Côte-Nord Québec - small northern harbors and sea ice

The four day trip from Rimouski to Blanc-Sablon at the end of April was both restful and full of moments of pure excitement. (See also Bella Desnagnés) At least excitement for those souls that have a thing for the Arctic parts of this Earth. I quickly found a couple of travel buddies with whom we shared meals. Janice from the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia and Christian from Arras in France. Janice and I were the only native English speakers on board and Christian was very generous to hold conversations in English and also do some translating for us. As we talked we shared that seeing this region with winter still covering the land and sea was the best way to do this trip. I thought it was odd that of all the people in the world, three of us that shared this view happened to be there talking together. Then it dawned on me that of course we were there talking precisely because we were among those that did enjoy this and so had booked a trip at that time. Maybe there weren’t many of us in the world, but we had found each other.  

For two days the Bella Desgagnés made her way north and east mostly stopping at harbors still served by roads. The going was slowed more than normal due to a speed regulation imposed for the protection of whales. About 10 knots. I’ve gone faster on a sailboat. But lots of naps and relaxing reading was nice to have.  

These initial stops were interesting but there was still a patina of normal civilization since cars and trucks also had arrived by traditional means. I generally did not venture too far from the ship because I am a slow and tentative walker in snow and ice, but Janice and Christian went much further afield and came back with stories and photos. These towns, even if connected by a single road, were northern and had that character. And the sea was their main occupation, though some such as Harve St Pierre also seemed to be shipment points for minerals extracted from the interior. 


Eventually, however, we started to call in at ports (in some cases that word “port” may be too large a concept) with no other access than by water, and the trip began to really take on the look and feel of a northern cargo ship providing customers with their sole means of supply. 

For example I peeked in to the small grocery/hardwares shop in Harrington Harbor after about an hour into our stopover there and they were already busy restocking shelves from a shipment brought up from the ship by an ATV. Some shelves were going from entirely empty to full. It had been a week since the last restocking took place. They had prioritized getting the fresh vegetables and fruits out. At first I thought about buying some fruit and then it occurred to me how under-appreciated that act might be. These were for the townspeople who had no other sources. Taking some fresh produce back on board the ship would be just wrong. 

Harrington Harbor itself is a nice village with colorfully painted houses and a wooden boardwalk system of paths rather than streets.

But what really started to make the trip exciting for me and my new companions was that we had begun to come into areas with sea ice.  

At first this started modestly enough. Still, Christian and I were up on the outside forward observation deck smiling like kids just let out for a 3 month long summer break from school. At one point we actually hugged. 

And the land we passed started to feel northern and sub-arctic as well. We long ago stopped seeing trees, not because they had been harvested or were constrained by agricultural, but because we were now above tree line, even at sea level. Trees simply were not going to grow here with these conditions. 

Eventually we made our way into a bay that was choked with ice and in there was a harbor with the next little village that needed to be served. Either an ice-broken path was left over from the week before or an icebreaker had been in there. 

This is the tiny port facility of La Tabatière, serving a number of homes spread out in the hinterlands and along the shore or on nearby islands. There doesn't seem to be any village or settlement here. People just come down to the pier at the appointed day and time to get their supplies or meet others disembarking. 

There most likely are only a few readers here that will share my enthusiasms for Arctic conditions and vistas like this. But as you can see, I was very happy to be on a ship in the middle of this mass of sea ice. It hadn’t been above freezing in a couple of days. It was May 1st.

On our way back out of this harbor the pilot chose a route that would break up more ice. This crack and many others would form at the ship’s bow as we would crush through.  

Later that night, well after dark, we entered a harbor that was accessed by a very long and very narrow passage, which at some points was only a few meters wider than the ship, and it was clogged by ice. We muscled through in pitch dark with ship’s search lights showing the way, with the screeching sounds and clu-chunks of ice thudding against and banging on the hull. I can assure you now that when a ship hits ice, even rather inconsequential sea ice, you know you’ve hit something. From forward to stern, the ship rings throughout like a dull bell. I was up and watching for the way in. For the way out, after midnight, I heard the banging and grinding sounds of ice against hull for half an hour but stayed in bed and hoped for the best.   

Around breakfast the next morning we were tied up at the pier in Blanc-Sablon, which is still in Québec. It took awhile for the ship’s crew to get to the container that had my car in it, but eventually they made their way to the very bottom and the crane lifted my Jeep out.

Soon I was driving again. The Bella Desgagnés left around noon, heading to all those same harbors to pick up and drop off passengers mostly on the way back. Christian disembarked as I did, but his plan was to take the ferry to Newfoundland right away and then find a ride to someplace where they rented cars (which wasn’t close, maybe several hours away, but there is only one road). Janice was heading back to complete the round trip on the ship and return to her car. She would be seeing the same ports, but those that we previously saw at night she would now see during daylight. So many people do the round trip. I was heading into Labrador, only a few miles away, with no particular plan. 


©️ 2019 D Abbott