COVID restrictions deprived Elva of the thing she wanted most for her 70th birthday on February 4; a gathering of family and friends. To make matters worse, we awoke that day to a howling snowstorm, so bad that I had to cancel dinner plans and make a mad dash to Sobeys for a couple of lobster and a store-bought cake. A Plan B emerged as Elva and her friend, Lise Journault, opted for a few days of hiking on the îles de la Madeleine’s (ÎDM) long-distance walking trail, Entre vents et marées. Ferry and accommodations were booked, and they left on June 18.
Elva’s good friend, Martha LeBel, passed away on June 24, 2014. She owned a summer house in her home village of Bassin on Île-du-Havre-Aubert, and Elva and her Prince Edward Island friends visited her there several times. Elva and Lise spent five days on foot, averaging 18 kilometers per day. I joined them on June 24, accompanied by Lise’s husband, Barry Hunt, and friends Betty and Ivan Bordage. The photos below show Elva and Lise and Martha's house.
I’d been to the ÎDM twice, the last time at least fifteen years ago. It has changed a great deal in that time. The archipelago sits in the middle of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and consists of eight major islands, all inhabited except île Brion: île du Havre-Aubert, île du Cap-aux-Meules, île du Havre-aux-Maisons, île de la Pointe-aux-Loups, Grosse-Île, Grande-Entrée, and Entry Island. All are connected by bridges and causeways except Entry Island, accessible only by boat. Route 199 runs from La Grave on île du Havre-Aubert to Grande-Entrée, a distance of 84 kilometers, with nice, wide shoulders for we cyclists.
When I travel, I try to understand what makes a place tick; what are its vitals. In the case of the ÎDM, it has a land area of less than 4% of Prince Edward Island’s and is home to some 13,000 people. The population must surely double in the summer months as tourists flock there, mostly from Québec. The main industries are fishing and tourism. A salt mine operated by Windsor Salt provides employment as well.
The principal fishery is lobster with Magdalen Islanders holding 325 licenses, compared to 1,200 on Prince Edward Island. Many islanders work in the lobster and snow crab fisheries as well as in the associated processing plants, although the jobs are seasonal. This year, the average lobster fisher will catch 50,000 pounds and sell at $8.00 a pound or so. An attractive return, yes, but, with a license, gear, and boat going for 1.5 million dollars or so, fishers must work hard and smart to make a go of it.
We arrived on a typically rainy and foggy day and met up with Elva and Lise at Martha’s house in Bassin. Over the next two days, we were entertained and fed by Martha’s extended family: Marie-Berthe and Martin; Ghislaine and Céline; Denise and Martin; Jacqueline and Gérald; and Louise, who’s husband, Jean-Yves, was cycling from Val d’Or to Bassin as a fund-raiser. Spending time with them couldn’t have been more pleasant. They are friendly and genuine people who appreciate the true meaning of hospitality. We marveled at how close they are as family and friends and how well they've adapted to the sometimes-harsh climate and the winter isolation.
On Saturday, I pedaled from Bassin to Laverdière and back to La Grave, near where my uncle, Dr. Raymond Reid, was born. Elva had prepared a meal of chili for the gang. On Sunday, Elva and I played tourist, visiting l’île du Cap-aux-Meules, l’île du Havre-aux-Maisons, and the beach at Sandy Hook. We learned that the Tim Horton’s in Cap-aux-Meules is closed on Saturdays and that the nearby Subway and A&W are closed permanently, all due to a shortage of labour. My, how our world has changed! The photos below were taken at Étang-du-Nord.
The photos below show La Grave and the beach at Sandy Hook with Entry Island in the background.
We visited Estelle Thériault and Marcel Eloquin at la Dune-du-Sud. We knew Estelle from time she spent working on our Island as a teacher assistant. That evening, we’d invited members of Martha’s family and friends for a supper of lasagna. As the photo shows, it was une belle tablée!
Elva and I left Bassin the next morning, but not before having breakfast at the home of Martha’s sister, Denise. She lights a fire in the back yard and invites family, friends, and neighbours to coffee every morning at 5:30! Stuffed, we said goodbye to Martha’s family and headed north on Route 199 toward our destination, Grande-Entrée.
Along the way, we stopped at the Cap-Dauphin wharf in Grosse-Île and at Old Harry, one of my favourite spots on the islands. The harbour at Old Harry was abandoned several years ago but on a clear, windy day, it offered spectacular views of the capes and La plage de la grande échouerie, one of the islands’ many beaches, 300 kilometers or so of white sand as far as the eye can see. On a far sadder note, we came across two dead gannets half-buried in the sand and, to my shock and amazement, a nearby front-end loader holding a bucketful of the poor creatures, all dead from avian flu.
Our host for our last two nights on the island was Lucie Coulombe, a woman we’d met on a South Pacific cruise in the fall of 2019. She’s spent summers in Grande-Entrée since buying a house there some eight years ago. We drove to the wharf and watched lobster boats ride the pounding surf as they came into port with the day’s catch. Some 130 lobster boats fish out of Grande-Entrée, making it one of the largest commercial small craft harbours in Canada.
We drove down the Pealey Road and walked out to the point to watch wind and kite surfers and took these pictures, bracing against the wind.
Lucie and her partner, Jean-Rock, laid on a feast for us and three other friends from Québec, Josée, Jocelyne and Roger: smoked salmon and scallops and, of course, all the lobster we could eat, topped off by a dessert made of bread soaked overnight in maple syrup. All of that enjoyed in the comfort of Lucie’s gazebo as we watched the sun set over the Havre de la Grande-Entrée.
The next morning, Lucie gave us the grand tour of the community, including the ÎDM’s only roundabout, located strategically at the northern terminus of Route 199. Why? God only knows. We visited the Catholic church and the business where Jean-Rock works and saw a monstrous 50-foot fibreglass lobster boat being built there.
The neighbouring community, Grosse-Île, is English-speaking, one of only two on the ÎDM, the other being Entry Island. The English make up only 5% of island residents but they have their own school, their own lobster and crab processing facility, and Grosse-Île has its own municipal government.
We stopped at St. Peters Anglican Church and admired the display featuring photos of all the Magdalen Islanders lost at sea. Next, we visited the Little Red School where our excellent guide told us about island life as it was in the past. Then she led us to the Veterans Museum, the best display of its kind I’ve seen anywhere. It features photos and stories of all the Magdalen Islanders who served in the two World Wars. Next on Lucie’s list was a stop at Holy Trinity Anglican where we took in the beauty of the stained-glass windows above the altar. The churches, the old school and the museum are all projects of CAMI, the Council of Anglophone Magdalen Islanders. I wondered what impact Québec’s Bill 96 might have on a minority like them with such deep roots on the islands.
After enjoying a hearty lunch at the Fish Shack, I pedaled through the village and back along Route 199 through the Réserve faunique de la Pointe-de-l’Est and the village of Grosse-Île, past the Mines Seleine and the islands’ two lone windmills before turning back for home. We said our goodbyes to Lucie and Jean-Rock and thanked them for their amazing hospitality and for educating us on the realities of island life.
The next morning, we got up bright and early for the drive for the ferry at Cap-aux-Meules, where we rejoined Lise, Barry, Betty, and Ivan for the trip back to reality. The Madeleine II is an impressive ferry; very smooth, well-appointed, and with an excellent cafeteria.
We packed a lot into the days we spent on the ÎDM, Elva especially. It is a wonderful place to visit, better still if you know someone there. To the wonderful people who hosted us, laughed with us, and taught us about life on the islands, un gros merci et à la prochaine!