We are fresh off from spending 2 wonderful nights “camped” at the home of dear friends Liz and Frank near Squam Lake in New Hampshire. Our friendship has its roots in the Camino and we count friendships such as theirs as another unexpected gift of that pilgrimage. We look forward to extending hospitality to them at our home in the near future.
We never seemed to lack for conversation. The topics mirrored the stage of life we share, children, grandchildren, retirement… But most of all we embraced the joys of our good marriages, wonder at the seemingly insignificant moments in our lives that became life defining, and gratitude. Our time spent with good people like Liz and Frank, Tom and Nanci (earlier in this trip), and past times with many of you who are reading these words is spiritual to me. Friendship is a celebration of the best that people have to offer one another.
Barring the unforeseen, we will be heading into Pennsylvania for two nights shared with a dear friend from high school, Maxine and her husband Chip… then on to a couple of nights with my Mother in Illinois as the last stop on one of the best trips of the last 3 years.
It is 5 a.m. the morning of the 19th. For much of this trip this has been the default time for writing my “Thoughts”. Christine remains asleep a few feet from me while I am treated to the sight of night slowly yielding to day. I often go to sleep with no intention of writing, but I awake, sometimes long before 5, and find that my “Thoughts” have been composed somewhere in the recesses of my subconscious. I get up, pull out my iPad and begin to type. It works, but how?… it’s a mystery.
Yesterday, as we left Trois-Pistoles Quebec my eye was drawn to the steeple that commanded a view above the village. There is not much to see in Trois-Pistoles but Trip Adviser mentioned a Basque cultural center, a Basque cheese “Fromagerie”, a small micro-brewery, and the church. The micro-brewery was closed when we arrived late on the 17th as was the cultural center. We are watching our weight so no cheese. The church held the number one spot for recommended things to see and do in Trois-Pistoles.
As an aside, there is a lingering Basque influence in this area that predates the 16th Century arrival of Jacques Cartier. Basque whalers traveled seasonally to these waters in hunt for the leviathans.
As a second aside, “Trois-Pistoles” is the name of a remarkably strong and complex beer crafted by the Canadian brewer, Unibroue… but not in Trois-Pistoles. For you aficionados it is worth seeking out on the shelves of discerning liquor stores and taverns in the States.
Now, about that church. Église Notre-Dame-des-Neiges was completed in 1887. It is truly monumental, far out of scale for the small town in which it is situated. It appeared to be closed, but we checked the doors and found that one side-door was unlocked. In my youth churches were always unlocked as the needs of those seeking a place for prayer were not constrained to banking hours. Perhaps Trois-Pistoles lacks the usual small population of miscreants who, if given the opportunity, deface and steal from houses of worship. Perhaps we were the coincidental beneficiaries of someone’s inadvertent omission… but as a good man in Puerto Rico told us earlier this year, “In life there are no coincidences”.
Upon entering the church we were treated to the most spectacular old world interior of any church that we have seen in North America. The long rows of pews appeared each individually carved. They gleamed mirror-like with flawless varnished surfaces. The towering pillars were hand painted with a faux marble finish and supported the lofty ceiling vault and dome. Remarkable!
While the overall impression was breathtaking, I found my eye drawn to the details of the church… the statue of Christ crucified,
The ornate confessional booths,
The Baptismal Font that had no doubt greeted thousands into the “fold”, and the galleries and pipe organ,
The Alter and Canopy,
The spiral stairs to the lectern used in former days to deliver the Gospel and homily to the congregants,
And then there was the very curious small pew standing alone in the back of the church. My first impression was that it was reserved for sinners ostracized but not excommunicated for some spiritual failing. There was a sign written in French on the pew. With the aid of Google Translate we learned the truth:
This was the bench of the Vire-chien, or “dog-guard”. It was occupied by the Church Constable whose tasks consisted in maintaining order in the church, opening or closing the doors during events such as weddings and funerals, regulating the heat as needed, and preventing dogs from entering the church. Tradition held that dogs entering a church were the harbinger of misfortune in the village. The Vire-chien wore a tricorned hat with a gilded silver-colored ribbon. The hat matched his long frock coat, which was of black wool. The costume was abandoned in the twentieth century, but perhaps the position of Vire-chien remains to this day.
