Rollin’ down the St. Lawrence river

Rollin’ down the St. Lawrence river
Passengers from Adventure Canada’s ship, Ocean Endeavor, land on the beach about a mile from the entrance to Reford Gardens in Canada’s Quebec Province.

 

The first thing you notice about the St. Lawrence River is its size.

Elsie's first garden

This is the first patch of ground that Elsie Reford transformed from woodland into a rock garden. The site was chosen for its view of the nearby river, not for the quality of the soil. Reford carried in peat and sand from area farms to create just the right conditions for otherwise hard-to-grow plants and flowers.

It’s so big that it’s the longest east-west river in North America.

So big that it more resembles the ocean.

So big that nine species of whale, including 400 belugas, call it home.

Elsie Reford’s gardening tools lay behind glass in a museum in what was the wealthy family’s fishing lodge. Elsie had no landscape experience but designed and maintained this extensive garden for the last 30 years of her life.

Elsie Reford’s gardening tools lay behind glass in a museum in what was the wealthy family’s fishing lodge. Elsie had no landscape experience but designed and maintained this extensive garden for the last 30 years of her life.

So big that, from the middle, you can’t see either shore, home to 6 million Americans and Canadians.

The St. Lawrence River is so big, so fast and so cold that we quickly forget about any fantasies of a leisurely paddle or swim, which makes the converted Russian ferry on which we are traveling seem like the sensible alternative for cruising this 744-mile-long waterway.

It is Day Three of our 11-day cruise with Adventure Canada on the Ocean Endeavor. The trip began in Quebec City and will eventually deliver us in St. John’s, Newfoundland, the farthest eastern point on North America. This is the first year that Adventure Canada has offered this itinerary.

Our destination today, Reford Gardens, is 220 miles northeast and downriver of Quebec City. It sits at the neck of the Gaspe Peninsula where the Metis River empties into the St. Lawrence.

Visitors at Reford Gardens stroll the meandering paths that run through 17 gardens and 44 acres. Each spring, a small army of gardeners plant thousands of seeds, plants and bulbs. The summer growing season is short, but long hours of sunshine at 48 degrees latitude help nurture the plants to maturity.

Visitors at Reford Gardens stroll the meandering paths that run through 17 gardens and 44 acres. Each spring, a small army of gardeners plant thousands of seeds, plants and bulbs. The summer growing season is short, but long hours of sunshine at 48 degrees latitude help nurture the plants to maturity.

Aboard the198-passenger Ocean Endeavor are numerous expert naturalists, birders, geologists, historians, artists, authors and musicians who entertain and educate us on their respective fields.

This rock sculpture greets visitors to Reford Gardens, which sits along the St. Lawrence River in the province of Quebec.

This rock sculpture greets visitors to Reford Gardens, which sits along the St. Lawrence River in the province of Quebec.

But on this morning, we welcome aboard an outsider — Alexander Reford — who has come to give us a crash course on the amazing gardens that we will soon visit. They were designed and created by Elsie Reford, his wealthy, independent-minded, great-grandmother. (She inherited fortunes from her father and uncle, who founded the Canadian Pacific Railway).

Elsie was 54 in 1926 when she began her grand garden experiment — cultivating a collection of both common and rare blooms that were never meant to flourish at 48 degrees north latitude in a short growing season. Many bulbs and seeds were imported from faraway countries, and because of

Elsie’s determination, leadership and a lot backbreaking work, her 44 acres of forest, hillsides, river and streams is home to more than 3,000 thriving native and exotic species.

Tulips are just beginning to bloom at Reford Gardens in early June. The gardens were conceived and built by railroad heiress Elsie Redford. She began the project in 1926 following an appendectomy. Her doctor suggested gardening would be less strenuous than fishing.

Tulips are just beginning to bloom at Reford Gardens in early June. The gardens were conceived and built by railroad heiress Elsie Redford. She began the project in 1926 following an appendectomy. Her doctor suggested gardening would be less strenuous than fishing.

An hour late after Alexander’s presentation on the ship, passengers board 20 Zodiacs. After a somewhat choppy ride, we are pulled ashore by the ship’s staff, using a small ramp built especially to accommodate our motorized rubber rafts. Then it’s a mile-plus hike to the entrance of Reford Gardens, where a guide escorts us throughout most of the 17 gardens, including the House Garden with its crabapple and shrub roses; the Blue Poppy Glade where the rare Himalayan blue poppy unexpectedly survives; the Bird Garden where birds of all kinds congregate 24 hours a day; the Azalea Walk, where nature-defying azaleas are just beginning to bud (Elsie imported them from England); the Alpine Garden, with its 100 rock plants and more; and the Primula Glade, where primroses of all sizes and colors are in full bloom. Lucky for us, they are among the first flowers of spring, which doesn’t arrive in this latitude until late May and early June.

Elsie Reford managed to grow and propagate these Himalayan blue poppies, which normally grow in southeast Tibet at altitudes of 10,000 feet to 13,000 feet. She was one of the first to try cultivating these rare flowers in North America. Experts say that blue poppies love the cool nights and humidity of the lower St. Lawrence River area.

Elsie Reford managed to grow and propagate these Himalayan blue poppies, which normally grow in southeast Tibet at altitudes of 10,000 feet to 13,000 feet. She was one of the first to try cultivating these rare flowers in North America. Experts say that blue poppies love the cool nights and humidity of the lower St. Lawrence River area.

We also take a tour of the large, rambling house that once was a small fishing lodge. Today it’s an art museum as well as a memorial to Elsie and Reford family history.
Reford Gardens is not on the way to anywhere, so those who do make the effort to get here do so because they understand Elsie’s dedication and the fragility and magnificence of nature. Her passion has enriched us all.

For more information, visit http://www.refordgardens.com.

“The Mighty St. Lawrence” cruise, offered by Adventure Canada, has been named by National Geographic as one of its “50 Tours of a Lifetime.” Visit www.adventurecanada.com.  For more photos, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash.

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