by Lee Foster
A cacophony enveloped me as I stood amid some of the 60,000 pairs of nesting northern gannets on Bonaventure Island, two miles off the southern side of Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula in eastern Canada. It was mid-July, and the female birds protected their chicks in the nests at this most populous rookery in North America for the large, white seabird species.
Male birds had returned from the sea with beaks full of seaweed for the nest or fish for the family, landing and taking off in a rambling, running fashion that set the whole colony into an uproar. When the male returned, the pair of gannets reasserted their familiarity with each other by pointing their beaks skyward and tapping on the partner’s beak.
I had taken the VIA Rail Canada overnight train from Montreal out to the end of the line, the town of Gaspe, to enjoy five major nature adventures possible in the Gaspe region. Seeing the gannets was at the top of my list. My trip can be easily replicated by anyone who wishes to fly to Montreal, take the overnight trains to and from Gaspe, and rent a car in Gaspe to get around. Tourisme Quebec’s and Quebec Maritime’s websites can help with the details.
My five nature adventures were as follows:
First, I witnessed the nesting gannets on Bonaventure Island, which is offshore from the town of Perce.
One encouraging bit of news from a park ranger interpreting the birds for visitors was that the health of the fisheries in the St. Lawrence waterway is stable, allowing the gannets to maintain their numbers. My trip to the island began at the boat pier at Perce, a lively little tourism and arts town.
The boat ride out to Bonaventure Island included a close-up look at the unusual pierced rock immediately offshore from Perce. Then the boat circled Bonaventure before landing, showing the large populations of seabirds. Beyond the gannets there are common murres, razorbills, and puffins, which brings the total number of nesting birds on Bonaventure to about 250,000.
Once on the island, a two-mile hike took me across the spine of the island to the gannet nesting site. More ambitious hikes in a circle around the island are also possible. The gannet nesting site is well staffed with park rangers who supply information and make sure that the close human/bird interaction is not stressful to the birds. It is amazing how little fear the birds have of humans, who are seen as a non-threatening presence. Tickets for the boat are easily obtained next to the pier at Perce, where there is also a park service interpretive center and a museum to the cod fishing industry. The nature entity is officially called Bonaventure-Island-and-Perce-Rock National Park, www.sepaq.com/pq/bon/en.
Second, I watched humpback whales roll their backs in the water and show their large tails when diving, during a whale-watching boat trip from Forillon National Park.
The sea at the eastern edge of the Gaspe Peninsula is a whale-rich environment, where the land drifts off to a substantial open ocean. In fact, the word Gaspe comes from the language of the local Amerindian tribe, the Micmacs. Their word “gespeg” meant “land’s end.” I saw several humpbacks, spouting, rolling through the water, and then flaunting their huge tails before making a dive. Seven whale species may be seen during a whale-watching boat trip, including blue whales, the largest of whales, and sperm whales. Getting out on the water is a helpful introduction to the importance of the sea here for both natural history and human history. Forillon National Park info is at www.pc.gc.ca/forillon. My whale-watch boat provider was www.baleines-forillon.com.
Third, I kayaked at the edge of Forillon National Park to enjoy the scenery and seals that populate these waters.
I enjoyed a glorious morning kayaking with a guide along the rugged and rocky shore near the park. Cormorants and gulls flew around me. A seal swam alongside my kayak. The boreal forest of spruce and fir trees rose from the water’s edge to the high ridges. The air was clean and brisk, and my spirits were high.
Fourth, I canoed down the translucent Bonaventure River, said to be one of the 10 clearest rivers in the world and definitely the clearest river in Quebec.
For two hours I paddled down the river in a small canoe, recalling the joy of canoeing during my youth in Minnesota. The river runs quickly and is constant, of moderate depth, with few rapids. The banks were scenic and forested, with occasional summer cottages punctuating the greenery of the forest. My provider was Cime Aventure, www.cimeadventure.com. They can arrange a trip with or without a guide, for two hours to several days on the Bonaventure River. Their operation includes a campground, rustic lodge, and restaurant, as well as canoe and kayak rentals.
And fifth, and possibly the most unusual adventure of all in this region, I encountered the remarkable fossils of fish and plants from the era of fish evolution, the Devonian Period, roughly 380 million years ago, at Miguasha National Park.
It was in this period that vertebrates developed lungs and climbed out of the sea to live on land. That was a remarkable achievement in the evolution of life on Earth.
Miguasha offers the traveler one of the most notable fossil experiences available, with an expertly guided presentation by well-informed park rangers. In cliffs along the sea, embedded in the sedimentary rock, are the numerous fossil remains. The fossils are from the era of development for several early species of fish, with the final group equipped with both gills and lungs, able to crawl out on the land. Be sure to take a thorough guided tour of this special museum to comprehend the significance of the discoveries. Without an interpretation, the fossils are difficult to comprehend. The tour includes an explanation of the various fish fossils from the Denonian period and the ongoing discoveries being made. The tour starts in the museum and then goes out onto the cliffs where the current research is being conducted. The museum has about 10,000 fossils in its collection and adds approximately 500 during each summer dig. Part of the site is now within the national park, but the border areas, privately owned, are under strict conservation controls, so no fossils from here are now taken out or sold. Miguasha is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For info, see www.sepaq.com/miguasha.
July and August are the choice travel months in the Gaspe peninsula. Arrangements need to be made in advance for train sleeping berths, rental cars, and lodging. The Tourisme Quebec people have year-round staffing to help with plans. Study a map carefully to plan a trip. Although seeing the gannets is the most unusual experience here and is mentioned first, the logical sequence for a trip, moving east to west from the town of Gaspe on the south side of the Gaspe Peninsula, is: kayaking, whale watching, gannet viewing, canoeing, and then fossils. The region has many fine, small restaurants, featuring local seafood. La Maison du Pecheur in Perce was the best restaurant in my experience, with lobster the delicacy to enjoy. Small, motel-style lodgings and inviting campgrounds for RV and tent enthusiasts abound, but plan ahead with reservations in the busy, short summer season.
A parallel set of historical/cultural encounters in the Gaspe would complement the nature and outdoors excursions. The story of cod fishing, the tragic tale of the French Acadians, and the gritty record of English loyalist pioneers are three compelling threads in the local history. A half-dozen excellent small museums and re-enactments convey the stories. The best of these, in my experience, is the re-creation of a general store in the town of Anse-a-Beau-Fils. The interpreters here offered a witty recollection of the cod fisherman world. The company general store was the supplier of all goods and the buyer of fish from the fishermen. See this humorous and informative portrayal on Gaspesian life at the Magasin General Historique Authentique 1928.
A traveler who takes pleasure in outdoor adventures will find the southern side of the Gaspe Peninsula a treasure box to peruse.
Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula: If You Go
Tourisme Quebec is a year-round information source for Gaspe tourism planning at www.bonjourquebec.com.
The more specialized area official tourism website is www.quebecmaritime.ca.
The train is VIA Rail Canada, www.viarail.ca.