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The Spell of Lake Memphremagog

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large_ogden.12.jpgLake Memphremagog is one of the jewels of the Eastern Townships. Reputedly Abenaki for "Beautiful Waters," or less romantically "the Great Pond Place," Memphremagog is blessed with some of the most stunning scenery in the region. The lake stretches 27 miles (44 km) from below Newport, Vermont in the south, all the way up to Magog, Quebec in the north. Memphremagog's past is almost as colourful as the sun that drops behind Owl's Head Mountain at the end of a clear day, or as the trees that line the shores and turn bright red and orange in autumn.

During Memphremagog's early history, the lake served as a convenient canoe route for the Indigenous peoples who inhabited the area. In the late 1700s, as American pioneers began to push north through New England into Canada, the lake continued to serve as a vital waterway. The northern outlet of the lake, the Magog River, flowed into Lake Magog and the St. Francis River, which in turn flowed into the St. Lawrence.

medium_memphre2.jpgBy the mid-1800s, Memphremagog was becoming a vacation resort for travelers from both sides of the border. At first, the lake was the playground of the affluent who bought large estates along the eastern shore, especially around the sleepy hamlet of Georgeville, and along the shore northeast of Newport. Later the arrival of the railroads at both ends of the lake (the Passumpsic and the Waterloo & Magog) brought a constant stream of passengers from Montreal and all over New England. The boom was on!

Vast luxury hotels were built. In their day, Memphremagog House in Newport and Mountain House at the foot of Owl's Head were famous all over North America for their luxury and style. Steamships like the Mountain Maid and the Lady of the Lake whisked travelers from one end of the lake to the other. Memphremagog had become the resort of northern New England and the Eastern Townships. The grand hotels would eventually disappear, but the boom would continue well into the 20th century when vacationers began to give way to summer cottagers. Today, Lake Memphremagog enjoys a mix of full-time residents, cottagers, and tourists.

What is perhaps most remarkable about the lake is that, despite its popularity, it has not been spoiled by over-development. It is just as beautiful as it was 200 years ago. Owl's Head (with a ski resort on its north face), Bear Mountain, and Mount Elephantis still loom majestically over the water, and Mount Orford, another ski resort and the center of a provincial park not far from Magog, rises into view.

During fishing season, anglers flock in droves to the base of Owl's Head, where the water reaches a depth of over 100 metres (350 feet). Here trout, landlocked salmon, and (according to fable) the sea serpent Memphré lurk. The lake's 20 islands still attract sailboat enthusiasts who moor their rigs off the tree-lined shores. Skinner's Cave, once the haunt of a legendary smuggler, still gapes its jagged maw at passing canoeists. The foreboding Province Island, so named because of the international border (the "province line") that slices through it, still welcomes flocks of gulls to its long sandbar.

The place names of Memphremagog tell stories as well. One has only to think of Molson Island to be reminded of the great brewing family after whom it is named. Some places bear the names of early settlers: Austin, Magoon Point, Knowlton Landing. Others recall the lake's Indigenous past: Indian Point, Magog, Wigwam Point…

large_memphre1.jpgOne of two surviving covered bridges in Quebec to cross a lake still spans the Narrows of Fitch Bay, the long northeast arm of Lake Memphremagog. Famous St-Benoît-du-Lac Abbey overlooks Memphremagog's western shore opposite Georgeville. Magog, with its public beach, bustling nightlife, and picturesque main street, is a vibrant town, particularly during the summer and peak ski season. Cruise boats in Magog and Newport still take visitors for excursions up and down the lake. Cottagers still enjoy the fabulous sunsets over Owl's Head. They will do so, no doubt, for years to come, as long as Memphremagog continues to cast its spell on all who look upon it.