The Mingan Archipelago and the Northern Coast of the St. Lawrence

Earthforms features four photographs from the Mingan Archipelago (Province of Québec, Canada), including the cover and the title page. These islands offered such an exceptional geological panorama, in such an unlikely place for most Americans, that they deserved the status of framing the whole book this way. When I reviewed the images from this particular destination, it brought back the other places my companion and I had visited that trip, and the feeling I got there that I was in some kind of alternate world. The people we met were North Americans, just like us, but they lived surrounded by an overarching natural setting, quite harsh in wintertime and explosively green in summer. Life there was simpler, less crowded certainly, with fewer signs of heavy industry, close to the water, with a good dose of old time north country nostalgia—general stores that looked like trading posts strewn with animal jawbones, small stuffed animals, and rusted soft drink and cigaret signs.

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We met wonderful people, including the eccentric artist Richard Ferron, and the staff at the Tangon (“buoy”) hostel in Sept-Iles. It was not an unfamiliar place (despite the fact that Canadian French was the main language), but it seemed as though time had mostly stopped, or at least slowed down, beginning about 70 years ago.

The landscape was not grandiose, no towering mountains or dramatic gorges (with one notable exception), but it was exquisite in its detail: the rocks, the moss, the lichens, the skies. Reviewing my photographs from this 2010 end-of-summer trip I rediscovered some jewels that might have gone into the book—if I’d had space enough. Here are some of them and their stories.

The Hautes-Gorges-de-la-rivière-Malbaie Provincial Park

After a night in Montreal and one in Québec city, both marvelous tourist destinations, Julie and I proceeded up the coast. Our first nature stop was for a hike in the Hautes-Gorges-de-la-rivière-Malbaie provincial park. We climbed one of the mountains for a gorgeous view, encountering a profusion of wild mushrooms, lichen-covered rocks that looked like maps of some lost continent, and an unlikely moss-covered laid stone wall. We capped it off with a canoe trip on the tranquil Malbaie river. The rocky riverbanks were mirrored in the water producing fascinating symmetries.

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Hautes-Gorges-de-la-rivière-Malbaie: Top: View from the summit; Center: Caribou moss; Bottom: Riverbank from the canoe on the Malbaie

The Saguenay Fjord and Tadoussac

Driving up Québec Route 138, which hugs the coastline, one crosses the Saguenay fjord (or river) about 161 miles (259 km) northeast of Québec City. I was watching the GPS, and it seemed the road simply ended at the fjord. I kept wondering where the bridge was. When we arrived, we saw that a (free) ferry crossed the fjord, a matter of about 15 minutes. It was foggy and already night, so the photos I took looked like stills from a noir detective film.

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On the ferry in the fog crossing the Fjord of Saguenay

The fjord is also the centerpiece of a national park on both sides of the water, that extends almost to the city of Saguenay in the west. Beluga (white) whales are said to frequent the fjord, but when we stopped to explore it on our way home, we didn’t see any.

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Cliff in Saguenay National Park

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“Smiling” lichen, Saguenay National Park

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The famous covered bridge which is the subject of the illustration on a historic $1000 Canadian banknote. Located on the north side of the fjord.

On the other side of the fjord is the village of Tadoussac, first visited by French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1535, and today most famous as a whale-watching post. It sports a Marine Mammal Interpretation Center close to water.

Sept-Iles: the Tangon Hostel and the Zodiac to Ile-Grand-Basque

A further 265 miles (426 km) up Route 138, we arrived at Sept-Iles, where we stayed at the Tangon Hostel, a friendly accommodating place, where I played the piano, and we met the somewhat zany artist Richard Ferron. His current project was to sit someone down across from him at a desk and have them draw him under the desk, while he drew them. He then exchanged drawings, adding to his surreal collection of his face rendered by amateurs.

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Tangon Hostel, Sept-Iles

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Artist Richard Ferron and my traveling companion, Julie.

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Richard adorns himself in an apron, while the hostel director joins the fun.

We took an inflated Zodiac to one of the Seven Isles, spending the day hiking around it, and seeing its mushrooms, caribou moss, and views from its eminently climbable pinnacle. The Zodiac returned to pick us up at 5 pm.

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Images from our day on the Ile Grande Basque, the best-known of the Sept Iles (Seven Isles).

The Mingan Archipelago

Another 136 miles (218 km) is Havre-St.-Pierre, the center of the Mingan Archipelago, our ultimate destination. I had been handed a descriptive brochure about the place by some friendly French Canadian women five years earlier on a trip to Newfoundland and had resolved to go there. It’s a group of 22 islands that spread out 75 miles (121 km) along the coast, notable for their monoliths of different shapes and sizes, with each island having a distinctive style. Overall, they consist of Ordovician sedimentary bedrock (485–444 million years old) that was covered by a shallow sea that eventually receded. As the sea bed eroded down, harder, more compact sections were left standing that appear today as the monoliths on the islands. The underlying bedrock or basement is Precambrian. Here is a selection of photos not included in Earthforms from the islands of the archipelago.

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Ile du Havre, which we accessed by kayak. That’s our guide on the left.

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Ile Fantôme

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Ile Niapiskau

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