Chapter 3. Quebec
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2000 All rights reserved.
(Bert) Night's rain transforms morning to vibrant colors with sharp edges. Steel blue water, polished smooth, slides to a small tree-studded island on Lac Phillippe. The azure sky is sketched with the white lines of rain-emptied clouds. Along the path through the woods, the rainwater has washed out the mosquitoes from the cool morning air. Shorn lawns, wet with raindrops, vibrate green. A Song Sparrow raises his head and sings a crystalline song that echoes across the sunlit meadow and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak auditions an operatic melody from atop a tall White Pine. It's a morning that makes traveling further seem foolish, but we depart nonetheless. Tracing the contours of the Ottawa River, Hwy. 148 leads us eastward. The lazy broad river is swollen with recent rains. Beyond the river to our right lie the flat open lands of Ontario. To our left, the land rises to form low, softly folding hills, smoothed by forest leaves, the Province of Quebec. Repeatedly, I barely reach cruising speed before encountering a 50-kph sign slowing me as we pass through yet another village cluster of buildings. Dandelioned lawns stretch before mid-century homes and cottages. Soon, Montreal announces its presence with industries housed in formidable factories. We exit into an affluent suburb and drive past hundreds of new homes, tasting of wealth. Miles further, we stop. Permanent and semi-permanent trailers and a few other RV's, distinctly a lower income class, surround our campsite. But with full hookups, it will serve our purposes for one night.
(Shari) For those readers with Map 'N' Go, do not trust it. I have found I need a paper map to reassure myself that what Map 'N' Go relates is in fact true. The program today did not have the new section of C-50 listed, did not track accurately (the green arrow was at times 2 miles from the true location) and told me to exit at #23 in Montreal off C-640, which did not exist. But if you use your head along with the map, you will be fine. We make it to our campground at 1 PM. Both of us are tired of driving and decide to stop. We got a message from our friends, Don and Jean, that they left Texas yesterday and are trying to catch up with us. So we will put on the brakes a little bit. Our park today is north of Montreal. Neither Bert nor I have any desire to go into Montreal for two reasons. We have been there before, years ago, and our friends, Jim and Ermine, were there last year and told horrendous stories about traffic snarls. So here we sit at Camping au Plateau, getting caught up with wash, naps, grocery shopping and bills. Most sites here are for seasonal rigs staying the summer. A few spots are set aside for us transients. The afternoon turns into another rainy day, so we are not missing any outdoor activities. I take the car to the nearest IGA store, four miles away, following the camp host's directions. He is right on the money: the stoplight and the store to the left is just where he said it would be. I grab a cart and proceed down the aisles looking for my groceries. Knowing less French than I do Spanish (and that is not all that much) I find getting certain grocery items to be a problem. Luckily, I can turn the can or box around and find the equivalent English word. I easily shut out all French background noises until I reach the checkout stand. I take my groceries out of the cart and push the cart ahead of me. Soon the cart comes back at me and the little lady in the check stand next to me is saying something. I know I did some sort of booboo but cannot for the life of me figure what it could be. I say "American" pointing to my chest, "Parlee vois English?" She says something that I still do not understand. A nice lady next to me tells me that the carts are to remain at the front of the check stand. Apparently someone constantly comes along to pick them up and take them to the front of the store for the next shopper. Noticing my checkout clerk giving me a stare, I realize the young man bagging my groceries is talking to me. Now what is he saying, I wonder. I repeat my dumb American routine and he nicely asks if I need help with my groceries. Am I supposed to take his cart out to my car, move my groceries to another cart or make three trips? He explains he would be happy to take them out for me since he is responsible for his cart and cannot let me have it. As we walk out to the parking lot, I find out he has never been to the U.S. That amazes me, since New York is only 51 miles from here. His English is very good and he asks me if I am on vaxitien. He realizes he has not said "vacation" correctly and we both laugh.
