It's March. So why am I standing on an ice floe in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence while everyone else is heading south to bask in the sun? Am I insane? No, inspired, because I'm surrounded by les bebes phoques (baby seals), protected - or sometimes not - by their powerful mothers. (An adult harp seal weighs 286 lbs or more). By late February, hundreds and thousands of harp seals, and some hooded seals, have migrated from Greenland to give birth on the ice floes off les Iles de la Madeleine.
This is the only place in the world where people can hobnob with the button-eyed white-coats. ( Harp seals also give birth off the coast of Labrador, but they're not set up for tourists.) Last year 34% of the visitors were from Japan. "They have two reasons to visit Canada," said Anne Bourgeois of Tourisme Iles de la Madeleine: "Anne of Green Gables and the seals. It's almost a religious experience for them."
The Chateau Madelinot offers Seal Observation packages. Their guestbook was filled with ecstatic comments in Japanese, many with charming sketches and photos. "Europeans and Americans visit too, but very few Canadians."
"Why not?" I asked.
"They want to go where it's warm."
There are three visits a day to the ice floes, lasting for three hours, although a few intrepid souls may go for six. I wasn't ready to take the early morning flight, but was at the window admiring the pink rays of dawn. Black figures, stark against the snow, trekked down to jolly little helicopters, red, blue, white, like children's whirligigs, and flew away. Then a sudden blaze of light , a splash of gold over "the living lunar landscape."
Over breakfast I read the brochure of safety instructions. How to behave around helicopters and irritated mother seals, what to wear. I had wondered if I might need two sets of long johns, but we were outfitted with bright yellow Mustang 'survival suits' heavy boots and crampons. Orange balaclavas were on offer if we had forgotten hats, and we were told to bring sunscreen and sun-glasses because of the glare from the ice.
Suitably clad, we waddled down from the hotel, like yellow penguins and clambered up into the helicopter, then flew over a panorama of sky, snow and ice everywhere, while the pilot searched for a nursery. They use computers, experience, satellite imaging - and the weather report - as a guide. The ice fields move constantly, so every day different pups are visited, which prevents stress.
We were lucky. Within fifteen minutes, our helicopter descended .The black dots and mounds of ice turned into large sleek mothers and their fat snowy babies. There was a chorus of sound: mewling like indignant kittens or howling like wolves. No wonder the Madelinots call seals loups-marins (wolves of the sea). The pack seemed agitated by the helicopter noise, but soon settled down.
With their doleful eyes and frisky frost-fringed whiskers, the white-coats are unbearably cute. One mother was off fishing, so our guide, Leonard Chevrier, soothed a friendly cub, turning it into a living fur pillow. It lay absolutely still, even when placed on top of a blissful Montrealer. "I'm in love," she cried, while her friend took many many pictures.
"The mothers don't reject them if they are handled by humans," Leonard told us. "But don't get between a mother and her baby. She's fast and can give a nasty bite." He also warned us to watch for thin ice in case of falling through for an unexpected cold bath.
What I did find difficult is the life of a baby seal, born into a howling wind, "frantically shivering until it grows its layers of fat." An irresponsible mother doesn't teach it survival skills and boots it out when approximately ten days old to fend for itself. Hooded seal parents are even worse, and only hang around for four days.
The small yellowish scraps are 24 lbs when first born. By four days, they turn to that dazzling white. Their mother's milk is so rich that they gain 5 pounds a day, mostly stored as blubber. By two weeks, when weaned, they weigh 80 pounds.
Most do survive. With almost no predators such as killer whales, polar bears or sharks in the region - except man - they seem to have a fine time when adults. One carefree mum, baby dozing like a giant powder puff nearby, spent half an hour popping in and out of a hole in the ice, gurgling, slithering along the floe like a living toboggan.
There was another hole nearby. "There's something down there," said Leonard. "It's a male, waiting to see if she's interested." There were a few angry swirls, but he never appeared.
It was time to struggle back into the helicopter. Back at the hotel, we shed our gear and headed to warm up in the bar in the basement, beside a swimming pool, There was a Jacuzzi and sauna for those who wanted to imitate seals.
Many guests went on the ice several times. According to the hotel guestbook, several people had made 3, 5, 10 trips from Japan! But I wanted to re-explore the rest of the island which I had visited six years ago - in summer.
Even in winter there is still plenty to do. Le Musee de la Mer offers "Four Centuries of Adventure" a stirring record of shipwrecks, naval battles and navigation. On the first afternoon, we drove by half a dozen carioles behind horses - a living eighteenth-century engraving. Tiny ice-fishing huts decorated the harbour, miniature versions of the rainbow-coloured houses.
And then there was ice-kayaking. "What do you think of my office?" asked Sebastien Cote. We were floating around the harbour past ships docked for the winter.
"Not bad," I answered. Once again, I'd struggled into a survival suit and boots with a strange rubber skirt added to cover the space above my seat in the kayak. I was lowered in to the kayak - back to being Michelin Woman - and then we were off, gliding past fishing boats at rest, red sandstone cliffs outlined by white snow. Nature's sculpture was everywhere, small icebergs piled into fantastic crystal shapes with hints of blue.
Sebastien Cote and his partner Fanny Arsenau are both naturalists and guides, Now they run an ecological company called Vert et Mer. You can go kayaking, winter and summer, ice-fishing, kite-skiing or snowshoe in to "the Mound of the Wind" and sleep in a Mongolian yurt!
I was tempted, but preferred to stay at the hotel, watching the silent figures trudging bravely out in the Arctic dawn. Like the Madelinot saying: I was Heureux comme un chien dans une boite de truck. ( Happy as a dog in the front of a truck) .
Mary Alice Downie writes for Kingston Life Magazine and contributes to Fifty-five Plus, Good Times, Forever Young and many other magazines as well as a food blog, 'Edible Souvenirs' on the website
kingstonlife.ca. She is the author of 28 books for children and adults.
Mary Alice Downie
If you go
Chateau Madelinot (1 800 661-4537) offers Seal Observation packages during the 2 to 3 week season (late February-mid-March) There is also snowshoeing, kite-skiing, ice-kayaking or ice-fishing - and a swimming pool and hot tub at the hotel. http://www.hotelsilesdelamadeleine.com/lodging-room-magdalen/chateau-madelinot/index_ang.cfm
Fly from Quebec City or Montreal or take the winter ferry from P.E.I.