Friday, July 3, 2009

Sept-Îles to Blanc-Sablon, QC: Cruisin'

One thing that is still hard to get used to is how early the sun rises this far north. It fools me every time I wake up at 4 am and I think its time to get up. It came in handy on the morning we boarded the ship for our three-day cruise. We had to be there at 5 am, so we were up with the sun and pedalling through the deserted streets of Sept-Iles on our way to the dock.

The Nordik Express is part passenger ferry, part freighter, and part water taxi. In the summer is the supply connection for numerous small communities that dot the North Shore of Quebec, towns that have no access other than by sea or air. In winter it is only by air. It carried about 200 passengers, plus almost half that many shipping containers loaded with basics like fresh produce and paper towels, but also cars, motorcycles, aluminium piping, and furniture.

People wishing to travel with their car and sleep in a private cabin must make reservations two years in advance. We made reservations a couple of months ago, and stayed in a room with bunks with a couple of motorcyclists from Ohio and opted to eat in the dining room for our meals. But several people were on just for the ride, and slept on the floors and brought shopping bags of food to eat along the way. Advance reservations are not needed for the last option.

Two or three times a day, and sometimes a couple times during the night, the ship stops at a port. Us passengers would have a couple of hours to disembark and walk around while the crew unloaded containers. John and I would get off with our bikes (daytime only, thank you) and go as far as time or pavement allowed.
And the bikes gave us the freedom to get a little further than our fellow passengers who were on foot. On the island of Anticosti we found this lighthouse, bearing the colors of hard northern winters.

In the town of Natashquan we were on shore at 6 am on a Sunday. The town was enveloped in a magical stillness.

Several ports-of-call were Inuit communities. The ship is a taxi for them to travel between towns. In Natashquan about 100 loaded, families with young children in tow. They occupied every empty space, stretched out across three seats to sleep. The children did laps on the deck. The majority of them unloaded in La Romaine about seven hours later. As we let onshore and headed into town, quad-runners were buzzing towards the dock to pick up their families. They passed us on their way back, loaded with more bodies and suitcases and goods.

The Gulf of St Lawrence has numerous currents and upwellings as a result of warm water coming from the river and cold water coming from the Atlantic Ocean. It is rich in fish and shellfish and large mammals, notably dolphins and whales. One magical evening we were puttering along on a glassy waters in fog that hat gathered on the water. And like a cork from a bottle, we reached the edge of whatever warm and cold water contact, and popped out of the fog. This same evening we had several whale sightings as the coyly showed their backs as they dove for food.

Our berth was on the bottom deck, and it had a bit of noise and vibration from the engines. But with earplugs the noise was minimized, and the rocking of the boat as it moved through the water like a mother holding a child made for restful sleep. On each night the boat made a couple of landings in towns we did not wake to visit, and during those visits the boat would be still and quiet for a couple of hours as they loaded and unloaded cargo.

The landscape changed gradually as we went north, but it seemed dramatic since we covered a great distance in the hours we slept. The vegetation became more sparse, the trees less numerous and stunted, and the ground covered with tundra vegetation. By our last couple of days the weather cleared to brilliant blue skies for a very dramatic passage through numerous islands on the way to St Augustine.

So let's talk food, shall we? This was not a cruise of the Princess variety, with buffet tables and formal service. We took our meals in the dining area, consisting of about 15 booths. Breakfast was always a choice of eggs, pancakes, or French toast or some combination of each. The pancakes were more like crepes, and each table had maple syrup -- the real stuff, not the American corn syrup imitation.

Dinner and supper always had a choice of entrees -- one meat and the other seafood. We chose the seafood every time, and so twice a day we had the most fresh seafood imaginable -- cod, salmon, shrimp (oh, the shrimp), scallops, halibut. And dessert, too. I had to take a nap one afternoon from a maple-induced coma after eating a whole slice of "sugar pie".

But the finale was our final night with the "Fisherman's Plate" -- steamed mussels, shrimp, scallops, snow crab, and lobster -- all fresh from the fish plant at our last stop. It took quite a bit of labor and time to eat -- my poor husband, a slow eater anyway, apparently didn't know what he was in for. But he was poking and sucking with the best of them by the end.

This boat journey was a symbolic halfway point for us. It was relaxing -- hours to read and do crosswords. The trips ashore were opportunities to explore and stretch our legs. And on a boat of this size people become familiar and friendly. By the last day the passengers from Montreal were at the stern of the boat singing into the night. Not a luxury cruise, but it fit our style. It was a bit melancholy to leave our new friends and the now familiar pattern...sobered a bit by the realization...uh-oh, its time to bike in the weather and sleep on an air mattress and cook using one pot again.
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