(Shari) Looking like it will snow today, the sky holds steel gray clouds. R-TENT rumbles along C-40, a U.S. interstate equivalent, but with fewer rest areas. Scrubby evergreen trees, thick along the roadside, like those found in the Yukon, add to the cold feeling. Stopping for gas, we are warmed a little by the fact diesel is 5 cents cheaper per liter than regular unleaded. But at 70.9 cents per liter ($1.82US per gallon) it still is a shocker. Arriving at Imperial Campground outside of Quebec, we are greeted by the proprietor before we have a chance to exit R-TENT. He leads us to our paved full hook-up site and tells us to register when we are settled. I walk up to the office and find he has given us off-season rates, a 33% discount. It works out to $14 per night. He loads me with pamphlets describing the sites in the area and tells me about a Grayline tour that leaves from our parking lot at nine in the morning. We decide to take him up on that offer and we reserve our place. I check out the sites along the street (for our men readers, that translates "shop"), but I notice the habitat is not good. I pass one second hand store, a fruit and plant market, a framing shop, a restaurant, and beauty shop. Wait a minute! I need a haircut. I look in the window and two stylists are standing alone with no customers in sight. I go in and do my pointing American routine and ask if they speak English. The answer, as always, is "A little bit," said with a French accent. I ask if they can cut my hair right now. Thirty minutes later I leave the shop with a new French haircut, for the US equivalent of $20. Ooh la la!
(Bert) Bewildered again! We close in on Quebec without incident, but, nearing the city, our Map 'N' Go directions fail to lead us to the campground. I pull off to the side of the street and while Shari shuffles through her maps, a man stops his car and comes over to R-TENT to help us. A local English-speaking resident, he tells us we are headed in the wrong direction. With his help we turn around and quickly locate the campground. We are camped near the St. Lawrence River and tomorrow will explore the city.
(Shari) Deftly negotiating the narrow streets and talking in both English and French, Michelle, our bus driver/guide gives us a tour of Quebec. Called the "Rendez Vous With History," the tour takes us to points of interest in the walled city of Old Quebec. However, Bert mentions he is not learning enough from the guide. I think it is because even when Michelle speaks English, he pronounces words in French and it is difficult for our ears to understand him. "ooteh" is hotel. By the time I realize he is talking about the Hotel du Champlain, a hospital, we are already past it. So, after lunch we take the car and head off into the city ourselves, stopping at the information office first. Picking up The Official Tourist Guide of the Greater Quebec Area, we walk the Quartier Petit-Champlain area. Once the center of business for the British merchants and ship builders, it steadily declined into a riverside ghetto. Astute city leaders, targeting the tourist dollar, renovated the area, and now its narrow streets, lined with restaurants and businesses, come alive with musicians, clowns, jugglers and tourists. Tourism commands 38% of the economy in the city and is big business. Even during this off-season, busloads of people stop and shop, cruise ships dock at the landing and individuals spend their money at countless places. We are no exception and purchase a beer mug for our collection, a Christmas present for Bert's Mom, and a shirt for Bert. Before leaving Texas, I had read about the Château de Fronteneu, a hotel built in the 1800s, commanding a bird's eye view of the St. Lawrence River. Not wanting to miss it, we climb the hundreds of stairs to the top of the bluff. There, our eyes feast on the overwhelming scene from above. The château dominates the skyline from below, but from above we see steeples, Victorian houses, ships, the river, sailboats, statues of all kinds and the people and shops below. Walking the long boardwalk lining the bluff we just drink in the view, stopping inside the stately château. Continuing our walk, we pass another of those places I had read about, Restaurant Aux Anciens Canadiens. The restaurant is housed in the oldest building in Quebec, dating from the 1600s. I go inside to make 7 PM reservations. Bert notices a menu posted outside that advertises a special until 6 PM: beer or wine, soup, main course and dessert for $13.75 Canadian. I decide to change the reservations to 5:55 PM, thereby saving 66% on the meal. For a little over $20US the two of us enjoy traditional Quebec cuisine served by ladies in peasant costumes in a traditional dining room atmosphere. Small rooms with eight to nine tables clothed with blue gingham make up the eating areas. We are lead to a corner table next to the window on the second floor. On the walls, glass cases display old rifles and guns dating to the early 1700s. I order a white beer, one that is double fermented, cabbage soup, salmon en crote with shrimp cream sauce, and maple syrup pie to die for. Calorie and gastronomically full, we are glad to walk the steep hill back to our car.
