Journey to Quebec’s Saint Lawrence River
While driving to Tadoussac earlier in the week we could make out the hazy outlines of islands rising from the river, distant archipelagos of rock and serrated conifers. Our southward route to the next destination, Ile aux Lièvres, requires two public ferries, a final private boat launch, and half a day of travel. We vaulted the Saguenay River at the mouth of the Saguenay Fjord, lined with rock faces 500 feet tall, then crossed the St. Lawrence from Saint-Simeone to Rivière-du-Loup on a double-decker ferry, belugas glinting white in every direction.
A ribbon of rock and boreal woodlands, Ile aux Lièvres is eight miles long and rarely wider than a half-mile. It’s one of eight islands owned and managed for bird conservation and ecotourism by Société Duvetnor Ltée, a nonprofit organization founded in 1979 to protect the river’s seabird colonies and wildlife habitats. These managed isles are among more than 50 small islands in the lower St. Lawrence estuary that host very large colonies of nesting common eiders, razorbills, black guillemots, common murres, kittiwakes, herons, and gulls.
In these parts biologist and Société Duvetnor founder Jean Bédard is held in near awe. Seventy-three years old, lean and wiry with a sea-foam beard, the retired wildlife biology professor seems as much a part of this marine environment as driftwood and wet shale. Standing high atop a rocky promontory, he pulls the olive fragments of an eggshell from a nook lined with moss and pungent conifer needles. At this very spot, shaded by white birch and balsam fir, a common eider duck chose a nest site with an impressive view. Five feet away the cliff falls sharply to a deep cove rimmed in kelp, blue mussels, and smooth stones, which opens to a broad channel.
“Look at this,” Bédard says, flicking the shells with the tip of his finger. “You can see the dark membrane of the inner lining? That tells us that this was a successful hatching.”
Ile aux Lièvres has 25 miles of winding foot trails that take in wild, windy, rocky shores and wet, sequestered groves of sharp-scented spruce woods. Visitors can overnight at 19 wilderness hike-in campsites, four small cottages, or the Auberge du Lièvre, a tidy six-room inn. Shore hiking is limited during the birds’ breeding season, but when we visited, the large colonies had dispersed throughout the St. Lawrence and all the trails were open.
These islands are uninhabited and nearly free of four-footed predators such as foxes and raccoons, perfect conditions for breeding seabirds, gulls, and waterfowl. There can be as many as 1,000 common eider nests per acre on some islands. At one and a half feet long, common eiders are the Northern Hemisphere’s largest duck. Birds in the St. Lawrence region are the subspecies Somateria mollissima dresseri; they breed in colonies that can number up to 10,000 nests. Adult breeding drakes are stunning animals, with formal white-and-black bodies crowned with a black cap and a greenish nape. The females may be less flamboyant, but they display fascinating maternal skills. They don’t breed until they are two to four years old, but after that they mate for two decades or longer. Dominant hens take charge of the chicks from multiple other females. These crèches can number more than 100 ducklings under the care of just two or three hens. Female eiders also produce the most highly sought luxury commodity of any waterfowl species: eiderdown. Collected in parts of the bird’s range for more than 1,000 years, eiderdown has much higher cohesion and elasticity than duck and goose down. Bedding filled with eiderdown—a fashionable and traditional wedding gift in many parts of Europe—routinely fetches prices topping $12,000.
Eiderdown can be gathered only during the breeding season, when the females line their nests with down plucked from their well-insulated breasts. During the 1970s and ’80s, eiderdown collectors were decimating colonies in the St. Lawrence. As a young associate professor at Laval University in Quebec, Bédard stumbled across scenes of mayhem. “The down pickers would set up stoves and tents and camp for a week right in the colony, making several runs through the nests every day,” he recalls. Such massive disruption allowed predatory gulls to sweep in and pick off unprotected eggs and young. The results, Bédard says, were “terrible, shocking.” Over the course of several years, Société Duvetnor obtained exclusive rights to collect the eiderdown around Ile aux Lièvres, Le Pot du Phare, and other nearby islands, and Bédard helped devise a sustainable practice whereby volunteers move quickly through colonies, minimizing disturbance while collecting down and data on the ducks’ health.
These days the organization collects and processes 100 to 150 pounds of eiderdown from the Saint Lawrence River Estuary each year. In today’s market, the material might fetch between $300 and $500 per pound, “but we have caretakers, boats, staff. That’s not a lot of money when a single outboard motor can cost $23,000,” Bédard laments. In 1989 Société Duvetnor began its ecotourism outreach to help pay for the cost of managing its preserves.
We bunk in a cedar-shaked structure clad in board-and-batten siding, all weathered woods the color of a mossy fallen log. These are simple accommodations—our unit has a pair of firm beds and a private shower off a small communal parlor outfitted with French-language National Geographic magazines and the 1,302-page Breeding Bird Atlas of Québec. Meals are included, and guests are reminded of Quebec’s French connections—one night’s menu alone includes seared scallops, flounder stew, and cheesecake.