Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Magdalen Boxster

When driving your Porsche on a certain archipelago . . .

There are places on Earth where it's a genuine challenge to find a Porsche automobile. Say, for example, Antarctica, or most of the countries in Africa, or a fair number in South America. Then, add in New Guinea and a majority of the small islands around the globe, and you will find that Porsches are extremely scarce. 

That's where this story takes place, on a small island archipelago with no evident resident Porsches. This is not to say that none showed up, however.

You can get to Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec (Magdalen Islands, in English, as I will refer to them), by way of ferryboat, or by air, or with your yacht, although it's not really a popular yacht-stop. We went by air; the landing strip is big enough to handle a twin-engine turboprop and we arrived on one of those. The Magdalen Islands are located in, roughly, the middle of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, the world's largest estuary, a semi-enclosed sea covering an area of about 236,000 square kilometres (91,000 sq. mi.). This makes the gulf substantially greater in size than England, Scotland, and Wales combined, so as a body of water it's to be taken seriously.

Part of that seriousness is reflected in the fact that the Magdalens furnish the second most abundant collection of shipwrecks on the eastern rim of North America. Although there are around 400 documented wrecks around the Magdalen archipelago, estimates suggest that there are perhaps 1,000 if the undocumented ones are included.

A fair percentage of the 'homegrown' population's ancestors were shipwreck survivors who, upon finding themselves here, decided that they had had enough of travel by ship, so they stayed. They became fishermen. In greater antiquity, certain aboriginal hunters would show up seasonally to kill walrus, and these efforts contributed to the extinction of those animals on the Magdalens by 1799, but aided by white men's guns. Ribs of wrecked ancient wooden ships appear and disappear with the shifting sands and tides. One day there, the next, vanished again.

The Magdalen Islands
The map at left may give you an impression that the islands consist of very little substance, strung together with skinny strips of sand. This is correct. But the main road, if driven from one end of the place to the other is 100 kms long. Cars, and sport bikes especially, really open it up insanely on that long straightaway. The archipelago has 385 kms of shoreline, and 60% of that is sandy beaches. Going off the road almost anywhere guarantees a face-plant in the sand if you are riding a bike.

Three hundred million years ago, when Pangaea was the only place to go shopping for anything, a sequence of events caused what was to become the Gulf of St. Lawrence to collect an enormous precipitation of salt. The bottom of the gulf is now lined with a 5 km thick layer of salt, the entire gulf. The Magdalens are on top of bulges in that salt, and when some clever person poked a hole down there the Magdalen salt mine was born. It's not table salt (there's some clay in it), so this mine supplies all the winter road salt for Quebec, other maritime provinces of Canada, and parts of New England in the States.

So, your rusty Porsche, if you live up here somewhere, can be linked directly to the Magdalen Islands. They ship out millions of tons of salt, consistently, and of course it does its job in a variety of ways.

The economy of the Magdalens consists of fishing, salt mining, and tourists. There is no significant enterprise in fourth place. 

Then a couple of Porsches showed up. The first was a grey Boxster, standard issue, some years old, and parked at a tourist trap; I'm sure it came over on the ferry boat from elsewhere in Quebec. Nothing special, except to its owners, but it was our first sighting of such an unexpected vehicle on these fishing islands. The winter is brutal here and you otherwise see small SUVs running around, along with random sedans and such (there are new car dealers for 5 or 6 marques), but no sports cars regardless of manufacturer. So, the Magdalen Porsche was an ephemeral thing, something nobody recognized or cared much for; another tourist, hopefully spending money. What agony.

To survive, the enterprising residents of the Magdalens treat tourists to a broad variety of services and local products, as well as entertainment. Above all else, I preferred the fish smoking barns with their extravagantly complex 'rafters' upon which thousands of salted fish are hung for a fume-induced metamorphosis into pungent and preserved, and mainly brown, chewy morsels that taste now more like smoke than fish, but they retain enough fishiness to remind you of what they are. On the earthen floors of the barns, hardwood fires are set, quite simply, and sawdust and/or wood shavings are poured over the fires to cause them to turn smouldering and smoky, and the barns become filled with tangy toxins. There are 'cold' and also 'hot' smoking methods and consequently a variety of resulting products - more than you would think.

Note the blue circle.
One of the Magdalen islands is named île du Corps Mort.  "Corps Mort" means 'dead body'. You would think this an odd name for a beer, but I have consumed it, and I have a bottle of the stuff in my fridge. I'm not sure who's body is being referred to, but the beer is flavoured with smoked herring and other similarly 'wild' ingredients, so says its maker. This is not a weak-kneed beer; its flavour is robust (to say the least) and it is 11% alcohol. Expensive, too, and the brewery produces a broad palette of products.

In a rather isolated location there is a popular nightspot that is packed with mainly local revellers on the weekends. We joined them to listen to the fiddle music - and a great deal more, they were really jamming - and at this place you could get a 'sampler' of a half-dozen flavours produced by the brewery responsible for "Corps Mort". I ordered one.

I don't recall if it was the second to the last, or that last sample that struck me as noteworthy, but it wasn't Corps Mort. I said to my significant other that it smelled like cat pee. She appeared to be personally offended, as if she had some close connection to the brewery, but I was being as accurate as I could. Then I tasted it. It tasted like cat pee, as far as I could guess. As it happens it is not available anywhere off the islands, so you are safe.

When it was time to fly home from this magical place, we didn't. The airplane was broken, and the rules required that a certain type of technician was needed to examine the problem, but there wasn't such a technician to be had. After waiting for many hours we were informed that the airline would have to fly in a technician from Halifax, Nova Scotia, another province of Canada! We were offered hotel rooms, because it would be during the night that the tech would arrive to patch the plane, and we were told to be ready for pick-up at the hotel at 4:45 the following morning. Groan. . . I was not aware that there was an actual hotel on the islands, but there you have it.

It was twilight and the view from the hotel was spare, but agreeable. I'm a 'visual person', so I look at everything, but it was a sound that caught my attention. A snarling, throaty, resonant rumbling came rolling down a small valley to the north. An honest-to-god Porsche Carrera Turbo, in yellow! It was winding its way up a little road through an area of neat, modest, brightly coloured houses - which describes almost all of the houses here - with the driver dutifully rowing through the gears, carrying on into the sunset.  

From the Web, sorry, but it looked exactly like this. Image slightly adjusted.

I would be very surprised if the owner of that car lives on the Magdalen Islands. The car surely must have arrived by ferry, because, from what I was told nobody makes enough money on the islands to buy such a thing (nor would it make any sense to own one on the islands), but it could belong to the owner of an upscale 'getaway' vacation house, since those are starting to pop up on the islands, making real estate prices climb. Not a wonderful investment in my view. With global warming the weather is changing, the sandstone cliffs and other parts of the islands are eroding at the rate of one meter per year in certain areas. In mere moments, geologically speaking, the whole place will have vanished. 

The Magdalen Islands are not a place where you can enjoy driving your Porsche in a spirited way, lest you wind up in salt water, but if you enjoy walking for endless kilometre after kilometre on broad sand beaches with no other people on them, pack your bags.