Touring the “Maggies”

4 Nov

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I arrived at the dock in Souris not knowing what to expect.  Even with my research they remained a mystery and, despite stories heard, I’d never met anyone who had actually been there.  Basque fishermen had been voyaging to this archipelago to hunt “sea cows” since the early 1500’s, but then, as now, the best-kept maritime secrets don’t appear on maps. Yet, when the Traversier docked at Prince Edward Island, nine bikes rolled out; when it left, it carried four.

The Madeleine Islands (Îles de la Madeleine) are one of those rare “in” places to ride, but few have heard of them. Located in the Gulf of St. Lawrence approximately 134 miles (215 km) east of the Gaspe, 65 miles (105 km) north of Prince Edward Island, and 60 miles (95 km) west of Cape Breton, the “Maggies” are considered to be a northern segment of the Appalachian Mountains and belong to the province of Quebec.  Authoritative sources can’t even agree on the extent of their land area (somewhere between 77 and 88 square miles), but there are seven inhabited islands and all but one are connected by a single highway.  The sole purpose of my long journey was to ride this road.

A five-hour ferry ride establishes a sense of distance and imbues a feeling that one is headed to an exotic location.  Rising from a vivid blue ocean off the port side of the ship were emerald-green hills atop red sandstone cliffs a hundred-foot-high and a finback whale swam parallel to our course. My first view of Entry Island was unlike any other part of the Appalachians I’d ever seen.

Debarking at Grindstone (Cap aux Meules) my first stop was just outside the gates of the ferry terminal at the tourist information center.  The tourist board had graciously assisted this trip by doing all the hard work in setting up an itinerary based on my specific requests.  It appears that tonight I’ll be sleeping in a convent.

Imagine a place where every home is painted a different color. Originally an Acadian tradition developed as identifying beacons for fishermen returning home, it has survived and matured into a cultural art form that’s actively embraced by the Madelinots. Varied hues of purple, red, blue, orange, green, and yellow intermingle with houses painted pastel turquoise, pink, lavender, mint, and mauve.  Trimmed in contrasting or complimentary colors, each differs from their neighbors it’s a photographer’s dream.

Route 199 is only 54.6-miles (88 km) long and, despite a few sharp corners, it doesn’t offer any technical challenges.  Its entire length, from the docks in La Grave to the harbor in Grande Entrée, can be easily ridden in an hour and a half. The total mileage of all roads, both gravel and paved, on the archipelago totals less than 186 miles (300 km).  However, all the time, effort, and expense required just to get me to this highway proves to be justified.

One 12-mile segment of Route 199 runs along North Dune and across tiny Seal Point Island (Île de la Pointe aux Loups –“loup-marin” being the local name for seal). It’s a long, straight stretch of highway. Utility poles line each side of the road, converging in the distance while heat waves add a surrealistic image to the already gentle undulations of an asphalt surface built on a foundation of loose sand. Normally I don’t care for long, straight roads, but this is exceptional.  Here the ocean lines both sides of the highway only to disappear behind a long ridge of grass-anchored sand.  In other places the powdery sands of transverse dunes crest above the road and spill onto its asphalt shoulders while blue herons stride through the lush saltwater marshes on the opposite side of the highway. I enjoy riding through sand dunes and this offers more miles, more dunes, less traffic, and only a tiny fraction of the amount of people found on the National Seashore in Cape Cod.

One of the top-ranked beaches in the world arcs around the East Point National Wildlife Reserve.  It’s 13-continuous miles (22 km) of gorgeous sand beach but, except for two short stretches on either end, this exceptional strip of sand is deserted.  Perhaps it’s the name, Great Échouerie Beach (an échouerie is where walrus, or “sea cows,” once hauled themselves ashore to sunbath) or perhaps it’s because the islands offer a total of 196-miles of pristine sand beaches to choose from.  I could run naked on many of the islands’196-miles of pristine beaches and not encounter a single person. The bike can be parked anywhere, since stealing a motorcycle just isn’t feasible when the only escape is by ferry.

The highway ends at the quay in Grande-Entrée.  Today most of the fishing fleet is docked and the boutiques and restaurants seem to be moderately busy. I take some photos, but since I’ve managed to cover less than 30-miles this morning, I want to keep riding. La Grave is at the other end of the road so, pulling a U-turn, I head in the opposite direction.

The southern end of Route 199 terminates at another fishing pier, although the island of Albert’s Harbor (Île du Havre-Aubert) continues for many kilometers as Sandy Hook, a long, thin dune that stretches towards Entry Island. The village of La Grave was the first settlement in the islands, established in 1755 by refuges escaping the Acadian Expulsion by the British in Nova Scotia (others sought refuge in New Orleans and created Cajun culture). The Acadian flag – vertical red, white, and blue stripes with a gold star in the blue – is flown throughout the islands, but, understandably, it’s most prevalent here.

