Lighthouses stand like sentinels on jagged cliffs along the rugged coastal roads of the St. Lawrence River. Others are rockbound on isolated islands. To find out about life and the lighthouse on one of these lonely islands, I boarded the ferry, La Richardiere, to take me to the island of Ile Verte, just a half hour journey from the Gaspe shore of Quebec, Canada.
The island appeared as a long green crescent. As we stepped onto its dock, Catherine Gagnon, a former islander returning after 47 years, exclaimed, "It looks just the same as it did when I left". The families that still live on the island make sure that it stays the same. There are few cars, no banks, no gas stations and no stores. The schools are closed and the last church burned down some years ago, but the air is fresh and life is slow.
The remaining shingled houses weathered gray by wind and rain nestle on the south side.
A turn left from the dock and a sharp turn right brings you to a dirt road that winds along the island's spine. Bordered by beds of wild roses, it leads to the old stone lighthouse, now faced with white shingles and with its lantern room painted a vivid red.
The story of the island and the lighthouse goes way back in Canadian history. Both the early explorers Jaques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain mentioned the island in their journals. But before their time, it was inhabited by the Amerindians. By the middle of the 18th century, adventurous colonists had settled on its south shore. They cleared farms, built houses, churches and schools.
Upset by the number of ships that foundered on the rocky shoals on the island's northeastern shores, the settlers petitioned the government of Lower Canada for a lighthouse. Their petition was answered and in 1809, the first light shone from the first lighthouse on the
St. Lawrence River. Its 12-sided copper lantern with a lighting system using either whale or seal oil and two cannons that boomed every 30 minutes on foggy days, gave safe guidance to ships sailing up and down the river. Currently automated, the light still shines from the old, white lighthouse now listed as a Canadian Heritage Property.
The accompanying lightkeeper's house converted into La Maison du Phare, a bed-and-breakfast managed by host Gerald Dionne, welcomes us. Tension eases in the tranquil setting of gleaming hardwood floors, a big window framing the sea, pine furniture, pictures of old sea captains and their sailing ships. The eight bedrooms, each named after one of these famous St. Lawrence River boat captains, are decorated in bright crisp colors. For guests who want to stay a little longer, the former assistant lightkeeper's house includes a full housekeeping unit.
A day on the island begins with a full breakfast at the inn with multiple choices of juices, cereals, eggs of any
style, pancakes, French toast slathered in maple syrup, fresh fruit, coffee or a selection of teas.
Exploring the property takes you from a ramble along the rocky seacoast, to a display of the early lightkeepers' artifacts in the little fog house at the base of the lighthouse. Then, a climb up the 40-foot tower rewards you with a view of the river, the sea birds and the occasional whale. A local guide describes the mechanism of the old light and weaves in the stories of the lives of the four lightkeepers and their families that manned the light for over one hundred and ninety years.
But there is the rest of the island to explore. A hike or bike ride along the rugged north shore reveals one of the best and least known places on the St. Lawrence to watch whales at play. It is no mystery why they congregate at this particular spot. The tides, the depth of the water, the underwater topography and the currents generate a phenomenal concentration of fish and plankton that for whales is gourmet dining. Perch yourself on a handy rock and wait for them to put on a show. Fins, minks and belugas blow, leap, dive and surface. The real whale experts can tell the species of whale by the sound of the blow.
When the whales take a time out, the swooping and darting sea birds substitute as fill-in performers. But during the annual bird migration in spring and fall, the birds take center stage. Thousands of honking snow geese fly in from their northern summer homes, their huge wings outstretched. They linger for a rest stop with Canadian geese, varieties of ducks and myriads of other water birds to stock up on nourishment for the next leg of their journey south.
Further along the island, former biology teacher Paul-Henri Fontaine's unique bone museum displays the skeletons
of a wide range of marine animals.
"Only in my museum is a whale's jaw mounted correctly. They even have arthritic joints." He comments, as he points to a whale's knobby bones.
The entire island is a peaceful reminder of a day's gone by. Au Mumur des Vagues, Au Chant de Cog and La Bonne Pouffe provide bed and breakfast at the restored 19th century houses. Guests at La Bonne Pouffe can oversee salmon and sturgeon being smoked in the island's only remaining smokehouse. Au Chant de Coq is a working farm famous for its flocks of sheep. You can replenish your picnic basket with in-house specialties at La Maison d'Agathe, or sit down to a gourmet meal that includes on its menu cutlets of Ile Verte lamb. Hiking along the rocky shores, bicycling on old dirt roads or climbing the lighthouse tower offers its visitors a 24-hour retreat into a more leisurely visit to one of the little known islands of the St. Lawrence River.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2006 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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