Reading, Writing and Reflecting: Porphyry Island, Part Two

My mind is still buzzing from my four-day writing retreat on Porphyry Island. The setting nourished my soul and my writing companions provided constant inspiration…and plenty of reasons to laugh.

Jean E. Pendziwol, author of The Lightkeeper’s Daughters (and numerous children’s books) was our host for the retreat. I knew I’d found a kindred spirit the moment we met. Down-to-earth, witty with just the right amount of mischief, she challenged us to stoke our creativity by trying new media (drawing, painting) and intriguing writing prompts.

Every day we had time to ourselves to focus on our own writing, read or explore the island.

My goal was to write 1500 words a day on my new novel and spend time outdoors becoming reacquainted with the wild wind, crashing waves and soaring birds of the Great Lakes. I grew up at a cottage in a tiny village on Lake Erie, so the sounds and smells of the Great Lakes have always spoken to me.

I awoke early with the rising sun and spent an hour on the rocks of the point every morning watching the lichen grow as the light grew brighter and the moon slowly faded into the blue sky.

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At breaks, I went for walks on the black pebble beach, searching for heart-shaped stones as well as porphyries – rocks containing crystals, usually feldspar, for which the island is named.

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Some days, I spent time with the Arctic hares, bounding past my feet, or the Monarch butterflies brushing the air around my face.

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Other days, I was happy to sit watching the Sleeping Giant drift in and out of blankets of mist. Look closely at the photo below…can you find me?

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I wrote a lot, which of course is the point of a writers’ retreat, but I also healed. I realized that it had been a long time since I had slowed my pulse to the rhythm of the earth and allowed my heart to ebb and flow with the constant waves. Nature teaches, if we are willing to be still and listen.

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Although I am home again, far from the shores of Lake Superior, Porphyry Island remains raw and rugged in my mind and in my soul.

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Reading, Writing and Reflecting: Porphyry Island, Part One

Ah, Porphyry Island, my new happy place!

Recently, I had the exquisite pleasure of spending four days on this rugged island, an hour’s ride by zodiac from Thunder Bay, Ontario. I was part of a writers’ retreat with Jean E. Pendziwol, author of The Lightkeeper’s Daughters.

And it was an adventure, from start to finish!

The other two participants and I met Jean at Pier 3 on Thursday morning for a briefing from Captain Greg and Captain Paul of Sailsuperior.com  They organized the transportation by large zodiac.

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We donned bright orange survival suits and goggles (such a fashion statement, but necessary for the frigid waters of Lake Superior). Superior is the world’s largest freshwater lake by surface area, and has a maximum depth of over 400 metres (1330 feet).

Flying across the surface at high speed, I had to pull up the hood on the suit and tie it tightly. There I was, an orange blob in a black zodiac, wearing goggles and a wide grin!

The fog hugged the land, the spray from the bleak gray waves was icy cold as the low clouds obscured the horizon.

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We stopped in a couple of bays so that Jean could read sections from her novel that were based on the area.

As we approached Porphyry Island, she pointed out the light tower at the far end.

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Nestled amid tall trees, I caught a glimpse of a white house with red trim – our home for the next four days.

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We followed Paul, the volunteer guide from Canadian Lighthouses of Lake Superior (CLLS), along the lush path from the dock to the lightkeeper’s house. CLLS restores, preserves and maintains three lighthouses on Lake Superior and ensures public access to these historic sites.

The strong winds and cold temperatures have created a micro-climate on the island where arctic plants thrive. I photographed a wide range of lichen and miniature trees along with delicate flowering bushes.

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Old Man’s Beard lichen dangles from trees in the forest.

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Monarch butterflies on their migration south pause and savour the nectar from a large lilac bush near the point.

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Birds call and swoop from the swaying treetops.

When we arrived at the house, and I saw the rocky outcroppings drenched by waves and sun, with the Sleeping Giant resting in the distance, I knew I had found my home away from home.

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Day Twenty-Six: Home Again!

