THIS CANADA

Passage on a mighty river to a sea-misted land

The Madeleine links the Magdalen Islands to mainland Quebec

David Thomas August 3 1981
THIS CANADA

Passage on a mighty river to a sea-misted land

The Madeleine links the Magdalen Islands to mainland Quebec

David Thomas August 3 1981

Passage on a mighty river to a sea-misted land

The Madeleine links the Magdalen Islands to mainland Quebec

THIS CANADA

David Thomas

She slips lightly through Montreal’s worldly wise harbor, this virtuous and vulnerable-looking little ship. Like a country girl just off a bus to make her way in the big city, the Madeleine is skirted in the fleeting afternoon by spiffy Slavic traders, crowded by disguised merchantmen carrying Panamanian papers and surrounded by swarthy tramps of every national description. The little Canadian seems overwhelmed in the crush of foreigners.

Who among them recognizes the pure red, white and blue bands of her funnel and its bright yellow star as the colors of Acadia? Yet, the Madeleine has a greater claim than any of them: she is the only scheduled ship to use the St.

Lawrence River to carry passengers between Canadian ports, one of the very few Canadian-flag vessels to truly live the glory of a river that never fails to inspire with awe. Every Tuesday, except during three ice-fettered months of winter, the 1,250-tonne coastal freighter takes a dozen fare-payers ($104 one way, food extra) from Montreal down the St. Lawrence and across the gulf to tie up, 48 hours later, in Quebec’s romantically distant Magdalen Islands. This isn’t a holiday cruise: for the migratory Madelinots who depend upon her, the ship is the only direct link that can transport them to mainland Quebec with their cars and possessions. Though under Quebec jurisdiction since 1774, the Magdalens and their 15,000 inhabitants are an untainted bastion of Acadia, that supra-provincial home-

land of maritime French-speakers.

On this warm summer day the Madeleine’s passenger list includes a couple going home to take up where they left off 40 years earlier on the dance floor. Claude and Hélène Cyr had danced and parted, then lost track of each other as they married and, like so many islanders, moved to Montreal to work and raise families. Both were widowed and, by happy chance, they met again—on another dance floor. They married and now they are retiring to the Magdalens with their household packed tightly into two containers lashed to the deck. By the end of the trip, every passenger will have heard the story once, at least, and with it Cyr’s scheme to supplement his pension: “I’m going to send my wife to work in the salt mine.”

The Magdalens’ new salt mine, which will supply Quebec with road salt, is the archipelago’s first big industrial project. The ship squats under the weight of two dark green transformers on their way to convert power for the mine from the Magdalens’ diesel generators. But never need the Madelinots fear intensive industrialization like that repeatedly looming abeam of the Madeleine on the first leg of her downstream trip. Once past the docks, the river-

banks flash like slides from scenes of pastoral tranquillity to others of industrial rage. Cows graze the marshy islands that lie in strips of chewy aquamarine off Verchères. The channel is duck-thick but the birds are as blasé as city pigeons, not even bothering to take flight at the thrumming approach of the Madeleine. Instead, they merely paddle in mated pairs to the channel’s edge where they let the ship’s wake bob them in the glow of the sinking sun. Rudely, at Contrecoeur, the river’s reverie is snapped by the thrusting blast furnaces of Quebec’s Sidbec steel mill, stoked from brooding mountains of coal piled at dockside. Then, at Tracy, a reminder of the old, folkloric Quebec where church, not government, was society’s shepherd. An idyllic white pavilion spreads between a protecting canopy of trees and a sprawling lawn, the

whole summerhouse sandwich held safe from the water by a river wall and its painted identification: COLONIE DES ORPHELINS DE SAINT-ARSÈNE.

