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Le Boreal Travel Journal - Boston to Montreal 10-Day Cruise

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Day 5 - Iles de la Madeleine (Magdalen Islands) - Morning Tour
South Dune Beach on Havre aux Maisons in the Iles de la Madeleine, Quebec

South Dune Beach on Havre aux Maisons in the Iles de la Madeleine, Quebec

Iles de la Madeleine (c) Linda Garrison
If you've never heard of the Iles de la Madeleine, you're not alone. This archipelago of a dozen islands (only seven inhabited) is located in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, about 60 miles from Prince Edward Island, 125 miles from the Gaspe peninsula of Quebec, and over 700 miles from Montreal. Six of the islands are connected with long, thin sand dunes, and a single highway--route 199. The whole group is shaped much like a fish hook or a crescent moon.

Although in maritime Canada and the Atlantic Time Zone, the islands are part of the province of Quebec. Jacques Cartier first wrote of the islands in 1534, and Samuel de Champlain put them on a map in 1629 with the name "La Magdeleine". The present name, Iles de la Madeleine was dubbed in 1663 in honor of the wife of the concessionaire of the islands in 1663. For a long time, many English maps showed the islands as the Magdalen Islands, but now all maps show the French name.

Many of today's 13,000 archipelago residents are descended from the Acadians who were exiled from Acadia to places all over the world in 1755. Some escaped the deportation and fled to these islands and others. Over 95 percent of today's residents are French, and the other 5 percent English-speaking (called Anglophones by the French), mostly of Scottish descent. Many Anglophones live in their own small communities and send their children to English schools, which are in a different district than the French ones.

Most Madelinots are involved with maritime-related occupations--either fishing or tourism. In the 1970's the islands had about 5,000 visitors, in 2010 there were over 50,000, mostly in July and August. Tourists and artists come for the 180 miles (300 km) of unspoiled beaches, the unique culture and heritage, and the peace and quiet. Most don't come for the swimming since the water temperature only reaches a maximum of the mid to upper 60's!

The Iles de la Madeleine residents consider their climate a "mild" maritime climate, since the seas make the winter weather much warmer than on mainland Quebec. They don't get much snow, but they do get lots of wind year-round, which makes driving a real challenge in the wintertime since the snow (and even sometimes the waves) can blow over the roads. These constant winds blow from 17 to 40 km/hr (9 to 22 knots), and even stronger in the winter. Surfers, kite boarders, and paragliders flock to the islands for the winds. There are hundreds of summer activities, including a major "sand castle" building contest each August. The area is a photographer's, birder's, and hiker's dream.

Getting to the archipelago is not easy. Only a few cruise ships visit each year, but the government is trying to attract more. Most (about 80 percent) visitors arrive via the 5-hour ferry from Prince Edward Island. Others arrive via plane from Montreal (non-stops in the summer; 2 stops the rest of the year). Both air and ferry costs are high, but just knowing you can occasionally escape makes life more bearable for many Madelinots.

The third largest employer are the salt mines. The islands sit on seven large salt domes, and the one closest to the surface has been mined for road salt for several years. I thought it was interesting that they found the salt domes when drilling for oil.

Some mariners found their way to the islands by accident. Over 400 shipwrecks have been recorded, mostly ships swept ashore by storms. The sailors who survived sometimes made the islands their home.

The French culture of the islands is different than either Quebec or France, which is not surprising given their isolation (until the advent of modern communication methods). The language is more Acadian French, which came from the "Old French" of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The accent even varies from island to island, since each individual island was isolated until the road connected them in the 1950's. For example, instead of rolling their "Rs" like most French speakers, one island has made them completely silent. According to local legend, the reason for this change dates back to the Acadians. The British consistently tried to get the Acadians to pledge their allegiance to the King of England. (King is "Roi" in French). To avoid saying this word, they just dropped the "R" from all pronunciation. Good story, isn't it?