Finally, there were the ubiquitous votive candles, a standard feature in most Catholic churches. These were particularly beautiful and well executed under the sympathetic gaze of the Virgin Mary.
I like churches for what they say about the people of a community. My thoughts about organized religion have become “complicated” over the years and don’t warrant airing here. Nevertheless I was gifted as a child with traditions of contemplation that still resonate with me. One of those is the lighting of a candle. The solitary flame brings a somber focus to my thoughts. In the course of the last few months a number of friends have exited from this life. A few days ago I paid homage to a remarkable woman who died 25 years ago. I recall the memories of those dear to me, now long passed. My wife and I have the blessing of being together in good health, being companions in travel, friends and lovers in life. So much to put upon the shoulders of that single flame…
After overnight camping near Baie Comeau we returned to Godbout for our 11 a.m. ferry crossing to Matane on the south shore of the St. Lawrence.
This is at least the 12th time that we have transported our car and trailer aboard a ferry. Every time feels like a bit of an adventure as we slowly drive across noisy metal ramps, occasionally scraping the hitch, and descend steeply into the bowels of the vessel.
On this occasion the ferry was one of the huge ocean capable varieties. We were the first cargo on and the first cargo off. As we waited to load we watched a seemingly endless parade of vehicles that had originated on the south shore depart the ship. There were motorcycles, transports, RV’’s, and even a huge 40+ wheel semi bearing a construction crane.
The crossing took a little over 2 hours but the ship featured unexpected comforts that were more akin to those found on some cruise ships. There were luxurious recliners, a first rate cafeteria, and a topside promenade that was abandoned to the cold damp weather.
I spotted a couple of Minke Whales, and there was even a report of a huge Blue Whale sited about 2 miles ahead of the ship.
Once on shore we began making our way to our overnight destination, the municipal campground at Trois-Pistoles. Along the way we beheld a large lighthouse situated on the Pointe-au-Pere promontory and detoured to have a look. The unusual lighthouse was built in 1909 and at 108 feet tall it is the second tallest in Canada. It features a large 3rd order Fresnel beacon that is visible for 22 nautical miles. I would have taken the tour to the top but the lack of time and the dense approaching fog bank dissuaded me.
However, there was a submarine to tour!
The Oberon class submarine, Onondaga (S73) was launched in 1965, commissioned in 1967, and served in the Canadian Navy for 33 year. It was retired from service in 2000. It is the only sub open for tour in Canada.
The vessel is 295 feet long, displaces 2, 400 tons, and its 2 x 3,000 horsepower electric motors could propel her at a speed of 12 knots (14mph) on the surface and 17 knots (20mph) submerged. Her batteries allowed her to cruise submerged for 3 days at a time and only required 3 hours to be fully recharged by the two huge diesel generators. She was capable of safely diving to 1000 feet. In the course of her lengthy career she traveled over half a million miles.
With the crossing of the St. Lawrence the focus of our travel has shifted to a homeward journey.
Good fortune and fine weather allowed us a visit to the spectacular Monoliths on the Mingan Archipelago islands.
The fog of the previous day gave way to partly sunny skies and attracted additions to the 8 of us who had signed up for the 4 hour tour the previous day.
The Mingan Archipelago began forming millions of years ago where the 1 billion year old rock of the Canadian Shield met the 500 million year old limestone sediment of an ancient sea. Waters cascading off of the Shield created fissures and cracks in the limestone. 20,000 years ago marked the beginning of the last Ice Age. A crust of ice nearly 2 miles thick formed over this region, the weight of the ice pressed the land downward many hundreds of feet. 10,000 years ago as the ice melted away the land rapidly rebounded and was subjected to additional erosion from the glacial runoff. The land continues to rebound even today at the rate of 3 millimeters (about 1/10th of an inch) per year. Thus wind and water erosion continue the slow process of carving these unique Monoliths which once were under 250 feet of water.
The Archipelago consists of a group of 40 islands that are now a protected environment within the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve of Canada. The National Park Reserve itself extends over 125 miles along the north coast of the St. Lawrence and includes over 2,000 islands.
