Quebec’s Côte Nord… Sept Îles and Historic Lighthouse

We spent a delightful time last summer traveling through Quebec in order to write many features for this year’s spectacular 400th year anniversary of the founding of Quebec City. Among our favorite places was Côte Nord, the Whale Route along the St. Lawrence from Quebec City to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The drive from Harve St. Pierre to the town of Sept Îles is a little over two hours. It was a sunny day with billowing white clouds floating in the robin’s egg blue skies. We passed gorgeous fens, lakes, wildflowers, small islands with Christmas tree forests, pretty bridges. We photographers were frustrated at not being able to stop at every bend in the road to take pictures!
Our reserved boat tour was waiting for us. The scene at Sept Îles Harbor was so vastly different from the one we had seen here a few days earlier in thick fog and rain. With a population of about 25,000 this is the largest town on the St. Lawrence east mainland coast, and in the sunshine the harbor is lovely and clean with long views of the islands. On a peninsula we saw the place of employment for about 900 people of the region, the Alluette Aluminum Plant, the largest in the Americas. The company emphasizes environmental responsibility and is an important part and pride of the town.

At the harbor and we donned red waterproof, warm life preserver coats, hopped into a large rubber Zodiac boat, and zoomed off to see the islands, with Isabelle, our capable pilot and the owner of boat. We could see huge rain clouds pouring in the distance, while the way we were headed was beautifully clear.
We stopped first on Grande Basque Island, the only one where there are trails, camping, and sandy beaches to enjoy. You can take hour-long hikes on the wooded trails. We got a quick introduction to the excellent primitive camping facilities available for families or groups. It is always very cool and breezy in summer. Campsites cannot be reserved but are usually available, especially on weekdays. Grosse Boule Island is the place to go for tidepool interpretive activities with naturalists to learn more on your camping adventure or on a day excursion.

There is a full-time manager during the season from June 10 – Sept 10 and a good first aid station and clean latrine-type restrooms. Campers must bring all equipment, food, and drinking water. The camping cost $10 for a six-person tent site, and the roundtrip boat ride (like a Zodiac water taxi) is $20 per person. You can camp right on the beach in the protected edges of the beautiful Gulf of St. Lawrence. The thick forest of evergreen and deciduous trees and many berries, ferns, and wildflowers smells like Christmas and is so peaceful and beautiful …a real treat and a cool change for people from the hot Southern states. No showers are available, and the Gulf is very brisk!
The other islands are beautiful old granite cliffs with thick natural evergreen forests and are part of the protected National Parks of Canada system. All people are prohibited from the other islands, except those who owned summer homes there before the islands became wildlife sanctuaries. Those homes cannot ever be sold, only inherited by family members. Corossol Island is a bird sanctuary where forty species of nesting birds enjoy its protection during summer. It is fascinating to take binoculars and watch from the boat as these pairs of fowl come and go on the cliffs, which appear snow capped with guano. The birds have been coming here for centuries and the island just across a narrow waterway was named Mingan, meaning “place of eggs,” by First Nations people.
The sun was setting as we rounded the farthest point of the bird sanctuary and saw the lighthouse from over a century ago. The lonely home where lighthouse keepers lived with their families still stands proudly on the windswept cliffs. I wondered how anyone would be brave enough to endure winter ice, snow, and harsh winds alone in those desolate, wooden structures, so picturesque for photographers.
We could see a huge rainstorm headed in the direction of our return trip, so we bundled tightly in our waterproof gear and sped through it in near darkness and really cold temperatures to the town’s harbor lights. For us Texans it was a great treat in the middle of summer, but without proper gear it could have been an uncomfortable experience.
After a quick change in our large and inviting room at the very fine four star Hotel Gouverneur Sept-Îles, we met friends at an upscale restaurant for a delicious late dinner of fresh seafood. This hotel is perfect for your visit here…lovely accommodations and excellent food.
The next day, after a wonderful hot breakfast at the hotel we wanted to spend at least an hour at the ShipWreck Center, Centre National des Naufroges du Sainte-Laurent on Route 138 in Baie Trinité, and a very informative and interesting hour it proved to be. On Dec. 24, 1994 Marc Trembly was diving just two kilometers from shore where the water is only two feet at low tide, and he discovered a ship wreck. He reported it to the proper authorities, and the fragile objects were sent for analysis. Then the wreck was covered with sandbags. With research it was determined to be the oldest wreck discovered in Quebec waters, from the war of 1690, the battle between French Frentenac and English Phips, the first battle over North America. With over 6,000 objects removed during the next three years, the ship was identified as the Elizabeth & Mary. This is an important place for the museum to be because within 28 km along this shore there have been 90 shipwrecks because of the narrowing of the inlet, along with the hidden rocky shoals beneath the water. In the Eizabeth Mary shipwreck no bones were uncovered, so it is believed that no one died in the wreck so close to shore, but there were no survivors because of the harsh winter they encountered here with no provisions.
When you go, be sure to see the amazing film which recreates the reactions of many people doomed in various shipwrecks here. The special effects make you feel as if you are on one of these ill-fated ships. If a shipwreck is older than 100 years everything discovered becomes the property of the Quebec Ministry of Culture or the Ministry of Canada. However the Empress of Ireland, the 2nd biggest disaster in history, was discovered in 1914, so looters got it all.