Madelinots fish for lobsters, scallops, snow crab, fish, and shellfish. Lobster is the most important crop. The current lobster season starts the first week of May and runs for about nine weeks until the first week of July. The lobster fishing starts at 5 am on opening day, and it's a race to the favorite lobster spots. Due to over-fishing of many species in the past, the fishermen now work cooperatively with the game and fish experts of the area to control the numbers of lobsters and other fish taken. There are 325 lobster fishermen in the islands, and each can put out less than 300 traps per day. (Starting in 2004 when they could use 300 traps, the fishermen agreed to cut back three traps each years for 10 years to help conserve the population, so in 2011 they could only put out 282. They will re-evaluate when it gets in 2014.) Although each trap can only be put out once each day, a dozen or more lobsters might be in the trap when it is pulled up. They can't keep any lobster whose body is less than 3.25 inches long. Fishermen got $4.78 per pound of lobster in 2011, but only $3.72 per pound the year before. Like many "farmers" who rely heavily on primarily one crop (e.g. the tobacco farmers of the South), they make most of their income during these few short weeks each year. Our tour bus driver was primarily a lobster fisherman, but works at other odd jobs the rest of the year.

Le Boreal arrived at the ferry dock at Cap-aux-Meules (Cape of Grindstone) about 7:30 am. The day was perfect--sunny and about 65-70. The wind was as light as it ever gets, although the flags were all blowing out straight. The small village (about 1500 residents) has the same name as the island. The name comes from the small rocks/grindstone in the hill overlooking the port. I had signed up for both a morning and an afternoon tour, since I thought it unlikely I would get a chance to return. The morning tour left at 8:30, and I was delighted to see that the English-speakers had our own small bus! Thirteen of us, plus Stephan the driver and an exceptional guide named Susan set off to tour two of the islands--Ile du Havre Aubert and Ile du Havre Aux Maisons.

Susan is originally from Winnepeg and met her husband over 25 years ago at a bilingual camp. She didn't speak any French and he spoke no English. They flirted with each other and found a way to communicate. Like many young people, he had left the islands at age 16 to further his education elsewhere in Canada. (students can now go up through junior college on the islands). He didn't plan to return. They married, lived in Japan and elsewhere around the world, returning to the islands 17 years ago to make their home there. She teaches ESL part-time, and he was a journalist who is now the mayor. She said many young people are like her husband; they leave, but return to raise a family.

We left Cap-aux-Meules and drove southwest towards Havre Aubert Island. Much of the road follows the very narrow sand dunes, which are covered in sea grass. Years ago they used to allow camping and hiking on the dunes, but it is now strictly controlled to try and protect them. Road crews have added large rocks to the shoreline along the road to help slow erosion. Havre Aubert is the southern end of the archipelago and is the most forested (it still has very few trees, since most of the forests were cut down years ago to build houses and for firewood and were never replanted). The short growing season keeps the few trees small.

We first stopped at Site d'Autrefois, the home of Claude Bourgeois, who was once captain of the Annick, a lobster fishing boat. In 1990, his boat sank during a storm. He survived, but was injured both physically and mentally. He retired from fishing four years later and began constructing a small historical village like that of his grandfather on his land, primarily for therapy. He opened the site in 1998, and he is quite a character. We all enjoyed hearing his stories of life as a lobster fisherman and singing with his guitar. Seeing a 24" x 32" (regulated size) lobster trap up close and learning how the fishermen make these traps (which last about 5-7 years) was fascinating. The biggest lobster even caught was 42 pounds in the Bay of Fundy, and the biggest one in the Iles de la Madeleine was 26 pounds, which was estimated to be about 45-50 years old. Claude's biggest was 10 pounds, but even that size is too big to eat (tough). Most lobsters caught are about 7 years old.

After listening to Claude, we walked around his re-created village, looking at the traditional buildings, filled with antique furniture and farm equipment. Very touching visit since the village seemed to be re-created so lovingly and Claude was so passionate about his life.

