Sunday, August 30, 2009

Destination: St Pierre et Miquelon (part three)


Tour of Langlade Island (Petite Miquelon)


As we came back from our excursion to the Ile aux Marins (see post 25-August -09) we decided to stay one more day so we could go on a tour of the other islands, Langlade (Petite Miquelon) and Miquelon. You can see them on the map above. We booked the day-tour with “Chez Janot.” We were told that the regular ferry boat had been waiting for some spare parts and we would use a “zodiac” which is an inflatable pneumatic boat the kind used for expeditions or white water rafting.

Picture of Janot zodiac (from his brochure)

Early the next morning we boarded the zodiac with Janot at the helm. Janot is a friendly French seaman, a bit gruff and speaking little English. We and three other couples (from Michigan, Quebec and Nova Scotia) wore life jackets and held onto the rope of the zodiac as best as we could as it danced among the choppy waves. It was very windy, even though this was considered a good weather day for the 6 kms (3.2 miles) crossing to Langlade. Fishermen call this strait “The Mouth of Hell” because of the fierce currents. Along the way we saw many birds and some seals.

Click on the pictures to enlarge them.

We landed on a cove in Langlade near Janot’s restaurant. We warmed up with hot coffee and fresh croissants while looking out at the sea and the fields.


Janot took us to a garden on the island to show us that Langlade has a micro-climate in summer where many plants and flowers flourish.



Langlade is approximately 3 times larger than St Pierre island. In summer about 400 people stay on Langlade in the few houses there or in a trailer camp since there is neither running water nor electricity. St Pierrais bring their horses to Langlade for the summer and a horse riding school is busy near the beach. Janot took us to his friends in the trailer area where they offered us a choice of local liqueur, French aperitif or soda. We drank and munched on snacks while speaking with his friends, not as tourists on a standard tour, but as if we were visiting long lost friends – this was a very relaxed and friendly tour.


We continued the tour of Langlade where the landscape is quite varied with cliffs, valleys with marshes and wild flowers close to lonely beaches. Janot stopped his van near a high dune and told us to climb up to absorb the stunning view from there.

Don't forget to click on the pictures to enlarge them

Because of my bad knee I stayed to take photographs of the pristine beach and unending view. Janot in his van, the others on top of the hill and me alone, gazing at the immensity around me – how peaceful.


Next to the dunes is a large salted lagoon called “Le Grand Barachois”. It is a great year long habitat for a colony of common seals as well as for migrating grey seals.

Pictures courtesy of C. Detcheverry

On the way back to Janot’s restaurant we drove by a large band of sand, called an isthmus (pictured in the collage above, top center.) It connects the islands of Langlade and Miquelon. It is said that this isthmus is the most spectacular in the North Atlantic. Up to the 18th century a small canal still separated the islands, but it was filled by sand after many ships ran aground there.



Janot’s wife prepared a very tasty lunch for us that was accompanied by a dry red wine. Now we were ready to drive by the horses roaming freely on the beach and explore Miquelon on the other side of the isthmus – what were we to find there? (to be continued in the next post , i.e.the last part of the trip.)


The greatest romance ever written pales before the possibilities of adventure that lie in the faint blue trails from sea to sea. The perfect journey is never finished; the goal is always just across the next river, round the shoulder of the next mountain. There is always one more track to follow, one more mirage to explore.” -Rosita Forbes

Miquelon

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Destination: St Pierre et Miquelon (part two)

Painting made for the 1900 Exposition Universelle of Paris

Excursion to the Ile des Marins (Fishermen’s Island)

As I related in my last post we arrived in St Pierre and took a tour of the island (see both posts of 21-August and 17-August-09.) From our hotel window we could see another island with just a few isolated houses. We were told that this was the Ile des Marins (Fishermen’s Island). Nobody lives there anymore (just a couple of people in the summer.) It has been preserved as a “museum island.” We decided to take the afternoon boat going there.


In Jacques Leclerc’s map below you can see the tiny Ile aux Marins to the right of Ile St Pierre, in the bottom of the map. Newfoundland is on the right; in French it is called Terre Neuve, which means New land.


This island used to be called Ile aux Chiens (Dogs’ Island) after the small shark called Dog Fish. The island’s name was changed in 1920. Up to 800 people lived on this island; all of them independent fishermen and their families. They were mostly French from Normandy and Brittany, Basques and Acadiens fishing with their dorys.

Below is a painting depicting the island in its heyday.


Because the island is covered with flat shoreline stones (called “Grave” in French) it was perfect for drying cod. I bought a book of poetry by Francine Girardin-Langlois which is illustrated. Here is her painting of the women drying the cod on the “graves.” It looks like backbreaking work.

