Mingan Archipelago, Quebec’s National Treasure

Quebec City is 400 years old this year, and the entire province is celebrating her birthday. The festivities have already begun, and YOU are invited to the parties!

Last summer we had the pleasure of traveling all over Quebec in order to present a series of features during this 400th anniversary. We loved the truly French atmosphere of this La Nouvelle France to which over 8,000 settlers came during the first 150 years, determined to keep their French heritage in this new land while learning from the Native Peoples how to survive the North wilderness. The official language of Quebec is still French, although almost everyone knows English too. All visitors, no matter what language they speak, find warm and inviting hospitality while experiencing truly French culture, cuisine, and language.
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One of our favorite excursions was along Côte Nord, following the vast St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean at the Gulf of St. Lawrence along the Whale Route. During summer months it would be almost impossible not to see whales, and lots of them including blues, finbacks, belugas, and minkes, and we saw many…but that’s another wonderful feature to come!

From Montreal we flew on Air Canada to Sept Iles, where we took a small . two-prop, six passenger plane with two pilots who took us smoothly through the rain clouds eastward. Flying low over the great St. Lawrence waterway with the land of many lakes to our left was a beautiful experience and must be even more so on sunny days. We landed smoothly at the small Havre St. Pierre Airport, in the small, busy town at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, gateway to the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve of Canada. This town was a small village prior to the 1940’s when ilmenite, the main source of titanium, was discovered. The quarry today is just north of the town, and tourism and fishing are the other primary businesses.
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It was a cold, blustery August day. Since we had traveled the day before from over 100 degree temperatures and typical Texas summer drought, we reveled in the chilly, coat-weather typical on Côte-Nord in summer. We had our first poutine, comfort food special to Quebec…French fries and milk curds drenched in beef gravy…sounds and looks awful, tastes warm and yummy, and is, as the locals say, perfect for a hang-over, and comfort food for anyone on a damp, shivery day.

We checked into Hôtel-Motel du Havre, a very clean, no frills accommodation. We didn’t want to miss our boat to the Mingan Islands just off shore, so we hurriedly headed for the wharf where tourist boat companies furnish guests with warm, waterproof outfits which cover you from head to foot and serve also as life jackets. These are very comfortable and oh, so warm! We journalists traveled on the Park Ranger boat, but tourists can select from several tour boat companies recognized by Parks Canada and travel on Zodiacs, which zoom swiftly across the water, observing safety laws strictly enforced by Canada’s well-trained Park Rangers. Some of the islands are served by water taxi and sea bus, or you can rent sea kayaks. You can take morning or afternoon tours to enjoy watching the large colonies of twelve species of birds, about 35,000 feathered couples who come here and mate for life, nesting in the rocky cliffs of this protected nature preserve.
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Among the species which visitors especially enjoy watching are the clown-like white-on-black “painted” Atlantic puffins with their brilliant orange beaks. Also called perroquet de mer (sea parrot) and caculot (calculator) these interesting little birds keep nodding as if counting while they sit like monks in prayer. The largest number of these cute little birds live on Ilê de la Maison and Ile Càlculot des Betchouanes, and a small colony live on Ile aux Perroquets. The ocean is full of nutrients for the various birds we saw swooping for their food, and the small islands offer safe refuge with few predators. All Canadian Parks have the mission to protect natural resources of the specific region in which the park is situated.
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Since 1984 The Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve has protected the ecology of Eastern St. Lawrence Lowlands. These forty small islands and islets are natural places and national treasures, rare in today’s world. We were filled with wonder and awe in the presence of nature unspoiled by the intrusion of industry and human beings. The Mingans are just a few kilometers off shore and stretch along the coast from Longue-Pointe-du-Mingan to Aguanish.
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Visitors are encouraged to disembark and explore on a few of the islands in this group of many small islands. First, landing at île Niapiskau,
we could walk near the landing dock to photograph the famous Bonne Femme, a natural limestone pillar carved by ice and rain to look like a woman. Some of us saw her as a frontal view, while others declared it was a back view of the voluptuous female form. For the opening of the Park Reserve, photos of a natural rock formation resembling a pot of flowers were to be used in promotions, but that formation crumbled due to ice melting just before the park opened. Fortuitous? Perhaps Bonne Femme is more interesting because of the two distinctly different visual interpretations! The flora and fauna of the various islands is numerous, and among the spectacular sites you’ll see are arches, monoliths, and sandstone cliffs, each uniquely hand-sculpted by Nature.

Our day was very chilly and misty, with the enchanting fog clinging to the enormous river in many places, shrouding some of the chain of many small islands that compose the Mingan Archipelago. At Quarry Island we docked and took a hike wth Jennifer, the superviser of park rangers. There are naturalists and geologists to explain the unique aspects of several of the islands.
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The easy boardwalk goes for many kilometers through the arboreal forest, barrens, peat bogs, and the seashore. We saw beautiful, fragile and rare species of flowers, all of which have a difficult life in the salt air and high winds of this northern clime. At the end of the boardwalk pathway we reached some weird limestone sculptures in water’s edge. Here is a great place to wade out to observe the rich abundance of sealife in the tidepools. Or you can take a walk along the sandy beach.
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It showers frequently here, so tuck ponchos and umbrellas into your hiking pack. We had a delightful but wet walk back through the amazing limestone shelf passageway, white rock formations jutting out high above us. Stopping at the barrens to take a close appreciative look at the tiny, protected forest. We studied the brave plant species struggling to thrive in the salt soil and strong winds that constantly swept the open spaces, dwarfing the species. Boardwalks create the hiking trails to protect these special, natural inhabitants. Because of the beautiful, mystic photo-ops, our guides had a difficult time persuading journalists with cameras to return to the boat in time for its final run of the day.
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On île Nue de Mingan, which Basques discovered centuries ago, you’ll feel like you landed in the Arctic because of the weird, nearly barren landscape. Petite île au Marteau is the place to have fun along the beaches discovering a wealth of shells and after dark special lanterns are lit and tales of the lighthouse take you back in history. Naturalists will guide you on a four kilometer hike on Grosse île au Marteau where a wealth of sealife, including seals and whales, is part of your discovery on this littoral landscape. For extra information about the Mingan Islands be sure to visit either Havre-Saint-Pierre or Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan research and Interpretation Centres, before you go to the archipelago or after you return. The evening programs are several nights a week with frequent slide shows. And on days of inclement weather when the boats cannot run, these Centres are usually open all day for visitors to study in depth and enjoy.
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Just as darkness fell, we zoomed back across the water to Harve. Across the street from our motel we went for dinner at Restaurant Chez Julie, the unanimous recommendation of locals. This casual seafood restaurant has been an institution for generations. Janet, a native Acadian, and her Greek husband have owned this place for 30 years, 22 of which they served three meals a day. Now only dinner is served and with an enormous menu of seafood selections, fresh from the waters within sight. Several people we chatted with recommended their favorite: seafood pizza, served in about seven different styles. I was delighted to order that, and even the nine-inch one, loaded with thick cheese and an array of shrimp, crab and scallops, was enough for two people.
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Several members of our group selected the fresh local catch of the day or the fisherman’s sampler of everything! The plates are enormous, and every bite is to die for! Janet herself served us with a big smile and spoke fluet English and French, switching easily from one to the other for each guest’s native language. Before we left she took us to see the amazing 250 pound halibut in her freezer. The year before they had a 400 pound one!