Simple thoughts, idyllic moments, best wishes
I am in a reflective mood; in part because I have just finished reading Julian Barnes’s collection of short stories The Lemon Table (a book about aging); and he’s got me mulling over my mortality. The wretch! He makes me identify with something in each of his characters — this is so like Barnes — and I am therefore currently considering which of the places I have visited on this planet would be most appropriate in order for me to “go gentle into that good night” (despite what the poet advises.) Doubtful Sound in New Zealand? Perhaps. The Dordogne? Always a smart late-in-life move. Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley? I’m quite sure the good folks there would take care of me. However, I may have found something a little nearer to home — in Québec’s Outaouais region. I may be getting close.
Outaouais. Stick out your lower jaw and pucker up as if you were about to kiss a baboon. Now say OO TA WAY, only say it as a whisper, like a summer breeze dancing across the surface of lac Blue Sea.
In the heart of this relatively undiscovered region an hour and a half north of Ottawa and Canada’s National Capital Region, Blue Sea is one of the deep lakes left behind by retreating glaciers in the rugged Canadian Shield. It may also be one of the last truly simple, timeless, and easily accessible getaway destinations in Canada.
Keeping it simple
Do you long for travel that is enlightening, inspiring, energetic, and endorphin-producing? The kind of travel that gets your cognitive and affective juices flowing? Know what I mean?
On the other hand, are there times when you get that world-going-to-hell-in-a-hand basket angst and want to just “get away?” Well why not, for crying in the sink, as one of my aunts used to say.
Lac Blue Sea is the latter kind of destination and the quintessence of simplicity. However, when I say “simple,” I don’t mean banal. Au contraire mes chers. I am suggesting a qualitative travel experience; and the kind of simplicity that suggests peace, purity, and clarity. This is not “cottage country” invaded by urban-amoeboid culture; the Outaouais-Blue Sea region is where a genuine and simple lifestyle is still at the heart of the matter.
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” — Albert Einstein
Myth and reality
Every human culture has a myth of paradise, and it usually includes some kind of fall from grace or the disappearance of an original golden-age when everything was hunky dory. I prefer not to indulge in nostalgia, aimless reverie, or fear-based emotions but every now and then I get a sense that things could be better, or perhaps were… once upon a time.
“Dans mon âme et dedans ma tête, il y avait autrefois …. Et la fête fut dans ma tête comme dans un champs de blé …. Un ciel de mai….”
(In my mind and in my heart there was a once upon a time … And the celebration of this time past was lived in my mind as in a field of wheat … as under a May sky…)
— a quotation from archival material discovered in Blue Sea. (The excerpt is from Le petit roi, a song by the well- known and much beloved French Canadian singer, Jean-Pierre Ferland.)
The first Europeans to settle in this area did so towards the end of the 19th century. They were certainly pioneers given the abundance of nature and natural obstacles that faced them. Getting to the Blue Sea area in the early days however, was not all that difficult as long as you could paddle upstream; the “upstream” being the glorious Gatineau River that flows south to the Gatineau-Ottawa area. Today as you drive north on a well-paved and well-marked modern highway, you follow this river.
Eventually however, a railway (the “Gatineau Railway”) was built extending from the Ottawa River (which separates Ottawa from the city of Gatineau) to Maniwaki. Construction was begun in 1836 and completed in 1903. For many years this became the principal means of transportation of visitors to the region, in particular the Duke of Devonshire who would become Governor General of Canada between 1916 and 1921. The railway ceased functioning as a passenger train around 1960 but was still used for freight as late as 1982.
Archival photographs and local stories celebrate the nature-based elegance that distinguished visitors who were the Duke’s guests brought to the area. The “cottage” that the Duke purchased was called Lismore House. It was not a cabin in the woods by any means, but on the same hand it was in keeping with the local environment. A certain Harold McMillan, private secretary to the Duke, would visit occasionally and was known for one of the most romantic summer romances of Blue Sea. McMillan eventually married the Duke’s daughter; and also would go on to become prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Another of the Duke’s daughters would marry an American dancer called Fred Astaire. Oh, and a certain Princess Juliana (later to become Juliana Emma Louise Marie Wilhelmina van Oranje-Nassau Queen of the Kingdom of the Netherlands) would also spend vacation time at Lismore House on Blue Sea.
Today, the former railway is one of the longest sections of The Trans Canada Trail, an 18,000-kilometre recreational corridor stretching across Canada. Using the Ottawa-Maniwaki route you can hike or cross-country ski (choose your season) to the heart of the Blue Sea region.
The first families in Blue Sea cleared the land around the lake, and by 1909 they had built a chapel, a sure sign that the community was here to stay. The town of Blue Sea is in the centre of what is known as the Upper Gatineau region and is surrounded by a number of other lakes, rivers, ponds, and wetlands — and true wilderness areas. Like so many other areas of Québec, Blue Sea grew and prospered because of the forest industry, which in turn was dependent on the abundant waterways of the region, especially the Gatineau.
As it is in so many small Québécois communities, oral history is the principal inter-generational means of communication. As I listened to the people of Blue Sea, I could hear the pride that comes with a deep awareness that one’s ancestors had lived a very hard life, but had survived and prospered. But there is always some mystery to the stories of the folks of Blue Sea; among which of course is why this lake was called a sea. The best answer I could find in that regard was that First Nations peoples came to this large and island-dotted body of water because of its alleged curative powers. Given the size of the lake, somewhat deceptive given its many hidden bays and coves, the aboriginal visitors assumed that it must have been the sea. They may also have looked upon it as a “sea” because of its presumed spiritual powers.