(Bert) Visiting Quebec appeals to all senses: the feel of Europe, the smell of a clean city, the hearing of French, the sight of Canadian history, the taste of French American cuisine. Seventeenth century French architecture, narrow cobblestone streets, outdoor cafes, and small gift shops in Quartier Petit Champlain - these contribute to the feeling of a European city. Ninety-five percent of Quebec residents speak French, yet the clerks, waiters and tour guides happily switch to English in our presence. Statues silently speak history: Cartier found this imposing rock cliff on the St. Lawrence River in 1535, Champlain founded the city in 1608, Montcalm defended the city for the French, but Wolfe lead the attack on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 that claimed it for the English, and they later held back the Americans lead by the man without a statue, Benedict Arnold. We learn of this and more on our morning bus tour and our return in the afternoon to explore Quebec on foot. From high atop the cliff our view is of the river and port, including a cruise ship. Saltwater reaches up the river to Quebec and meets the inland freshwater. The cruise ship traveled 720 miles to reach this dock. Behind us stands Château Frontenac, built by Canadian railway companies in 1892-93. We walk inside to see the dinner menu. At $125/person, including wine, we can see why this hotel attracted Churchill, Roosevelt and MacDonald, but it's too rich for our wallet. Instead, we find Aux Anciens Canadiens, a delightful restaurant built in La Maison Jacquet, one of the oldest houses in Quebec. Built by Francois Jacquet in 1675-76, its most prominent resident was Gaspe, the author of the novel after which the restaurant is named. I order pheasant legs in pork and beans, an odd combination but a delicious taste. For desert we have Maple Syrup Pie, a dreamy dish that was worth the price of the meal alone.
(Bert) Before this morning, I had not visited an Anglican church. Tolling bells lead us to The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity at the heart of Quebec. We are warmly greeted, handed a hymnal and liturgy book, and find seats in an old style pew: straight-backed, surrounded by a short wooden wall and entered through a gate. The cathedral, completed in 1804, has a high domed ceiling, ornate stained glass windows, and painted lettering completely covering the forward walls with the Lord's Prayer, Apostle's Creed and Ten Commandments - a clear witness to the tenants of the Anglican Church. By chance, we are attending the Installation of Canons. The word "install" takes on a new meaning for me today. On either side of the narthex, two rows of large high-backed and high-sided wooded chairs form a series of stalls. The canons (pastors) sit in the stalls, today including the visiting canons and the preacher - a woman - the Reverend Canon Heather Thomson, Chaplain of Bishop's University. The two new canons sit with the congregation, but after they are installed into their new ministry they are also "in-stalled" into their own private stalls. The sermon dwells on the Christian admonition to love one another. But there seem to be heavy tones to Canon Thomson's words: something ominous, something implying times of strife. The concern becomes clear at the end of the service when the head of the Quebec diocese reads a formal letter from the Archbishop and Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada. Apparently, all of the financial reserves of the Anglican Church of Canada are being threatened by a thousand lawsuits claiming mistreatment of aborigine Canadians and the Archbishop's letter encourages parishioners to see light at the end of the dark tunnel ahead.
(Shari) "If you love me, you will keep my word, and my Father will love you, and we will come to you. John 14:23." Since we have missed church services for the past two weeks, these words printed in the bulletin of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity seem apropos. Seeking a church service, we found this one last night when walking back from dinner. Worshipping in a cathedral almost 200 years old, with some of the service in French, is truly a new experience. This church is one of the many Anglican churches found throughout England, Australia, U.S. and Canada. Sitting in family stalls complete with doors and hymnal racks for open hymnals, the worshippers follow much the same order of service that we Lutherans do. Except for the French, the elaborate robes of the ministers, and the sermon delivered by a female, I could hardly tell the difference. After church we continue our exploration of the city first walking to the citadel, a fortress built in a hill by the British afraid of the American Revolutionaries. We choose to descend the many flights of stairs to the level of the Château, where we walk to the Musee de l'Amerique francaise. Using our free tickets from yesterday's Grayline tour, we join the English-speaking guide on the 2 PM tour. He takes us through the many rooms of the edifice that is still used today as a place of learning. Originally built to teach young boys to become priests, it has evolved over the years but still is an institution of learning. It houses a strange collection of things, presumably gathered for the education of the young men. We are taken through the chapel, the case enclosing the bones of a pope, a room full of religious artifacts, another full of insect, butterfly and bird collections, another tracing a story of an Indian woman and her children and a room containing French American history through a movie and audio anecdotes. Using headsets, we enter a dark room lit only by spotlights focusing on sculpture. I say sculpture, but in reality it is clothing of the period, shaped as if an invisible person is still wearing it. A gorgeous red dress commands center stage and when standing in front of it, I learn of the 850 women sent over from a French orphanage to become brides of the many unmarried men that settled the area. Oh, how full of hope they were! In front of two sets of well-worn hand knit knee high socks, I learn of the conditions suffered by the Scottish troops sent to defend the city after the British takeover. By now it is 3:30 and we are very hungry. We decide one of those triple fondues we have seen advertised sounds good. At Café du Suisse, we partake of cheese, then Chinese and then Chocolate fondue. The Chinese fondue consists of thin slices of beef which when dipped into a hot beef broth are cooked and then eaten with mayonnaise based sauces. All this is washed down with blonde beer and by the time we leave the restaurant we are pleasantly full. When arriving home, we have a message on our cell phone that Don and Jean are in Niagara Falls. They should be here by Tuesday and we will wait for them. I can think of many worse places to have to wait. This is fast becoming another city to add to my favorite cities list.
