Thursday, May 27:  Ferry from Natashquan, QC to Blanc-Sablon, QC – Day 1

Today’s story revolves around the ferry – the Nordik Express operated by Relais Nordik out of
Rimouski, QC, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence. This is a working boat, hauling
passengers and freight to the communities east of Natashquan on the Lower North Shore
that have no access by road, an area stretching some 300 miles. The 14 communities
are populated by some 5,600 native Innu and French-speaking residents.

Nashtaquan ferry

We had to be at the dock by 5:30 a.m. so we set our alarm at the B&B for 4:15 a.m. When we woke up the sun was already up, and it looked about like 6:30 a.m. in Cleveland! We packed up and rode the short distance to the pier, and waited…  The ferry would be an hour late today, and with the unloading and loading of freight we didn’t leave Natashquan until 9:00 a.m.

Of course, my main concern was the motorcycle. Would they know how to tie it down? Would they treat it with care? Would it survive the trip intact? Well, I can say now they did a good job on the first two – we’ll have to wait another 24 hours to get the answer to the third.

Bike 1

They had me ride into a container reserved exclusively for my bike, and a gentleman tied down
the frame in four corners.

Bike 2

Then they closed the doors, attached the container to the ship’s crane, and lifted it on board – the third level in last row.

Bike 3

When we stopped in La Romaine they unloaded a lot of the freight and rearranged the rest of it. My bike got moved down to the first level in the 2nd row.

I cringed a little while watching them move my container. When the container bumped into its neighbors while being lowered I could just imagine the jolt to my bike inside. These weren’t harsh, wham-bam bumps – just “gentle” ones. Yet I could see the effect on the cars in open container frames – they would rock pretty good on their suspensions  We’ll have to see how it turns out – no point worrying about it now.

La  Romaine 2

We got to La Romaine (pop. 120) at 4:00 p.m. The container holding passenger baggage comes off first and gets carted to the terminal. Then the gangplank comes down and the passengers get off. Then they unload the freight and rearranged what’s left to even the load.

La  Romaine 4

We had quite a number of native Innu on the boat, I’d say perhaps 50. All but 1 or 2 got off here, and probably a third of the freight. This is how the local store gets stocked, how people bring their purchases home and take their cars and trucks back and forth, and how the local industries get supplies. Some of the containers are refrigerated to keep food fresh.

La  Romaine 3

I got a kick out of seeing this van being unloaded. It took 3 hours at La Romaine to handle all the freight. There are two pieces of heavy construction equipment to be unloaded further down stream. I expect they’ll make the boat list pretty good, judging from how it does when the containers are lifted out over the pier.

Friday, May 28:  Ferry from Natashquan, QC to Blanc-Sablon, QC – Day 2

Harrington Harbour 1

We stopped at Harrington Harbour around 1:00 a.m. this morning. Harrington Harbour is reputed to be the most scenic and unusual settlement on the lower north shore so most of us 

Harrington Harbour 3     Harrington Harbour 2

The village is on an island of rock and has board walk “streets” in place of the usual asphalt or concrete. Actually, they just use boardwalks to bridge from boulder to boulder – and the boulders serve as streets or sidewalks. There are almost no cars on the island – none are needed since it is so small.

La Tabatiere 1

About mid-morning we stopped at La Tabatière for what turned out to be about 3 hours – unloading and loading refrigerated coolers. Tabatière Seafood is the largest processing company on the lower north shore, so a lot of seafood is shipped here for processing, and processed seafood is shipped out. They process shrimp, lobsters, crabs, salmon, and maybe mussels, too. Fishing is one of the three main industries of the lower north shore.

La Tabatiere 2

This colorful home sits on a point near the entrance to the harbor at La Tabatière. This type of design (contemporary?) and the use of bright colors is common for homes in this area, many of which are built right on the boulders along the shore.

Saint-Augustin 1

Here we are at Saint-Augustin, the last stop before Blanc-Sablon. I was waiting for this stop for the entire trip since this was where the heavy construction equipment would be unloaded. You can get an idea of the weight of this backhoe by noticing how much the boat lists – probably several feet along the side. Some kind of construction project is going on near here – I’m not sure if it is a dam or what. I calculated that the boat could carry up to 76 containers at one time – four across and  five deep on each level, and 4 levels. We probably loaded or unloaded up to 30 containers at some stops.

Saint-Augustin 2

This is a typical scene along the shore. Most of the homes are located in proximity to villages, but these were fairly isolated – miles from the closest village.

Saint-Augustin 4

Dinner this evening included lobster, scallops, crab legs, shrimp, mussels and salmon – all fresh from the fisheries along the lower north shore! At noon today we had fresh cod. The food on the boat was just outstanding – one of the plusses of the trip. We ate in a dining room with other passengers and got to know some of them fairly well by the end of the trip.

Saint-Augustin 5

We spotted this iceberg from the ferry as we were nearing Blanc-Sablon. We would soon see many more…

Blanc-Sablon 1

Here we are at Blanc-Sablon, QC, the end of the ferry ride. It’s around 9:00 p.m. First off was the passenger baggage, then the gangplank, then the two containers on top of my bike, and my bike. The foreman came over to explain that my bike would be off in about 5 minutes. The guys loading and unloading the freight were very careful and competent. I was impressed.

Blanc-Sablon 2

Just as soon as the container was on the pier the guy who keeps track of the freight opened the doors and I snapped this picture. The bike came through without a scratch! We rode the 3 miles to our motel and called it a day. The ferry trip was the high point of our trip thus far. A little pricey, but worth it. The Basse-Côte Nord (lower north shore) is a beautiful, unspoiled part of North America.

Reservations for the Relias Nordik Express

I had been planning this trip since last summer and knew reservations were necessary at least 2 months ahead of time. To be on the safe side I called in October (2009) and the lady said I was number 586 on the list for reservations for the 2010 season – she would call early in 2010 to let me know if we could get on. She called back and we got on without difficulty. Had we wanted to sail in July it likely would have been a different story. As it was, the ferry had very few passengers, but was apparently filled to capacity with freight. A resident of one of the villages was returning home and wanted to get his car on the boat but was told there wasn’t room.

Photo of the Bella DesgagnŽs (CNW Group/GROUPE DESGAGNES INC.)Note:  Several years after our trip the Nordik Express was replaced with the Bella Desgagnés, a larger, roll on-roll off ferry, so although reservations are easier to get the experience will no doubt be somewhat different. You can find particulars here.