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October 24, 2008

Rene and the Mills of Île aux Coudres

Filed under: Opinion,Travel — Steve Hamlin @ 1:28 pm

Ile aux Coudres windmillHow curiosity nearly got us thrown out of a Québec museum.

Our daughter got married last year (August, 2007) and Linda and I made arrangements for her and her new husband, Rene to spend two weeks in Québec for their honeymoon. Months before the wedding date, when we first began to talk about the possibility of making the arrangements, Rene suggested to Gayle’s dismay that we should go too.

Linda and I were a little uncomfortable with the notion of accompanying them, but, after some thought, we decided that we’d travel with them to Québec, then leave them alone for the first week and rejoin them for the second. We made plans to spend the first night camping near where they were staying, traveling to the fjord at Saguenay the following day to stay for the rest of the week.

The wedding was on a Saturday. The following day we got the kids (from Gayle’s and Rene’s previous relationships) on their way to their respective destinations, then packed the vehicles. By late morning, we were en route to the highway from the newlyweds’ house in Orange, New Hampshire. We stopped briefly in St. Johnsbury, Vermont for lunch, then headed for the border.

We were traveling in separate vehicles, of course, and Linda and I were in the lead as we approached the border crossing. We pulled up to the window as soon as the lane cleared and handed our passports to the Border Patrol officer, answered a few cursory questions, and were waved through. I watched in my rearview mirror as Rene pulled their pickup truck into the space we’d vacated, and I pulled into one of the parking spaces to wait for them to join us.

The minutes passed, but there was no sign of them. After about fifteen minutes, Linda went to find out what the holdup was. I continued to wait.

Rene is soft-spoken – as genuine and direct a man as you’re likely to find. He’s a lifelong hunter and sportsman, and he makes no secret of it. He’d wear camouflage to the mall, if he ever went to the mall. He had planned to wear a camouflage tux in the wedding, but ended up in conventional black. Instead, he was wearing camouflage to the honeymoon. Between the camouflage, the gun rack mounted to the rear window of his truck, and the five cases of champagne they’d brought that was left over from the wedding, the Border Patrol’s suspicions were raised.

When the officers asked who we were and why we were waiting for them, the response that we were Gayle’s parents and we were accompanying them on their honeymoon only made them more suspicious. They began inspecting everything. Finally, between Linda’s and Gayle’s assurances that there was nothing kinky going on and the fact that they didn’t find any contraband, the officers released them and the pickup. They warned Gayle and Rene that five cases of champagne was way over the limit, but allowed them to keep it, wishing them a happy honeymoon.

Back on the road, we drove uneventfully to St-Ferréol-les-Neiges, at the foot of Mount Ste. Anne. We got Gayle and Rene checked in, and continued up the road to Camping Mount Ste. Anne. Having booked our site, pitched our tent and prepared our beds for the night, we drove back down to join the kids for dinner. After a forgettable meal at a local restaurant, we parted company and retired back up the road to our tent.

In the morning, we packed up our belongings to drive the rest of the way to Rivière Éternité. It was a spectacular morning and we had a pleasant journey, stopping and exploring several times along the way, and arriving at the campground around 5:30.

We spent several nice days at Rivière Éternité, marred by the rain that set in the last evening of our stay. It rained all night, continuing the next morning, and we had to pack up wet gear. Linda and I were ready for a dry bed as we headed for the condo we had rented for the second week of our trip a few miles away from Gayle and Rene in Beaupré.

We spent the first couple of days of our stay in Beaupré exploring the old city of Québec with Gayle and Rene. On our third day, we decided that we’d all visit Île aux Coudres. Linda and I had learned about the island at a visitors center on our way to Saguenay. From the brochure we picked up, it sounded thoroughly enchanting. A small island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, it sounded attractive in its own right, but it had a moulin economusée, a mill museum that included both an eighteenth century windmill and a waterwheel-powered flour mill – powerful magnets for photographers like Linda and I.

The morning was perfect. We picked Gayle and Rene up, stopped at a store and bought stuff for lunch, then headed for Île aux Coudres. To get to the island, you take the Route de la Rivière towards Les Éboulements. There, you turn towards the river and plunge down an impossible grade to a sharp right turn at the bottom,There, you turn towards the river and plunge down an impossible grade to a sharp right turn at the bottom, following the edge of the river upstream to a ferry landing in the village of Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive.

Our Canadian cousins don’t mess around when it comes to hills – they attack them head on. The hill leading to the ferry landing in Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive is advertised to be a 19% grade. It feels, on driving over the crest, like the momentum-building first slope of a roller coaster. The hill is especially remarkable since, as the only means of access to the island, it’s traveled routinely by trucks of all sizes delivering everything from food to fuel.