We left Claude's after about an hour and made our way to the historical site of La Grave, at the far end of the island near the main village of Havre-Aubert. This site was the first settlement in all the islands and is a on a small cape, which is so narrow that all of the buildings are waterfront on either one side of the road or the other. The buildings are brightly colored, and we all thought it a magical place. Unfortunately, the Musee de la Mer (Maritime Museum) at the "end of the road" was closed for renovation, and may not open for another year or so. Things move slowly in these islands, just like in other parts of the world like the Caribbean.

We had free time to visit the shops and beachcomb. Many artists (and others) in these eclectic islands come from all over the world. For example, a Japanese artist came here and stayed, as did a Javanese silk batik artist, a Brazilian oceanographer, and our guide. One of the shops, Artisans du Sable, is part of the Economusee network, where visitors can watch artists at work in a workshop-boutique setting. One of the specialties at this workshop was art made of a "secret" mixture of sand held together with some type of resin substance. The gorgeous pieces look like they would crumble immediately, but are quite heavy and rock-like.

Leaving Havre Aubert, we drove back towards the ship, stopping at a fish smokehouse on Havre Aux Maisons Island. Our guide and her family live on this island, which is between Havre Aubert and the main island of Cap aux Meules. Susan told us that family units are very important here, and men identify themselves by using their first name followed by their father's first name. For example, her husband is Joel and his father Euclid. So, her husband goes by Joel aux Euclid (aux is "of"). In the phone book, his name is listed as Joel E., although E. is not his middle initial. Sometimes the names go on and on like Joel aux Euclid aux the grandfather's name, etc.

The fish smokehouse was owned by two brothers. Smoked herring used to be a major revenue source for the island, but the herring were overfished, so now the brothers just sell to the local market. They even have to "import" herring from New Brunswick to get enough. We toured one of the smokehouses that was no longer used, seeing old photos and reading how the fish were prepared. We moved to the fish smokehouse, where one of the brothers briefly opened a door for us to see from the outside, but we didn't go into the smoky building where they use maple wood and sawdust to smoke. The fish are soaked in salty brine for 2-3 days, followed by 2-3 months of 24-hr/day in the smokehouse. The final product is similar to beef jerky only harder.

Finally, we saw a short video of workers performing the various steps, had a taste of the two types of smoked herring (dry and in an oily sauce), and had a chance to buy some. I brought some of the herring in the oily sauce home and was very happy that the glass jar made the journey home in my checked luggage without breaking!

Our last stop on the morning tour was at St. Peter's Catholic Church (Saint-Pierre de La Verniere) in Cap aux Meules. This is the second largest wooden church in North America. (The largest is in Nova Scotia.) The church was first built from wood stored in the hold of a boat bound for Europe from North America. It sunk near the island, and the cargo transferred to another ship. That ship also sank not long after leaving the islands. The owners of the cargo decided it was hexed and gave it to the church. Not long after the framework of the church was completed a huge storm blew it to the ground. They "double-blessed" the wood and the site before starting over! The church was opened in 1876 and enlarged in the 1900's. It was classified a Canadian historical monument in 1992 and is still an active church.

The inside of the church was lovely, but the graveyard was mesmerizing, with lots of interesting old gravestones and a marvelous view of the sea. We got back to the ship about 1:15, with just enough time to have a quick bite before the afternoon tour of some more of the Iles de la Madeleine at 2:15.

Le Boreal New England and Atlantic Canada Cruise Travel Journal

  1. Overview and Embarkation
  2. Bar Harbor, Maine
  3. Halifax, Nova Scotia
  4. Halifax - Peggy's Cove
  5. Louisbourg, Nova Scotia
  6. Iles de la Madeleine, Quebec (Magdalen Islands) - Morning Tour
  7. Iles de la Madeleine - Afternoon Tour
  8. Perce, Quebec
  9. Perce - Bonaventure Island
  10. Havre St. Pierre, Quebec - Niapiskau Island
  11. Havre St. Pierre, Quebec - Quarry Island
  12. Tadoussac, Quebec
  13. Saguenay, Quebec
  14. Quebec City
  15. Montreal and Disembarkation

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