blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

At St.-Antoine-de-L'Isle-aux-Grues

Being on the island feels like being in a dream, a good dream, I must add. Most of the time for the two days we were there we walked in silence, taking in its beauty, its simplicity, and the quiet. Up from the ferry dock to the village on the other side of the island, a narrow country road leads through wide open fields, with a row of telegraph poles (none of them quite vertical) on the left and a fantastic view of the Laurentide Mountains ahead, standing in line beyond northern river channel. Wild flowers on the verges, including clumps of ragwort, pretty but poisonous, and invasive. All we could hear were the crickets in the grass. Once over the brow of the hill where the long, low barn stands, its lonely aspect reminding my husband so much of the setting of a novel by J L Carr that he nicknamed that barn Pollock's Crossing, the roofs of the village and church spire become visible.

The catholic church has been there since the mid 19th century and still seems to be the focal point, people gathering there for social occasions and special traditions at certain times of the year, such as for the Sale of Souls raffle in January or an opportunity to disguise oneself in fancy dress at the Mi-Carême festival in March. There aren't many shops on the island. The museum sells a few cards and souvenirs and the Riopelle Cheese Factory shop sells its delicious cheeses. There's one dépanneur along the main street which stocks the basic necessities; I gather this is going to be situated elsewhere in the near future. The Café-aux-Quatre-Vents likewise sells a few touristy things, as do the two auberges. And that's it!

In order to keep the village cheerful in winter and on grey days, some houses have been painted in bright colours. In their gardens stand artistically crafted models of cranes or herons, under the white birches or among the garden flowers. For our visit there was colour enough in any case, a field of sunflowers in full bloom next to the church, all their heads facing the road, green marsh grass and the blue water beyond. Other crops grown on the island are barley and two kinds of beans. We noticed structures for drying hay. Apple trees, at this time of year, are bearing healthy looking red fruit. Fishing and hunting are other productive pastimes here. In the depths of winter the community gets a canot team together to compete in the ice-canoe races across the frozen river. Before the airport, this was the only means of reaching the mainland in winter.

In the churchyard are the graves of the local population although one man obviously didn't want to be buried with the riff-raff because one solitary gravestone stood in the middle of the beanfields futher up the hill, away from the village. I didn't go close enough to inspect it in detail.

English doesn't come easy to the francophone people who live here. The most famous inhabitant of the island was Jean-Paul Riopelle, the rebellious abstract painter. The museum, housed in an old barn, features videos of him as an unkempt old eccentric, working obsessively on his paintings, squeezing paint straight from the tubes onto the canvas. The myriad white blobs in his later paintings are probably a reference to the snow-geese that migrate via the island in their tens of thousands twice a year. He was born nearby and died on the island.

On Thursday we lingered over breakfast at the Grand Hérons, watching the tide start to dribble in over the mud where the sandpipers were foraging under a grey, wet sky. Chris went to sit at the business end of the dock watching the activity around the ferry that sat low in the water waiting for the incoming tide to lift it high enough for vehicles and passengers to get on board, while I remained at the breakfast table reading a book. Eventually the rain eased off and we set off for a walk along the rivage, following the track past the cottages, through the trees, till it fizzled out and left us on the shore, with deer footprints all over the sand. From where we stood, it didn't look so far to the tip of the island at the western end, but that headland is elusive, and it turned out to be further away than we thought. We wandered for about 2 and a half hours that morning, the best part of our hike being the marked trails around the Pointe aux Pins which we had explored before, on our previous visit. Here we met one other couple, the only other people we encountered. We remembered the views from the look-out points. A bonus sight this time was of a large-headed bird, probably the short-eared owl that's supposed to frequent this spot, sitting on a rock at the end of the island, so motionless, that at first I thought it was just an upright stone or piece of driftwood. Then it took off, on wide wings. We saw another such bird fly out of the forest as we walked further along.

There's an even wilder area of untouched woodland at the eastern tip of the island, where we have not been; this is a hunting reserve. Closer to the inhabited part, east of our lodging beyond the tipis, you can follow more trails through the forest and the fields and then turn left up the hill to cross the island towards the airport and village, again. At the edge of the woods in this direction was a clearing where we noticed a surprisingly large number of small wooden structures ... "They look like dog kennels," I said to Chris, breaking our companionable silence, at which point all hell broke loose, the pack of huskies (probably used as sled dogs in the winter), having heard a voice they didn't recognise, leaping out of their kennels, barking, howling and frantically pulling on their chains. We were mighty glad they'd been chained up, I must say. It was quite an alarming encounter and we didn't linger.

Hoping to see stars after dark on the first night we'd gone up the road to sit by the lonely barn, but too many clouds surrounded the clear patches of sky. I did spot one shooting star. On the second evening it clouded over again, but while we ate our supper at a window table, seeing the hills of Maine beyond the water, the setting sun behind us tinged the clouds above them pink, and then a distant rain-shower lit up with all the colours of the rainbow. Everyone in the dining room was awe-struck by it.

