu river joins the Saint Lawrence at Sorel, and it looked like an interesting detour on the way to Quebec City. But what I remember are shady river banks lined with small cabins. There were no views worth the detour, so after that Sorel stayed off our radar.
Then in 2016 we passed by early on our Magdalen Islands ferry trip, a day before I conceived the idea of this website. The Sorel–Saint-Ignace ferry was the first of several crossings that we cut across as we descended the Saint Lawrence, and I rushed to take a couple of photos of the ferries and waterfront of the town through the salt-stained window of our boat as we passed by. That was enough for a token entry on this website, but I wanted to revisit, to make the crossing and take a few more photos. But for us Sorel is never on the way to anywhere, so despite being just 1½ hour’s drive it took me a while to get around to it.
Finally in March 2019, near the end of a winter that had been particularly unpleasant in its combination of cold, snow, and particularly ice, I made a special trip. I knew crossing with ice on the Saint Lawrence would make it more interesting, so I wanted to get there before the winter passed.
I drove from Montreal’s West Island via the Mercier Bridge and Autoroute 30. Once I’d crossed over the 20, coming from Montreal via the Lafontaine Tunnel I was on to the original section of the 30, one of the first autoroutes built in Quebec when it opened in 1968. And the condition of the road surface at times showed its age—worse than any I have experienced on this category of road in a developed country. It’s hard to believe this road was built to serve a real need, given the lack of traffic and the destination. But who am I to try to understand the priorities of Quebec politics, especially back in the 1960s? (NOTE: I drove this road again in September 2019, en route to trying out the three ferries over the Richelieu River, and there was major repaving action along the worst parts. Could it be Transports Québec had been reading my comments? I somehow doubt it!)
The 30 ends by taking you nicely over the Richelieu river, and then suddenly dumping you at a set of traffic lights. It was very obvious that they planned to build a proper interchange here with Hwy 133, but never got around to it. But the ferry is well sign-posted along a zigzag route down through the narrow streets of the old town of Sorel. The ferry terminal when you get there is quite large and modern, and the terminal building, the Gare fluviale de Sorel-Tracy, was being expanded when I was there, and made to look quite spiffy.
I pulled in at the waterfront park just to the east of the ferry dock, which was a good spot for watching the ferry for the whole of its trajectory across Saint Lawrence. But although this was a mild –8 March day, the wind made life very unpleasant and the icy covering just about all walking surfaces made it treacherous to get around and explore.
Steel and metallurgy plants provide the industrial base of Sorel, and the port here mainly serves that industry, with the ferry just a minor addition. Across the river the ferry docks at Saint-Ignace-de-Loyola, a traditional small Quebec country town, serving local farmers and riverfront cottagers. But 5
further along the road is Berthierville which, besides being the birthplace of local motor racing legend Gilles Villeneuve, is also well connected to Autoroute 40, and a direct route between Montreal and Quebec City. Which might explain why I watched a surprising number of large trucks boarding the ferry.
The other thing that surprised me was the number of snowmobiles using the ferry; there is even a special line for them to queue in to wait for boarding. After I’d crossed and arrived in Saint-Ignace, I turned right and drove around a bit; the flat open farmland was ideal snowmobile territory, and the frozen branches of the Saint Lawrence separating the islands were covered in snowmobile tracks. Île Saint-Ignace, Île Dupas and Île aux Castors are connected by road bridges and are the islands I crossed on my way to Berthierville, but the many other islands can only be reached by boat.
In fact there are about 103 islands forming the Lac Saint-Pierre archipelago. This is the delta of the Saint Lawrence as it flows into Lac Saint-Pierre. The islands are low, flat, alluvial deposits, rising no more than 25
above the river level, and subject to annual flooding in many places. From my memory of travelling through on the ferry to the Magdalen Islands it’s hard to tell the difference between land, marsh and water around here.