Later, past Trois-Rivières, the new mega-Quebec reasserts itself. On the shore at Gentilly, a pair of hulking turrets are outlined against the night, round walls lit by flame-colored flood lamps and domed lids etched in red lights of warning. Looking like the gates of hell, they are Quebec’s two illstarred nuclear reactors. At 2:30 a.m. the hardier of the Madeleine’s passengers climb bleary-eyed from their cabins to watch the silent skyline of Quebec City float high on its cliff top like a lost constellation. But its brightest star is dark: to economize energy, the Chateau Frontenac is darkened at midnight.

Not long past Quebec City, the ship begins rising, imperceptibly but inexorably as the widening river mixes with more buoyant sea water pushed upstream by the tides. She will be jacked up by 100 mm in all as fresh water blends with salt and the starboard shore twinkles with towns named by muses: l’lslet-sur-Mer, Trois-Saumons, St-Jean-Port-Joli, Kamouraska, Rivière-du-Loup and, though inland and tucked out of sight, the map-

reader’s delight — St-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!

By the grey dawn, the St. Lawrence no longer makes sense as a river. Here, between shores that are misted distant brush strokes, where the water is salt and where whales come to frolic in the fall, the St. Lawrence is more a penetrating arm of the sea. So much so that, just past Rivière-du-Loup, the federal government has built a “super-port” called Gros-Cacouna. Officially opened on June 4, it was built at a cost of $23 million and is capable of handling 27,000-tonne vessels. So far, with only local industries to serve, Gros-Cacouna has all the appearance of a maritime Mirabel, but the port is in the running to become Eastern Canada’s liquefied natural gas terminal for energy shipped south from the Arctic in liquefied natural gas carriers. The Madeleine’s captain, Valmont Tremblay, doesn’t relish

the thought of sharing the shipping lanes with such floating bombs: “I wouldn’t like to move a ship full of gas around here. The current is too rough and to get a ship into Gros-Cacouna safely you have to wait for the dead of the tides.” Those moments of motionless water, when the force of the tides is neutralized by the flow of the river, occur just twice a day, with utter indifference to darkness or weather in a waterway swarming with ships.

Captain Tremblay’s chart holds chilling proof of the river’s hazards— marked by an ellipse containing three crosses is the wreck of the Empress of Ireland. On May 29, 1914, two years after the Titanic and with almost as many lives lost, the Canadian Pacific liner went down 16 km off Pointe-au-Père, drowning 1,014 of its 1,477 passengers.

The Madeleine was built in Denmark and plied the Baltic Sea before immigrating to Canada and the service of the Magdalen Islands-owned Co-opérative de Transport Maritime et Aérien. As operator of the sole domestic passenger service on the St. Lawrence, the Coopérative has ambitions to purchase a bigger ship, one that could accommodate 100 passengers. “With a ship that could do 18 or 20 knots,” says Captain Tremblay, at 64 a 30-year shipping veteran and chief officer of the Madeleine since 1976, “we could climb the Saguenay River, stop at Gaspé and StPierre and Miquelon, and still maintain the freight service.” But then, he concedes, “with a bigger boat we’d lose our intimacy.” Would, for example, the captain still have time to chat with his passengers on the promenade deck? Would the waiters still allow them to sample the deep-fried scallops as they wait on deck for one of the dining room’s four tables? And would purser Gérard Boudreau still knock at passengers’ cabins to see who would like to be roused for the rounding of Cape Gaspé at dawn?

Leaving the cape’s cliff astern in the pale first light, the Madeleine plunges into the gulf and seems to grow bigger as she nears home. Just after lunch she is suddenly surrounded by tiny white wooden bobbing boats of Magdalen fishermen hauling lobster traps up from the ocean floor, far out to sea from their sheltered ports. When, in late afternoon, the ship curls past Entry Island on her last slide toward the harbor at Cap-aux-Meules, she is welcomed like a liner. The quay is busy with friends awaiting passengers, stevedores and dozens of islanders for whom her weekly arrival is an event as important as once was the docking of a transatlantic flagship at her home port. Here she reigns unchallenged by foreign pretenders, the last domestic heir of the empresses and passenger travel on the St. Lawrence.