Our tour of two of the Mingan islands featured a National Park docent, unfortunately we soon learned that she “docent” speak English!! Christine and I were the only passengers who were not either Francophones or bilingual. We satisfied ourselves with proceeding solo along the well marked paths and boardwalks of the islands.
Rustic camping is allowed along with other recreational activities, but access is only by water and carefully regulated to protect the environment.
We were rewarded with the wonderful experience of viewing and examining these stunning natural wonders unencumbered by the presence of other milling spectators. We were soon joined by a Camille and Janice, a very nice couple from near Ottawa who could understand the (very lengthy) explanations of the naturalist, but preferred the solace we were enjoying.
Our return to Havre-Saint-Pierre included a sighting of a Minke Whale. Unfortunately I was not quick enough with the camera.
Tomorrow we drive 350 miles back to Godbout where we will overnight in the ferry parking lot to await our 11 am Monday departure for the south shore of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The passage will take about 2 1/2 hours and often features views of migrating whales.
We have arrived at Havre-Saint-Pierre which is the end of our road, but Canada 138 continues east for at least another 150 kilometers. The 250km (about 150 miles) we traveled yesterday was both beautiful and remote. With the exception of a few small seashore villages there were no signs of habitation. A sign warned us early on that there were no gas stations for 110km.
We enjoyed an opportunity for a brief hike to take in views of one of the many rivers cascading from down from the north on to the St. Lawrence.
The Municipality of Rivière-au-Tonnerre is comprised of the town itself and 3 small neighboring villages. The total population for the 244 square miles of this political subdivision is 307 people, down 21% from 10 years ago. There are no gas stations, no restaurants, no cell service, and we saw only one small convenience store. Folks are almost exclusively employed in fishing to supply crabs to a local processing factory. However, there is a remarkable church. Built in 1903, L’Eglise Saint-Hippolite is surprisingly large and constructed entirely of wood. It is like no church that we have ever seen before. We had the good fortune to be given a tour by its caretaker who only spoke French. Christine hung on linguistically for all she was worth as he gestured here and there about the church, speaking with obvious pride in rapid-fire French.
We have also entered a region where First Nation people predominated. Signs are now printed in both French and the local indigenous language. Political authority in many places is here vested with the local First Nation Tribe.
Ordinarily Havre-Saint-Pierre would be an oasis for tourism, however the season has ended. We arrived at the relatively large seaside municipal campground (86 sites) only to find that the electricity is off, the bathrooms are locked up, and all of the seasonal tenants are long gone. The gate has been left open for the few hearty souls like us who still wander this area. The camping is now free and fortunately the water is still on and the trailer sewage dump appears to still operate. We are the only camper visible in either direction.
The fog along the coast has been relentless. The inland air is clear as crystal, but on the shore it is as if the crystal has been frosted opaque. Moreover, the dampness really drives the cold inside of you. The temperature dropped to 40 degrees in the night and as we are now “boondocking” (only using our self contained propane and battery power) we embrace a heightened sense of adventure.
We came here in hopes of visiting the Mingo Archipelago National Reserve. It is renowned for its flora, fauna, and the remarkable stone monoliths that abound along its shores. Unfortunately, it can only be reached by water. Fortunately, the daily boat is still operating. Ordinarily the vessel would carry dozens of people to the reserve, but we will be joined tomorrow by only 6 other passengers. We are keeping our fingers crossed for clear skies and most of all, no fog.
The following appeared in my archive from two years ago today as we traveled New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. It is worth sharing once again.
September 14, 2016:
Most of the time my postings focus on the things that we see and the things that we do. Last night I received a heartfelt and personal email from a staff person at 5 Islands Provincial Park. I will only say that it was most touching for both Christine and me. It reminded me that there is the third dimension to our travels, the people whose lives we touch and who touch ours. These encounters do not often meaningfully lend themselves to pictures or description. However, in replying to her I offer a window into this third dimension of our experiences. I share my reply with you.
Dear ——. Our visit to your park has presented us with a series of memorably, and in some cases extraordinary experiences.
In the morning I took in the Red Head Trail, enjoying a brief interlude with a couple from Germany, taking advantage of a tart green apple that was just within my reach, and being overwhelmed by the scarlet expanse of the cliffs extending before my eyes.
