It only took a moment for the moist silence of the forest to give way to what sounded like the frenzied applause of a crowd waiting for a star. I ran towards the roar and stopped short: Before my eyes, thousands of monumental birds, made even whiter by the indigo bottom of the sea, croaked in unison as they flew, fluttered and flirted along the cliffs.
Every summer a colony of northern gannets—this year the estimate was 110,000 birds—land just steps from where I was on Bonaventure Island to nest and raise their young in this national park directly north of New Brunswick, off the tip of the Canadian Gaspé Peninsula, a maritime region shaped like a lobster claw.
This scene was the culmination of a four-day road trip spent exploring the northern coast of the peninsula along the St. Lawrence River.
I first dreamed of this mighty waterway, which originates in Kingston on Lake Ontario and flows 750 miles to the Atlantic Ocean, while listening to the ballads of Franco-American crooner Joe Dassin , but when I fell from the small propeller plane that brought me an hour and a half from Montreal to Mont-Joli, a salty, brackish breeze engulfed me. I was confused. I came looking for a river but I breathed the ocean.
It only took me a few minutes to get to the village of Sainte-Flavie, where I stood on black sand strewn with seashells. Even though the day was clear, it was impossible to make out the other side, nearly 40 miles away.
But nearby, dozens of life-size wooden and concrete figures, part of a striking art installation by local artist Marcel Gagnon titled “Le Grand Rassemblement,” appeared to rise from the water.
“Here they just call it the sea,” Gagnon said. “And I played with the tides to bring the procession to life.” He explained that the salty swells of the Atlantic collide with the flow of fresh water, creating deep and dangerous currents. Indeed, later in Matane, the sound of the waves of the river put me to sleep.
The next morning the drive east first took me past fields of wildflowers. Soon the landscape becomes more oceanic, with cliffs hemmed with pine trees and leafy forests. Seals balanced on dark rocks, their white bellies exposed to the warm autumn sun. Fascinated by the maritime environment, half tamed river, half wild sea, I went to Sainte-Anne-des-Monts to meet Sandra Gauthier, director of Exploramer, museum and interactive center of marine sciences.
“Explorers traveled the St. Lawrence to the North American continent,” she said. “Today we must preserve and celebrate its biodiversity.”
“Come in !” she ordered, her eyes shining with excitement as she handed me a huge pair of gray thigh-high boots. Once I managed to settle my body, we joined a small group to explore the shore. Low tide revealed purple starfish and waving crabs, small fish and heaps of kelp, but I learned that farther out more than 20 different species of shark meandered along the river.
In 2009, inspired by Ocean Wise, the seafood conservation program launched by the Vancouver Aquarium, Gauthier founded Fourchette Bleue (the company’s English name is Smarter Seafood), a similar venture designed to promote the sustainable fishing and rare edible species in the St. Lawrence River.
“Today, we have certified 90 restaurants, businesses and fisheries in Quebec,” she says.
Nothing like two hours on the water surrounded by shellfish to make me hungry! In town, we stopped at Patisserie Marie 4 Poches for delicious artisan breads and quiches before heading to Couleur Chocolat, the only certified chocolatier Fourchette Bleue, where Carl Pelletier, a native of the peninsula, imagined candies mixing chocolate unctuous and brackish seaweed. Later in the evening, perched on the terrace of the Auberge Château Lamontagne, I tasted perfectly tender puff pastry whelks, a new addition to the list.
The further east I drove the next morning, the more the scenery reminded me of Scandinavia. Lighthouses looming in the mist, red wooden shacks in emerald green meadows and dramatic layered shale cliffs plunging into the water. A road sign for Le Bout du Monde (the end of the world) seemed quite appropriate.
The Gaspé Peninsula may have felt that way for some explorers, but from the 16th century it became the gateway to the New World, luring European fishermen to its treasure trove of cod. Driven by the medieval church’s nearly 160-day fast, which at the time meant mostly no meat, European demand for fish was acute. In “Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world”, Author Mark Kurlansky recounts the fate of this fish and the men who pursued it before and after 1534, when French explorer Jacques Cartier “planted a cross on the Gaspé Peninsula and claimed it entirely for France.”
It was humbling to reflect on the Vikings, Basques, Irish and many others who left their mark on the area as I hiked some of the trails near the end of the Appalachian Range. I was on the lookout for a moose or a lynx, but only a large porcupine in search of food crossed my path.
The next day, back from my incredible encounter with the gannets on Bonaventure Island, I strolled along the lively Percé waterfront. Before cod succumbed to overfishing, the port town was teeming with rickety tables covered in flattened fish drying in the sun.
But Gaspésie and the St. Lawrence (whether it is called river, estuary or gulf) are not a museum of past greatness. At the end of my trip, en route to Michel-Pouliot Airport in Gaspé, I visited Gérard Mathar and Catherine Jacob, modern-day Belgian emigrants who crossed the Atlantic in 2005 to build a house, a farm and a gathering business called Gaspésie. Savage. With their three boys, the couple are not only nearly self-sufficient, but have also operated a sustainable food business from the very nature they came for.
This land, with its forests and its mountains, its marshes and its meadows, still attracts men and birds. Now protected, cod cannot be far behind.