My eyes Ping-Pong between Kegaska’s port and the sea, from watching the ship’s crane hoist containers on deck to scanning the Gulf of St. Lawrence waters hoping to spy any of the 13 whales known to frolic here. I’ve been eyeballing both since boarding the combo cruise-and-cargo ship Bella Desgagnés two days ago.
Kegaska might not be the end of the world, but it’s the end of the road. Route 138 stops here and doesn’t pick up again for more than 200 miles. Locals call this isolated region Territoire de la Basse-Côte-Nord or the Lower North Shore. In winter, the Route Blanche, a 325-mile snowmobile trail, connects the villages, but when the ice and snow melt, they rely on the Bella Desgagnés. From April through mid-January, it connects the Lower North Shore villages not only to each other but also to the rest of Quebec and the world.
During its weekly round trips between Rimouski, roughly 200 miles east of Quebec City on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, and Blanc Sablon, on the Labrador border, Bella visits 10 ports twice: three with road access, five isolated villages along the Lower North Shore, and Anticosti Island. It’s a cross-cultural journey that includes Innu First Nations and Acadian villages as well as English and francophone ones. Roughly 5,000 people live along the Lower North Shore, nearly 1,000 in Blanc Sablon alone. The rest are scattered in 13 compact villages, some with populations numbering fewer than 100.
Bella Desgagnés’ primary mission is transporting cargo for these communities and providing passenger service for residents. It also bridges the gap for travelers looping through Labrador or ferrying to Newfoundland; their cars, motorcycles, RVs, and bicycles are carried in containers. Increasingly it’s carrying round-trip cruisers, passengers like my husband and me, who’ve come for a glimpse into the people, wildlife, geology, and geography that define this sparsely populated region.
When viewed from the front, Bella resembles a typical cruise ship. It offers comfortable and efficient, but not fancy, guest cabins and port excursions, but that’s where the similarity stops. There isn’t a casino, nor are there boutiques, nightlife venues, a pool, or a spa, and the deck seats are molded plastic, not cushy chaises. Amenities include a lounge with limited bar service, a cafeteria, a laundry, a kennel, and a small fitness room.
Onboard activities include documentary films and presentations about the ship and communities visited, as well as about seabirds, whales, flora, and fauna by a naturalist. Live entertainment means scanning surrounding waters for whales, porpoise, and seabirds; watching crew load and unload containers; and enjoying port approaches and departures from the observation decks.
Our cruise package included three meals daily in the dining room. Two sittings are offered, and while there are a few tables for two, we often were paired with other guests at larger ones. The daily-changing, classic French menu lists at least three choices, and always includes local seafood. Although most passengers spoke French, we managed to converse using my limited French, their limited English, and a Franglais version of charades. Wine helped. As a Francophone tablemate quipped: “A glass, understand a little; a bottle, fluent.”
Although the ship docks in other ports, Kegaska marks the beginning of the Lower North Shore, 233 coastal miles first charted by explorer Jacques Cartier, but home to First Nations peoples for millennia. In this staggeringly beautiful, glacial-sculpted region, free-flowing salmon-rich rivers and inland boreal forests cede to rugged coastline seasoned with squishy peat bogs, rocky outcrops, deserted beaches, and smatterings of islands. The subarctic climate attracts Atlantic puffins, guillemots, and razorbills. Icebergs often linger into summer.
As the ship hopscotched the coast and islands, we disembarked for self-guided walkabouts as well as guided excursions, some professional, most homespun, almost all including the local school, health center, church, and ice hockey rink. Jobs may be few, ages increasing, and populations declining, but those remaining value their rugged independence and the safety of their communities and think nothing of snowmobiling a couple of hundred miles for weekend hockey tournaments or festivals. “You’ll see 300 Ski-Doos for a hockey game,” one guide told me, as she pointed out the local arena.
Early on the third morning, the ship squeezed between Entry and Renfall Islands to enter Harrington Harbour, where “Le Grand Séduction” was filmed. The previous night, we’d watched this English-subtitled comedy in our cabin. I still chuckle when remembering the scene with locals playing cricket in white longjohns atop Entry Island — and that was before local guide Keith Rowsell revealed that he was one of those cricket players.
“At the end of the shooting, the film company made beer and food available on the island; not the brightest move. By the time we left, everyone was staggering,” he recalls. “Our boat of drunks dressed in white underwear arrived at the dock just as tourists were getting off the Bella. They detoured as far away from us on the dock as they could.”
This isolated village, with boardwalks instead of streets, enjoys a relatively stable population hovering around 300. “People think we suffer out here, but we have a restaurant, bar, and radio station. I have high-speed Internet. I don’t have or need a car, but I do have three generators, four ATVs, two boats, and five snowmobiles. These aren’t toys, they’re essentials. I’m not struggling,” Rowsell says, patting his ample belly.
Other villages aren’t so stable. We toured La Tabatière by schoolbus, with Tony Gallichon driving and 17-year-old Amy Willcott, one of five in the school’s largest class, pointing out local sights. “I love walking out the door knowing nothing bad will happen,” she says. “If I ever need help, I know someone will.” But jobs are scarce, and once she leaves to become a veterinary technician, she doubts she’ll come back.
We return to the ship as the crane is being stowed. First Officer Mathieu Roi choreographs the loading and unloading at each port. The local crew alerts him to what’s coming aboard — vehicles, frozen lobster or crab, appliances, etc., and he plans and charts unloading and loading in advance. “People say it’s the same trip every week, but it’s never the same,” he says. “With 22 stops in seven days, there’s always something to keep you on your toes.”
And passengers eyeballing the action.