After almost a month on the road, we arrived back home today. We covered five provinces and about 7500 km (4660 miles) in 26 days, over dirt, mud, gravel, rock, treacherous potholes and occasionally paved roads, up steep mountains and into deep valleys, around tight turns and across flat plateaus. Our trusty Mini handled it all (and so did my fearless driver!)

This morning dawned cold but sunny and as we left L’Orignal, we decided to check out the Gingerbread Capital of Ontario. Vankleek Hill has over 250 homes with Victorian era decorative gingerbread woodwork on porches, gables, windows and rooflines (and you thought I meant the edible kind of gingerbread, didn’t you?)

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The town also has a series of murals including this one depicting real residents and the history of the community.

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Further down the road, south of Alexandria, we stopped to visit the St. Raphael ruins.

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It was one of the earliest Roman Catholic churches in  Upper Canada. Built in 1821, it was gutted by fire in 1970.

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Walking through the ruins, I felt like I was in Scotland or Ireland, exploring the ruins of an ancient church or castle. The remains have been stabilized and it is now a National Historic site, yet the stonework is just as stunning as when it was first built.

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It comes as no surprise that the church was built as the centre of a community of settlers from the Scottish Highlands. Many of them and their descendents now lie in the old cemetery beside the ruins.

And now we’re home, laundry done, feet up, enjoying a cosy fire in the woodstove, dreaming about the next adventure…😊

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Day Twenty-five: L’Orignal, Ontario

We crossed the bridge from Grenville-sur-la-Rouge, Quebec to Hawkesbury, Ontario mid-afternoon and decided to call it a day. We found a lovely B and B in nearby L’Orignal on the Ottawa River.

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It feels strange to be back in Ontario after almost a month on the road. However, since 89% of the people in Hawkesbury are francophone, it still feels like we’re away from home. It is considered to be the third most bilingual town in Ontario.

We started the day in a downpour so gave up plans to explore the view of old Quebec City from the waterfront of Lévis. Instead we took the Pierre Laporte bridge across the St. Lawrence and began our journey west to Trois Rivières.

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The skies did clear en route and the vast flat fields began to remind me of southern Ontario.

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We wandered around the busy port area of Trois Rivières.

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On the side of buildings in the core as well as along the river promenade I saw a number of silver plaques.

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Each one was engraved with a love poem, in its original language as well as in French, and gave the name of the poet and country of origin.

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I checked it out online and discovered that every September, Trois Rivières hosts the International Poetry Festival with 40,000 participants, events all across the city, readings by poets from around the world and even a “poetry line” (like a clothesline) where you can hang up your poetry for others to read.

We came across this 100-year old covered bridge not far from Berthierville, the birthplace of racing legend, Gilles Villeneuve.

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As we drove through Saint-Lin-Laurentides, we saw a small picturesque brick house that turned out to be the birthplace of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Canada’s first francophone Prime Minister.

It continues to surprise me what you can learn along the backroads of your own country.

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Day Twenty-four: Lévis

The rain had stopped this morning, but the strong cold winds continued unabated as we packed up the car for the day. The snow geese were making the most of the tail wind, thousands glistening bright white against the black clouds. Such a beautiful sight to start the morning.

We took the main highway rather than the coastal route but still had good views of the mountainous north shore of the St. Lawrence.

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I’d read that Kamouraska was considered one of the top twenty prettiest villages in Quebec so we took a detour to check it out. It’s a small village right on the shore of the St. Lawrence and the houses are all unique. Some have big front porches, many are narrow wood siding, some are old stone, and at least one was this unusual tile that I have often seen along the coast.

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I don’t think I need to explain what this shop is. 😊

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And yes, we stopped even though it was only around 9 am.! So many choices…a tough decision!

The landscape was constantly changing. From rocky hillsides to long stretches of fields.

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We also stopped in Montmagny, the Snow Goose Capital.

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Every year in October, they hold a snow goose festival. We missed that but thought perhaps we’d see some of the birds along the water’s edge. Instead, they were all overhead so we’re glad we had the chance to see them in Matane.