We boarded the free ferry for the roughly half hour crossing. After landing, we took the road that circles the island, headed towards the upstream end, looking for a place to eat our picnic lunch. Finding a likely looking road, we followed it down a hill to the edge of the meadow leading out to the river’s edge. We ate our lunch with the Île aux Coudres lighthouse visible just offshore.

Finished with our picnic, we continued on our way and, within ten minutes, we arrived at the economusée. The mills are on the southeast corner – the upstream end – of the island, facing the west. As you drive in on the short gravel access road, the windmill is to your right, across the stream that powers the waterwheel, partly obscured by an unruly hedgerow. The gift shop/ticket sales office is in the former miller’s home straight ahead, and the water-powered mill is between the two. Scattered around the edge of the parking area are other artifacts and structures connected with the mill, including an oven in a rustic shelter.

We walked into the gift shop and up to the ticket counter. The woman behind the counter rushed through the sale, explaining that the tour had just begun and urging us to hurry to catch up. Following her directions, we exited the gift shop out the back and walked the short path to the water-powered mill. The interpreter was demonstrating a large flour sifter, explaining the process in French. We took positions among the other watchers and politely listened. I strained to glean as much information as I could with my meager understanding of the language.

As the demonstration continued, we drifted away to explore the fascinating mechanics of the mill. Rene and I were both intrigued by the crude complexity of the machinery, with its wooden gears and shafts. We explored the waterwheel, which was about ten or twelve feet in diameter and housed inside the building, followed its driven shaft through speed-regulating gears and rotating direction-changing pinion and miter gears, all made of wood, to the grindstone, then on to the sifter with its oscillating box-within-a-box.

As Rene and I were discussing the path of the wheat that was being ground, from the hopper feeding the grindstone to its ultimate destination in the collection tray of the sifter, the interpreter’s explanation ended and, led by a second guide, the visitors filed past us. We tagged onto the end of the line and followed our entourage down the crude, narrow stairs to the lower level of the mill building. The rest of the group looked around in mild interest, and exited through the door at the bottom of the stairs.

Rene and I peeled off and continued our discussion of the wheat’s path. I was fascinated with speculating on the method of getting the ground flour, which dropped, gravity-fed, from the grindstone on the floor above, through a wooden chute to the level we were on, then was carried, through some hidden conveyance, back up to the upper floor, to be fed into the sifter. Mounted on wooden supports, an idler shaft spun, with a large wooden box, in the shape of a belt and pulley shroud and suspended from the floor above, pierced by it about midway along its length.

I was speculating that there must be some sort of cup or scoop-type appendage attached to the belt that was housed inside the shroud, which would pick up the ground wheat and transport it to the top of the sifter, some fourteen feet over our heads. The semi-circular bottom part of the shroud had two gate hooks securing it to the fixed upper housing, apparently allowing access for service. As I speculated, Rene boldly unhooked the fasteners, opening the shroud enough to confirm that I was right.

The guide who had remained behind upstairs heard the sounds of the latches being unhooked. As we stood, only momentarily, with the shroud open, we heard footsteps and saw a pair of feet appear on the stairs opposite us. Rene, who had a stroke several years ago, leaving him weakened on his left side, rushed to re-secure the shroud, but was having difficulty with the latches.

Not usually one to take such liberties as Rene had, I quickly helped him fasten the shroud to avoid the embarrassment of an apparent conspiracy. We were still fumbling with the latches, but had managed to secure the shroud, when the interpreter cleared the bottom of the upper floor. Looking suspicious, he asked us sternly if everything was alright. We made some lame explanation that we just discussing the machinery and left the mill.

Once outside, Rene followed the path to rejoin the tour, which was now in the windmill, and I began looking for good vantages to photograph it from. I wandered around the garden choosing different angles and looking for interesting fore- and backgrounds. As I circled the mill, I made the intriguing discovery that the round, pointed roof could be rotated, allowing the sails to be pointed into the wind. There was a timber, mounted as a lever to the opposite side of the roof from the sails, and attached to a windlass that was secured to a post driven into the ground.

I looked for Rene to tell him of my discovery and found him outside the windmill. As I walked up to him he exclaimed, “You can’t touch anything here!” He had been examining the workings of the windmill’s flour sifter, just inside the door. One of the guides (probably our friend from the water-mill) took exception to his hands-on exploration and asked him to leave. Gayle rolled her eyes and muttered, “Oh my God…” Rene shrugged his shoulders.

For the rest of the trip, whenever we were faced with a choice between prudence and adventure, we’d ask “what would Rene do?” We usually opted for something in the middle.

All text and images © Steve Hamlin
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