Crossing the Ottawa River on an ice bridge

Looking across the Lefaivre-Montebello ice bridge from the south side at Lefaivre, Ontario. Photo: James Morgan

TV shows like Ice Road Truckers supposedly show the dangers of driving a big rig over miles of frozen lakes and rivers hundreds of miles from help if things go wrong.

But, let’s not debate the veracity of reality TV.

There’s an ice road right on the Ottawa River connecting Ontario and Quebec!

In the summer, several privately-run ferries traverse the river between Ottawa and Montreal. There’s only a road bridge at Hawkesbury across the river, so the ferries provide a convenient alternative, especially for people living in smaller communities.

In winter, ice conditions permitting of course, the car ferry between Lefaivre Ontario and Montebello Quebec becomes what is locally called the ice bridge.

The crossing connects Prescott and Russell Counties Route 24 with Quebec Route 148.

One of the Lefaivre-Montebello ferries, laid up for winter. Photo: James Morgan

The ferry closed for the winter in mid-December, but the recent cold weather has allowed some good ice to build up on the river.

Guy Deschamps, the ferry and ice bridge owner, did a bit of “road work” to get things ready.  The ice gets thickened by pumping water onto the top, which also makes it smoother. The snow gets plowed away too.

It’s about a one mile/1.6-kilometer drive across the ice bridge, and there are rules. The speed limit is 10 kilometers per hour/five miles per hour, the weight limit is five tons, and the owners are not responsible for any accidents. The $5.00 toll is paid at a booth on the Quebec side of the river.

Despite efforts to make the ice as smooth as possible, the forces of nature prevent that from being totally possible. There’s a big river flowing underneath. Pressure builds from the current. Driving across the ice bridge felt like a series of humps in a couple of places. Small cracks are visible, but fewer than are often seen on regular roads!

Ice fishing shacks near the bank of the Ottawa River in Lefaivre, Ontario. Photo: James Morgan

It’s two-way traffic on the ice. I crossed on a pretty quiet Sunday afternoon and only one pickup truck passed in the other direction.

Ice fishing shacks dot the landscape too, and most people on the river fishing drove out with cars, trucks, or snowmobiles.

The ice bridge is privately maintained, and the Ottawa River is under federal jurisdiction because it forms a provincial boundary. I admittedly took a couple of liberties while crossing that I would not normally take on a regular public highway. First, I didn’t wear a seat belt. I thought if anything went wrong, I wanted to be able to get the door open and abandon ship quickly. I also took video of the entire crossing, which would have violated both Ontario and Quebec’s tough laws on using hand-held devices while driving on public highways. The result though is a pretty good video with the occasional sound of a chime from the car reminding me I’m not wearing a seat belt.

Watch a trip across the ice bridge here:

The Lefaivre-Montebello ice bridge is an easy, fun, and affordable way to get an idea of what driving on an ice road is like. The scenery, culture and history on both sides of the river is great, so it’s also a good way of enjoying a visit to the area.

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