(Shari) Looking at the 487 steps leading to the top of Montmorency Falls, I say to Bert, "Let's take the cable car up and walk down." He readily agrees. The falls is located about 30 min. from our campground, around the other side of Quebec City. At 272 ft. tall, it surpasses Niagara by 98.5 ft. However, it is not as wide. We literally see the falls from all sides: top, bottom, left and right as we make our 360-deg. circle around it. Taking the cable car up (cost CN$5.00), we walk to Manoir Montmorency. This impressive structure, perched atop the cliff, was once a governor's mansion. We pamper ourselves with panoramic views of the falls as we eat another famous French gourmet treat. My lunch today consists of cream of carrot soup, linguine with a mussel cream sauce, French rolls and herb tea, all for the price of $11.95. With proof of lunch, our $7.00 parking fee is waived so my lunch is $4.95 or our parking is free, whichever way you want to look at it. Remember I am quoting Canadian prices, so you U.S. readers take 2/3 of this and you get our equivalent. After lunch we continue walking around the falls. Looking down from the suspension bridge strung across the width of the falls is a hair-raising experience. Not especially liking heights, I hurry across the bridge and take a picture of Bert on it. The 487 wooden steps hang onto the cliff face and I hang onto them as I make my way down. Along the way, three gazebo structures allow us to stop and view the falls at yet another angle. On our way home, we do not get lost even once. I bought a good map of Quebec yesterday, which helps immensely and we figure out the bridge system. Now it is a piece of cake.
(Bert) I've finally learned how to navigate this French-speaking city. The first concept I learned was easy. A sign with the word "Ouest" may seem like "East" but it's really "West", because "Est" looks even more like "East." Now, as for learning how to drive, if I want to make a right hand turn, I almost certainly must turn left. And, to turn left, I must turn right. Any properly executed turn involves driving around in circles. From the Gray Line tour guide I learned the history of road making in Quebec. The layout of the roads was designed during an Italian dinner following too much Chianti, and wherever the spaghetti fell on the map became the new road design. From Quebec, we made two unsuccessful attempts to find our campground, but finally figured it out on our third try. Since we are leaving Quebec and heading to another city - the one across the river - we must follow the signs pointing to Quebec. You see, it all makes sense. You just do the opposite of what your intuition tells you. Asking a French Canadian for directions is another story. I might as well ignore what he is saying, because even his English sounds like French. So I look at his fingers and arms. He'll point an arm in one direction, the other arm in another and then point his fingers in two directions. I guess the one direction left out, must be the correct one. Reading French is easy. It seems when de Gaulle designed the French language after the war, he had a lot of letters (especially x's) still left in the box God gave him. So not wanting to waste the leftover letters, he put all the extras at the ends of the words. Now, to read French I just ignore the last half of the words. Here, try these yourself: Charlevoix, Jacques, Garneau, Saint-Laurent, Vieux. Shari thinks you also must omit the first letter of each word, but I think that rule only applies to words beginning with the letter "h" as in "Hôtel" and "holy." After learning to omit the last half of each word, and sometimes the first letter or two, I am left with a few letters in the middle. I listened to the French Canadians pronounce the remaining letters, and the trick is to say as little as possible: just swallow the words in a soft inflection of your voice and omit all punctuation run one sentence into another without commas or periods. It's amazing what a few days in Quebec can do for my education!
