[Please read last week’s installment of the Homeward Bound Chronicles. My thoughts are with friends and family in Virginia who are dealing with the aftermath of back-to-back earthquake and hurricane disasters. I hope you are all well.]
August 26, 2011
Today is blustering and gray on the eastern tip of Prince Edward Island. We are nearing the end of a week-long stay in Kingsboro, near Souris, and through the same double doors from which we sighted our only whale I now observe curtains of rain descending in the distance on a cruise liner that passes by punctually at a quarter to three.
It’s hard to believe that we left Lake Ridge ten days ago. The island operates on its own time, routines subdued by stress-free living. Just at this moment the low rumblings of a faded red tractor resound as I follow its slow progress across the way. I have become used to the luxury of hours spent hunting sea glass on miles of red rocks and running on white “singing sands” beach.
Long minutes later the tractor returns from the opposite direction, a cargo of wood unloaded, yet its speed unimproved. It’s a testament to the island’s languor that I can sit at this kitchen table, in turn daydreaming and noting the ingenious decorations that dot the rooms of this cottage—here nautical instruments, there bowls of sea shells and glass shards picked by the owners—while forgoing the usual frenetic speed at which I type to meet article deadlines.
And so from Sea Seekers Cottage I continue the chronicles of our journey up and down Eastern Canada. If my thoughts appear abstract, blame it on the sea, the ships, and the bumbling tractors.
Land of Moose, Land of Dogs
I grew up in Rimouski, a city on the St. Lawrence Seaway, renowned for its natural attractions, its oceanography institutes, and its hockey. We arrived near town in time to catch the first purple stretches of sundown on August 18.
We had gone to Montreal directly after Stanstead, visiting family and embarking on a speedy go around of the port, the old part of the city, and the Insectarium and botanical gardens. Located in the neighborhood of the Olympic Village, built for the 1976 Summer Games and reinvented into a variety of natural science museums, the Insectarium is a must-see exhibit geared towards all ages.
After spending a restful night at my sister’s house, we departed for the provincial capital, where the charms of the old city were not lost on the children. Le Château Frontenac never ceases to amaze my daughter, who harbors secret desires to set up residence as the princess of the palace. (After all she did astonish me when she pointed to a glossy magazine highlighting the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s recent tour of the country and saying, “Look, it’s the Princess of Canada!” I shall resist commenting.)
Our first stop after Quebec City was just outside Rimouski at Bic National Park, minutes from the house in which my family lived. Parc du Bic is one of twenty-two national parks in Quebec and among the smallest, though its beauty and islands are known to those traveling to Gaspésie, the northernmost region of the eastern side of the province.
As a child I spent a week during summers at Le Camp Cap à l’Orignal (Moose Cape Camp) located within the park’s limits. It was rather eerie to discover that nothing had changed at the camp from the old dormitories to the abandoned farmhouse that overlooks a clear-watered bay. The name Rimouski is of Mi’kmaq origin, the predominant aboriginal nation of the region, and has been debated as meaning either “land of the moose” or “retreat of the dogs.”
We walked the trails of the park even if night fell quickly and we made our way to Rimouski, where we discovered that every single motel in town was booked (a phenomenon that would repeat itself the next evening in New Brunswick, forcing us to accept a room at the Lice-Head Motel.) Only two of the most expensive hotels had vacancies.
Rimouski is a long line of lights on the Seaway with a downtown dominated by Saint-Germain Cathedral and a few historic buildings that survived La nuit rouge of 1950, the raging fire that devasted a large section of the city. Unfortunately, none of the original buildings dating to 1696, the year of its foundation, remain.
We stayed at Hôtel des Gouverneurs, once Rimouski’s swankiest pit stop. The hotel has retained every bit of its 1974 charm, wood paneling and disco-type lighting throughout. I expected the employees to sport Fawcett feathered hair and belted wrap knit dresses as they did back in the day.
No such self-deprecating irony exists at the hotel, continuing to function on the embers of its former glory, though the carpet is erratically stained and the wooden walls chipped. I will not bring up the exorbitant room price, which should have commanded a private in-room performance by a Gibb brother or at least one member of ABBA.
Me & Sidney Crosby
Sidney Crosby, the captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins, looks like Andy Samberg of Saturday Night Live fame (whom I find to be the most boyishly handsome of the comic legion) with stick moves recalling the Canadian hockey greats. Those who are anticipating that I either met Crosby on this trip or that I am perhaps related to the Kid will be disappointed to know that neither is true. My relationship with Crosby is rooted in Rimouski.
Crosby spent two years in town as a player for the Rimouski Océanic (oh-say-ah-NICK), in my opinion formerly the strongest team of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. During his final year, Crosby was the 2005 National Hockey League draft’s first pick and subsequently the youngest player to receive the Art Ross Trophy. I could go on listing the Next One’s achievements, yet I will only mention that he secured the men’s hockey gold medal for Canada at the last Winter Games by scoring in overtime.
I could argue that Sidney and I spent our formative years in Rimouski. I lived there for seven years, the most I resided in one location since birth. That time was marked by the discovery of the natural world and the English language. Although Rimouski is almost completely French-speaking, a young Anglophone family moved in the house two doors down the same summer we relocated there.
Beverly, the eldest daughter, and I were inseparable and incorrigible friends of the same age. I picked up English at her house and later lived with her family during the months following my father’s car accident (see last week’s Chronicles).
In going back to see our family’s old house and the neighborhood, I was reminded of many joyful memories: picking blueberries in the vast fields of untouched land behind our tiny neighborhood; trick-or-treating through snowfalls; celebrating the harvest and the local Pheasant Festival; bird watching with my father; being snowed in during the holidays and sliding from house roofs onto snow banks; picking sea urchins on the shore with my mother; and living with my older sisters for the last time.
Rimouski is truly a jewel of the St. Lawrence. When we left our house—now remodeled with blue plank-board siding instead of the white stucco I remembered—after my father’s death for one of Montreal’s least desirable neighborhoods, it was as if I had been uprooted from beloved soil and transplanted into metropolitan dust.
I wrote earlier in the chronicle “You Can Cry or You Can Have P’tits Gâteaux Vachon” of having pieces of soul dispersed in various meaningful places. I had left in Rimouski the largest piece. For the first time in two decades, I was back to visit old haunts. Seeing my own children play on the worn seesaws of my elementary school and pick blueberries in that wild land I so loved was like coming home to mend the heart of my childhood.
[Coming next on the Homeward Bound Chronicles: “The Gates of Hell or the Lice-Head Motel?” “Vote Fundy!” “Green Gables vs. Twilight,” “How About a Seal Skull Souvenir with That Sea Glass?” and “Irene’s Maine Idea.”]