From Sept-Îles to Baie-Comeau: Outardes Powerhouse & Drakkar

Sept-Îles, Les Islets-Caribou, Pointe-des-Monts & Baie-Comeau, Quebec (Map)

Fall 2014


Continued from here...

It felt like I had already went on my big adventure as I sat there damp and tired in the Wabush Airport, but in reality the adventure was only just getting started.

The next airplane would balloon in capacity to 37 seats with a surprising number of people coming aboard to fly from Wabush to Sept-Îles.

The hour-long flight over the dark green wilderness between Wabush and the directly-south Quebec coast was uneventful. Sitting on the tarmac at Sept-Îles, a funny thing would happen as I waited for the other passengers to stand up and get off the plane. By now, I had learned that the plane would continue on to Montreal, but surely someone else would be getting off here in Sept-Îles.

Sitting in the last row, it wasn't until the stewardess started to walk towards me with the passenger list that I realized I was the only person getting off in Sept-Îles. D'oh jeez!

Fumbling to quickly grab my camera and orange reusable supermarket bag of belongings, I then scurried into the quiet airport. (You can see my plane in the above picture. A few more people were getting on in Sept-Îles.)

The airport here is much like many of the airports in Newfoundland, where there isn't much distance to cover before you would be in a secluded forest. Initially I thought of camping this night to save a few bucks, but with Sept-Îles having a hostel because I was in lovely Quebec, how could I sleep outside in the cold of late September to save $40?

I picked up my rental car and went off to the hostel in downtown Sept-Îles, where I celebrated that they had a vacant private room. Showering and cleaning myself up, I then left the hostel to cut through a schoolyard towards a cool pub in an old house that I had looked up beforehand. Unfortunately for me, Pub St-Marc seemed to be the happening place. I enjoyed my meal and pint, but it was isolating to sit there and have trouble communicating my meal with the waitress; while loud, large groups of Quebecois revelled in this Saturday night.

I can't say I was all that blue because I decided to have a second pint, but I would soon return to my hostel room to read about my destination of this trip & prepare for an upcoming fantasy draft.

My ferry ride out of Sept-Îles didn't leave until Tuesday, but why would I spend the weekend in Newfoundland when I could fly out to Quebec early to explore even more of this new-to-me land?

This is especially obvious when you consider that the nearby city of Baie-Comeau has a QMJHL team which I haven't seen at home. Since I would book my Aeroplan ticket to Sept-Îles before the QMJHL schedule had come out, this left me studying the Baie-Comeau Drakkar schedule for patterns: "The Drakkar seem to play Sunday afternoon home games. Okay, well I'll arrive in Sept-Iles on a Saturday..."

Sure enough, the schedule came out & there it was - Drummondville @ Baie-Comeau, Dimanche (Sunday). Perfect. Nailed it.

Leaving Sept-Îles on Sunday morning, I was now onto a drive where there weren't many large towns in the 3 hours to Baie-Comeau. So as I was approaching Port-Cartier (one of the two medium-sized towns along the way) I was excited to see what the town was about, but I was forced to stop and take in their impressive waterfall instead.

The towns were sparse after Port-Cartier & with a rainy day through forest, the drive was boring at times. Driving through another small village in Les Islets-Caribou, I decided to stop and check on their weathered church.

While it could use a fresh paint job, the door was locked & it wasn't abandoned.

Needing more than 2 minutes to wake back up, I noticed the nice scenery behind Les Islets-Caribou's church & continued walking.

I should say here that Quebec could be my favourite province & I was exploring obscure towns in the far reaches of said province. Don't get me wrong about being bored here, it's just that the weather was windy & wet; sub-optimal for exploring & I had to get to Baie-Comeau for the 4pm puck drop.

In an area that reminded me of beautiful Burgeo Newfoundland, I felt I was doing a drizzly disservice to what was probably some very nice land on the northern shore of the St. Lawrence River.

You might think along a 3-hour drive of the economically vital & historic St. Lawrence Seaway that there would be a few lighthouses to stop at, but UNC Lighthouses will remind you that "Quebec once had at least 275 lighthouses, but only about 80 remain today."