(Bert) Perched atop my ladder, washing the bugs off the front of R-TENT, I see Don and Jean pull up in D'BUS. The camp host directs them to park D'BUS (nickname for their Southwind motor home) in the site parallel to R-TENT. We greet each other with hugs and all four of us start talking at once, trying to catch up on the news of our various adventures from Texas to Quebec. We quickly plan a trip to the city, with Shari as experienced Quebec tour guide and me as expert driver through the maze of Quebec streets. We give them a whirlwind tour through all the sites you readers have already heard about. Along the way we check menus posted outside the restaurants and Shari promotes Restaurant Aux Anciens Canadiens so highly that we choose to visit it again. But by 5:30, the restaurant is booked without an available table for four. Nearby, we pick Bistro Figaro and are not disappointed. The 4-course meal offers many choices for the entrée, but we all select Suprême de Canard 'a l'orange, which is the French way of saying, "Duck." Eating out in Quebec is such a great experience that it has made a shambles of our plan of only dining out once per week. If we don't leave the area soon, Shari will forget how to cook.
(Shari) The three of us out vote Bert and dinner tonight is at The House of the Ancient Canadians. Yes, Don and Jean finally arrive and we are acting as tour guides for Quebec City. Showing them all the highlights of our previous four days here, we retrace the climb up to Battlement Park and circle around to the Château and then stopping for dinner at the restaurant. Alas, Bert wins after all, since there is no room in the restaurant tonight for four people. Some tour group has the dining rooms booked. We cross the street to settle on Le Figaro, a second choice. We have to leave this city soon or I will gain 100 pounds. Tonight's dinner starts with a Brie pastry for Bert and a mixed seafood appetizer for me, followed by cream of carrot soup, then duck in orange sauce. Dessert is lemon cheesecake, presented with a swirl of chocolate and caramel sauce, topped with a fresh strawberry. Walking down to the car, Jean and I cannot resist the shops. Bert is a real trooper, since this is the third time he has been in some of them. He doesn't even suggest that my trade for shopping time now equals his birding. Shhh, don't any of you tell him either. We call it an early night since our scheduled time of tomorrow's departure is 7:30AM. Too early if you ask me!
(Bert) Following the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, we travel through flat lowlands that look like they were once part of a wider river, but now are farmlands. Hwy. 20 is straight, smooth and boring. However, as Shari points out, this may well be the last good road we will be on for the next few months, so I better enjoy it while I can. Maine lies 50+ miles south of us; a bit later it's New Brunswick that is south. The further we travel northeast, the wider the river becomes until finally the gray overcast skies mix with the gray seawater and I cannot see the opposite shore. Common Eiders gather on dark rocks near shore and float on the shallow water. When we stop for the day, we have barely entered Gaspésie, the 120-mile-long peninsula that juts into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
(Shari) The further northeast we travel, the less English is spoken. Stopping at a tourist information center in Ste-Luce, the receptionist has trouble explaining in English that some campgrounds are still closed so early in the season. About 15 miles farther, Camping Annie, looks inviting with its level pull-thru sites. The lady in the office here also does not know English very well and she asks her husband to translate the brochure for us. Later Jean and I drive into Métis-Sur-Mer for some groceries. I find a greeting card that I think is a French Father's Day Card. Asking the clerk to translate it for me, I find that she knows about as much English as I know Spanish (which is not saying much), so I find two men in the meat department that try to translate it. I buy the card, but I really do not know if I have a birthday card or a Father's Day card. Oh well, it is the thought that counts and either way it is unique. Tonight is a fish feast at Don and Jean's. On their way to Canada, they were given some walleyes from a fisherman on Lake Erie. After dinner we walk along the bike trail cut through the woods. White wild strawberry flowers and Lily-of-the-Valley, not yet in bloom, tell us we are in the north. Deep prints in the soft dirt look like moose tracks to us. Scat, so fresh it smells, has us wondering what just beat us across the path. Jean spots a porcupine lumbering about 30 feet ahead of us. As we get closer, it fans out its tail in protective stance. After walking what seems like an hour, wondering if we should turn back before dark, Bert assures us the campground is right around the corner. It makes no sense to walk an hour and end up a few campsites from where we started, but we did. What is even harder to take is Bert was right.