Below is a vintage postcard showing more cod being laid on the flat rocks or “graves” to dry. Young men (often orphan teenagers) called “Graviers” would come from France for the season to help cure the cod. In 1904 St Pierre et Miquelon lost the privilege to fish the waters of the “French Shore” of Newfoundland. This was the beginning of the decline for the little Ile des Marins. When in 1930 the fish drying plant burned down, the resident started to leave the island. In 1963 the school closed and the last full time resident left in 1964. The local authorities decided to preserve the church and a few houses as a “village of bygone days” to show future generation how cod was preserved and also to show the hard life these fishermen led on this island. Some of the houses are second holiday homes for descendants of the original fishermen, but with no electricity or running water.


It was a perfect day, sunny, not too warm with a light breeze. We walked toward the museum and visited it.


It has a collection of objects, furniture, memorabilia and pictures from the glory years of the cod fishery.


(Click on the pictures to enlarge them)

This is the one room school house with the same type of furniture we had in our primary schools in France when I was a little girl. (Click on the pictures to enlarge them.)


On the blackboard someone had described what the teacher wrote that last day of school : “Friday 5 July 1963… The Last Class So he turned towards the blackboard took a piece of chalk and, pressing with all his strength, he wrote as big as he could: “Vive la France” then he stood there, his head leaning against the wall, without talking, with his hand he gestured “that’s the end …go away.”


We followed the path to the church. This church called Notre-Dame des Marins (Our Lady of the Fishermen) was built in 1874 from trees imported from France since there are no trees on the island. The church is built in the shape of a fishing boat and has two Italian chandeliers.


We walked to the lighthouse


and then towards what is left of a German cargo ship the “Transpacific” which sank in 1971


Don't forget to click on the pictures to enlarge them

We proceeded to walk all around the island from the lighthouse all the way to the cannons (placed there after the Crimean war), stopping sometimes to watch the spare landscape or St Pierre across the bay. We could not but think about the devastation overfishing did to the cod fisheries. In 1492 John Cabot marveled that cod was so plentiful that it almost stopped his ship, or at least slowed its progress. The sea seemed alive with fish. This went on for centuries with cod fishing sustaining both fishermen as well as the general economy of the area.

This is an Old Cod Fishing print published by Giulio Ferrario in Milan, 1827
Fishermen from France and Portugal would come in their small inshore boats and the cod was so plentiful that it was enough for their small-scale fishing and for the millions of harp seals. The natural growth of the cod stock could replenish itself then.

Fishermen fishing cod in their inshore boats in the 1920s

But in the mid 50s and 60s the dory fishery was displaced by large factory trawlers. These huge trawlers came from distant countries attracted by quick financial gains. They had huge nets which could haul enormous quantities of fish, process them and deep-freeze them quickly working around the clock. Just think - a typical 16th century ship could catch 100 tons of fish in a season – these huge factory trawlers could catch 200 tons of cod in an hour!


The designs of the trawlers were improved and equipped with stronger radars so they could catch the cod anywhere until the catch increased to 800,000 tons in 1968. But then, the catch kept falling so in 1976 the Canadian government passed legislation to extend their jurisdiction further from the coast. The international fishing fleets had to now fish in the “high seas”. This could have helped the cod stock but now it was the Canadian government, with investors, which started a fishing fleet of bigger factory-trawlers combing (actually vacuuming) the sea until 90% of the cod were gone. In 1992 the Canadian government was forced to close the fishery. This devastated Newfoundland where 40,000 lost their work as well as did the small-boat fishermen of St Pierre et Miquelon who fished this area for generations. Greed and ignorance caused the seemingly limitless stocks of cod to dwindle to near extinction. Technological advances now allow the potential for large-scale trawlers to find and annihilate every commercial fish stock anywhere in the world. I heard that in Alaska, King Salmon stocks are not as plentiful as they once were. But with the constant search for profits plus the exploding worldwide population more fish industries will certainly collapse.

Split and salted cod drying in 1920’s picture


Fishing in the area for capelins and plankton-feeding shrimp further depletes the ecosystem of the ocean and deprives the cod of their usual nourishment - so they are starving. Everything is connected. The destruction caused by grossly over fishing cod in the Grand Banks of Newfoundland is an enormous ecological disaster.

So we left the little island and took the 10-minute boat ride back to St Pierre feeling nostalgic and a bit sad. Here is a Grand Banks folk song:

Wasn't many years ago, that the men round here would go
Out in their skiffs and haul their traps out on the bay
And shortly they would return, loaded down from stem to stern
And weigh off the fish, and store the gear away.
And now the waters are as barren as the cliffs that guard the cove,
And catch the North wind blowing off the shore.
And I wonder how an ocean turns as lifeless as a stone
And I wonder can the sea revive once more


Paintings by Jean Claireaux

Friday, August 21, 2009

Destination: Saint Pierre et Miquelon (part one)


In my last post I related how it was that St Pierre and Miquelon was a travel destination I had thought about for a very long time (see post of 17-August-09.) I had often tried planning a visit to this little bit of France in North America, but the trip had not happened for one reason or another. Last year however we had enough frequent flyer miles to obtain a free flight there. I also found a travel agent in St John’s, Newfoundland, who put together the travel package that we liked for a very interesting price. It included a car with unlimited mileage, the trip to St Pierre and Miquelon with accommodation there and a week roaming around Newfoundland staying at small inns along the way.

