Perce rock, Quebec - The Bonaventure Island wildlife sanctuary lies in the shadow of the iridescent Percé Rock. It takes us 26 hours and three changes of buses to get to the place where the St. Lawrence flows into the ocean. A pleasant evening sea breeze blows as we drag our luggage up a hill to the New Horizons Hotel.
Later, on a boat to Bonaventure Island, we're treated to the playful antics and vertical dives of our continent's largest native seabird, the northern gannet. Though it's more closely related to the booby family, the gannet resembles the giant of the southern seas, the albatross.
Soon, one of the most accessible wonders of the ornithological world, the rocky outer precipice of Bonaventure Island, comes into view. Nesting seabirds of diverse species inhabit the stacked ledges of a 120-metre cliff. Common murres and razorbill auks, close relatives of penguins, make their homes in crevices near the splash line. Aided by tiny wings, they bravely dive into the sea in formal black-and-white suits.
On Bonaventure, a park ranger explains the trails and regulations. We take the shortest hike to the seabird colonies, stopping for lunch at a quiet picnic area. Here, an unexpected visitor, the American redstart, flits through the woods flashing its brilliant orange and black wings.
We get an ecology lesson on the Sentier des Colonies Trail, where a macabre assemblage of dead trees is weighed down by massive lichen growth stimulated by nutrient-rich bird droppings.
The rangers tell us the dead trees illustrate the normal cycle of life in an old-growth boreal forest. Below the whitened trees spring up young saplings, demonstrating how forests can renew themselves without the help of chemical biocides to control pests like spruce budworm.
During our half-hour walk through the enchanted forest, there's a total absence of automobile sounds. But as increasing numbers of gannets sail in the distance behind the tree canopy, we hear a powerful chorus of karu-uck, karu-uck.
When we reach the colony, we take in a scene of thousands of gannets. Only a simple wooden fence, which the gannets frequently cross to gather grass for their nests, separates us from them. Many of these seabirds display affection for their mates by lovingly caressing their necks. In the midst of this crowded spectacle of bird solidarity, we're given hope that humans eventually will learn to live in peace.
We leave the gannetry on the Chemin-du-Roy trail, which traverses clear, clean flowing streams. A waterfall cascades over a seashore cliff, below which a pair of black guillemots have built a solitary nest. We pass the ruins of an abandoned fishing community whose residents were fortunate to be bought out by Quebec park authorities before the cod fishery collapsed. At 5 pm we boat back to Percé.
In 1918, dedicated federal civil servant Percy Traverner correctly predicted that a protected bird sanctuary on Bonaventure Island would be a highly profitable tourist attraction. The subsequent work of government scientists and the support of communities dependent on eco-tourism have helped the northern gannet survive a number of threats, most significantly a devil's brew of now banned toxic chemicals, beginning with DDT.
We pick up Quebec's park service brochures detailing new dangers to the northern gannet, from deep sea oil drilling to global warming.
The next day, we leave at 5 am, just as the sun bursts through the famous hole in Percé Rock. We hope our journey contributes to the environmental struggle that will return vanished species such as the walrus to these wild and wondrous shores.