Islands in the Fog

La brume, they call the fog, and it comes over the islands of St.-Pierre and Miquelon not on little cat feet but on roller skates. I was setting out from the harbor town of St.-Pierre on a hike to the other side of the island, across a lovely, gray-green heath that rises in rocky folds to the central hills, and I had long since decided that fog would be my element.

Two nights earlier my flight from Montr¿al had landed in fog at the St.-Pierre airport, and I had to respect la brume for its cinematic suggestiveness: There I was, at a foggy French overseas outpost, a Hawker-Siddeley prop job sitting on the tarmac, while gendarmes wearing kepis milled around with their hands behind their backs. It was a moment of decision. Should I turn in Paul Henreid and keep Ingrid Bergman for myself, or split for Brazzaville with Claude Rains? Complain about the fog? It's part of the scenery, n'est-ce pas?

I hiked higher into the mist, leaving the paved streets behind for a stony path across the moor. The town disappeared from view long before it dropped out of earshot; it took a good half-hour to get away from the constant hum that Europeans and North Americans make whenever there are more than two of them in one place. And here, standing in a cloud halfway up a rock in the North Atlantic, I was looking down on an odd little hive of people who were at once North Americans and Europeans.

The islands of St.-Pierre and Miquelon are an overseas department of France - never mind that they are a bare 16 miles off the southern coast of the island of Newfoundland. They are the last vestige of an empire that stretched, at one time or another, from here to the headwaters of the Missouri River. Their 6,400 residents live in a place where the day begins when the boulangerie opens, where the supermarket carries as many brands of calvados as beer, and where the French spoken is Parisian rather than Canadian. Here, alone in North America, the tricolor still waves.

The misty landscape I was traversing on my morning hike could certainly have passed for parts of Newfoundland or maybe the upland heaths of Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island. But during my first day's ramble around the town, I had concluded that there was no mistaking the character of the place for anything other than that of a provincial French seacoast village. Even in the worst climates, people in small North American towns do not huddle their houses in tight little grids the way the pastel-colored homes of St.-Pierre are huddled along the village's steep, narrow streets.

What North Americans do like to concentrate are their shopping facilities. Even the tiniest hamlet nowadays has its strip mall. But in St.-Pierre, the first attempt at putting four stores and a supermarket under one roof was made only in 1991, and most people still appear to prefer the mom-and-pop shops that turn up haphazardly and unexpectedly on the corners of residential blocks. If you are a St.-Pierrais out to buy a baguette, a rake, a pair of socks, and a slightly aged copy of Le Monde, you'll either hike a circuitous route through town or (more likely) park your Renault in four different places.

You will find everything on your list, though. St.-Pierre is nothing if not self-sufficient. It seems less like an island hugging a nearby coast than it does an island nation, so far offshore that shopping on the mainland would be impossible. Even the word "mainland," when it comes up here, tends to connote France more than Newfoundland or continental Canada.

Originally discovered by the Portuguese in the early 1500s, St.-Pierre and its larger companion island of Miquelon were claimed for France in 1536 by Jacques Cartier as he returned from the voyage up the St. Lawrence River that laid the groundwork for New France.

Like many other island possessions, however, the small dependency was bobbled back and forth between France and Great Britain for centuries, with the changes of flag usually resulting in the expulsion of the local population of fishermen and small tradesmen. The game came to an end (presumably for good, unless Canada suffers a drastic personality change) in 1816, when the most recent round of exiles were repatriated.

Since then, St.-Pierre and Miquelon have been French - first a territory and, since the mid-1970s, an overseas department with the same representation in the French parliament as any in the homeland. So closely have the St.-Pierrais remained involved with metropolitan France (many of them head there each winter), that their language has even remained up to date. They find the dialect spoken in Quebec to be oddly old-fashioned, an ancien r¿gime version of the mother tongue.

This was the sort of place, then, that I found spread beneath me, invisible yet making workaday noises in the fog as I stood on my perch in the foothills.

Fog makes a mystery of any landscape, stretching distance by removing all perspective. All I could see, from the path across this rising moor, was a dark slope scattered with what looked like white lace handkerchiefs: cobwebs glistening with condensed mist.

Before long I reached the gravel road that cuts across the 21/2-mile-wide island. Not a soul was on the moor. At one point I felt so alone in my grounded cloud that I broke into some nonsense lyrics of the "hi-diddle-de-dum" variety - and immediately heard disembodied laughter. I stopped singing and kept walking, all the while peering ahead into the fog, and I soon saw who was laughing.

The shapes of a dozen 12-year-olds, knapsacks on their backs, materialized beside the road. As I passed, the tittering began again. It must have been the foreign language. I wondered how you would say "hi-diddle-de-dum" in French.

Truly alone now as I crossed the height of land in the middle of St.-Pierre, I caught glimpses of glassy freshwater ponds beneath the slowly rising mist. The trail to the cliffs aboveLa Baie - the four-mile-wide channel between St.-Pierre and Miquelon - soon diverged from my road, and I picked my way across the bogs. There were pitcher plants and tiny white wildflowers, then a damp scrubby forest that ceded to a clifftop moor with the sound of waves crashing below.