Monday, September 4, 2017

On the Isle again

I am starting to write this post in our waterside room at the Auberge known as Maisons du Grand Héron on the Isle-Aux-Grues that we are revisting for the first time since we stayed at the other Auberge on the other side of the island.

Papa Tango November is cleared to the Montmagny airport via direct TAKOL, Tango 731, AGLUK, Tango 781, PESAC, YQB, Victor 98 to FLEUR, direct CSE5.

That was our clearance yesterday morning as we left Ottawa-Rockcliffe for Montmagny, 2 hours 20 minutes away to the northeast. The total flight time was in fact 2 hours 24 minutes. The flight was remarkably smooth through very hazy air, although we had clear views over Quebec City; having been diverted left by 10-degrees for traffic avoidance in the airspace around CYQB we were then set back on course right across the city, seeing the Plains of Abraham, harbour and downtown as we went.

Then followed the romantic stretch across the Isle d'Orléans and the archipelego of islands round this one, the Isle-aux-Grues lying almost adjacent to Montmagny. Children who live on the island go to school by plane every morning (a free, 5-minute Air Montmagny flight to the mainland, or le continent, as they call it in these parts). It must be one of the shortest regular flights on the planet. We saw the school plane in its hangar --- we saw this twin-prop. being taxied right inside the hangar before its engine was turned off, only the tail sticking out! --- and, once we took to the air again to do our own short hop across to the island, we spotted the school below us, too. Our midday meal had been a packed lunch at the Montmagny airport picnic table by the bullrushes, a far cry from lunch at Heathrow, where I shall be next week.

I had loved our stay on the island in 2011, when we had our meals on the Auberge des Dunes' delapidated old boat Le Bateau Ivre (its name inspired by Rimbaud's famous poem) still stuck in in the mud on the northern shore, and have loved it again this time round, this being the first time we actually landed on the island in our plane. The previous time, PTN having a flat tyre or something, we had flown in a less familiar, substitute plane (a Piper Cherokee) that may not have been so easy to land on such a short runway, so had left it on the ground at Montmagny and had come across on the ferry.

The Isle-Aux-Grues makes good memories. This time we were staying at the Maisons du Grand Héron on the rue du Rivage of the southern shore, facing the ferry dock; in fact we had a good view of the dock and distant mainland from our bedroom window. During supper on our second evening there, once again next to the windows, we even had the rare privilege of seeing a sunset sky complete with extraordinary, widely spread rainbow colours, as the setting sun lit a distant rain shower over the hills of Maine, beyond Cap St. Ignace.

The hotel has rooms within the Auberge itself, where the meals are served, as well as two yurts (yaourts) and two wooden "tipis" in the trees alongside. Their interiors are nicely furnished with all the requisite amenities and a barbeque outside; the only snag might be mosquito bites in the bug-season. Anyhow, the manager, Gilles, came to pick us up with our bags from the airport by pre-arrangement and drove us 3km along the quiet country roads to his place. We had chosen to take advantage of the four-course suppers and breakfasts offered as part of one of their forfaits (packages at $110 per person, per night --- not bad value). During our breakfasts one of the live grands hérons who frequent the muddy river edge when the tide is out, flew in to entertain us. Sandpipers and snow geese made their apppearance there too.

Gilles told us a heartbreaking story about the snow geese. During the last migration season / hunting season, earlier this year, one of the geese we saw was shot in the wing and not killed, but incapacitated, unable fly north, so (s)he had to remain on the island. Geese being faithful creatures, its mate and family stayed too. And when the winter comes, and the other thousands of snow geese stop by on their journey south, this particular goose family will be stuck on the island and will doubtless all die of cold.

Supper at the Maison des Grands Héron deserves a description. It was served in a leisurely fashion which meant that we were sitting at our supper table for about two hours. Drinks first, while we studied the Table d'Hote menu. The entrée is concocted with smoked esturgeon, whether you like it or not. Never fear, you will like it, fresh from the local sea water, nicely presented with an artistic salad and subtle dressing. We had slices of this smoked fish on the first night and a little ball of smoked sturgeon mousse on the second night. (Sturgeon can grow 2 metres long, so there is plenty for everyone. I just learned that they can live for 60 years, if you don't catch them.) The second course is a small bowl of tasty and fairly thick homemade soup, served with slices of homemade bread in a basket. The piece de résistance course is some kind of meat or fish in a sauce (presumably slow-cooked during the day) which they serve in individual casserole dishes with a not-too-heavy helping of rice or potatoes and carrots or similar on the side. I had curried sturgeon (!) on the first night and veal on the second. The dessert course is a slice of homemade cake or a fruit sorbet, once again artistically served, with tea or coffee.

I also appreciated the good taste with which the Auberge had been decorated. I dare say that Gilles' wife Nicole was responsible for this. The surroundings, despite all the activity at the dockside, make for a peaceful night's sleep. With our windows open, all we heard at night was the natural sound of rustling leaves or rain falling.