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“Au gré du vent” on les Îles de la Madeleine

Three island loop rides, 130km (Tour total 976km)

There’s a certain feeling that comes with being wrapped cozily in your sleeping bag, opening your eyes after a deep sleep, and seeing a slice of blue sky directly overhead.

After a few seconds of pure camping bliss, you realize that your tent fly is missing.

Or, on this blustery morning on the ocean-cliff edge of Gros Cap, that the fairly essential layer between your tent mesh and the elements is shredded straight through.

It had been a near-sleepless night hoping our nylon homes would survive the gale-force storm thrashing them nearly flat. Successive gusts pummeled the resilient but now so seemingly fragile structure, keeping us wide-eyed for hours. The tent in the site next to us had been leaning so far over that we could see the outline of their cooler inside.

Just as we finally drifted off, it felt, Heron awoke to the tragic scene above him.

“Mom, the fly is ripped.”

“I just woke up.”

“It looks pretty bad.”

“Should I take it off?”

Of course, our teenager sent four calm texts to the tent next door before remembering Mom puts her phone on silent at night, and wears custom-fit ear plugs in any event.

Emergencies are Dad’s job.

“Guys, the fly is destroyed! I need help!” came the whispered shout from our oldest son forced out into the gale in his shorts.

Now that’s a better way to get one’s parents to leap into action.

With the speed and precision of the US Marine Corps, our camp-happy foursome of Yukoners dismantled the ill-advised set-up we’d concocted in late dusk the previous evening, and sought shelter on the smarter, lee side of the spruce thicket to assess the damage.

“Yep, that’s a long rip,” reported Sitka. All the way down, parallel to the zipper seam.

Six years of Yukon wilderness and six months across Europe made us feel invincible in our trusty MSR Papa Hubba. But even this awesomest of tents couldn’t hold against the ferocious gales of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, on a gorgeous 100km-long archipelago with 12,000 seafaring Québécois a hundred miles off the mainland.

Les Îles de la Madeleine represented the third province in our Atlantic Canada summer bike tour, after much calmer rides along the Northumberland Strait straddling northern New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Les Îles were first settled by a few dozen expulsed Acadiens in the mid-18th century, allocated to Québec in 1774, then populated largely by survivors of shipwrecks along its beautifully treacherous coastline. They’re a weather-hardened, deeply kind people accustomed to taking tragedy in stride.

And so it should’ve been no surprise that Sylvie, the cheery host at the Parc du Gros Cap’s cuddly little auberge next to the windswept campground, took us in, booked us into the last available room for the night, made Joce coffee and started calling all her friends for a solution to our tentlessness.

One possibly had a long glue-able patch to keep our “double toit” going long-term. Another surely had a three-person tent to lend for our last three nights on the islands. Others had spare rooms or knew of shops nearby to buy new camp gear.

Once it was concluded that the damage was irreparable, our accumulated experience in mid-trip problem-solving came through. Ed made a series of phone inquiries that led nowhere except unravelling his diligently planned outdoor camping week, while Joce finagled the last available cozy seaside cabin on the neighbouring Île du Havre-aux-maisons, tracked down a new three-person Hubba from an outdoor store in Nova Scotia, and coordinated its timely delivery to a Canada Post office along our route three days hence.

Parental teamwork at its finest.

Meanwhile, Heron and Sitka set about researching alternative itineraries for our first day on les Îles, given that the wind had also cancelled our long-reserved kayak tour around the iconic cave-laden coastal cliffs. Now expert day-planners after six months plotting out fun-stuffed routes in Europe, they guided us on a pro-level 35km loop tour around l’Ile du Cap-aux-meules: to the Phare du cap lighthouse, perched perfectly for views of the quirkily sculpted, deep-red sandstone west coast all the way up to Belle-Anse; then along a surprise encounter with one of Québec’s famous Route verte cycling tours with the sea to our left all the way up to Plage du nord for crème glacée and a boulder-jumping, rock-skipping session; then back into town for gluten-free macarons. gluten-filled fresh apple pie and homemade Greek salad at la Boulangerie Madelon.

It wasn’t what we’d planned, but it was a perfect bike day together.

Midday we had stumbled upon a surf shop on a random country road, so we stopped in to see if there were any non-kayak adventures on offer.

Ce fou de vent serait l’idéal pour du kitesurfing,” enthused the bronzed dude behind the counter.

Heron’s eyes exploded - we’d tried seeking lessons all over Europe last year but never caught the right conditions at the right place on the right date we were passing through.

“What about the little guy?” we ventured. “Is he heavy enough to try?” Sitka was told often in Europe that he’d likely just fly away with the kite.

Bien sûr!” They’d find him a smaller kite, is all.

Sitka practically ripped Ed’s arm off with excitement.

“In the three-hour class, would they make onto the water?” In Europe they’d required more than one lesson to get past the theory and the beach.

Absolument.” This guy was winning points left and right.

And so we booked kitesurfing for two (as you may know, Ed can break a toe just looking at a surfboard, which is a convenient way for him to avoid displaying his profound ineptitude at balance-on-water sports) for the next day at 11:30am.

If the wind was going to tear our summer home apart, it might as well gift the boys a more exciting extreme experience.

The French phrase “au gré du vent” means “by the will of the wind.” It’s used literally for things getting blown about in the breeze, and also for people getting blown around by life. In our case, it was both, as we pedaled headfirst into a brisk gale down to the long sandspit to the shores of l’Étang de la Martinique for the boys’ dream kitesurf day, only to have the wind suddenly slow to a near-still whisp when we arrived.

“We can do the first part of the lesson learning about the equipment and how to hold the kite,” cautioned Yuri, our eager young teacher. “But I’m not sure it’s strong enough to keep us afloat.”

A half-hour later, the gales that shredded our tent fly had fallen fully asleep. No matter how hard Yuri tugged and turned and ran back and forth in the shallow waters, the giant inflated kite refused to stay airborne.

Le vent des Îles was messing with us again.

We would salvage that day, too, with a tour of the southern-most Île du Havre-Aubert, dining in historic La Grave on gourmet fish tacos and pizza with fresh Tomme des Demoiselles cheese made only on these islands, then discovering a remote sandy beach stretching for miles to wander with waves lapping our feet and chat about our fall family plans back home. 

Of course now that the wind has calmed, all the replacement kayak tour slots were full, so we packed our final day on l’Ile du Havre-aux-maisons with a fromagerie stop to meet that troop of cows responsible for specialized Madelinot cheeses, a short hike to the colony of double-crested cormorants at the lighthouse at La Cap Alright, a wave-frolicking session at la Plage du Dune-du-Sud, and a spontaneous drop-in at la Méduse glass shop, where a local artist couple create marvellous trademark pieces with colourful sculpted jellyfish inside - making for stunning effects when lit from below with a disc lamp. 

The money we’d saved on cancelled kitesurfing and kayaking will thus serve to illuminate our living room in perpetuity.

As we pedaled home to our cozy cabin on the lagoon between Cap-aux-Meules and Havre-des-maisons, the cloud and fog that had enveloped our whole visit so far suddenly lifted, revealing a quite picturesque set of islands we hadn’t truly seen yet, dotted almost cliche-like with lively-coloured country houses. We wanted even more to stay another week - maybe then the wind would cooperate. 

In the end, our resilience was rewarded with a sweet sunset over the lagoon, and we remembered that for all our careful scheming, on a bike tour, we are always “au gré du vent.”



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