I was glad the fog had lifted enough for me to see a couple of hundred feet ahead, and I sat down to sausage, cheese, and wine I had brought from town. France was in my knapsack, as well as beneath my feet.

The next day I walked the St.-Pierre streets, which I was beginning to identify not by name but by buildings and shopkeepers' wares. Starting at place du G¿n¿ral de Gaulle, the waterfront plaza presided over by a post office with a mansard peak resembling the wimple of a nun, I found my way along the street with the baby clothes, the street with the snazzy lingerie (there were a couple of these, the puritan Maritime Provinces being a safe distance across the waves), the street with the plumbing fixtures, and the street with the restaurant I'd have to try. My aimless sauntering eventually led to the museum, tucked away on the third floor of a government office building.

The St.-Pierre Museum housed one of those nutty, eclectic collections that obscure small towns specialize in. Here were the requisite stuffed local fauna and a fair assortment of old-time fishing paraphernalia, along with things like a melted crucifix from a 1902 church fire, and a map of the islands made by Capt. James Cook in his pre-Pacific days. There were also photo albums, which made the islands seem like a big family into whose attic you'd stumbled.

Best of all, i found edouard briand, the curator, an octogenarian with a first-person memory of many of the things in that album. It was Briand who explained to me St.-Pierre and Miquelon's touchy situation at the beginning of World War II, when the islands' governor was an appointee of Marshal Philippe P¿tain's Vichy regime, and the British were getting nervous about just what sort of information might be reaching German submarines from the local radio transmitter.

"What did we know?" said Briand, drawing on his ever-present cigarette. "We were so far away from everything, we didn't know if we were supposed to support P¿tain or de Gaulle. But de Gaulle was worried that if he didn't do something, Canada and the United States might step in. So he sent an emissary to secure our cooperation with the Free French."

The emissary arrived with three corvettes and a submarine. As Briand put it, "We didn't have much choice."

Today, though, General de Gaulle is a local hero. Revered not only for his partisan leadership during the war, he is still remembered for his 1967 visit to St.-Pierre, when he told the crowds, "France loves you. France will take care of you."

Briand turned to a modern-day conflict, one that relates directly to the museum's relics of St.-Pierre's great days in the cod fishery. Producing a map, he spoke with dismay of a recent international court ruling, favoring Canada in a dispute over fishing rights. Would St.-Pierre's seven trawlers and a handful of smaller vessels still be able to hold their own? At this time, no one was able to hazard a guess.

After dinner that night, as I walked back to my hotel in the fog, I thought about the war, and the questionable radio transmitter. St.-Pierre, on its lonely rock, seemed made for radio intrigue. In my room I poured a calvados and turned on my own shortwave. On the first station I pulled in, I heard an a cappella group singing doo-wop songs in French.

Why seek out the far corners of the Earth, if you're only going to visit their front parlors and ignore their backyards? I reserved a seat on one of the ten-minute flights from St.-Pierre to Miquelon, naively ignoring the "weather permitting" on the timetable. (That phrase is so common that it's even the name of a TV variety show.) My plane was scheduled to take off at 8:30. The fog was scheduled to lift whenever it pleased.

While I waited, I dropped into the St.-Pierre Tourist Bureau to talk in a general way about fog. One of the women working there told me of an old fishermen's saying: "The capelin bring the fog." These six-inch fish head toward shore to spawn each June, and the St.-Pierrais and Miquelonnais haul them in by the thousands. I had been grounded, it turned out, by a "capelin fog."

But I did finally get to Miquelon, an hourglass-shaped island that stretches 30 miles from north to south, yet harbors barely 700 souls. By early afternoon the fog had cleared sufficiently not only for the flight, but for an outstanding view of the great, empty island. The southern bulb of the hourglass, called Langlade, is five miles across, hilly, partly forested, and peppered with freshwater lakes. Here there is no habitation at all except for a cluster of summer homes.

Langlade is connected with Miquelon proper by La Dune, an isthmus of sand only 300 yards wide, built up by storms over the 200 years since Captain Cook prepared his charts.

Finally, Miquelon - the upper part of the hourglass and an enormous rolling moor - drifted into view. Near its northern tip we touched down at the harbor village, also called Miquelon.

As I began to walk the half mile from the airstrip to town, a Miquelonnais saw my suitcase and offered me a ride in his pickup truck. In response to his question, I answered that, yes, I had flown to the island with no other purpose than simply to see Miquelon.

"Pourquoi?" he asked.

I could only smile and shrug.

I got out of the pickup at the town square, with its two stores, church, and mermaid fountain. At the little blue-and-white "Chalet du Tourisme" a cheerful staff informed me that I was the only object of their ministration at the moment.

