August/September 2015

2016 Subaru Forester

Notable locations:
Auberge la Salicorne
Fromagerie du Pied-de-Vent
Fumoir d’Antan
Old Harry Beach

For many Canadians, going on vacation means crossing borders. This summer, why not consider exploring the vast beauty and wonder of our home and native land?

The Magdalen Islands — les Îles-de-la-Madeleine in French — are among our most precious hidden gems. Remote, exotic, and utterly beautiful, this tiny archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is a popular French Canadian destination but is virtually unknown outside of Quebec. You can even get there with your own car and, with a bit of ingenuity, camp out in it and take in the islands up close and on the slimmest of budgets.

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Additional notes:

This was the very first multi-day road trip I ever took with my daughter. She was four at the time. It was… ambitious, more so than I really let come across in the published story. We pulled it off, and both of us remember it extremely fondly despite the occasional moments requiring extra patience (from both of us). I’m very fortunate that she’s always been a trouper, and a good sleeper.

I’ve been back to the islands since writing this story, so I can offer this update: Artisans du Sable is now renamed Atelier Côtier. They still produce mementos made from sands collected on local beaches, but they now also sell other artisan products, most made in-house or locally.

What I don’t know, and would desperately love to, is whether Entry Island’s inhabitants are still getting by and Alvin’s Delight remains at the dock on Entry Island. Years later, my daughter still talks about the day we visited and wonders aloud about the people who welcomed her so warmly. She still has the rocks and the little rusty key she was gifted, and she guards them among her prized possessions.

At the time, I wrote this Facebook post about our day there:

“When the alarm went off at 6:00 this morning and we had to rush to get to the Entry Island ferry for 7:30, I thought to myself that maybe it would be serendipity if we didn’t make it in time; a little more beach walking would be nice, and I wasn’t convinced I’d be able to keep M busy for the eight hours we’d be stuck on this isolated and sparsely populated island until the return ferry.

I am so very glad that we made that ferry.

Today, we had the most special day of our entire trip to the islands and one of the most memorable days of our lives.

We arrived at Entry Island at 8:30 AM after a one hour ferry trip from Cap-aux-Meules and set off wandering up the main road. Nothing is paved, though there are stop signs at the intersections. There’s a power station and a Canada Post location. But on first glance, that appears to be about all there is on this island that’s home to roughly 65 people.

The main reason people visit Entry Island is to climb Big Hill, which is the highest point in the islands and gives you a panoramic view of the entire archipelago. M and I made the trip up — she did awesome, better than me — and while it lived up to expectations we were back down the hill by 11.

We wandered through some ATV trails — there are as many of those as cars here — to make our way to the school where there was a playground I spotted from the top of the hill. She played there for about an hour. The school was deserted; it closed at the end of the last school year with a student population that had dwindled to two. They now board on the main islands during the week and attend the Anglophone school at Grosse-Île. M may have been the first child to use that playground in months.

By this point I was starting to feel a bit sorry for myself. I could be sitting on a beach enjoying the last of the waves, I thought. On Entry the silence is disarming and time slows to a crawl.

It also gives you entirely too much time to think and reflect. As heavy and impactful as politics and our lives’ own crises can feel at times, in far-flung corners of the Earth like this one things simply carry on largely obliviously through it all. It’s a life deconstructed and simplified, and it’s simultaneously leavening and daunting to those used to the bustle of urban life.

I wondered what the heck I was going to do with M for another four hours. We seemed to have exhausted all our options.

I convinced her to go for a walk. We spotted a sign for the Entry Island Museum. M was keen to check it out. I thought, what could possibly be there that would hold our interest for more than five minutes? But I didn’t have a better answer, so away we went.

And that ended up being a life-changing decision.

There, we met a man named Ted Welsh. He was a fisherman once — nearly everyone on the island is or has been since it’s just about the only job to be had — and now he’s the museum custodian.

Ted told us about the island’s settlement in the late 18th century. The facts have been lost in time, but the preferred theory is that the founding population, who were Scottish and Irish in origin, were survivors of a shipwreck.

He told us about his fishing days, when he would wake up at 2 AM six days a week and work all day, drop his catch at the market on the main islands, and not get home to Entry until 7 or 8 at night.