La Grave has become an artist community. Its tiny cedar-shingled fishing sheds date from the 19th and early 20th centuries, but rather than housing lobster traps and fishnets they’ve been transformed into small boutiques and galleries that feature the work of local artists and artisans. Café de La Grave is in the old general store. It’s the place to order the local specialty, a seafood pie called “pot-en-pot.” I’ve arrived too early for the small boat-building contest or the international sand castle competition (first and second weekends in August), so I mount up to explore the rest of the island and find tonight’s lodging.

In the town of  L’Étang-du-Nord a cluster of colorful clapboard-sided boutiques face the sea.   The yellow one turns out to be Café la Côte, where salt-cod pizza is the house specialty. From here the angular hulk of Duke of Connaught can be seen resting against the rocks of Savage Head (Cap a Savage).  Having rusted to the same red color as the cliffs, I can’t figure out what it is and have to ask.  The locals joke that it’s the work of a contemporary metal sculptor.

As it turns out, a large percentage of the residents are directly descended from the survivors of over 400 shipwrecks and many buildings on these islands were constructed from salvaged ship timbers.  One such example is the Church of St. Pierre in Lavernière ; it also has the distinction of being the second-largest wooden church in North America.

Fishing is the mainstay of the local economy.  The stained-glass window in the Church of Holy Trinity in Grosse-Île depicts Jesus as a lobster fisherman–complete with rubber boots–preaching to his rather contemporary looking disciples.  Just as we have the “Blessing of the Bikes,” the “Blessing of the Lobster Fleet” takes place on May 6th (the day the season begins). Over two million pounds of lobster are harvested annually, as well as fresh scallops, blue mussels, clams, snow crab, and a variety of fish.  Unfortunately, I really don’t care for lobster, clams, or mussels, but there is another island specialty that does interest me: smoked fish.

Smoking fish is an island tradition and Fumoir d’Antan on Île du Havre-aux-Maisons was a place I wanted to visit. They’ve created an excellent little museum in the original smokehouse and the story is clearly presented in both French and English. This year they’re licensed for 60,000 pounds of herring–they also smoke mackerel, eel, and scallops–and three quarters of this will be sold on the islands. I purchase vacuum packages to bring home and a couple of “snack-packs” to munch on while riding about–this probably explains why my tankbag smells a little fishy.

Among the grassy dunes, people are obviously searching for something.  It’s wild strawberries season, but this same scene takes place when blueberries and native cranberries are ripe. “Le bon gout frais des Îles (the good fresh taste of the islands) is a term used to identify local fish and produce. There’s a dairy making non-pasteurized cheese; a microbrewery producing five different brews from locally grown barley; and a winery creating a dandelion and berry wine called “bagosse.”

Brochures describe the island has having a constant sea breeze, but the word “breeze” is misleading.  Doors are tethered with webbed straps or rope to keep them from ripping off their hinges and this suggests that winds can often become ferocious. Wind and water make the “Maggies” one of the best places in North America for sports like wind surfing and parachute skiing, especially in the large bays where sand bottoms and shallow water run for miles.  The wind is indescribably fresh and doesn’t have that salt “tang” that I associate with the seashore.

Tonight’s lodging is Auberge La Salicorne in Grande- Entrée, and kicking back with a foaming mug of the local brew and munching on seal sausage I listened to the other side of the seal hunting controversy and local history. Prior to the creation of Route 199 in 1956, Madelinots had to boat from island to island.  This created very diverse communities unique to their particular patch of land.  Today this remains evident on Entry Island, the only inhabited one not connected by road.  There is a local pedestrian ferry, but I chose to make the six-mile (10 km) trek across open water in a rubber boat (Zodiac) operated by Excursions en mer.

After circumventing the island and looking at the nesting sites of local seabirds, including those of the Razorbill Auk, a couple hours remained to hike up Big Hill for a panoramic view of the archipelago.

It’s finally time to leave the islands and I pack the Ducati in the belly of the Vacancier for the trip up the St. Lawrence River to Montreal.  Despite their small size, four days in the islands wasn’t long enough to take advantage of all they have to offer and I never tired of going back and forth on the same road.  I have to be content with this, but it does provide a reason for me to return to Îles de la Madeleine another year.



One Response to “Touring the “Maggies””

  1. Texas Rambler March 29, 2012 at 2:31 am #

    Great post, thanks…

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