Being on the island feels like being in a dream, a good dream, I must add. Most of the time for the two days we were there we walked in silence, taking in its beauty, its simplicity, and the quiet. Up from the ferry dock to the village on the other side of the island, a narrow country road leads through wide open fields, with a row of telegraph poles (none of them quite vertical) on the left and a fantastic view of the Laurentide Mountains ahead, standing in line beyond northern river channel. Wild flowers on the verges, including clumps of ragwort, pretty but poisonous, and invasive. All we could hear were the crickets in the grass. Once over the brow of the hill where the long, low barn stands, its lonely aspect reminding my husband so much of the setting of a novel by J L Carr that he nicknamed that barn Pollock's Crossing, the roofs of the village and church spire become visible.
The catholic church has been there since the mid 19th century and still seems to be the focal point, people gathering there for social occasions and special traditions at certain times of the year, such as for the Sale of Souls raffle in January or an opportunity to disguise oneself in fancy dress at the Mi-Carême festival in March. There aren't many shops on the island. The museum sells a few cards and souvenirs and the Riopelle Cheese Factory shop sells its delicious cheeses. There's one dépanneur along the main street which stocks the basic necessities; I gather this is going to be situated elsewhere in the near future. The Café-aux-Quatre-Vents likewise sells a few touristy things, as do the two auberges. And that's it!
In order to keep the village cheerful in winter and on grey days, some houses have been painted in bright colours. In their gardens stand artistically crafted models of cranes or herons, under the white birches or among the garden flowers. For our visit there was colour enough in any case, a field of sunflowers in full bloom next to the church, all their heads facing the road, green marsh grass and the blue water beyond. Other crops grown on the island are barley and two kinds of beans. We noticed structures for drying hay. Apple trees, at this time of year, are bearing healthy looking red fruit. Fishing and hunting are other productive pastimes here. In the depths of winter the community gets a canot team together to compete in the ice-canoe races across the frozen river. Before the airport, this was the only means of reaching the mainland in winter.
In the churchyard are the graves of the local population although one man obviously didn't want to be buried with the riff-raff because one solitary gravestone stood in the middle of the beanfields futher up the hill, away from the village. I didn't go close enough to inspect it in detail.
English doesn't come easy to the francophone people who live here. The most famous inhabitant of the island was Jean-Paul Riopelle, the rebellious abstract painter. The museum, housed in an old barn, features videos of him as an unkempt old eccentric, working obsessively on his paintings, squeezing paint straight from the tubes onto the canvas. The myriad white blobs in his later paintings are probably a reference to the snow-geese that migrate via the island in their tens of thousands twice a year. He was born nearby and died on the island.
On Thursday we lingered over breakfast at the Grand Hérons, watching the tide start to dribble in over the mud where the sandpipers were foraging under a grey, wet sky. Chris went to sit at the business end of the dock watching the activity around the ferry that sat low in the water waiting for the incoming tide to lift it high enough for vehicles and passengers to get on board, while I remained at the breakfast table reading a book. Eventually the rain eased off and we set off for a walk along the rivage, following the track past the cottages, through the trees, till it fizzled out and left us on the shore, with deer footprints all over the sand. From where we stood, it didn't look so far to the tip of the island at the western end, but that headland is elusive, and it turned out to be further away than we thought. We wandered for about 2 and a half hours that morning, the best part of our hike being the marked trails around the Pointe aux Pins which we had explored before, on our previous visit. Here we met one other couple, the only other people we encountered. We remembered the views from the look-out points. A bonus sight this time was of a large-headed bird, probably the short-eared owl that's supposed to frequent this spot, sitting on a rock at the end of the island, so motionless, that at first I thought it was just an upright stone or piece of driftwood. Then it took off, on wide wings. We saw another such bird fly out of the forest as we walked further along.
There's an even wilder area of untouched woodland at the eastern tip of the island, where we have not been; this is a hunting reserve. Closer to the inhabited part, east of our lodging beyond the tipis, you can follow more trails through the forest and the fields and then turn left up the hill to cross the island towards the airport and village, again. At the edge of the woods in this direction was a clearing where we noticed a surprisingly large number of small wooden structures ... "They look like dog kennels," I said to Chris, breaking our companionable silence, at which point all hell broke loose, the pack of huskies (probably used as sled dogs in the winter), having heard a voice they didn't recognise, leaping out of their kennels, barking, howling and frantically pulling on their chains. We were mighty glad they'd been chained up, I must say. It was quite an alarming encounter and we didn't linger.
Hoping to see stars after dark on the first night we'd gone up the road to sit by the lonely barn, but too many clouds surrounded the clear patches of sky. I did spot one shooting star. On the second evening it clouded over again, but while we ate our supper at a window table, seeing the hills of Maine beyond the water, the setting sun behind us tinged the clouds above them pink, and then a distant rain-shower lit up with all the colours of the rainbow. Everyone in the dining room was awe-struck by it.