Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 19, 2017
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The mighty appealing Magdalens

Quebec's fish-hook shaped archipelago will reel you in hook, line and sinker

Leonard Clark’s great grandfather arrived on the Magdalen Islands clinging to a lifeboat after the Good Intent lost her rudder during a December gale in 1855. His wife’s grandfather floated ashore clinging to a ladder several decades later.

Leonard grew up in a house built in the 1860s from a wrecked ship. “I remember as a boy being able to see through holes in the planks where wooden pegs once fastened the ship’s timbers,” he said. “And there was a mysterious room in the attic done out like a captain’s cabin, with a bay window.” Hiding beneath his grandmother’s card table he eavesdropped on the old timers’ yarns and spent his days prowling dunes where shifting sands were swallowing the hulks of shattered ships.

The fire of curiosity kindled during those early years still burns in the eyes of the 78-year-old Clark who carried his youthful passion into adulthood by studying archeology in his spare time as a fisherman and farmer. After years of digging through shipping records and mariners’ journals in Europe and North America, Clark estimates the Magdalen shoals scuttled 1000 sailing vessels, making it the second largest marine cemetery in North America, after Sable Island.

The reason? Their location in the middle of the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, halfway between Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island. Surrounded by shallow depths and sand banks, they were a prime foundering ground for storm-struck 19th-century ships carrying wood to England and immigrants back to Canada. Many of the castaways stayed and their descendents, like Clark, are still there.

These islands are romantic as only remote specks of land can be, windswept and swirling with fog and adventure against a backdrop of pounding surf. The pace is leisurely and the cast of characters lively and colourful; an eclectic collection of weathered fishermen and seal hunters, artists and well-heeled refugees from the urban rat race have created an uncommon mix of rural simplicity and European charm.

Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine or simply Les Îles, as they are known in French, are an 80-kilometre-long, crescent-shaped archipelago fringed with 300 kilometres of wild, wide beaches; and filled with two vast, shallow lagoons. They have long been a summer getaway for Quebecers, since the islands are part of their province.

When the tourists — who triple the population in summer — thin out after Labour Day, departing on the five-hour car ferry to PEI, the islands are reclaimed by a year-round population of 12,000 that is 95 percent French Canadian; the balance who live in “The Maggies” are English speaking.

Baked by a long hot summer, the surrounding waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence keep the islands warm until late fall. The balmy September temperatures and low rolling landscape are perfect for bicycle touring on the web of backroads or on the seaside bike routes.

I pedalled out of the single main town, Cap-aux-Meules — or Grindstone to the English — past marshes crowded with wading herons and endless beaches blurring into distant sea mist. The small hamlets were charming. There was Bassin, a seaside community of mansard-roofed homes, or L’Étang-du-Nord, where I ordered the Café de la Côte’s specialty — gourmet salt cod pizza served on a deck overlooking one of the most recent shipwrecks, the Duke of Connaught.

The autumn light fired up the crumbling cliffs, rock stacks and lighthouses. The warm buttery light added intensity to the already electric colours of the gabled homes, painted mauve or candy pink, orange or turquoise with lime green or purple trim. Now landscape art, these vivid hues were originally an Acadian tradition to transform houses into beacons for fishermen returning from sea.


COTTAGE INDUSTRIES

Every few kilometres, I came upon a small family business producing the specialty products for which the islands are known. I met an herb gardener, two mackerel fisherman bringing in the day’s catch and I also dropped in at a wild boar farm. Benoit Arseneau smelled of smoke, when I stepped inside his huge shingled building with red shutters. “Occupational hazard,” grinned this third-generation owner of the herring smokehouse, Fumoir d’Antan. Arseneau was wrapping smoked herring roe bound for a Montreal restaurant. Just down the road, cheese maker Vincent Lalonde, clad in a lab coat and hairnet, sliced off samples of one of Quebec’s best-loved cheeses, Pied-de-Vent, and offered a spoonful of ultra-thick Normandy-style cream.

