I struggle to explain how deliriously happy I was on our trip to Quebec.
It has been our custom, for the last nine years, to spend time at my sister's cottage in Quebec - four hours north-east of Quebec City on the Gaspe Peninsula. I fell in love with the Gaspe the first time we went and spent a good deal of the following winter pining for the beach there, and wishing I could see it draped in snow and ice. The next time we went, it poured and fogged and drove us half-insane. I did not love it so much. But we returned each year, varying our trip there, discovering traditions (visiting one of my best friends and my brother en route, eating decadent fine-chocolate-dipped ice cream, buying packages of plump dried cranberries, eating poutine and St. Hubert and sugar pie and cream buns. Okay, apparently it's all about the food.) I also, early on, began to write a novel set there - after a board member of the local English school there asked my husband to move there to teach. Who would say yes, I wondered. Now I know and am embarking on my third novel about that person and that place.
This last year, I really buckled down to finish up both of my first two novels set on the Gaspe. I hired a fine editor to work with me and I spent diligent, delightful hours being ruthless with my prose, shaping it until it shone to the best of my abilities.
In some ways, I lived in this lovely French-Canadian village all year.
But, it was not just that that made me feel so happy. I know this because I can pinpoint the exact moment my bliss began: there was a bad, lane-blocking crash on the 401 near Bowmanville, which meant we took back roads through suburban Pickering and Oshawa. It was just as we got off the 401 on the far side of Toronto for this long annoyance of a detour that my happiness set in. I was with the people I loved, I was heading in the direction I orient to, and there was nothing we needed to be doing but enjoying the ride. So we did.
We took a very different route this year than we have in the past. Usually, after Quebec City, we continue on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, which generally consists of rolling narrow parcels of farmland, punctuated by the occasional town, zinc-topped steeple, or hummock of a small mountain. This year, we took the north shore, and then took a ferry across the St. Lawrence.
The North Shore is wilder, with steep drops and curves, as you drive on and around mountains. Some of the north shore was shaped by a massive meteorite. We started at Ste. Anne de Beaupre church, marvelling at the artistry of this almost-European cathedral and at the crutches no longer needed, hanging on pillars inside the church. We decided to take our time en route too, stopping to sample food in the famed Charlevoix region. We stopped in the town of Baie-St-Paul, which was as touristy as our St. Jacobs on a Saturday. We gave it a shot, but quickly moved on. We discovered a wonderful village just past B-S-P. It was right on the water, but to get to it involved taking an 18% grade road. In all our travels, I'm not sure we've encountered such a precipitous drop. Our new car struggled mightily to get up the hill on our way out of town. But first, we visited a wonderful bakery where we ate lunch - a delicious regional meat pie - and visited an atelier where they made their own paper and paper art, and another where santons or little clay figures of Nativity scenes and Quebecois scenes were crafted.
Eventually we reached the Saguenay fjord, where the water that met the St. Lawrence is 200 metres deep and home to a resident pod of beluga whales. The fjord is about half a kilometre wide and because, presumably, the water is too deep to put a bridge in (or possibly too beautiful), they run car ferries year-round, 24 hours a day, every 10 minutes. ("I hope they change captains though," my daughter said. "That's a long day.") Some of us saw a minke whale from the deck of the ferry.
We stayed two days in the Tadoussac region and loved it thoroughly. We weren't sure how long we would like to stay, so with uncharacteristic spontaneity, we decided to not book our ferry until we were sure when we wanted to leave. We liked the place so much that we decided to stick with our original shorter length of time - and to come back next year. But when we found an Internet cafe (in a great funky restaurant where no one even looked up when we went in), the ferry we had planned to take was booked for the next three days straight. We had to recross the fjord in dense soupe des pois fog and take a ferry in tamer waters, forty minutes back.
From the bigger ferry, we saw belugas and dolphins and imagined what shipboard life would have been like for Canada's early emigrants. The water spread out around the ship as far as the eye could see, as silver as the zinc church spires, like a brilliant field.
And then, an hour on the south shore to the cottage.