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Exploring the Rugged Terrain in Quebec's Coastal Minganie Region

An edible forest, world-class rafting and islands where puffins outnumber people await.

The luxury eco-lodge on Île aux Perroquets

Untouched by Wi-Fi and cable TV, the luxury eco-lodge on Île aux Perroquets will help you find the remote.

The end of the road is much quainter than I’d imagined. Kegaska, some 1,311 kilometres northeast of Montreal (as the crow drives), is as far as Route 138 goes, and the last 40 kilometres aren’t even paved, at that. I stop the car and jump out at a gold-sand bay that’s at the heart of this fishing community of 110. The road might stop, but that seascape just keeps going and going. As I step out of my shoes and onto the beach, the hot sand burns my toes. A few more steps and the ice-cool waves soothe them instantly. This is a place of extremes.

A roadside food truck in rural Quebec

Hot diggity – no one makes better fries than a roadside food truck in rural Quebec.

Route 138 hugs the north shore of the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and the spot where I stand. Renowned for its whale-watching (13 species commingle in these waters) bountiful fresh seafood and rough winters, northern Quebec’s Minganie region is rugged, no-nonsense and nonchalantly spectacular. It’s also coastal, in a beachside-ice-cream-shacks-and-docks-lined-with-baseball-capped-fishermen kind of way. And in the summer season, it makes for a seaside vacation defined by simplicity – there is, after all, only one road to take.

Minganie’s archipelago; shed on Île aux Perroquets

Left to right: Minganie’s archipelago is mostly owned and serviced by Parks Canada and its fleet of boats; even the shed on Île aux Perroquets cuts a fine figure.

Speaking of extremes… The next day, gripping the sheer rock face above the roiling Magpie River with toes and fingers, I rush to keep up with my athletic guides, Audrey Beauchemin, Mathieu Bourdon and Sylvain Roy from Association Eaux-Vives Minganie, a group of amateur outdoor enthusiasts out of Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan. Indecipherable exclamations from up ahead spur me to speed up, but honestly, I’m not sure my sneakers will hold. As I gingerly turn the rocky corner, I see what the fuss is about: The group has reached the mouth of the waterfall, which whooshes down into a crystal-clear pool 10 metres below. I catch my breath, and just as I’m thinking how refreshing the water looks, I hear a splash. Sylvain is in, his wetsuit discarded on the rocks.

Minganie

The island feels worlds away from the coast.

All dried off, Sylvain shows us how to forage for some of Quebec’s most recherché ingredients. The woods that surround us are wild territory, with plenty of edibles to munch on if you happen to lose your pack down the river, including snowberries. The wondrously minty little white fruit is a special commodity clamoured for by star chefs at the other end of Route 138, including Jérôme Ferrer and Normand Laprise. This natural buffet is vegetarianism at its most convenient.

Tommy Demers; fresh picked tea

Left to right: Tommy Demers maintains the lighthouse on Île aux Perroquets, which may not serve to guide sailors anymore, but still acts as a beacon; tea, fresh-picked in the forest.

The waves are choppy, so the usual leather-lined yacht thatshuttles island-hoppers from Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan to Île aux Perroquets has been replaced by a Parks Canada tugboat. (Safety first, I guess.) As I lug my rollie onto the boat, it becomes clear it’s either the luggage or the passengers that will get the dry spot in the cabin. Bags it is. I chitchat with Danka Cormier, our hostess for our stay on the island, and try to look casual as I hang onto the gunwale, bouncing along the waves like a bobblehead. The sea spray and mist in the air have left a film on my glasses, but I soak up the vista through the haze: The sky is a dramatic zigzag of grey and blue. “Minke whale!” exclaims Danka, and we rush to the left side of the vessel to spot our passing friend, mere feet away. “Seals!” It’s back to starboard, to see a whole herd of them playing dodge ’em with the boat. And then, as we near the island: “Puffins!” Cute little puffy puffins – one, two, six, twelve. The so-called perroquets (parrots) have gathered here to lay their eggs for countless generations.

