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Bonaventure is for the birds

TWO massive ravens fly over the canopy of weather-beaten spruce, making low, hollow croaks. They move in slow motion, and we can hear the wind rush through black wing feathers. They disappear, and we now begin to hear a sudden sea wind. The dark forest thins, and we step onto a bright, grassy knoll that runs down to a cliff where 50,000 gannets jostle and spar for a piece of Bonaventure. This island lies two miles off the eastern tip of the Gasp'e Peninsula in Quebec Province, Canada. From the pier on the mainland town called Perce, the island looks like the back of some giant whale breaking the surface. Bonaventure is accessible only by boat. It measures two miles long and two miles across at its widest. Spruce and balsam fir cover most of the interior, and meadows full of asters, goldenrods, and pearly everlasting dot the island.

Jacques Cartier discovered Bonaventure on his first exploration in 1534. Birds were the sole inhabitants. This was a haven for thousands of gannets, puffins, murres, gulls, guillemots, and razor-billed auks. The first settlers arrived in 1672. For 250 years, man came and went on the island, and then in 1919 the northern and eastern cliffs of Bonaventure became a migratory bird sanctuary. In 1971, the Quebec government expropriated the homes of the last remaining people, and the entire island was declared a park.

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Bonaventure is a bird watcher's dream come true.

We walk down to the edge of the gannetry. The Quebec Fish and Game Ministry has erected a low wooden fence that parallels the border of the nesting gannets. A nature warden answers questions and keeps over-zealous visitors out of the nesting grounds. This is the second largest colony of breeding gannets in the world, and I doubt few others are as accessible. We are transfixed by the wheeling, displaying, posturing pairs of gannets. The tumult of the birds, as they peel away from the nest and return with fish, never abates. The young birds cry out for food, and the parents returning from the sea manage to pick out their own amid a mass of look-alikes. Stand at the edge of the colony, and you feel the world is filled with gannets. A host of other pelagic birds beside gannets nest on Bonaventure. From spring until autumn you'll find puffins, kittiwakes, razor-billed auks, murres, and black guillemots.

If you can pull yourself away from the engaging birds, there are island trails that beckon you to explore the rest of Bonaventure. The island sits in the heart of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a rich marine environment. From cliff trails around the island you can look out at the sea and watch fin and minke whales offshore feeding on capelin, herring, and mackerel. Grassy trails alternate between balsam fir woods, coastal fields, and seaside cliff. If the day is warm, spread out a blanket and enjoy a picnic atop an island cliff filled with sea wind and soaring birds.

Bonaventure's human history adds to the attraction of an island tour. Small, weathered, abandoned houses still stand along the western shore. The gray-shingled buildings remind the visitor of the island culture that existed here up until 1971. Fishing, sheep raising, and agriculture thrived on the island. Generations of English, Irish, and French called Bonaventure home. Nowadays, the last boat departs for Perce at 5:30 p.m., and nobody stays on the island. Except the birds.

Returning to the mainland and the French-Canadian village of Perce makes a great ending to a day's outing. Now you're primed for some Gasp'esie hospitality. Find a quaint auberge, order the specialty of the peninsula - cod tongues - then, after dinner, pull closer to the fireplace.

We found a perfect inn, and there must be others. The Auberge le Coin du Banc (``the inn at the corner of the beach'') lies nestled in the far end of a deep bay, five miles north of Perce on Highway 132. This coastal auberge is the creation of Sidney Maloney and Lise De Guire. An Irish-French couple, Maloney and De Guire have spent 15 years catering to tourists on Gasp'e. Their auberge overflows with antique furniture, handmade quilts, overstuffed chairs, Canadian paintings, wooden decoys, and, in the living room, a lamp with an aquarium base full of goldfish. Local fresh seafood is the hallmark of Gasp'esie cuisine. A stay at Auberge le Coin du Banc is enhanced by the fact that Maloney was born on Bonaventure, ran an inn on the island, and has some wonderful tales to tell.

Getting to Bonaventure requires some time and effort. We drove about eight hours from the Maine coast in heavy rains through the endless forest of New Brunswick. Moose crossings and behemoth lumber trucks were the only diversions. But, at the end of the journey, there were the warmth and charm of the Gasp'esian people, which chase away any driving blues.

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Bonaventure Island captures your senses and will make you a gannet enthusiast. It is, without a doubt, a place for the birds.

If you go

For information, write or call the Gasp'e Peninsula Tourist Association, PO Box 810, Carleton, Province Quebec, GOC 1JO, Canada; phone (418) 364-7041. For boat tours to Bonaventure Island from Perce town pier, call (418) 368-3444 or in summer (418) 782-2325. To stay at the Auberge le Coin du Banc, Perce, Gasp'e Sud, P.Q., call (418) 645-2907.

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