Next, it was fitting that we should go to see Pointe de Monts Lighthouse, considered the most beautiful lighthouse in Québec was active in preventing shipwrecks for more than a century at Baie Trinité. This is a must-see stop if you are on the Côte du Nord, as are the many lighthouses of the Lighthouse Trail on both sides of the St. Lawrence, or Québec Maritime route. There were so many shipwrecks along this coast that the government decided it must find the money to build lighthouses. This was the second and was built in 1829, where it guided ships through the perils of high winds, fierce storms and treacherous sandbars until 1964, when it was replaced by a modern electrified one.
Through the years only three different families lived here and manned the beams, which were first oil lamps backed by silver plates. James Wallace was the first keeper, the next were three generations of the Fafare family, and the last was James Landry. The lifestyle, though remote, was appealing, and the keepers stayed for many years, with each subsequent one adding buildings and more modern technology. Shipwrecked people who were rescued were kept here until they could be evacuated, and sometimes that meant months. The first addition was a house for provisions for those people to survive comfortably until they could leave.
In 1964 when the electrified lighthouse eliminated the need for the keeper, the government planned to tear down the old lighthouse and all the outer houses. However, protests from citizens persuaded the government to preserve this historical edifice. The caretaker’s home in 1980 became a very fine restaurant and bed and breakfast hotel. Four guest rooms on the second floor can hold two, three or four people. The cuisine is as exquisite as it is delicious… a five course dinner.
I had to photograph our delicious sorbet palette purifier, named in honor of the three lighthouse keepers: Wallace, Fafaire, and Landry. Meals are made from fresh local fare, fruit, berries, vegetables, beef, and seafood, in signature French recipes…memorable and delectable! This would be the perfect accommodation for a family reunion or a delightful week-end get-away on this tranquil and scenic Northern coast. Package prices are very reasonable. There is an informative and interesting film in both English and French to give you the history of your surroundings.
The setting here is similar and as hauntingly picturesque as the most photographed lighthouse in the world at Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia. The flat gray granite boulders extend into the mighty St. Lawrence at one of its widest places, yet the river goes from 60 mÎles wide to 23 mÎles wide rapidly, making it, in days prior to GPS, a death-defying challenge. Happily there have been no shipwrecks here since 1929.
Enjoy the sea birds and wild flowers as you walk beside the deep blue waters of the river, which appears as a seascape here. If you happen on one of the gray, rainy days in summer, as we did, the setting is just as beautiful, only in a different way from a blue, sunny day. We enjoyed our climb to the top of the lighthouse and going out of the tiny door to the open view from the top. Frequently visitors see lots of whales, and if you are staying here you could even be awakened by their spouting noise. Somehow, the cold damp weather seemed more appropriate for the lighthouse setting, and inside it is warm and comfortable. Bring layers of clothing and include some waterproofs, just in case.