That morning, Dominique Gagnon had set breakfast in front of me; warm scones slathered with Pied-de-Vent cream and sweet homemade jam from wild strawberries no bigger than peas. Most island accommodation are in small bed-and-breakfast inns and Gagnon runs the chic seaside Au Salange with his physician wife. “We have seal pâté, fresh duck eggs and snow crab,” Gagnon said, listing off local gourmet fare. “There’s lobster, halibut and cod. Mussels and scallops are cultivated too.”

The next day, I headed off by car down Route 199, the country road that knits together the seven main inhabited islands. It was completed in 1956. Before that, residents had to row or wait for low tide to travel inter-island. Driving eastward off the island of Cap-aux-Meules, I crossed a short bridge to Île du Havre-aux-Maisons then skipped onto the Dune du Nord — a long thread of sand leading to the island of Grosse-Île — where kayakers paddled the calm waters of the lagoon on my right. On my left steady winds smashed rollers onto the beach.

I knew I’d reached the island of Grosse-Île without even consulting my map. Not only was the B&J Restaurant “open” instead of “ouvert,” but houses were no longer the colours of lobster floats. Instead the exteriors were weathered grey clapboard or shingles set on a rolling landscape reminiscent of the Scottish highlands. Grosse-Île is home to most of the islands’ 800 English-speaking residents — 150 of them live on tiny Entry Island, a short ferry ride from Cap-aux-Meules. While the French are linked culturally with Quebec, the English community has strong ties with the Maritimes.

Although both French and English communities are culturally strong and live largely in their separate enclaves, they mingle freely. Route 199 terminates on the easternmost island of Île de la Grande-Entrée, at a marina where 100 lobster boats were anchored. I stopped at the local café for their specialty, lobster pie.


GETTING PRIORITIES STRAIGHT

“Gone blueberry picking,” read the note stuck to the door of my B&B on the westernmost island of Havre-Aubert. When the innkeepers returned, Micheline Boucher, with a cloud of white hair styled by the winds and eyes as blue as the berries that stained her hands, made coffee and set out island-made chocolates.

Her husband, watercolour artist Louis Bernier, grabbed a sketch pad and joined us on the front steps overlooking the historic fishing village of La Grave. The couple had been vacationing on the islands for 20 years before finally quitting their busy jobs in Quebec City in 1996 to come run an inn and paint.

A short walk from the inn, La Grave is a hotbed for the arts. The town’s buildings are strung along a single main road that leads to fishing dock. They date from the 19th and early 20th century. Among them is a theatre that attracts performers from as far afield as France. Others house galleries and studios showing the works of local oil painters, jewellers and sculptors. Most unusual is Les Artisans du Sable, a gallery run by Albert Cummings. He and a group of four artists developed a process that mixes epoxy with the islands’ most abundant commodity — sand — to create a rock-like substance that can be carved with lathes into bowls, vases, plates and sculptures.

The interior of the Café de la Grave has been left largely untouched from its original incarnation as Savage’s General Store. Its clapboard walls are lined with shelves stocked with stacks of magazines and no two chairs or tables match. An exhibition of Louis Bernier’s watercolours adorned the walls when I visited.

For dinner, I ordered the island specialty pot-en-pot, a fish and seafood stew in a flaky crust. As the wine flowed and the laughter grew giddier, the café’s jovial owner headed for the upright piano and launched into ragtime tunes. He slowed for a melancholy French ballad and everyone joined in; I felt as though I’d been dropped onto the set of a 1940s’ European cabaret film.

Stepping out into the puddle of light spilling from the café then on into the darkness of the fishing village, I walked back towards my inn, the music and tinkling of glasses fading. Even among islands, the Magdalens are something special. After a week in this peaceful outpost I am reluctant to return to Montreal. So, before boarding my flight the next morning I do the only sensible thing I can think of: I reserve a slice of this refuge for myself, a beachfront cottage for next September.


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