Text & photos — Marie-Pier Bastien & Dominic Faucher
At the end of Highway 138 there’s a little corner of paradise that the regulars call “le Havre.” This is short for Havre-Saint-Pierre: a village of 3,460 inhabitants located on the 50th parallel, across from Anticosti Island. The very definition of the French word “havre”—harbour, or haven—gives a clear idea of what awaits you here.
The road can feel endless for those who get carsick—1,115 km separate le Havre from Montréal. But “That’s just how it is,” is our host Jane-Anne Cormier’s answer to those who complain about two days spent on the Route des Baleines. “It’s one of the reasons this place is so special.” In fact, “special” barely touches the experience that awaits.
A state of wonder
It’s 21˚C. A stencilled boat trailer is parked at the edge of the water near the corner of rue de l’Anse in Havre-Saint-Pierre. On the beach, two young women are setting out rows of paddle boards on the white sand, laughing as they work. Behind them, the infinite river reflects the sunlight. The quiet is interrupted here and there by the breath of whales and the cry of far-off Atlantic puffins.
Jane-Anne emerges from Les Vagues, her stand-up paddle board (SUP) school, bursting with energy. Her eyes shine with the pride of having convinced us city folk to make the multi-day detour. She points to the river, shouting, “not bad, eh!” It quickly becomes clear what drives her. The Saint Lawrence is, according to Jane-Anne, the perfect venue to bring people into nature, calm them down, and help them feel reconnected.
Jane-Anne is devoted to providing opportunities to be on the water for people of all ages: “I’ve been marveling at the fauna and flora here for 30 years. I want to share this with others, knowing there’s a chance they’ll experience a state of wonder, too,” she says, standing between paddle boards before we set out. “The ecosystem of the Côte-Nord is breathtaking: whales, marine birds, rare flora, and sand beaches are all part of the setting here, and I think everyone should see it!” she finishes, breathless at the end of her long exclamation.
She’s committed to an eco-responsible approach. At its core, paddle boarding is a natural way of exploring the river: “It’s slow, quiet, has no motor, animals can come close to us if they want to, we have the time to look, interpret, and at the same time stay in shape.” Les Vagues also hosts Beach Clean Up sessions—another reason to gather together around the river, and to lend a helping hand in exchange for all that it gives us daily.
Out on the water, Jane-Anne easily spots a group of young fin whales and we have the unbelievable chance to paddle above them. It takes us some time to process the experience; let’s just say it feels pretty different from the SUP you do at the cottage.
When evening falls, she explains why she decided to leave Montréal in 2016: Le Havre was going through a period of economic difficulty. The mine, which is the area’s principle employer, was scaling back its operations. The hardware store also closed down. Jane-Anne is well attuned to the village’s ups and downs; her uncle, Pierre Cormier, is the mayor.
She wanted to be part of the solution.
“I had the idea to combine my passion for Le Havre and my passion for paddle boarding, as something I could do to help out my hometown,” she says, sitting before a beach fire. In spite of the fact that her boyfriend and closest friends live in Montréal, there was no question in the young entrepreneur’s mind that she had to return home. She wanted to lead by example: to come back in order to invest in the area, in spite of the pull of the big city.
Without taking credit for the winds of change that have been felt in the village these past years, she notes that Le Havre is slowly coming back to life. A distillery has opened, the hardware store has re-opened, and the mining activities have stabilized. Tourists as well as local people are now clients at the school. “There are some people who come a few times a day to rent boards,” she says, surprised but happy to witness the success of the project.
Diving into the wave
COVID-19 has had a significant impact on Les Vagues. Even though the season doesn’t start until June, the pre-season bookings and traffic were not up to the usual standards this year. But Jane-Anne doesn’t bat an eye.
“We’ll be re-opening our [physical] store soon, we’re just waiting for the deliveries that have been delayed by the pandemic,” she says, telling us about her plans for the shop: a place where clothes, bathing suits, accessories, and local products can be found, amid, a friendly atmosphere. The school’s activities are also well underway, and in spite of everything, her popular Exodes are nearly sold out.
As the sun dips low on the horizon, Jane-Anne answers our final question with a smile in her voice. What’s next for Les Vagues in Le Havre? She hints that she has only just begun investing in her hometown. The only thing she can say is that her next projects will be based on the same passion for nature that has been guiding her for nearly five years. More waves and a bright horizon in store for le Havre.
Dominic Faucher has been the creative director and associate at the Orkestra agency in Gatineau since 2014. Mariepier Bastien is a PhD student in Education at the University of Ottawa. Together, they form the duo behind Vanlife Sagas: a content project related to the world of vanning in North America.