And when you visit this lake, which is really only 5.75 miles long and two miles wide, you may be surprised to see how clear and clean the water is. Geological forces are at play here; lac Blue Sea is surrounded by a halo of a dozen other lakes smaller in size all of which feed into Blue Sea and create a massive filtering system in which the waters of the entire region are constantly refreshed and replenished. It is not surprising therefore that it was nicknamed the Pearl of the Gatineau Valley.
Blue Sea would make a perfect case study for any social historians out there who are looking for a coherent community, culturally speaking, in which language, social rituals and traditions, and community values create a distinct social fabric. But to get a true sense of the place, you could not approach it Margaret Mead style; you would have to integrate into the physical and social landscape as so many did for generations. Still very much a French-speaking part of Canada and Québec, the Blue Sea area was also a model of linguistic integration because Les Anglais from the Ottawa area and beyond would “summer” in the area. The “two solitudes” of Canadian society often blended here, albeit generally in the summer, as they did not elsewhere in Québec.
And if a cultural anthropologist wanted to do an investigative study of the region, there is no shortage of material. He or she however should pay close attention to the musical heritage of the area because as they say in Blue Sea, “un foyer où l’on chante est un foyer heureux.” (“A home in which there is singing is a happy home.”)
To get a topographical overview of Blue Sea, click here.
Moon over Blue Sea
The Outaouais and Blue Sea region have numerous true wilderness areas and activities. The Blue Sea area is also a region in which the heritage of First Nations people is still prominent. A short drive away is the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg community and its recently-built Cultural Education Centre. Just outside the municipality of Maniwaki, this reservation covers 18,437 hectares, and is the largest Algonquin Nation in Canada, in both area and population (with almost 2600 community members). The exhibits in the cultural centre give an excellent overview of the Algonquin people as well as the natural history of the region. For more information, telephone 819-441-1655.
The Blue Sea area even has its aboriginal legend, a highly metaphorical narrative about a young native girl who becomes lost in the woods around the time of the autumn equinox when the sun is starting to lose its intensity. The legend characterizes Blue Sea as Le pays de la lune (Land of the moon). Appealing to the Moon for help in finding the girl, the people of her tribe light a great bonfire to attract the two great celestial bodies. Eventually a beautiful stag finds the girl and, in concert with the moon and sun, it leads the girl’s people to her. Prayers of thanks are subsequently offered up to the Moon who provided the light by which they found the child, and as a result, for about 10 days after the autumn equinox, a second summer (“Indian Summer”) is enjoyed by all.
Such stories are significant in that they clearly show the nature connection that is still part of the ethos of the people who live in this area. Even more aware than the visitors who come to their area, they know what they have here in the Blue Sea area.
“Comme l’enfant et ses rêves, notre vie paroissiale se transforme dans un désir d’être et d’envol constant.”
(Like a child who dreams, life in our parish transforms itself into a constant state of being and of ascent.)
— a quotation from parish documents found in Blue Sea
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Blue Sea…
To see a brief slide show of lac Blue Sea and area, click here.
Blue Sea and Outaouais resources
There are 3200 lakes in the Upper Gatineau/Blue Sea region and consequently many water-based activities to choose from.
If you are a private pilot, you will be pleased to know that Blue Sea is a fly-in destination. You can get here either by float plane or by using the regional Maniwaki airport . If you are coming from farther away, but not by car, your entry airport is the Ottawa International Airport
The Outaouais-Blue Sea is an ecotourist’s paradise, especially the stupendous Forêt de l’aigle (Eagle Forest). In this pristine 140-square-kilometre protected forest, one of one of the last magnificent white pine areas in Québec, you will find a plethora of outdoor activities to suit all needs.
Given the topography and size of the area, activities such camping (wilderness and other), horse-back riding, cycling, golf, soft and hard adventure, hunting and fishing, cultural festivals, agritourism opportunities, and winter sports are what this area is all about.
For a Québec gastronomic-dining experience in the Blue Sea area, I can personally recommend the cuisine at Château Logue in Maniwaki.
During my stay in Blue Sea, I was the guest of Robert Anderson, owner-operator of Blue Sea Lakeside Villas. These executive-style villas are perfect for small corporate groups or families.
As a getaway “hub” destination, Blue Sea also has the added advantage of being within easy driving distance of Ottawa and Gatineau. As the national capital, and part of the National Capital Region, Ottawa is a world-class arts and museum destination. For more information and to visit the official Ottawa website, click here.
And now …
Blue Sea Reflections
Blue Sea is a place for contemplation, for reflecting on many things.
And lastly …
Many thanks to Janice Street, a phenomenal photographer, for this Blue Sea poem written by her grandfather.
I have seen the Rocky Mountains,
Nova Scotia’s rugged shore,
Columbia’s towering forests,
Heard Niagara’s mighty roar.
But high among the Gatineau Hills,
If you will come with me,
I’ll show you Nature’s masterpiece,
A lake they call Blue Sea.
‘Tis rimmed by purple mountains,
Green waters kiss its shore,
And up on high, in azure sky,
White Sea Gulls dip and soar.
I would that you, at eventide,
When twilight’s shadows fall,
Could stand and watch the sun go down,
A vivid golden ball.
And see the hills and waters,
In all their glorious hue,
Forget your cares and sorrows,
Alone just God and you.
And now today in reverie,
My heart goes out to this Blue Sea,
For 30 years has passed and more,
Since my first-born played by her shore.
My brow has felt time’s honoured hand,
Grandchildren’s feet now mark her sand.
So if I love this lake so fair,
With memories sweet, and beauty rare,
It’s just because each bending tree,
Throughout my life will call to me.
John E Martin
August 3, 1940
Thank you grandfather.