Only three lighthouses remain along the drive between Sept-Îles to Baie-Comeau & two of them are out on islands. While I may have stopped to see them distantly from shore even though that's against my lighthouse beliefs, with this dreary day, that wasn't even a possibility.

So I was left with one lighthouse stop: Pointe-des-Monts.

With lighthouse tours inside the structure through its 7 museum levels, along with a bed & breakfast, restaurant and open support buildings, Pointe-des-Monts is the type of lighthouse attraction that even normal people (non-lighthouse enthusiasts) would stop & take in. It's certainly much more than just a utilitarian structure standing alone out on an isolated cape.

Alas, Pointe-des-Monts closes down in mid-September and here I was visiting in mid-to-late September. I had thought about coming out here and camping in their closed campground last night, but I didn't really want to land in Sept-Îles at dusk and drive through the darkness to camp at some strange lighthouse by myself.

I crossed the 150-foot bridge that connects the parking lot to the lighthouse's island and removes the need for rowboats nowadays. Walking around, I peeked into the Pigeon House (one of the assistant keepers was allowed to keep pigeons) and into the Powder House (where they kept gunpowder for the cannons that were replaced by fog horns). I watched the seabirds and kept an eye out for whales, while coming upon the anchor for the Cimba, a 1032-ton Norwegian fishing boat that sank a mile away in 1915.

As for history, the Pointe-des-Monts Lighthouse was constructed in 1830. To give an idea of how long ago that actually was, there were two priests stationed here in 1847 - Father Flavin Durocher & Father Andre Gorin - who were put here to try to educate the Montagnais natives who used the area around the lighthouse for winter hunting grounds.

Fast-forward to 1964 and the Department of Transport had concrete plans to demolish this beautiful sentinel. It's here that I have to thank Jacques & Marie-Berthe Landry, the last keepers, who fought to save Pointe-des-Monts from the imminent demolition faced at that time.

A group of brown birds had been flying around the lighthouse and picking in the grasses throughout my visit. Initially dismissing them as House Sparrows, I would soon realize they were an exaltation of Horned Larks! Look at em all with their yellow & black face masks!!

(My camera was having trouble with the dreary light, busy brown birds & green grass. I'm sorry for the blurry, poor photo.)

Godbout was the other large town along the way, but time restraints meant I had to skip it and get to Baie-Comeau to see the hockey team's downtown.

The QC-138 started to rise and fall here to a greater extent, impressively conquering through a land now filled with rocky hills. It was one of these hills that I left behind as I passed Baie-Comeau's immense aluminum plant - the largest aluminum smelter in North America - a daunting palace of industry still providing jobs up here in la Cote-Nord.

Still on the outskirts of Baie-Comeau I passed the turnoff for Route 389, a road of legend here in Newfoundland & Labrador (maybe more so in Labrador). It's from here in Baie-Comeau that if I were to turn right, I could arrive in Goose Bay Labrador in 16 hours! The Quebec section only goes 570 km (354 mi) to Fermont/Wabush; with maybe 4 or 5 sights (gas stations and foundations n'such) to see along the entire stretch. And from km 482 the road is unpaved and curvaceous, with logging trucks making sure you keep to your side of the road. Quebec has committed $438-million to improving this last section by 2019, so I suppose this road will soon be less harrowing.

It was neat to get out of the car and look at the start of this road, one that I've thought and read about driving for a long time.

The Arcade Building, above/near center, is the oldest commercial building in Baie-Comeau, 1937.

I drove right downtown and casually parked for my walkabout. While Baie-Comeau was lined on the outskirts with all of those same Wal-Marts and Pharmaprixs (Shoppers) as everywhere else, the downtown was still lively, with a number of people out on this dreary day supporting small businesses.

The downtown district of Place La Salle was small, but the streetscape didn't have any obvious abandoned or missing buildings. There was a yoga offering in a cool building, but thankfully I thought about how I'd be lost in French yoga before I went inside and started stretching. (I talk to so few people on my travels that sometimes I forget I'm in Quebec and need to talk en Francais.)

