Timeless Sands: Canada's Iles de la Madeleine
by Theresa Schadeck-Storm
It is quiet. The beach is deserted, except for the six of us on horseback. As we ride down the west dune on a golden mid-September afternoon, we watch the waves roll in gently, rhythmically, and break, sometimes washing the horses' hooves. This strand--like the others which total more than 186 miles of waterfront--is littered with blue mussels, slender razor clams, tiny crabs and clumps of seaweed.
Rising from the inky depths of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Iles de la Madeleine resemble fine white sandcastles. Sculpted of ivory, honey and deep rust-colored sand, their gleaming dunes stretch for miles and miles, undisturbed.
Out To Sea
Located 133 miles off the eastern coast of Canada in the Eastern Canadian Maritimes, the 12 islands--only seven of which are inhabited--stretch over 40 miles in length. While locals, called Madelinots, describe the archipelago's shape as a half-moon, we thought it looked more like a crab. The islands are formally part of Quebec, though closest in distance to Prince Edward Island.
Settled in 1755 by primarily French-speaking Acadians who were fleeing deportation to the Anglo-American colonies (for refusing to swear allegiance to Britain), the islands were also home to many shipwreck survivors who decided to make the refuge a permanent residence. And no wonder: dotted with traditional Acadian wooden houses brightly painted in every color of the palette, the islands are strikingly beautiful, natural and unpolluted, as well as very isolated.
Les Iles de la What?
Most folks--even Canadians--have never heard of the Magdalen Islands, as English-speakers call them. As we journeyed through New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, the people we encountered skeptically asked us what we would do there for three days, even though our interrogators had never been to the islands themselves.
At the tourist office on the main island of Cap aux Meules, we learned there are lots of adventure activities from which to choose--even some of which I had never heard before, like buggy surfing, which involves sitting in a dune buggy and being pulled by a huge kite. There's also sightseeing, sea kayaking, beachcombing and shopping for quality handicrafts made of the islands' sand and alabaster--a rock-like marble, but softer.
A Peaceful Paddle
The next morning was clear, sunny and as warm as summer. I, a prairie girl, was eager to try sea kayaking for the second time. I met a guide from Aventure Plein Air, one of three operators who offer guided kayaking trips around the islands. After a brief explanation of "how to steer this thing" and how to get the skirt off in the unlikely event of a rollover, we set off from a tiny sheltered bay of Cap aux Meules.
The sea was dead calm; the water surprisingly warm. My paddle dipped into the liquid glass, one side and then the other, almost effortlessly. We hugged the uneven shoreline and I marveled at the magnificent shapes the elements had created in the fragile red sandstone cliffs--towering, teetering pillars, giant capped mushrooms, and ghostly hoodoos. As our guide explained, their rich red color is exactly what it looks like--rust--caused by oxidation of the sandstone's high iron content.
Soon we were paddling through natural arches and into grottos or caves, though I was a little nervous at first. Some had tunnels you could paddle through, others required an about-face to get out. We listened to the hypnotic sound of the waves slapping against the walls and sang to hear our echoes.
Another popular way to experience the cliffs and caves is to don a wet suit and snorkel gear and participate in a guided "float." For the less adventurous, Zodiac tours are also available.
Wanting to learn about fishing, the Madelinots' major economic activity, we also embarked on a mackerel-fishing venture not far from the shore of Cap aux Meules. Gaston Arseneau, owner of Excursions En Mer, handed me a wooden paddle to which a fishing line and hook were attached. "You jig," he explained. I looked at him quizzically--I thought a jig was a dance. For fishing, however, jigging means throwing out a line, and then repeatedly pulling it up and down about a foot.
Before long a fellow fisher-woman let out a squeal and pulled in the first catch. We laughed at her disgusted expression as she gingerly attempted to unhook the wriggling, slimy fish. Soon it was my turn and I was just as squeamish. One after the other the mackerel bit and we all became adept at pulling them in. An especially feisty one jumped out of my hands and provoked a Laurel-and-Hardy-style chase from me and a mate.
Within two and a half hours I had caught at least a dozen mackerel and the six of us estimated our haul at 75 or so. Some would surely find their way into a pot-en-pot, the Madelinots' rich seafood pie full of lobster, scallops, crab and fish.
A Colorful Past
The next day at the Musee de la Mer (Museum of the Sea) on Ile du Havre Aubert, we learned more about fishing and the Acadian settlers. Not surprisingly, extraordinary stories and legends abound, passed from generation to generation via the islanders' oral tradition that includes story-telling, musical instruments, singing and dancing. The Madelinots love a good fete and travelers are welcome to join in.
Seeking a relaxing adventure, we next headed to Ile de la Grande-Entree at the opposite end of the archipelago. At Club Vacances Les Iles, an all-inclusive resort and activity center, we joined in a trek to Boudreau Island. We piled into a Rabaska war canoe and paddled across a sheltered lagoon chock full of mussels and scallops. As we climbed to the top of the verdant green and gentle-rolling island, the vistas resembled those of Scotland.
Mud Bath, Anyone?
A rope helped us descend the crumbling red cliff on the other side. Safely down, we grabbed a chunk of clay-like mud, wet it and, to gales of laughter, covered ourselves and each other head to foot in russet-colored mud. The minerals, they claim, are good for your skin. Regardless, it sure was fun.
We had also arranged to try a couple of unique activities on Cap aux Meules that I had not encountered before ? dog sled-ding on a sand dune and buggy surfing--but the plans changed. The dog-sled operator, who was out fishing the same time we were, never showed, since the mackerel were biting enthusiastically that day. And the next morning dawned perfect and windless, eliminating the kite activity. "C'est la vie," as the Madelinots say.
Despite our earlier reservations, we actually found that three days weren't nearly enough to sample all of the island's activities, such as hiking or cycling the extensive paths, snorkeling with the grey seals, sailing or surf kayaking.
Helene Arseneau, a local guide, laughed as she explained that most first-time visitors only come for three or four days, not expecting much. But the next time they come back for at least a week or two.
Much wiser, next time I'll plan an extended stay on these glorious isles of sand.
For more information about the islands, including accommodations, contact:
Les Iles de la Madeleine Tourist Information Office, Tel: 418-986-2245; Fax: 418-986-2327; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: http://www.ilesdelamadeleine.com
Club Vacances Les Iles; Tel: 418-985-2833; Fax: 418-985-2226; E-mail: clubiles@cancom. net; Website: http://www.clubiles.qc.ca
Aventure Plein Air (sea kayaking,Tel: 418-986-6140. La Chevauchee Desiles (horseback riding), Tel: 418-937-2368 or 418-937-5453.
Excursions en Mer (fishing; interpretation tour of caves, cliffs and lobster fishing, and more) P.O. Box 131, Havre-aux-Maisons, Magdalen Islands, Quebec, G0B 1K0; Tel: 418-986-4745.
Eole Aventure (buggy and kite surfing); Tel: 418-986-6140.
For information about other tour operators, see the Geographical Index under "Canada--Quebec."