Postcard - photo by Jean-Luc Drake

We flew from Atlanta to St John’s with a stop in Toronto. A car was waiting for us and we drove to the hotel downtown St John’s. It was dark and we got lost but finally arrived at Delta Hotel St John’s. Next morning we left on our way to Fortune on the Burin Peninsula, the embarkation town for the ferry going to St Pierre. As soon as we left St John’s we felt that we were far away from civilization with hardly any vehicles on the TransCanada highway. This was raw wilderness - full of large boulders, lakes, low balsam and aspen trees, a couple of curious moose along the road, more green meadows and no houses. Grandiose landscape surrounded us. (Click on the pictures to enlarge them.)




We stopped one night at a Bed and Breakfast in little Marystown where the hostess was from Liverpool, England. The next day after lunch in yet another little town we arrived in Fortune at the ferry dock. This was 21-August 2008, exactly a year ago today. We were a bit early and had to wait for a couple hours on the windy wharf before we could embark on the Atlantic Jet, a hydrofoil which makes the trip to St Pierre in an hour.



The sea was rough but when we arrived it did look like somewhere in France. The gendarmes (policemen) were there with their flat-top képis and the French flag, bien sûr. A minivan was waiting to take us to our hotel which was not far but up a very steep hill. We then walked back down the hill to the main area, called Place du Général de Gaulle who came to St Pierre in 1967 and made a speech in this square. I did not take a picture of this square but here is a stamp showing “la Place.”


Across the square is the Alsatian style post office with its early 20th century praying monk style roof. Upstairs is the stamp collecting area which is called “philatélie” in France.


Stamps started being made in St Pierre et Miquelon in 1885 as a means to add extra surcharge on French stamps. In 1909 they started their own stamps with the picture of a fisherman. (see below.)


First mention of the islands was from the Portuguese in 1520. In 1536 Jacques Cartier claimed the archipelago in the name of the King of France. Settlements of Europeans in St Pierre et Miquelon dates from the 16th century and are some of the oldest in North America. A large segment of the people is from the Basques regions in Spain and France, the rest from Normandy and Brittany . We were there at the beginning of the yearly Basque festival where there is folk dancing, pelote Basque (paleta game) contests, games of force with continuous entertainment and food available. It was a beautiful day and we certainly did not believe we were in North America. Below is the fronton Basque which is the high wall used in playing the Basque game pelote and a postcard of the Basque festival.




St Pierre et Miquelon islands are part of the French Territorial Collectivity. The islands are 4500 kms from Paris (approx 2800 miles) and 26 kms (16 miles) from the coast of Newfoundland , and have 2 mains islands, St Pierre, which has about 6700 inhabitants and then Miquelon , which can be reached by boat (1 hr) with 700 inhabitants. Other islands are Langlade (with summer residents, but no running water or electricity) and 4 more little islands. Many French government employees work there and get quite an additional pay for being so far away – so there are a lots of them, and they work less hours. They are on temporary assignment and count for about 1/3 of the inhabitants. English is spoken more – in hotels and restaurants and shops, than in Quebec . The accent is either like standard French or close to the Norman accent for the native St-Pierrais and not as pronounced as in Quebec. St Pierre is the smaller island at the bottom of this postcard.


Just listening to all the French being spoken made me feel at home as well as seeing the bistros, cafes, bars, little restaurants, great smelling bakeries, impeccable politeness of the shop keepers and the Gallic joie de vivre. The charming harbor, the brightly colored houses with narrow streets radiating uphill are an invitation to stroll. But watch out - you cannot bring your car on the ferry, but the local French drivers are there in their Peugeot and Renault speeding in the little streets.


Pictures of the Cannons established in the 19th century as a precautionary measure during the Crimean War, and the Pointe aux Canons automated lighthouse.




One thing is the same as in France – only one church or cathedral to serve the whole town. Indeed Saint-Pierre Cathedral, built in the style of Basque churches, sits in the middle of town. The 100 years old stain glass windows were a gift of Général de Gaulle and unveiled during his 1967 visit. There is one mass on Sunday and we peeked in to see how many people were attending. Since there were so few I could count them – 51 worshippers (including some tourists). This is typical of a French town of 6000 or 7000 people and reaffirmed that I was not in the US or Canada.



Something peculiar to St Pierre though are the front doors, called “tambours” which protrude into the street and provide a place to brush snow from your clothes and shoes in winter.




We did think (for just an instant) that we might like to see all these colorful doors in winter, but after looking at some of the pictures of St Pierre in the snow our southern blood started to coagulate.


Pictures courtesy Jean-Luc Drake

Our tour package included a little tour of St Pierre and it took us on top of a hill where I took some panoramic pictures. (Don't forget to click on pictures to enlarge them.)



We could see the ghost village of the Ile aux Marins (Fishermen Island) across the bay and decided to go there and visit it next (to be continued.)