Baie-Johan-Beetz house

Known as “le château,” this iconic old house presides over Baie-Johan-Beetz, on the way to the end of the road.

We pull up to the dock and make our way onto the island. Smooth pebble beach on one side and 10-metre rock face on the other, it’s small enough to see from end to end, yet big enough to make you feel alone in the world. The clouds part and the sun glints off the freshly painted white stucco of the lighthouse, a beacon in the area since the days when leading ships to safety was an around-the-clock, all-weather job held by a particular kind of madman. In 2015, however, the Île aux Perroquets Inn became the region’s first luxury getaway when the lighthouse keeper’s house and his assistant’s were retrofitted into gîtes (guest cottages) that paint eco-tourism with a beachy designer brush: blond-wood floors, brightly painted paddles by Montreal’s Ropes and Wood, nouveau-macramé wall hangings and the comfiest bed in the archipelago. Glamping is fun, but this is a treat.

Marine life on Grosse Boule island

A marine life show-and-tell on Grosse Boule island.

Danka calls us down for the first of what would be a series of fantastic meals at the inn. I breathe in the smell of fresh-chopped wild leeks, stars of a giant salad. The bowlful of multicoloured bounty is sourced from La Coop Grenier Boréal, a farm co-op launched a few years ago. They grow more than you would think possible in this taiga: heritage tomatoes of every hue, buttery lettuce, escarole, cabbages, cucumbers and a rainbow of edible flowers.

Cloudberry compote; Xavier Philippe-Beauchamp

Left to right: Cloudberry compote stuffed into shortcrust pastry shells homemade by Rivière-au-Tonnerre resident Alberte Marcoux; the region attracts summer workers from big cities like Xavier Philippe-Beauchamp, from Montreal.

A few days later, after a cushy yacht ride back to the mainland, I visit this garden of eatin’ (the farm sits just off the 138). I pick from a chuckleberry tree and pop the burgundy fruits into my pink-stained mouth – I might have already gotten into the strawberry patch. In warmer climes, this tree would be twice the size at its age – but its fruit is a flavour powerhouse. And the stubby blueberry bushes seem to pump out twice as many berries as the bigger ones I’m used to. It’s as if the northern wind and short growing season inspire the sap to concentrate all its efforts on making the sweetest goodies possible.

Owners of Bar Laitier Chez Marina

The owners of Bar Laitier Chez Marina in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan are happy to (soft-) serve.

One of the smallest and weirdest endemic plants here is the cloudberry, or chicoutai, a fruit cluster that looks like a raspberry on steroids and turns (counter-intuitively) from bright red to orange when it’s ripe. It grows wild in marshlands only, on plants barely 10 centimetres high – picking it is back-breaking work for sure, which explains its price. This foraged gold is a local obsession, and no wonder: It’s an addictive sweet-and-sour mouthful. Restaurants all along the coast pack it into pies, compotes and salsas, but my favourite interpretation comes as I make my way back to Montreal. In Sept-Îles, just west of Minganie, it punctuates a local kir: a flute of champagne with a touch of cloudberry purée and a single, unlikely berry floating amid the bubbles. One for the road.


Water Ways

Go off-road to explore three natural wonders.

Magpie River

Audrey Beauchemin and Sylvain Roy show us the ropes on a calm stretch of the Magpie River.

The Magpie River is ripe for an adventure-tourism boom. It’s listed second on National Geographic’s top 10 adventure-sports rivers worldwide, and one kayak trip down its class III and IV rapids confirms a thrilling lack of flatwater. Yet the handful of crews that organize weeklong whitewater trips on the river often have it to themselves.


Parks Canada rents out their Otentik accommodations and campsites on most of the islands in Minganie, including Quarry Island. Its world-famous monoliths – moss-topped, three-metre-tall rock formations – have been perfecting their eroded edges for millennia.

reservation.pc.gc.ca

At Grosse Boule Island’s discovery pool, get up close and personal with sea stars, seaweed and softball-size snails, before heading back to shore for scallops seared over hot coals.

ferme-purmer.com

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