Remote Passage: A Canadian Cargo Ship Voyage
by Brian Payton
It wasn't just the sound of it slamming into the bow, or the way it scraped against the hull; it was the way the ship pitched and shimmied that really shook me from my dreams. I was lying frozen in the blackness of my cabin--as if any movement I could make might affect our chances for survival. By the time Celine Dion's Titanic theme started playing in my head, I knew it was timefor action. Bleary-eyed and cowlicked, I marched upstairs past seemingly unconcerned souls chatting away over breakfast. Didn't they know what was happening? I continued up to the bridge deck andout into the light. We were surrounded by a big blue--sky above, sea below--with broken sheets of white drifting in between. I rubbed my eyes, slammed the door, and marched back down for coffee.
Forget the Shuffleboard and Canapes
A cruise ship this is not. Classed for light ice duty, the i>M.V. Nordik Express is a supply vessel that has been fitted to carry a small number of passengers. From April to January, it is the link between the isolated fishing villages scattered along the "Lower North Shore" of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the rest of Quebec--in all, 15 communities and some 560 miles of lonely coastline. The other three months of the year the pack ice is so thick that airplane and snowmobile are the only means of getting in or out.
It was early May and the ship was filled with trucks, food and equipment, but only a half-dozen or so Coasters--the people who call this area home. Life on board revolved around meals, landfall and plenty of free time in between. I spent most of mine on the upper deck watching the scenery float past. I discovered that it is best viewed as a minimalist whole (sky, sea, ice and flat ribbon of land) or in tight focus on the hues of a single iceberg or the small arctic wildflowers coloring the shore. It is a world few outsiders get to see.
A Cultural Mosaic
The Lower North Shore has been home to the Montagnais, Kaskapi and Inuit for at least 8,000 years. It is believed that Leif Erikson and his Vikings were the first Europeans to show up, around the year 1000. 500 years later, Gaspar Corte Real sailed here for the king of Portugal and christened it "Terra Corterealis" in honor of himself. The name didn't stick.
Then the Basques came to fish, followed by the French and English, whose descendants live in the area today. Most of the 6,000 or so inhabitants of the Lower North Shore still depend on the fishing industry, but since the collapse of the cod stocks, many have set their sights on crab, scallops, lobster, salmon and herring.
Coasters are proud of their historic ties to the sea, but as the myth of a limitless resource fades into memory, they are scrambling to adapt. Although only a few hundred visitors reach Quebec's Lower North Shore each year, their numbers are growing. Tourism is seen as a small but hopeful new industry. The main attraction is the wildlife (whales and sea birds); colorful, close-knit communities; and a location that is far from the maddening crowd.
En route, the Nordik Express stops briefly at Montagnais-, French-, and English-speaking villages. To make the most of each stop, visitors should bring a mountain bike along, but they need to make sure they are back at the ship in plenty of time as latecomers will be left behind. This can be a good thing if they plan ahead, since passengers can stop at a village, stay for a couple of days, then catch the ship heading back.
Although tourist accommodations and services are limited, people are friendly and eager to help. Places to consider getting stranded: Harrington Harbour, Providence Island and the Mingan Archipelago.
When you land in Harrington Harbour, you may technically be in Quebec, but this English-speaking village of 315 feels more like a chip off "the old Rock." And in a way it is. Harrington Harbour was settled in 1871 by fishermen from Newfoundland.
Point and Shoot
Fishing boats and skiffs bounce in the wake. Kids roam freely and everyone rides bikes and ATV's between stark, pastel houses on a network of wide boardwalks and bridges. There are no cars or roads. A quick tour of the village will set you back at least a roll or two of film.
Harrington Harbour is a great place to hide from the world for a few days. The local accent and expressions alone are enough to keep visitors entertained, and residents don't seem to mind tourists walking around snapping pictures of everything in sight. As local Jonathan Cox (age 13) explained, "In a small place like this, everyone's related. We get tired of looking at the same old faces all the time."
Tourists can hike and take pictures or set up the easel and watercolor, play pool in the pub and get opinions about the Department of Fisheries and Quebec separatists. Jonathan's father, Richard Cox, will fire up his boat and take people to neighboring villages, Providence Island, St. Mary's Islands bird sanctuary, whale watching, fishing or anywhere else they want to go. Jonathan will take those interested on an escorted tour up to the caves above the village. If they ask, he'll tell visitors the legend of the lady who passed a lonely winter there many years ago.
Providence Island, Take Me Away!
Another must-see spot, Tete-a-la-Baleine, was named for an outer island that resembles the head of a whale. For much of its history it was a community divided in two: a winter village on the mainland and a summer village on Providence Island. This migration was practiced for generations until motorboats came into use.
Now Providence Island is mostly used as a weekend getaway. Low hills covered with grass and Labrador Tea surround its protected harbor. During the week the village almost has the feel of a movie set or ghost town, as the small collection of weathered buildings slowly yields to the elements.
Like the rest of the coast, this French-speaking village has traditionally depended on cod and seals. Seals were hunted commercially until an international outcry and bans led to the demise of the industry. Although locals now rely on harvesting scallops, seals are still hunted for subsistence.
A Culinary Bounty
The day I arrived, Oderic Marcoux--one of the few people who stays on the island all summer--had some frying on the wood stove. For dessert there were tarts made from chicoutai, the prized wild crop of this land. Each plant offers up a single sweet/sharp berry per year and is harvested for jams, jellies, pies and liquor.
Yet, despite its obvious appeal, only a handful of travelers ever venture out to Providence Island, mostly because of its remoteness and the apparent lack of things to do. Solitude, however, is its main attraction. A church built in 1895 dominates the little village, and its back room has been renovated into a basic, self-catering hostel. Those who bring a book, some wine and an appetite for seafood--particularly scallops--can take up temporary residence in God's house for around $50 per person, per day (lodging, three meals and taxes included).
Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve is also stunning, located between Harve Saint Pierre and Anticosti Island. Consisting of 40 main islands and about 900 islets scattered over 93 miles, the archipelago attracts an abundance of marine life, including whales (minke, humpback, fin, and blue) and sea birds (arctic tern, razor bill, sandpiper, kittiwake, and Atlantic puffin). Nineteen species of arctic orchid can be found on the islands. The park's signature attraction, unusual limestone monoliths cut from the shore by erosion, give the place a surrealist, Easter Island look and have inspired generations of artists and poets.
The main islands of Mingan can be toured in a day by "Bus Boat," or visitors can kayak and camp. June is the best time to view nesting puffins and blooming wildflowers. Accommodation, transportation, and outfitters can be found in Harve Saint Pierre, which is accessible by road--unlike the rest of the Lower North Shore.
The M.V. Nordik Express may not offer champagne and canapes on the Lido Deck. But the natural luxuries of traveling along the beautiful Lower North Shore are indeed countless.
If You Go:
A no-frills cargo/passenger vessel, the Nordik Express carries a maximum of 60 passengers in a total of 16 cabins that are basic, clean and comfortable. A round trip between Harve Saint Pierre and Blanc Sablon costs $285 including a berth in a cabin and three meals per day.
Pack warm clothes, binoculars, waterproof and windproof clothing--even in summer. Bring a mountain bike, a bird book, and your high school French. Many people in these communities speak little or no English.
The Nordik Express can be reached via: Relais Nordik Inc. (418) 723-8787; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see Geographical Index under "Quebec" or "Canada."