OLD HARRY – You can’t escape the irony of talking about a roadtrip when traveling along a single road of a sparsely populated set of windswept islands in the middle of the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. While the road here is long, it only meanders slightly; you never really get lost. You do make stops on the journey, though, listening to the tales of island storytellers, fishermen, or wanderers who somehow chose to make Quebec’s Magdalen Islands home.
In this unlikely setting, I discovered a landscape peppered with small colorful houses and dreamy vistas. The eclectic mix of people who live here run the gamut from those who settled on these islands centuries ago and who live off of the fruit of the sea.
A lighthouse at sunset attracts crowds here, and from one area to the next, the language spoken, the dialect, and even the flags flown change. The population of these islands includes a mix of descendants of survivors of the over 400 shipwrecks that landed here over the centuries. Their inhabitants are an assortment of both English- and French-speaking people to those whose ancestors were Acadians who once took refuge here, to those who simply chose life on the periphery.
The journey to the Magdalen Islands
The trip to Cap-aux-Meules, the main port settlement, began in Montreal on the St. Laurence River on the CMTA Vacancier. The ship is a clunky ferry that runs tourists from Montreal to the Magdalen Islands every summer. It stops in Quebec City and Chandler, passing the scenic Gaspé Bay and it’s iconic pierced rock. This is no luxury-liner but a comfortable sail with a swath of Quebec society; many head to these islands like a yearly pilgrimage.
The winter months on the Magdalen Islands are cold and bleak until spring comes to life and local fishermen head to sea, while others prepare for tourists to flock to the shores. From the port at Cap-aux-Meules, south to Île du Havre Aubert, to small settlements like Pointe-aux-Loups, or up north to Grosse Île, most of the islands are interconnected along one singular route.
As I walked off of the ship in Cap-aux-Meules, a small hatchback was parked at the side of a road. The doors unlocked and the keys were simply placed on the windshield, left to me for this roadtrip. It was a matter of starting the ignition and rolling away towards the blue skies of Île du Havre Aubert. I turned on the radio to U2’s “The Sweetest Thing,” the windows open; I felt the exuberance of a carefree existence.
The journey south began to a setting of flocking birds, sandy beaches, and small rural villages. Eventually I turned off from Route 199 – what some locals like to call the “Trans-Magdalen” route – and onto Île du Havre Aubert’s scenic highway with its porous terracotta cliffs perched high over the sea.
At Le Site D’autrefois, translated “the place of other times,” a sole fisherman sat vigil at this miniature recreation of an old-time fishing village. He recounted stories of the life of the early “medelinots.” He talked of how one local once brought in a twenty-six-pound lobster, then the rise and fall of island fishing. He even confronted the contentious issue of the seal hunt and the intermittent comings and goings of activists onto the islands. Seal hunting has been practiced here for generations, and famously international celebrity Martin Sheen was chased away from a hotel in the Magdalen Islands in 1996 when he arrived here to protest the practice. It is in small communities like this that the concepts of urban life clash with the long-honored traditions of a local community.
The storytellers of the Magdalen Islands
The next day I head out to sea on a fishing boat with island storyteller Elaine Richard. She tells the tales of the organic geological birth of the islands, stories of one-time shipwrecks, or the origins of the peculiar local accent. The Acadians who came here in the 19th century dropped a letter from their speech, she says, so repugnant was the idea of even pronouncing the first letter of the word “roi,” or “king.”
“I became a storyteller, because I was motivated by the idea of telling our stories to the children before they leave the island,” she said, recalling the large number of islanders who set off every year towards more prosperous urban areas. “At least this way they can make their own judgment about whether to stay.”
Richard tells the stories and histories of the people of the islands to local schools during the winter months, and at local or international festivals. The fact that she remained on the islands is a twist of her own fate. Her father could only send one child to school, and she was the one who ended up staying. They lived, she said, in the abundance of the strict minimum – but as a result today she appreciates what she learned of island folklore. “We have to be conscious about our stories,” she said.
About halfway up the island chain is Aunt Emma, another notable island storyteller. Her tales come with vibrant musical accompaniment at a local bar. One of seventeen children and raised in the small northern community of Pointe-aux-Loups, she tells and sings the tales and local legends, and pokes fun at linguistic quirks or rivalries between neighboring islands.
The Café de l’Est
The last leg of my trip had me heading northwards toward the more remote corners of Grosse Île and Old Harry. I stop at Le Fumoir D’Antan, a boutique and herring smokehouse where a family is reviving a tradition that largely died out with the decline of the fish stocks here during the 1970s, and then haphazardly meet with characters like Byron Clark on Grosse Île, who painstakingly repairs old organs on the edges of a remote island road.
The clouds rolled in as I headed towards the most northern and distant of the Magdalen Islands, passing small churches, beachfronts, and even a salt mine.
At Old Harry, on Grosse Île is Café de L’Est, a small marine-blue eatery off of a verdant field with hardly a neighbor to talk about. A jovial Shyam Amsel, an ethnic Hungarian-Slovak-Jew who grew up on the streets of Montreal, waits on the restaurant that serves the best clam chowder that I’ve ever had. Amsel traveled the globe in his 20s, venturing as far as India looking for meaning and spiritual enlightenment. He also visited the Magdalen Islands in his youth, but it was only much later that he took the leap of faith and head over here, trying to invent coffee-culture on these remote islands.
“Then I learned that the reason that there was no café was that the madelinots were not that interested in cafes. The rhythm of life was different here.” While he knows that he will never be an “islander,” he does feel a part of a diverse but nourishing community.
“The horizon goes on forever here, and my eye wanders out into the eternity, and that touches the eternity within me,” he concluded, “Wherever I hang my hat is home and all of the people are family. We are all brothers and sisters here, not by blood way, but it’s all right.”