In the above picture you can see (left to right) Baie-Comeau's City Hall,
their post office & the Abitibi-Bowater Paper Mill.

It's the newsprint mill that caused Baie-Comeau to exist. The publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Colonel McCormick, came here to build a mill and utilize the extensive timber resources around a planned town atop this granite cut beside the St. Lawrence.

Even as the mill was still under construction in 1936, you had paths and roads planned into the woods to start the process of transporting lumber. Meanwhile Place La Salle - right next to the paper mill - was being filled with all of the community buildings that the Baie-Comeau'ans would need.

The land down by the water seemed pretty empty so I rounded Avenue Marquette instead, heading towards the courthouse for what seemed like a promising viewpoint. I wouldn't even make it across the parking lot though, when I then heard a correctional officer saying something to me in French. Turning and looking confused, he seemed distraught by suddenly having to remember how to tell me in English that I couldn't be taking pictures or exploring any further.

I continued up the road with hopes of checking out the interior of nearby Sainte-Amélie, but another locked church door relinquished me to being happy with the outside.

Constructed in 1940, Eglise Sainte-Amélie got its name because of Colonel McCormick's wife Amy Irwin Adams, who had just died in 1939. The church would receive its bells in 1946, following World War II. This is because the bells at Eglise Sainte-Amélie are recovered bells from a church in France, where the French buried the bells in fear of the Germans coming and melting them down for armaments.

I walked through the church's adjacent grotto, up a staircase, then through a path, and ended up at this hilltop cross.

It was now starting to rain and I was thankful that instead of the wet path back, there was a paved road that led up to this cross from the other side. I walked down this road & popped out back downtown.

I finally went and worked out the English-to-French miming to get my motel key and accommodations for the night. There's a fancy, historic hotel here in Baie-Comeau, but with where I like walking to QMJHL games, I instead went for a motel near the arena; one that was so cheap that I was worried if it would be sketchy.

Leaving Motel du Rosier, the sun was starting to come out for what was becoming a pleasant 1.1 km (0.7 mi) walk along Avenue d'Iberville towards Centre Henry-Leonard. I mostly passed mid-century bungalows, the more interesting houses seemingly situated down by Place La Salle instead. These houses were still nice and Baie-Comeau was much like the rest of Quebec, where the homeowners aren't in such a damn rush to make all of their houses identical and uninteresting. Funky porches, sunrooms and colours can still be found.

Centre Henry-Leonard was built in 1970, making it the 7th oldest rink in the QMJHL. With older stadiums being replaced more & more often nowadays, 1970 is starting to get into the league of what I appreciate and what I'll savour.

For all of the years that Centre Henry-Leonard has stood here, Baie-Comeau has never extended its housing to the area beside or behind the arena - so once you leave the neighbourhood behind, it's just the arena sitting out here with forest and sand pits in the back. You can see the arena from far away & it's a walk along an expansive parking lot to get to the door.

Normally I enjoy corner seats, but as of late I've been leaning towards whatever unique seats these old Quebec arenas have to offer.

What you see above is the end seats which don't connect to the side seating bank. It's in this elevated end section that I bought my ticket, a short staircase up from the cut-out walkway around the ends.

One of the things I love most about seeing QMJHL games is that you get to watch NHL-drafted talent from very good seats. Whether it be Sean Couturier in Drummondville, Martin Frk playing in Victoriaville or Dmitrij Jaskin in Moncton, I always look at the rosters beforehand and grow excited with whom I may see.

It's especially great when it's going to be a foreigner that I really like. Therefore I was pretty damn excited with the prospect of seeing Valentin Zykov, the Los Angeles Kings' 37th overall pick in 2013.

What I didn't factor in was that it being early September, NHL training camps were still ongoing. Zykov was in Los Angeles trying to make the Kings' roster! No Zykov for me!