He told us the story, which he and other islanders swear is true, of the horse named Farmer who was sold to a man on Grosse-Île and decided to go home. He walked the length of the islands and then swam across the channel to get back to Entry; it reportedly took him four days.

He told us about the occasional winters that offered a perfect ice bridge to Sandy Hook that would allow him to ice skate over. It took about two hours each way.

He showed us the histories of the proud islanders who had served Canada at war and who have joined the RCMP.

He showed us pictures of his father and his simple lobster fishing boat from the 1970s.

He showed us pictures of his four children and rattled off a list of the big mainland cities where they had relocated to in Ontario and Alberta.

He showed us school class photos from the 1950s to today to demonstrate how they’ve dwindled in size, from 20-some to the pair that remained last year.

He spoke while choking on tears about the aging population and the departing youth. Fishing here is controlled by licenses these days that are very hard to get; they’re pretty much only acquired now through generations. In other words, if dad is still working, son is out of luck and away to the mainland he goes.

I asked him if the Islanders thought a day was coming when staying on the island would become unsustainable. He thinks they have 10 years left; others say it will be less.

As we said our goodbyes to Ted and thanked him for sharing his history with us, the rusted out backyard playsets and foundations lacking houses weighed on me much more heavily as we walked the gravel roads.

We walked along the pebble-lined beach and picked at the interesting stones and shells as we worked our way back toward the dock. There we found a little kitchen and saw people walking out with ice cream cones, so we decided to stop in to see what they had.

A charming Francophone woman who reminded me a bit of my grandmother took our order and invited us to take a seat inside out of the wind, which had picked up significantly as the day went on.

Ten minutes later we had a box of fries so perfectly prepared that I’d proudly call them proper seaside chips. It wasn’t long before we learned that the cook’s name is Alvin and his wife Suzanne was working the counter, and Alvin was another native Entry Islander who was once a fisherman by trade.

Once we were inside they wouldn’t let us leave, not that we had the slightest inclination. M was offered a huge conch shell as a gift from Suzanne and got star-shaped sprinkles on her chocolate ice cream. Alvin brought over an interesting crystal-crusted rock he found on the beach, and as soon as M showed an interest in it he told her to keep it. He steamed up a pot of hermit crab legs he had recently harvested from the beach and even brought a live one out to show M how they harvest one leg and then throw the crab back so the second one can regrow. There were four of us there eating the sweet little delicacies, on the house, while he told us the most amazing stories from his fishing days in his unique accent — not quite Scottish, not quite Newfoundlander, but definitely seaman. They opened their door to us as though we were invited guests in their home.

Alvin took M out to the garden to show her the pot of money and rounded glass shards they had collected from the beach, and he gave her a little rusty key and told her to hang on to it because it might open a treasure chest someday.

“I so love children,” Alvin then told me with a sigh. “When there are children here on the island, you can hear them from everywhere. Now, they’re all gone. There’s too much silence.”

It’s unthinkable that the immense history of such a wonderful people, such an important part of the Canadian story, is almost certainly on the precipice of being lost forever.

We got onto the ferry with a wave and a smile, but there was a heaviness in my heart. I really do hope I find my way back to Entry to meet these people again before that inevitable day comes.

Once we were back on Cap-aux-Meules, we headed to our campsite to clean up before setting off for our final dinner. This one was at La Table des Roy, which is widely acknowledged as being the finest restaurant on the islands and not to be missed. Hey, even a traveller on a budget can’t say no to that pitch.

And yes, the meal fully lived up to expectations. I’ve eaten well in my life, but this was as fine a meal as I’ve had anywhere. Every time I thought my seafood risotto couldn’t possibly have more seafood in it, I found another lump of lobster. It was incredible.

Now we’re at our final campsite on Gros-Cap. We’re on a ridge overlooking the cape and the beach, and while I’m listening to the waves, watching the campfire, and gazing over at the few scant lights on Entry Island in the distance, I can also hear a group of revellers singing French Canadian folk songs nearby.

We’ll be on the 8 AM ferry back to PEI tomorrow morning, and I have no doubt that as that boat pulls out of dock I’ll be on it with tears in my eyes.”


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