Montmagny does seem to have some resident artists. This rock was near the waterfall.

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And this mural was in town on the wall of the bookstore.

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By noon the sun was out and the colours along the road and across the river were vivid.

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We drove past the sign for Grosse Ile and the Irish Memorial site. This trip has taught me a great deal about our uncomfortable history.

Grosse Ile was set up as a quarantine area by the Lower Canadian government in the 1830’s to contain a cholera epidemic thought to be caused by the influx of European immigrants. It was reopened in the mid 1800’s for Irish immigrants who had contracted typhus during their voyage (escaping the Potato Famine).

Over 3000 Irish died on the island and over 5000 are buried there, many having contracted typhus from the unsanitary living conditions on the island. Ships were not allowed to sail past Grosse Ile until they had assured authorities they were free of disease.

By 1847, the island was overwhelmed and did not have sufficient facilities or medical staff to care for the numbers arriving. Requests to the government for additional funds and staff apparently fell on deaf ears.

Many who arrived healthy often died within a short time, hundreds left lying on the beach with no shelter, food or water. Even doctors and nurses became sick and died.

Although we didn’t stop at the site (it is a National Historic site and is closed for the season), just reading about the tragic history was yet another reminder for me of the many times we, as a people, have misunderstood, ignored, neglected, harmed and turned our backs on those in need.

As a nation, there is a large part of our history that we must remember and acknowledge the role we played.

While we can’t change the past, we can take a different approach to the future.

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Day Twenty-three: Rivière-du-Loup

Yesterday’s uphill hike in the strong cold wind took more out of us than we realized and we woke up rather tired today. So we scrapped plans for a hike today to a glacial lake and decided to meander slowly toward Rivière-du-Loup. It would normally be about a 3-hour drive…it took us almost eight because of all the stops we made along the way!

We spent a good half hour in Ste-Anne-des-Monts parked along the pier, identifying birds and ducks. A new one for us was the black guillemot.

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A little further along the road we spotted a large bird sitting on a pile of stones off shore. Initially we had high hopes it was a golden eagle since they have been seen nesting in nearby Gaspésie National Park but it was an immature bald eagle.

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Impressive nonetheless.

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Our next stop was in Cap Chat to see the world’s tallest vertical wind turbine (it makes the other “regular” wind turbines look tiny by comparison).  It was in operation from 1983-1992. The site is now open for guided tours.

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The tide was out as we drove along the coast today which made for a far different experience from yesterday. There was no wind, we explored tidal flats, and unusual rock formations.

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One of the biggest surprises happened in Matane. The river was covered in white birds…snow geese, as far as the eye could see. There must have been thousands of them. For birders like us, it was a big thrill!

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In Ste-Flavie, we discovered the stunning sculpture art of Marcel Gagnon. It’s a gallery plus a restaurant and guesthouse but you can’t drive by without noticing. Here’s why.

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We both kept seeing these odd rock shapes along the water’s edge. I tried to zero in with the binoculars but because we were driving I couldn’t get a good focus. The top of the rocks seemed to curve upward. I had a hunch but wasn’t sure until we found a spot to stop.

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My hunch was right! There were seals resting on the top of rocks at low tide.

We also saw quite a few whales today when we stopped for our daily picnic lunch. Always exciting!

The Pointe-au-Père lighthouse was a surprise (unusual design) as was the submarine (the first Canadian submarine open to the public).

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We learned at this stop that during WWII, German submarines came into the St. Lawrence. As a result, special radio transmission stations (Marconi once again) were set up along the shore and blackouts were established in all the coastal communities.

My favourite spot was definitely Bic National Park. We pulled into a small cove just off the highway and entered another world. Beauty in all directions, and so peaceful.

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Tonight we’re in Rivière-du-Loup and the forecast is for 100 km/hour winds and heavy rain overnight. Happy to be inside, dry and warm. Hopefully, the storm will have blown over by morning.