As tradition dictates, I of course had to have a poutine in Baie-Comeau. The poutine here easily held its own with other Quebec poutines and I'd have to say it might've been one of the best. The last one I had was in Quebec City & I gave Quebec City #2 in the rankings, but Baie-Comeau's was so good that I (gluttonously) had two of them!

So how could I rank it below Quebec City then? Although I still don't think it beat Drummondville...

So now we have Drummondville (#1), Baie-Comeau (2), Quebec City (3), Victoriaville (4), Chicoutimi (5), Gatineau (6), Bathurst (7), Blainville-Boisbriand (8), Sydney (9), Moncton (10), Charlottetown (11), Saint John (N/A).

Getting away from poutine traditions, I began another tradition of buying Q pucks on my last trip, so therefore needed a Drakkar puck. Of course I couldn't remember the word for puck in French, so as I went up to their meagre glass display of gear in place of a team store, I asked for "un but, but!" while pointing at a puck. The unimpressed French teenager gave me a solid glare, before telling me that she speaks English and that it was $5. Looking at the puck, I clenched my fist around it as I read rondelle. Here I was foolishly saying the word for goal - but.

The view from my seat.

As for the actual game, a more skilled Drummondville team marched into Baie-Comeau and thrashed the Drakkar by a score of 7-2. Sadly, for what looked like it might be my only QMJHL game of the year, there was no way to call it a barn burner. What was impressive was the number of people who stayed for the entire game & who were excited for any minor advancement by the home team.

This year the Drakkar are the worst team in the QMJHL by far and I wonder if the fans are still showing the same loyalty and perseverance.

As for the arena, it wasn't the great old stadium of Chicoutimi, but it still more than held its own with the overall collection of Q rinks. The narrow walkways, intimate concourses and bright colours carved out a place amongst my treasured travel memories throughout this league. Where Blainville-Boisbriand was so sterile and forgettable, Baie-Comeau was a throwback to what I love about travelling around the QMJHL so much.

There's been zero talks of building a modern WFCU monstrosity in Baie-Comeau & let's hope it stays that way.

Afterwards I walked downtown for a couple of drinks along Place La Salle. There was a small, new-age pub with bright lights, but where it didn't look like they had a single open table, my lack of French kept me out because I wouldn't be able to explain what I wanted or that I was of no harm. Instead I went to Le Grand Hotel (the other cool, old hotel in Baie-Comeau) happy to watch Sunday Night Football, although it was supplanted by the CFL. Ah well, the hotel had a fine lobby and was worthwhile to see, so whatever.

With a decent buzz, I gleefully walked back up Boulevard La Salle, past the nice houses I mentioned earlier and then the collection of motels & gas stations near my Motel Du Rosier. I kept going until I reached McDonald's for lack of other options. They would lock the door after I was there for 5 minutes, so I was thankful for at least finding McKey D's prior to closing.

As I said, I was worried about the motel because of the great rate ($58) and lack of reviews. In the end, everything was clean & satisfactory, it was just that the building was a little old, amenities were a bit spartan and there were lots of motel options in the area.

The important things like cleanliness and safety were all up to snuff. Five stahs!

I had to laugh & I loved that they put me in the oddest room at the motel.

In the above picture you can't even see my door as it's in the centre of the picture, but you need to walk between those two buildings and the door is at the end of the building on the right-hand side (i.e. it's in that corridor. My door opened up into the side of the other building.)

It's unique & retro buildings that play a role in endearing Quebec to me. It's so good that things can be a bit weird and survive, instead of the pearl-clutching of Atlantic Canada or Ontario where everything odd and/or old needs to be torn down, gossiped about or covered in grey siding.

Leaving my beloved Motel du Rosier behind, I went back down to Place La Salle to a small breakfast spot, working through ordering with friendly waitresses in a spot with good coffee and satisfying breakfast. After a mediocre bar and late night snack last night, I was happy to have found a decent place this morning.

Afterwards I drove down to Hotel Le Manoir on the waterfront. It was down here that I noticed even more impressive houses than near Place La Salle, but with it rainy & foggy, I hurried inside and explored Hotel Le Manoir instead. This is the place I thought about splurging upon and staying at, before choosing to keep with the tradition of seedy Quebec motels and walking to games.