Christine and I visited the Dutchman Cheese Farm where we stopped to watch 3 calves play like children in a schoolyard. After sampling an array of cheeses and chatting with the proprietor (who had just gotten off the phone with her mother in Holland), we left with a box of cheeses that may not make it back to Kansas City.
We lunched on fish and chips at Diane’s down the road, making the acquaintance of a most pleasant waitress.
In the afternoon we walked along the base of the towering red cliffs, leaving footprints on the sea floor that in a few short hours would be erased by 40 feet of incoming tide. There we met a couple from Quebec and their Great Dane who did not seem so taken with the magnificence we all appreciated.
From the elevation of our campsite we watched the return of the tide and the departure of the sun. With no campfire, we found our focus on the stars and a bright near-full moon. I casually remarked to Chris that it had been quite some time since we had seen a shooting star. Not two seconds later the sky was slashed before our eyes by the bright trail of a streaking meteor! First we laughed and then we marveled at the joke that Nature had played upon us.
Like I said, this was an extraordinary day… but little did I know that the best was yet to come. It arrived in the form of a kind and thoughtful message from you. Thank you so very much for sharing the joy of a moment when life paths briefly intersected, merged, and then proceeded over the horizon of each other’s experience.
In life may you always have fun, do good, and be safe for the sake of those who love you. Oh, and also Live Long and Prosper!
Late last February I launched my new website and began publishing my “Thoughts”. Most of the posts have been written while we have been on the road, taking the form of a travelogue with photographs and occasional personal reflections. I knew there were some dedicated followers and I held some hope that the audience might grow. However, what has occurred has exceeded any expectation.
My website provides me with a continuously updated tally of the number of visitors, and a record of the the countries that they are logging in from. I can’t see who is visiting, but I can see where they are visiting from.
As of today 20,000 visitors from 61 countries have read my “Thoughts”. I know that professional bloggers would scoff at these numbers, but I am grateful for the time that each of you give to us.
We revel not only in the exploration of places, but in the forging of friendships and the discovery of new dimensions to our own relationship. For me this is a labor of love. Thank you for being a part of it.
Today we traveled from Baie Comeau to Sept-Iles on the north shore of the St. Lawrence. En route we stopped at the ferry terminal at Godbout and made a reservation for a Monday crossing to Matane on the south shore.
This is the farthest east ferry crossing available to us. The passage will take about 2 hours and the cost to transport us, vehicle and trailer is about $200.00. Matane is about 175 miles northeast of Edmundston, New Brunswick. It is at Edmundston that we will cross back into the United States at the northernmost tip of Maine. From there we will begin our slow return south and west to Kansas City.
Between today and Monday we will spend Thursday night camping in Sept-Iles and then travel on to Havre-Saint-Pierre where we will camp for two nights before returning to the ferry dock at Godbout.
The last few days along the north shore of the Saint Lawrence have been a spectacular mix of dense north woods, rolling hills, stark rock promontories and seaside vistas. We are given to understand that the best is yet to come. We look forward to sharing it with all of you.
Peace Everyone. Pete
PS: This area is a mecca for the generation of hydroelectric power. We stopped to view the dam at the Sainte-Marguerite River. Before the 1980’s traffic crossed the river on a narrow roadway atop the dam. A major bridge was constructed to span the river canyon. On October 30, 1984 tragedy struck. As a crew was laying the final pavement on the bridge deck the substructure failed and the bridge collapsed into the rushing waters 200 feet below. 6 workers lost their lives.
PS. We have been uncommonly fortunate to have had cell service and WiFi to publish these posts. The areas that we are traveling are becoming increasingly remote. With that in mind gaps may be coming in my narratives.
We endured a bone chilling day today upon the waters of the St. Lawrence. The cold was driven into our core by a relentless rain that became needle sharp as our 12 person Zodiac tore through the fog. By the end of 3 hours in that open boat our stiffened joints resisted movement. 180 minutes of cold, rain, fog… an unrequited bladder… and worth every moment! The whales didn’t mind either.
