Editor’s note to KTW readers: As the COVID-19 pandemic has placed travel on hold indefinitely, there will come a time when we emerge from this crisis and travel once again. Kamloops This Week will continue to publish weekly Travel columns, as we see them as a way for readers to escape the daily stress of pandemic coverage.
Getting stranded on a small, windswept, bird-infested island, surrounded by Minke whales, dolphins and seals on the St. Lawrence River’s north shore might appear at first glance to be the setting for some horror film — especially when my living quarters were in a historic working lighthouse station.
In reality, staying on the Ile aux Perroquets in Quebec Maritime’s distinctive and spectacular Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve was more of a romance.
I fell in love with the place.
The island and its dramatic setting exceeded my expectations. Besides, the boat that dropped me off did, as promised, come back the next day to pick me up. Not that I was ready to leave.
Along the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence is a remarkably beautiful scattering of nearly 1,000 islands, granitic islets and reefs sprinkled along a narrow swath 150 kilometres east to west.
Founded by Parks Canada in 1984, this relatively small and little known park receives roughly 35,000 guests each year.
Although the reserve is restricted to the islands themselves, it becomes quite obvious when visiting that it is the sea that shapes everything — sea life, birdlife, wildlife, plant life, rock formations, the climate and even the visitor’s experience itself.
Two days earlier, dressed in warm survival floatation suits, we pulled away from the small marina at Havre-Saint-Pierre on a Parks Canada vessel, uniquely built with an angled front for docking on beaches.
The Mingan Archipelago is best known for its eerie assemblage of limestone monoliths, the largest collection of its kind in Canada.
Along the shores of Mingan’s larger islands, they appear as sentries, tottering sand castles or gigantic mythical beasts, carved by nature’s forces and ranging in height from a few metres to more than 20 metres high.
Our first island destination is Île Niapiskau. We follow a boardwalk into the island’s damp interior forest, where we find hidden in the trees, among the berries and mosses, some of these imposing limestone monoliths.
The other islands in the chain are equally as intriguing and spectacular: Île du Fantôme, Grosse Île au Marteau, Grande Île, Île Nue de Mingan and Petite Île au Marteau.
It is easy to while away a day or two exploring the wild shorelines, boreal forests and peat moss barrens.
I venture onto the rocky flats at low tide, walking on the seemingly endless rocky and sandy beaches, while marvelling at the unique and hardy seashore flora and the diversity of marine organisms that make their home in the tidal pools. The monoliths are everywhere — on the tidal flats and in the depth of the forests.
In addition to the otherworldly landscape, the Mingan Archipelago is home to large colonies of astonishing birds, including the magnificent Atlantic puffin and the Razorbill.
During breeding season, the park shelters thousands of marine birds, including passerines, birds of prey, Red Knot rufa, cormorants, kittiwakes and guillemots. It is also home to the largest concentrations of terns and common eiders in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Minke whales, dolphins and seals can often be seen, drawn to these cold waters teeming with plankton and fish.
One can visit the islands on day trips or afternoon tours. It is also possible to stay overnight at one of the 42 campsites available. My accommodation for one night is a Parks Canada o’TENTik on the Île Quarry.
Then, the second night, I enjoyed the unique island experience overnighting at the lighthouse station on the Île aux Perroquets. The lighthouse B&B can be booked and accessed by regular charter boats or by kayak.
The island is charming. As my luggage is off-loaded and taken ahead to my room, puffins and razorbills fly by to welcome me.
Local treats and cocktails await our group’s arrival in a quaint outbuilding called the Hen House.
Afterwards, I explore the foghorn building, taking in the exhibits of the lighthouse’s history and the lives of those who cared for it. I climb to the top of the lighthouse for the awesome views, imagining how it would have been to live on this small and lonely island.
As a visitor it is a beautiful place of peace and freedom; I fall asleep to the chatter of the sea birds, the sound of wind and the rhythm of the waves crashing against the island’s rugged cliffs.
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