Climbing aboard an Air Montmagny 8-seater airplane, I had barely sat down and it was over. The world’s shortest scheduled flight, from Cap-Saint-Ignance, just south of Quebec City, to Ile-aux-Grues, in the St. Lawrence River, was a staggering four minutes. Barely enough time to get my camera out to take shots of the 21 island/islets archipelago.
The small island in the Chaudière-Appalaches region was the beginning of our adventure along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, an area my friends and I had never experienced before. Gilles Tardif picked us up at the tiny airport and we headed to his inn, Maisons de Grand Héron. “I bought it as a summer home and the islanders convinced me to open a restaurant there. Now it is a main gathering place,” he told us. Dinner was sturgeon, caught in the St. Lawrence. “These fish can live up to 50 years and they get to be almost four meters long,” Gilles explained.
The next day we headed to a main employer on the island of around 90 inhabitants. Fromagerie de L’Isle’s sales manager, Michelle Beaulieu, had us try samples of cheese. My favourite was world award-winner Brie le Riopelle de l’Isle, a triple cream formula with flavours of mushroom and butter. I could see why Michelle proclaimed “We have the best cheese in Quebec!”
Then, Gilles took us on a quick tour of the island, a birders paradise. “More than 200 species stop here. We are a feeding stop for migrating birds such as great blue herons, snow geese and eagles,” he explained.
When we arrived at nearby Grosse Isle the next day, the focus was totally different. A quarantine station for the port of Québec from 1832 to 1937, this was the main entry point for immigrants. Three of my grandparents had come through here when they arrived from the United Kingdom in the 1920s. Parks Canada took over operation of the site in 1990 and costumed interpreters walked us through.
“Line up, men on one side, women on the other,” ordered a young man in a navy uniform. After introducing himself as the site’s assistant doctor, he told us to stick out our tongues. “If it is black, white or brown, you might have a disease,” he warned, noting the worst were typhus, diphtheria, small pox and cholera. Lucky, we all came out pink. He showed us the huge pressurized cages where belongings would be disinfected, and led us to the showers of water and disinfecting mercury hydrochloride. Thankfully, they had been out of use for almost 90 years.
Grosse Ile is also the site of the Irish Memorial. Our Parks guide, Chady Chahine, led us to a quiet corner of the island where white crosses mark the mass graves of more than 5,000 Irish immigrants, many who perished during the potato famine in 1847. A towering Celtic cross was positioned looking out over the water to honour the largest potato famine cemetery outside Ireland.
Back on the mainland, we drove to the Maritime Museum of Quebec in L’Islet. Highlights were the Earnest Lapointe, a Coast Guard icebreaker built in 1941, and Canada’s only hydrofoil, HMCS Bras d’Or. Capt. Bernard Girard, who helmed oil tankers for 25 years, showed us around the ice breaker. “The ships don’t directly plough into the ice, but climb up over it. Their weight bears down and breaks the ice,” he explained. The hydrofoil was an experimental project, used from 1960-71. Based on work of Alexander Graham Bell and Frederick Walker “Casey” Baldwin, her speeds could get up to 117 km per hour (the fastest unarmed warship in the world at the time). Unfortunately, it was an expensive project and when a new government came in, the military budget was cut.
Driving to Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies, we stopped to walk the gardens of Seigneurie des Aulnaies and tour the historic Dion family home. “The house was built in 1853. It’s a Regency style with 11-foot-ceilings. We have all the original Dion furniture,” explained our guide, clad in period dress complete with a hoop skirt.
After exploring the charming town of Kamouraska, in the Bas-Saint-Laurent region, we headed to Riviere-du-loup, our embarkation point for Ile aux Lievres, Island of Hares. The island is partially owned and managed by Duvetnor, a group founded to protect the thousands of seabirds that nest on the islands including razorbills, black guillemots, and common eiders. “Duvetnor bought the islands 20 years ago. Now there are seven cottages and an inn with nine bedrooms, as well as some campgrounds,” Melody Lachance, a coordinator with Duvetnor, explained.
That evening, Melody’s presentation was about science, conservation, and tourism. Duvetnor’s founder, Jean Bedard, was a Quebec biologist who along with seven colleagues, decided to do something to protect the nesting areas. One of their prime missions was to make harvesting of eider down sustainable.
“Seagulls are their biggest predators. The females pool together to defend the ducklings. If a baby loses its mother, the aunties take over,” explained Melody. The delicate technique of no-harm down collection was devised by Duvetnor and is now embraced by Conservation Canada. Females pluck down from their breasts to cover their eggs and keep them warm. In the old days, harvesters would gather the down, in some cases disturbing the nest so that the female would not return. Today, Duvetnor staff and volunteers visit each colony only once towards the end of incubation to collect a portion of down in each nest. It is cleaned and sterilised, then sold to wholesalers in Europe that supply comforter and outdoor wear manufacturers. Profits made from eiderdown (market price is $1,000 per kilo) allow Duvetnor to continue its good work.
Back on shore we stopped at Parc Nationale Bic, where 200 harbour seals make their home, the biggest colony in the St. Lawrence estuary and continued to Pointe-au-Pere. At the Historic Maritime Museum an exhibit told of Canada’s worst maritime disaster, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in 1914 when 1,012 people were lost. Owned by Canadian Pacific Steamships, the vessel went down in 14 minutes when she was struck in heavy fog, not far from the Museum. It was heartbreaking to see the artifacts that had been retrieved, including a tiny child’s purse. Also on the site was one of Canada’s highest lighthouses (33 meters) and the Onondaga, a 90-metre submarine built in 1967 and decommissioned in 2000.
Our final stop was Reford Gardens, a 30-minute drive from Pointe-au-Pere in the Gaspésie region. Despite it being mid-September, the garden was flourishing. There were at least 3,000 species of plants in more than a dozen gardens. It wasn’t the right season for its famous Himalayan blue poppy to be in bloom, but I saw pictures of this exquisite flower at Estevan Lodge, the summer home of Elsie Reford who created the gardens from 1926 to 1958. “George Steven was Elsie’s uncle. He built the Canadian Pacific Railway in five years. He built this house as a summer place to fish salmon. George gifted the property to Elsie in 1918,” explained Alexander Reford, Elsie’s great-grandson and the garden’s director and historian.
Nature, history and good food. I couldn’t have asked for more. The south shore of the St. Lawrence delivered in spades.
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