Day Twenty-two: Ste-Anne-des-Monts

Looking back on today’s journey, I think I’d describe it as a rollercoaster ride. A lot of ups and downs, literally.

First we hiked up to Cap Gaspé.

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It’s a point of land in Forillon National Park that juts out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It’s a four km hike, mostly uphill, especially the last half km. The cliffs in the eastern side fall 700  feet to the ocean but where the lighthouse is located, it’s about 300 feet above the crashing waves. It’s also where the Appalachian Mountains meet the Atlantic Ocean and is the head of the Appalachian Trail.

The Mi’kmaq called it Gaspeg meaning Land’s End. From the lighthouse, we took a trail down the cliff through the woods to a lookout point.

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We saw a whale, seals, and many seabirds.

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In the distance, we even saw this.

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It was easy to imagine Jacques Cartier or Samuel de Champlain was sailing past, and we had slipped through a gap in time.

Hiking back down, the foliage was brilliant.

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Snuggled into the trees I spotted a sleeping porcupine.

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As we were driving out of the park, we saw something unusual crossing the road and so we stopped for a closer look.

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It was a lynx!

The rest of the day was spent driving up and down high mountain roads and deep valleys. I can’t count how many times I have said “Wow!” on this trip. Every turn offers a new feast for the eyes.

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One of our many detours was along a dirt road that climbed steeply upward.

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Suddenly the road took a sharp turn and head straight down toward the ocean. It took my breath away.

Our destination was yet another lighthouse (Pointe-à-la-Renommée) but of greater interest was the building where Marconi set up the first maritime radio station in 1904.

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The northern coast of the Gaspé Peninsula is far more dramatic than the south side. The mountains are steeper and more rugged, the wind blows harder, and the coastal villages seem to hug the shelter of the coves more tightly.

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In one community, we found a covered bridge.

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And in another, we came upon a 115 foot sailboat in the harbour.

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We chatted with the owner who is waiting for a break in the weather so he can sail it to Lake Ontario.

After that we had a long stretch of road with mountains on one side and crashing ocean on the other.

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We’re now officially on our way home, having turned west after leaving Cap Gaspé and Land’s End this morning. Still a few more days to go and places to discover!

Day Twenty-One: Cap-aux-Os

You never know what the day will offer.

This morning at breakfast, we were chatting with a couple from France. They told us about a boat tour around Percé Rock and Bonaventure Island. It was a beautiful morning – clear sky and sunshine – so we decided to do it.

It wasn’t until we had bought our tickets and were approaching the boat that I questioned my sanity. The boat was bouncing up and down at the wharf like Tigger having an exuberantly happy day. My stomach lurched and I reached for gravol (which I carry in my purse just in case!)

Getting on the boat involved two men pushing a passenger on board in perfect timing as the edge of the boat rose with the swell to meet the wharf…and two other men catching the passenger on the other side.

The swells increased as we headed out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence but the photo opportunities were worth it (although we nearly froze even with all our warmest layers on). Thankfully, the gravol helped!

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The view of Percé was extraordinary and as we passed Bonaventure Island, we saw grey seals and a huge gannet nesting area. All the photos are on my good camera though and I haven’t had a chance to download them yet.

We dawdled around Percé all morning, checking out historical buildings, and wandering along the shore.

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Then we continued our drive along the coast. Once again, the view was awe-inspiring – mountains in every direction and more hues of orange, yellow, red and green than I dreamed possible. We certainly lucked out with our timing for this trip in terms of seeing the peak of the fall foliage.

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As we came around the other side of the bay, I was able to capture one more shot of Percé Rock with an abandoned house in the foreground.

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The City of Gaspé is nestled into a mountainside on the Bay of Gaspé. It’s a picturesque spot with great views in all directions including these tidal flats.

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Tonight we’re staying in a former school in Cap-aux-Os, about 20 minutes east of the city of Gaspé. The bedroom appears to have been a classroom with the original wooden cupboard doors in one corner, and big windows overlooking the playground. Funny how schools always feel like schools no matter how they are repurposed.

