The first thing you notice about the St. Lawrence River is its size.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.