(Bert) Add Hwy. 132 to a short list of great coastal highways. All day, from 7:30 to 4:00, we trace the perimeter of Gaspésie peninsula, a rounded bulge of forested land terminating in an abrupt rock mountain coastline. Each turn produces another vista, starting in early morning with a flat melding of earth and water, then increasing in the differences in elevation as the day progresses, until finally by lunch time the edge of the cliff presents a shear drop of a thousand feet to where the rock kisses the sea. When, at sea level the highway curves along the shore, we see the gentle waves roll across the strange rock base. Near vertical plates of black rock sandwiched together like uplifted stacks of cards are eroded unevenly, leaving a jagged edge over which the waves lap like water pouring over a roughly plowed field. Above us waterfalls plunge from the high cliffs. Then the road begins its ascent. We eat lunch at a wayside perched high on a cliff, in view of Grande-Vallée: a high-steeple church dominating a little village at the mouth of a river flowing from the mountains. Now with the highway forged along the top of the rock cliffs, it becomes a driving challenge. Although amply wide and in good repair, the road is not for timid RV'ers. The pitch changes constantly, up and down: 7%, 8%, 9% slopes. Then to my surprise we start seeing signs with double digits: 10%, 12%, 14% slopes. R-TENT climbs one long hill that seems especially steep near the apex. When I look back behind me to read the road sign, I see that we have just capped the peak at a 19% slope. But the performance of our diesel engine is admirable, having made the final ascent in second gear at 25 mph. I radio Don and he tells me his V-10 engine slowed to 15 mph. Strangely, for many of the peaks, just as we near the top of a sharp incline we see a sign warning of a forthcoming sharp decline. And, sure enough, what goes up must come down. But, again, the Jacobs exhaust brake on R-TENT makes the descent easily manageable. The scenery is exhilarating, even if the driving becomes a bit tedious. Dark evergreen forests are interspersed with yellowish aspen trees with tender leaves barely out of their buds. Here, spring is the latest in arriving since we began our trip. In darkened crevices, winter's snow still hides. We make our final rapid descent into the coastal village of Percé on a 1-km stretch at 17%.
(Shari) "Eleven percent!" I scream as R-TENT sits poised atop a road that drops out of sight. I wonder just how long, narrow and winding this 11% decline is as Bert engages our Jake brake. As we top the crest of the hill, we can already see the bottom. This 11% is a short one and causes us no trouble. The Gaspésie peninsula is one of Quebec's hidden secrets. Our drive today is breathtaking, with every turn another wonder. The road is sandwiched between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and mountains, reminiscent of scenes in Alaska. Many steep hills, our biggest was 19%, winding roads and stops make the 259-mi. trip take us over 8 hours to travel. We pass through tiny quaint towns, sleepily waiting for the summer tourists and warm water fish to arrive. These people make all their money in two months and take unemployment the rest of the year. We stop at a pullout next to a waterfall to take a picture of R-TENT with the falls, a red lighthouse, the ocean, the road and the mountain beside it. Simply stunning! We stop at a village post office to mail some letters, another stop is to get gas, another to eat lunch at a scenic look out rest area, others to snap scenic pictures. Finally we arrive at Percé where the gannets come to nest. Map 'N' Go has the campgrounds in the wrong place again. We are tired and want to stop and see a sign proclaiming, "Au Nordé - Hauve de la Nuit - Camping." The sites look small with no turnaround so I run on ahead to ask questions. It looks good to me and we pull forward into our site for the view. Perched on a short cliff, we can see the Gulf and the famous Percé rock. Hundreds of colored floats, the size of soccer balls, bob up and down in the water, each color representing one of nine lobster permits let out by the government. Harvesting the tasty crustacean occurs in the early morning hours and becomes another "to do" on my list. Or should I say, "to see?" We walk the short distance to town, reading menus outside restaurants along the way. By the time we get to the tourist information area, it is closed. In fact, everything is closed. Bert and I walk the boardwalk along the shore for the exercise, planning our day for tomorrow. Happy Hour occurs on the picnic table in front of R-TENT, facing the water. Looking for whales in the glistening water, we sip our wine, commenting that maybe we should stay here some extra days.
