Mingans: Paddling with Whales

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The Islands, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence,
Teem with Wildlife Including Colorful Puffins

It’s a damp morning as the kayaks slide off the sandy beach into the frigidwaters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The placid surface helps us find a quick paddling rhythm, and the only sound
Is the splash of the drips as the blades rise from the water.

About 12 kilometres in the misty distance lies the blurred shape of Grande
Ile. It is our destination for the first night in Quebec’s Mingan Islands, a
scattering of isolated outcrops just off the north coast of the Gulf of St.
Lawrence. We are north of Anticosti Island, which we see from time to time
over the next week as a looming hulk to the south of us.

There is much natural bounty here, but the land and sea are unforgiving and
it takes a hardy human to make a subsistence living of cod, crabs and
caribou.

Thousands have and many still do, but no one has described this rack
of wilderness rock and stunted trees better than favourite son Gilles Vigneault of
Natashquan.

Mon pays, c’est l’hiver, he wrote, and even in the height of summer you feel
you are never too far away from the icy blasts of winter.
Gliding just above the surface in my kayak, I am apprehensive of making a mistake in the
usually stable craft despite the calm day. The odds are short of surviving a
ducking.

https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zAYfuathgjtg.kcRIDOMEJ0xs

But my fears are quickly forgotten as a piercing cry breaks the silence. It’s the call of a whale, and we will hear many more in the next
week as we navigate our small craft through the islands and surrounding
waters that teem with wildlife, including puffins.

There are nine species of whales in the waters of the islands, and we see
many of the smaller ones.

It took us two days to get here from Montreal in a van with five sea kayaks
stacked on top and packed with enough gear and food to get five of us
through eight days of island hopping.

After an overnight stay in Tadoussac, we hit the road (Highway 138 in this
case) and drove past Baie Comeau, Godbout and Sept Iles crossing salmon
river after salmon river. We arrived late in the afternoon at Longue Pointe
de Mingan where we registered at the office of the Mingan Archipelago
National Park Reserve. The reserve consists of 1,000 islands and stretches
150 kilometres along the coast from Longue Pointe de Mingan to Natashquan
and Pointe Parent, where the highway ends.

We made camp in nearby Mingan before setting off in kayaks the next morning.
We do not see puffins unfortunately because they have better things to
do. It is nesting time on the Ile aux Perrouquets and intruders are not
allowed.

There is no reason the puffins would want me in their midst. Years earlier
(and I would like to get this off my chest now that the statute of
limitations has passed) I inadvertently shot one from a rocking dory off the
coast of Newfoundland. It was one of several sea birds that flew out of a
fog bank when it was my turn to hoist a shotgun.

On this trip I am armed with nothing more dangerous than a blunt paddle and
a bottle of wine chilling in the bottom of the kayak.

Whales rule

It may be a long journey to the Mingans, but this is where you can mingle
with the cetaceans on their terms. Whales rule here.

The wilderness has many advantages. There are few motorboats – and none making pests of themselves – or hordes
of gawkers leaning over the railings of tour boats.

In this part of the world, the whales investigate the humans who dare
trespass in their environment and not the other way around.

The paddling on our initial day takes us to Grande Ile, where we set up camp
at one of two sites on the island. Overnight a stiff wind blows out the
cloud cover and humidity, and we set off in the sun the next day.

The paddling is great in the morning and we meet one of the great characters
of these wilderness islands, Gilles Chagnon, a transplanted Montrealer who is head of
Expedition Agaguk, which runs overnight tours to the islands from Havre St.
Pierre.

We stop to chat and tell him that we are headed or Ile Niapiskau, which has
remarkable monoliths – huge statues of rock carved by the wind and tides. He
gives us a map of the tidal currents

He is leading a group of kayakers on a three-night outing and because they
are new to the activity, he keeps them close to shore.

We decide to be more daring and head for open water, straight for Niapiskau
with a stiff breeze at our back.

Straight is a relative term because the tide hits us at an angle and we
twist and turn as we slide over the whitecaps. We correct constantly with
the rudder.

Pinned down

After two hours of slaloming, we wash ashore at Niapiskau where the strong
wind pins us down for two days. It gives us a chance to hike around the
island and take in the garden of huge monoliths on the south side. They are
one of the major attractions of the islands and draw a few dozen tourists
who are ferried over by local boat companies each day.

After they leave in the afternoon, we are the sole inhabitants of this wilderness island.
Our next stop, after a few hours of paddling, is Ile du Havre, where we
spend two nights camped on the beach. It’s not exactly legal, but the
weather prevents us from getting to our assigned site on another island.

As the rain pelts down, we build a huge fire with driftwood.

The crowning moment of a host of exhilarating times comes on the sixth day
as we paddle back to our campsite on Ile du Havre after exploring Petite Ile
au Marteau, which has an abandoned lighthouse.

A whale, just under the surface, moves alongside Dave Murphy, of Halifax.

“It went under my kayak,” says Murphy, his face stricken with panic. As he
tries to paddle away, Bob Johnston, of Ottawa, shouts at him not to move.
“This could make a good picture.”

We all scramble for our cameras and wait for the whale to come back to the
surface. It never does, and the blood slowly returns to Murphy’s face as the
apprehension fades.

This is a wilderness vacation and with it come all the fringe benefits: wild
weather (which forces us to end the trip at Havre-St. Pierre rather than retracing our route), wicked waves and heart-stopping moments with whales.

———

Good to Go

Hardy people from the Gaspe and the Magdalen Islands settled here more than
150 years ago, and they fly the Acadian flag. It flutters everywhere. Before
them, the Innu arrived and still live off this rugged land. To be
comfortable even in summer, you need warm clothing, sturdy shoes and wet
weather gear.

The area is equipped with restaurants, hotels, motels and B&Bs.

You can drive directly to the Mingans by Highway 138 from Quebec City (870
kilometres) or you can take the ferry service (Nordik Express, 1-800-
463-0680) from Rimouski. It hops to Sept Iles, Port Menier on Anticosti
Island, Havre St. Pierre and the Lower North Shore. There is also ferry
service from Matane to Baie Comeau or Godbout.

The National Parks of Canada offers more information on its Web site http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/qc/mingan/index.aspx. Camping sites, complete with plenty of
fire wood and tent platforms, should be reserved.

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