Tomorrow we get to explore Forillon National Park. And it looks like another nice day.

Day Twenty: Percé, Québec

We started and ended today in the fog. The drive began in Bathurst, New Brunswick which I am sure is beautiful in the sunshine and the summer.

As we drove to Campbellton, the colours in the trees were stunning in spite of the foggy conditions.

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We crossed the bridge at Campbellton and arrived in a new province and a new time zone.

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As the day progressed, we travelled through history once again. This mural, in the shape of a Canada goose, captures the life of people in the Carleton-sur-mer region and celebrates the 250th anniversary of the community.

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The fog finally lifted for a while and we were able to get some spectacular views of the surrounding countryside as we headed east along the Gaspe Peninsula.

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We climbed Mont Saint-Joseph in the hope of getting a better view. Instead, we found snow and entered an even thicker fog bank.

 

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In Bonaventure, we stopped at the Quebec Acadian Museum to see a display of work by two local rughooking artists. Unfortunately the museum was closed for lunch. So I took this photo instead.

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A little further along the coast in Paspébiac, we came upon a series of buildings that had been built between 1783 and 1900 by fishing companies from Jersey.

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Paspébiac was Quebec’s first cod fishing port. It has Basque roots and the residents’ accent is different from the rest of the region.

In Chandler, we took a walk along the beach to stretch our legs and enjoy the crashing of the waves along the shore.

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And tonight we’re in Percé. Although we can’t actually see the Rock because of the fog. Since it’s past the tourist season, very few restaurants are open. We went to one that was recommended but we were turned away because it was fully booked by a large group. We went to a pub that only offered drinks, no food (although we were told we could go to the grocery store next door and bring some food back to the pub).

We ended up at a small bistro where we were the only customers. The menu was limited to four items (end of season) but it was just what we needed.

Here’s hoping for clear skies tomorrow!

 

Day Nineteen: Bathurst, New Brunswick

Today it rained. And rained. And snowed. And rained.

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We crossed the border into New Brunswick first thing and stopped to buy a map. At the roadside stop, there were three larger-than-life semi-palmated plovers with some facsinating information about these and other shore birds.

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After breeding in the Arctic, they spend the summer months in the mudflats along the Bay of Fundy eating shrimp-like creatures. They eat until they have doubled in size and then fly 4300 km non-stop to South America.

We were lucky enough to see some semipalmated plovers on our travels.

Although the weather wasn’t great, we did identify a few more birds today. We found some Dunlin, Greater Yellowlegs, Hooded Mergansers and Black Ducks. I did try to take some photos but they didn’t turn out that well.

We stopped for our picnic lunch on Hay Island near Neguac. We were in the heart of the Acadian Peninsula, and the lighthouse was painted in the colours of the Acadian flag.

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For those unfamiliar with the tragic history of the Acadians, they were of French descent and settled in the Maritimes in the 17th and 18th century. Between 1755 and 1764, the British forcibly removed the Acadians and deported them to France, Britain and the Thirteen Colonies (which later became the U.S.). Approximately 11,500 of the 14,000 Acadians were deported.

As we drove along the coast of the Acadian Peninsula and out to the Islands of Lameque and Miscou, the Acadian flag was proudly waving in front of homes and businesses, painted at the base of telephone poles, on boats and even on buildings.

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Fortunately the rain lifted when we reached Miscou Island. It was one of the first areas explored by Jacques Cartier in 1534. It was a fishing base for Basque fishermen, fishermen from the Isle of Jersey and for Acadians. Indigenous people had seasonal hunting camps there.

Today, the majority of residents speak French and fishing is still the major industry (lobster and herring).

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Most of the island’s peat moss has not been harvested and there are boardwalks through the area.

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Miscou Island’s lighthouse was built in 1856 and is still in use.

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We were able to go inside for a tour right up to the top.

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Sheltered from the wind beside the replica of the lighthouse keeper’s house, we could see the coast of Gaspe (our destination tomorrow).

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