There was one last thing I wanted to see in Baie-Comeau. Leaving Hotel Le Manoir, I was back onto a forest road somehow, then into another part of Baie-Comeau after a short drive? And not just a small district, but another part that seemed just as big as what I thought was Baie-Comeau.

It's only now that I learn it's because they amalgamated and swallowed a nearby community that looks bigger than Baie-Comeau itself. Driving through this 11,000-person former community of Hauterive, I passed through another area of motels, but with all of your cookie-cut stores and malls. For how much I love Quebec for its uniqueness, the Ontario sprawl seemed to be making progress up here.

Anyway, driving through Hauterive would get me to the Outardes Powerhouse. Parking in a muddy lot and walking down a random road into the woods, I was confused about where to go, until I noticed the above structure poking out of the eastern woods.

This powerhouse was built in the late 1920s to supply electricity to a nearby paper mill of the Quebec North Shore Paper Company. The power generated here would come from damming the Outardes River.

As I was driving away from Baie-Comeau to this powerhouse, Route 138 passes right by the Manic-1 dam, the furthest downstream dam of the Manicouagan River (Manic-5 is known for its incredible size).

I thought maybe this powerhouse had to do with the Manic or Outardes complexes, but apparently not. It was simply an earlier exercise in damming the Outardes River. They have since dammed the Outardes at a more efficient place & this Outardes Powerhouse was abandoned sometime after the mid-1970s.

I first crept around the backside of the powerhouse, where only a weak tripping rope stood between you & falling 20 feet into the Outardes.

As I walked to the back again once I had made my way inside, there was a staircase down to a small area where it was only 10 feet above the river, but mostly it was a large cement platform about 25 feet up. Someone had spraypainted "jump here", but I couldn't tell if it was like when people write "kill yourself", or if people actually swim here in the summer. It was high enough that my admittedly timid self would have very strong second thoughts.

In addition to the main turbine hall, I also enjoyed being one floor below. Openings to the outside & the machinery holes made interesting light patterns that grabbed my attention while I tried to watch where I was walking amongst the pipes on the ground.

As for future plans here, this building is out in the woods with huge cement watercourses behind it, far removed from Baie-Comeau. I can't imagine there's any hurry to throw out the amount of money that would be required to demolish this reinforced structure.

Leaving the Outardes Powerhouse, I might've went for a drive down the coast before returning to Sept-Îles, but with a kilometer limit on my rental car, I could only go from Sept-Îles to Baie-Comeau and back.

The drive back was uneventful. The rain and drizzle let off, revealing even more of the scenic highway. I snapped the last two pictures from the side of the road where I needed to stop to take this in, while cars and large trucks flashed by.

Eglise Saint-Paul, Pointe-aux-Anglais. Halfway between Baie-Comeau & Sept-Îles.
Yes I drove my rental car through the base of that "A" holding the bell.

It didn't take long for the weather to switch to sunny skies and a pleasant warm day along the St. Lawrence. I could now get a better feeling for whether people came up here for outdoor recreation, but with only a few campgrounds along the waterway, it didn't seem like a popular destination. For what it's worth, I could easily see renting a car for a week and slowly meandering about this coast. (I really wanted to keep going past Sept-Îles to Mingan & Kegashka, but alas, stupid kilometer limit on the 2-day rental.)

I did keep driving past Sept-Îles a short distance to check out the old RCAF Pinetree site at Moisee, but it was mostly occupied & the rundown buildings looked like they were used for storage. I didn't see much opportunity for shenanigans.

Returning the rental to the Sept-Îles Airport, I was then in a cab back towards town to wait for my next day afternoon date with a ferry boat.

Continue to Part 1 of the actual island adventure...



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1 - R. R. M'Cormick Marries Divorcee - The New York Times, March 11, 1915
2 - Chute-aux-Outardes -
3 - Baie-Comeau - The Canadian Encyclopedia
4 - Histoire - Pointe Des Monts
5 - Histoire - Eglise Saint Amélie

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