(Shari) I am glad Bert made me go. I was so tired from getting up at 5:30 AM to watch the men catching lobsters that I take a nap already at 7 and then, don't want to get up again. But I pack a lunch, put it in my backpack along with my raincoat, and off we go to purchase our tickets at the wharf. I think this is $20 wasted as our boat circles the island, the guide mumbles some stuff about the rock, we see a few seals basking on rocks and we disembark to walk 1.4 miles through the woods to the other side of the island. The day is at least warm and pretty for a walk. Don and I are ready for lunch as soon as the boat hits land and the picnic tables around the grounds on this end look inviting. Not to be deterred, Bert allows us only enough time to use the restroom and off he hikes up the path. We walk and we walk and I wonder when we will arrive. Soon we hear a bunch of chatter, like hundreds of ducks, but not ducks, quacking their heads off. We also smell bird poop. The woods open up and we are on the top of a cliff with thousands of gannets. I literally mean thousands - over 70,000 of the little buggers are nesting right before our eyes. Have you ever seen 70,000 anything all in one spot? What a sight! Gannets are duck-like with webbed feet. All white, with a yellowish head, it is difficult to tell the difference between male and female. I am glad they can tell the difference, and they must, because we see the whole process from beginning mating ritual to egg roosting, right before God and everybody. Jean and I start to give them human characteristics and watch as females scold their mates for bringing the wrong seaweed or holler at another male for messing up their nest as he hops to his own home. The nests are no more than 12 in. apart from each other and we wonder how each male can find his home in that sea of feathers. I originally thought we would make the 1 PM boat back but we are so enthralled with the behavior of the birds, we watch them for over an hour. Having such a bird's eye view of them, we can almost reach out to touch an egg. Eating our lunch at a picnic table nearby, we see Finback Whales cavorting in the sea. Oh, too soon it is time to trek back to catch the 3 PM boat. A good thing we took the trip this morning. It was warm and sunny. On the way back it is cold and cloudy and by 5 PM the rain starts to patter on R-TENT and our outside thermometer reads 43 degrees. I know I did not take enough warm clothes.
(Bert) We could smell them from a far off distance. The pungent odor reminiscent of a chicken farm seemed out of place for the hemlock forest through which we've hiked for the past 45 min. We continue for another quarter mile and then we can hear them: a chorus of cackling noises. We continue. Bits of fluffy white feathers stick to the trees. Beside our path, the shell of a goose-sized egg, perhaps stolen by a crow, is all that remains of a poacher's dinner. We continue. Light pierces through an opening in the forest. Then, a field of white lies ahead of us. The white coalesces into individual bodies of large white birds with graceful long yellowish necks and pointed heads and saber-shaped bills. When a few spread their white wings to their full 6-ft. wingspan, the tips look like they have been dipped in black ink. Now in the clear, we see side-by-side, a continuous mass of birds covering acres of sloping ground at the edge of the cliffs of Bonaventure Island. We've reached the rookeries of tens of thousands of Northern Gannets. Only a split rail fence separates the grassy knoll where we stand from the barren ground where the gannets gather. In some places we can stand against one side of a short wooden wall with gannets sitting on nests within arms reach on the other side. The gannets are completely oblivious to our presence and they engage in a complete array of courtship displays so close to us that I have to back off a few paces to use my telephoto lens. We watch the mated pairs raise their bills into the air and clack them together in a saber duel ritual. Females scrape bills on the barren ground, using soil and bits of seaweed to build a small mound to serve as a nest. Other pairs mate in sessions so quick the act is easily missed by viewers. Some females are already sitting on an egg, although hard to see even when they stand, since they cover the egg with large webbed feet. Earlier, we had the thrill of seeing the gannets from seaside, aboard a boat that took us past the famous Percé Rock and around Bonaventure Island. The seaward side of the island is a limestone fortress rising abruptly 500 ft. from sea level to the peak where we walked. Floating on the water, resting on rocky ledges, soaring through the air are hundreds of thousands of gannets, kittiwakes, gulls, cormorants and murres. What an awesome sight!
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