We were advised to wear every piece of warm weather clothing that we had before arriving at the dock. Once there we suited up into flotation foul weather gear, looking and feeling like the Michelin Man. I thought, “There is no way that I will be cold in this rig!” I was wrong.
The fog and rain merged the sky and sea so that they became indistinguishable from one another. At times it was like floating within the center of a ping-pong-ball. 36 participants were allocated 12 each into 3 small vessels. We were among 8 English speakers who were assigned together onto one boat. Our captain was accommodating and displayed a real enthusiasm for the excursion.
It took 15 minutes for us to enter the main channel from port. A 5 knot tidal current continued to propel us downstream even when the motors were at idle. We periodically paused to listen for the sounds of whales blowing. The deep rumbled “whoose’’ of huge lungs exhaling carried eerily across the water from every direction. The captain’s experience drove us time and again to the nearest creatures. Along with hosts of smaller marine mammals there were Beluga Whales, Finback Whales, and the magnificent Humpback Whales! Sightings became so common that I began leaving my camera in its case.
As it was calving season we remained a respectful and lawful distance from the Belugas. The Finbacks seemed endlessly long as they gently rounded above the surface. These are the second largest of all whales and one of the largest creatures to have ever existed. The captain estimated that the examples we saw today were easily over 20 meters (65 feet). Some have been known to reach 85 feet long. They are sleek and reputed to be the fastest of all whales. Regrettably, they were a bit shy and while the viewing was good the pictures were not.
The Humpbacks almost seemed to seek us out. These creatures can grow to 50 feet long, weigh over 65,000 pounds, and live up to 50 years. On occasion they paralleled our vessel nearly within an outstretched arms reach. We could watch them silently glide just below the surface, periodically breaking the surface, blowing, and gently curving back into the depths. At times they raised their flukes as if waving goodbye. The captain was able to identify each of them by their unique tail markings, telling us the creatures name, gender, and occasionally a bit of its history. This was an extraordinary experience in a trip that has featured extraordinary experiences.
Back at camp a hot shower and nap did much to restore my core temperature.
We capped off the evening with dinner at Chez Mathilde. We expected a meal but we were rewarded with fine dining and the smokey tunes of an excellent jazz duo.
Tomorrow we begin our day-by-day journey further down the St. Lawrence. Who knows what surprises await us… perhaps the Northern Lights?
We broke camp and traveled a short distance to a very nice roadside restaurant where Christine again took the opportunity to practice her French on the locals. She is doing quite well and building both confidence and excitement at being understood.
Our drive continued to the ferry dock on the east side of the Sanguenay River where it exits the Fjord and enters the St. Lawrence. Continuous ferry service with three carriers in rotation facilitates the traffic crossing of this wide expanse of water without needless delay.
While crossing we spotted a Beluga Whale playing near the ships bow. Unfortunately I was not in time to capture it with my camera. On the other side of the river is the town of Tadoussac where we will camp for the next two nights.
Our campsite is situated high upon the dunes that overlook the incredibly quaint and historic town of Tadoussac. This had been the site of Indian tribal trading long before Cartier first visited in 1535. A European settlement and Catholic mission was established in 1600, becoming a major fur trading post and port for French vessels.
The mission was staffed in the 1600’s first by the Franciscans and then the Jesuits. The mission church that remains intact on the site dates to 1747. Two of the founding priests are interred beneath the church.
We spent the afternoon walking through town. We were pleasantly surprised to find a microbrewery near the docks. Nicholas, who was on-staff, spoke excellent English and even better “Brew-speak”. He was able to give a comprehensive explanation of the current offerings, all of which we sampled. They were exceptional. He proudly highlighted the recent third place finish that they were awarded for their Red Ale in an international competition.
We returned to camp and reserved places on a 12 person Zodiac for whale watching in the morning. We will depart further up the St. Lawrence where there is an excellent chance to view a variety of whales including a recently sighted pod of Blue Whales. Blues are the largest creatures to have ever lived. Below is a larger group that we watched depart from the pier.
Our evening was capped off with an excellent camp-cooked Pad Thai entree, wine, and fireside companionship with a group of 6 Canadians from near Toronto. Our nighttime views of Tadoussac and the far shore of the St. Lawrence are stunning!