Friday, August 5, 2011

Summer weekend on a river island

Euronav tanker moored at Lévis, seen from the air
Rimbaud, Le Bateau Ivre:
Les Fleuves m'ont laissé descendre où je voulais.
We took the opportunity last weekend to follow the Ottawa River and then the St. Lawrence River downstream until we reached Montmagny, 60km east of Quebec City. Flying a Piper Cherokee (CF-YSZ) the journey from Ottawa took us just over two hours. On the way we passed the last (or first) two bridges across the St. Lawrence between Lévis and Québec and caught sight of a few of the freighter ships that ply this great waterway.

The Isle aux Grues ferry, about to dock at Montmagny
Opposite Montmagny, in mid river (already very wide at that point and strongly affected by tides), lies the Isle-aux-Grues and its surrounding islands. Admittedly there is a runway on the island, but it is only half the length of the one at Montmagny, and Chris didn't want to take the risk of finding it too short for his unfamiliar aircraft (our usual one had an electrical fault). Therefore we decided to land on the mainland ("le continent," the locals call it) and catch the evening ferry to the island where the owners of the Auberge des Dunes had promised to pick us up. We were to stay there for two nights.

The Auberge has an extraordinary attraction: its dining room and bar is on an old ship, a tug boat named Le Bateau Ivre after Rimbaud's poem quoted above, only unfortunately they have misspelled his name on the hull (see picture). The ship, bought from Cuba, was beached in the St. Lawrence in 1967 and has been serving its present purpose ever since. At low tide she appears to be sailing in a field of grass, but at high tide, looking out from the windows at the stern, you get the illusion that she's still floating through the ripples and waves*. We had tasty suppers there, watching the sun set behind the mountains to the northwest.

Sugar shack at the Pointe aux Pins
The Auberge also supplies bikes for use on the island at no extra charge. Their crossbar was too high for me, so we didn't take advantage of them on Sunday. We walked 12 km instead, exploring the island and getting sunburnt. At the Pointe aux Pins, the southwestern tip, is a trail through the woods that takes an hour to walk if you stop to read all the panneaux and admire the views of the other islands in the archipeligo. A few of the trees are rare white pines, but most are deciduous. In early spring the southern side becomes a maple sugar bush with an old and attractive sugar shack. Some of the information on the boards relates to the birds that live there, sa majesté le grand-duc d'Amerique for example (I love the way the Quebeckers make everything sound poetic!), aka bubo virginianus, and his lesser cousin le hibou moyen-duc (asio otus). We spotted birds we don't normally see, a brown thrush and some kind of little warbler with a yellow head. Sorry not to be more precise. There are also 185 different kinds of fish in these waters, apparently, not to mention the large variety of wild ducks. It is prime hunting and fishing territory, especially during the seasons for migration. At supper on Saturday I enjoyed a tender cuisse de canard from the chef at the Auberge and on Sunday a fillet of sturgeon.

There are more flower strewn woods to the northeast of the jetty and we walked through them too. The central part of the island is mostly farmland, clover fields giving off a marvellous fragrance and fields of mixed oats and barley, not yet ripe, with blueish stalks. Hay used to be dried on domed frames and shipped across the water that way too, but nowadays a baler rolls it into tight cylinders. We saw and smelled the haymaking as we walked the island's country roads.

The Isle aux Grues is famous for a Fromagerie (Le Riopelle) and for one of its late inhabitants, Jean-Paul Riopelle, a painter born (in Montreal) in 1923 who died in his island home near the Fromagerie in 2002 and whose abstract paintings in Ottawa's National Art Gallery I've often admired. In the island's museum, housed in an old barn (le grenier de l'île) is a small exhibition about Riopelle and his art, including some video footage of him as an old man pottering around his studio here.

Aerial view of the Isle aux Grues at low tide.
At high tide, the grass on the left disappears and it looks more like an S!
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*  The difference between the shores at high and low tides is phenomenal. On the weekend when we were there the high tides coincided with supper time and after eating, we sat for a while watching the light fade as the water began to ebb again, the grass, flowers, rippled mud and rocks reappearing as sturgeons (possibly) leapt and twisted in the shallows and swifts flung themselves through the sky to catch the pesky mosquitoes.

Walking on the riverbed at low tide

Sunset view from the Auberge, high tide

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