River Surfing on the Saint Lawrence
By Juilen Fillion, photos by Vincent Bergeron
Montreal might be known for its welcoming French Canadian community, the beautiful women and the famous Poutine—French fries topped with a light brown gravy-like sauce and cheese curds—but it’s also known for a standing river wave called Habitat 67. This endless wave located on the center shore of Montreal Island was informally named for the adjacent Habitat 67 housing complex. It has become a popular destination for whitewater kayakers and river surfers.
The wave is created by fast-moving water hitting underwater boulders and can reach a height of two meters. One of my best friends and river mentors, Corran Addison—an Olympic kayaker and three-time world freestyle kayak champion—was the first to surf the Habitat wave in 2002. It quickly became crowded due to its accessibility so a search began for other more remote river waves. This search led to the discovery of the Holy Grail of river surfing about 10 kilometers upstream on the Saint Lawrence River. But don’t get me wrong, this is not a typical place or a typical wave in a typical environment.
The Lachine Rapids on the Saint Lawrence River are big, pushy and dangerous. Picture 2.6-million gallons of water per second pouring over a series of shelves, reefs and rocky outcroppings. The river drops 45 feet in less than three-quarters of a mile creating a series of thunderous, awe-inspiring, chill-inducing river rapids. The converging currents create whirlpools and thick seams that pull downward toward the river bottom 30- or 40-feet below. The bottom is littered with underwater caves, and probably shipwrecks from the late 19th century. Thirty-second hold downs are common when surfing some of its biggest waves.
I know this place sounds insane and reckless, but after 10 years of studying and surfing there it has become a home to my friend and I—our own private waves that we share with about five or six other Montreal surfers. The fact that you have to put your life at risk in order to surf it tends to disperse about 99.9% of the crowd.
When I first moved from Ottawa to Montreal in 2006, to be closer to the international airport (professional kiteboarding requires lots of flying around), I rented a house right by the Lachine Rapid. My friend Corran was basically my neighbor. In between kitesurfing trips, I would surf the river with him once, twice, sometimes three times a day. It became like a second home to me and we tuned in to the river and all its hazards. Numerous times I sat down and thought about how human beings can become comfortable in unstable and hazardous environments such as the Lachine Rapids.
As my kitesurfing career took off, I was able to surf and kitesurf some of the world’s most amazing waves. I gradually stopped river surfing and left behind the Lachine Rapids, moving into an apartment on the north shore of Montreal Island. It was further away which made it more difficult to commit to a daily river-surfing commute.
This spring my girlfriend and I moved back, right next to the Lachine Rapids. I can literally grab a board in our garage, walk to the river and, after a quick 10-minute paddle, be surfing those endless waves. I reconnected with fellow surfer Yannick Larouche and got back on the horse, surfing the Rapid Lachines by his side. Even though we feel confident in those rapids, it’s a good idea to always surf with a friend you can trust. In Class-IV rapids you never know when things will go south.
The funny thing is, my friend Corran moved to San Clemente, California a couple years back and he always tells me the thing he misses the most about Montreal is the surf, the daily, constant high-quality surf of the river. Who would have thought a couple of river waves in Montreal would one day be compared to world-class California breaks?
I love this spot. I surf it with gratitude and never underestimate its power.
Julien Fillion is a Patagonia ambassador and kite designer for Liquid Force. When he’s not kiteboarding, surfing or hard at work on a new project, he’s the lead singer of Montreal’s indie rock band Trusted Waters.