How Canada lives_

THE WINTER SAMARITAN OF ILE-AUXGRUES

Battling killer ice and tides, Albert Vézina wrestles a freight-laden boat over Canada’s toughest delivery route to keep a St. Lawrence island alive

PENNY WILLIAMS February 6 1965
How Canada lives_

THE WINTER SAMARITAN OF ILE-AUXGRUES

Battling killer ice and tides, Albert Vézina wrestles a freight-laden boat over Canada’s toughest delivery route to keep a St. Lawrence island alive

PENNY WILLIAMS February 6 1965

THE WINTER SAMARITAN OF ILE-AUXGRUES

Battling killer ice and tides, Albert Vézina wrestles a freight-laden boat over Canada’s toughest delivery route to keep a St. Lawrence island alive

How Canada lives_

ALBERT VÉZINA IS A gaunt and grizzled Québecois who spends his summers farming on lle-aux-Grues, a small island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River about twenty-five miles downstream from Quebec City. But through the bitter Laurentian winters, when the river is frozen into a treacherous jigsaw puzzle of shifting ice and tides, Vézina doubles as trucker, ambulance driver, river pilot, ice breaker, pack animal and, occasionally, mailman on what must be the toughest delivery route in Canada — the eight - mile rowboat journey between his island and the river’s southern shore.

The trip isn't exactly a voyage, because the boat must be hauled over the ice as well as floated over open water. Vézina’s four-hundred-pound rowboat usually carries a heavy cargo, so his journey is roughly equivalent to traveling eight miles in a small car — driving most of the distance over slippen,', dangerous roads, and hand-hauling the car the rest of the way across several miles of rugged pastureland. Vézina, at forty-five, is alert and wiry, stronger than most furniture movers and, after seventeen winters of dangerous deliveries, wise enough still to regard the ice-bound St. Lawrence as a tricky and resourceful enemy.

Until a few' years ago, when a small airline started a three-timcs-weekly service between lle-aux-Grues and the town of Montmagny on the south shore, Vézina’s rowboat was all that saved the island’s fifty-odd families from almost total isolation. Even with the air service, however, he still ranks as a sort of one-man Winter Works Program. He owns the island's only snowmobile, and uses it to cut through towering drifts to provide the island’s only winter road. And since Vézina is still the main cargo carrier, he remains as lle-aux-Grues’ chief point of contact with the mainland. Together with several helpers, he makes the trip three times a week from freeze-up in December to the late spring thaw, carrying everything from appliances to sick children, from farm animals to Christmas toys. When clouds of snow cut visibility to a few yards or when, late in the winter, the ice divides and drifts like smoke, the journey can be, as Vézina calmly puts it, “très dur’’. But in seventeen long winters he’s seldom missed a delivery.

EIGHT MILES AND A FIGHT ALL THE WAY

Photographer Léon Bernard went along on a recent return trip that was, by Vézina’s standards, an easy one: visibility was good, the ice was fairly stable, and the temperature was only seven degrees below zero. Vézina and three fellow islanders — Paul Roy, Georges Lavoie and Gérard Guichard — collected their cargo at Montmagny, then drove six miles east to Cap-St-Ignace, where the rowboat was waiting on the ice. The cargo included a crated TV set, tanks of gasoline, several bulky mailbags (Vézina has now given up carrying mail regularly, in favor of heavier cargo), several hundred pounds of groceries and a collie bitch named Princess, who'd been visiting the mainland for stud services. Loaded, the boat weighed thirteen hundred pounds; to reach open water, the four men had to haul and heave it for a distance of several city blocks across an icefield that occasionally seemed as mountainous as a lunar landscape.

The men wore cleats (locally, they’re called grappins) on their hip-waders to help grip the ice, sometimes had to drag the rowboat up shoulder-high mounds of ice before they reached open water. Then it was easier; the channel was free of floating ice, so Vézina could use his eighteen-horsepower outboard instead of oars. When they neared the island, there was another ice field to cross; it meant another session of straining and stumbling before they reached Vézina’s waiting snowmobile near the ice-bound wharf on Ile-aux-Grues. Then they chugged over the narrow mile-long track into the village and distributed their cargo.

Boatmen like Vézina arc an honored breed along the St. Lawrence, and Vézina, who’s entered the Quebec Winter Carnival’s iceboat race nine times, is one of the best. In spite of airplanes and shrinking populations on some St. Lawrence islands, he doesn't see himself as a practitioner of a vanishing craft. In fact, he’s training his thirteen-year-old son, Hervé, to be as good an ice pilot as his father. “As long as there’s snow,” says Vézina, “there will be iceboatmen on the St. Lawrence.”

PENNY WILLIAMS