I rented a mountain bike for the following day and left wondering if they were already faxing Paris with the news that a tourist had arrived so early in the season. Miquelon was the first place I'd ever been where the tourism office personnel outnumbered the tourists by a literal three to one.

The sun was out by now, and Miquelon was poking along its late afternoon way, hanging its laundry and puttering in its gardens. The neat single-family homes that line the town's three main streets run largely to vinyl siding (excusable in a climate that devours other materials) and most of the householders have cajoled lawns out of the thin soil - proof of man's unquenchable desire to live in the suburbs. But whenever I raised my sights beyond the houses, beyond the fishing docks and the self-important town hall and gendarmerie and the indispensable recreation center, the beautiful desolation of moor and sea was quick to remind me that this little town is no suburb, but the center of a world of its own.

A block from the square, I found Chez Paulette, the cozy pension run by Paulette Boissel, who had been recommended to me as the best cook in town. After settling into my room and changing for dinner, I had occasion to agree. Alone in the dining room, I was presented with a plate of braised Langlade venison. Afraid I might mistake it for beef, Paulette gave a quick sideways nod to a deer head mounted on the wall. "Chevreuil," she said.

I needed all the fortification le chevreuil had to offer, because in the morning I got on my rented bicycle and started along the 16-mile gravel road to Langlade. My topographical map had shown a toy-size island. Granted, from the plane it had seemed big. But from the bike, in a cold headwind, it seemed a continent.

I pedaled between the moor and the open ocean, catching glimpses of the locally famous "wild" horses of Miquelon. (Descendants of shipwrecked animals, they are looked after in winter by the Miquelonnais and are not truly wild.) Where Miquelon meets La Dune, in the lagoon called the Grand Barachois, there were seals as well.

Crossing the desolate isthmus, splashed by spray and aching for Langlade to loom up faster, I felt as if I were bicycling on the open ocean. And at Langlade's northern edge, where I ate my lunch and watched a few cottagers fix up their summer homes, I yearned to explore the island's interior wilderness with backpack and fly rod. There is no one in there, no one at all. I may have been the only tourist on Miquelon, but I had come temptingly close to being the only human being on Langlade.

Paulette, bless her, must understand long bike rides. This understanding, combined with the fact that she has a cottage on the Grand Barachois where she collects mussels by the bushel, meant that I was favored that night with a dish of fabled tarte aux moules, a rich pastry crust filled with mussels in a gruyere cheese sauce. It is, I suspect, what de Gaulle was really after.

I'd booked a flight back to St.-Pierre at 8:45 the next morning. But when I awoke, one look out the window told me not to hurry getting dressed. The island was socked in again, and there would be no flights until the fog let up.

Air St.-Pierre had promised to call me as soon as they were ready to send over a plane. So I opened a book and camped out at Paulette's dining room table. Now a semi-checked-out guest, I kept an eye and an ear open to the first and most familiar environment any of us can recall - home at morning chore time. Friends dropped by, and a relative with a baby; then, left alone to her kitchen work, Paulette hummed along with a Piaf song playing on the local radio station.

At noon I realized that the kitchen bustle meant that I hadn't checked out yet. A smiling Paulette came my way with a carafe of wine and a big steaming plate and asked, "Voulez-vous manger des crabes?" There was nothing I'd rather do than manger des crabes. I dived in, my biggest worry that Air St.-Pierre would call while I was in mid-crab.

I was cracking into my third when Paulette appeared again, this time carrying an oval platter heaped with tiny fried fish, boiled potatoes, and lemon wedges. "Les capelins," she said and beamed. The woman in St.-Pierre had it reversed: For me, the fog had brought the capelin, rather than the other way around.

As I ate the sweet, crisp, smelt-size fish, it occurred to me that for the past two days I had been living splendidly off the provender of this seemingly barren island. Venison, mussels, crabs, capelin - even the vegetables and salad greens were from Miquelon's gardens and greenhouses. Barrenness canbe deceiving.

The plane finally showed up at three, and by late afternoon I was back in St.-Pierre. Feeling like an old hand in from the provinces, I checked into a pension and strolled the now-familiar streets. This time my walk took me out past the fish-processing plant, and farther still - to the older fish plant, circa 1920, called the "Frigorifique."

The Frigo serves as a reminder of what the enterprising St.-Pierrais have done besides fish, when they were handed the opportunity: During Prohibition, St.-Pierre became such a busy transshipment point for liquor bound from Canada to the United States that all available warehouse space - including the Frigo, which could hold a million cases - was pressed into service.

Al Capone once visited St.-Pierre. (His straw boater is on display in the little Prohibition exhibit in the lobby of the Hotel Robert.) And out on Pointe de Savoyard, there is even a house built out of Cutty Sark cases.

The islands experienced a terrific economic boom in those years, and fishermen gladly put away their nets. There must be at least a few locals wishing that, as Canada clamps down on cod, the United States will again attempt to outlaw demon rum.

Not likely, after a lesson so well learned. And equally unlikely is the possibility that the St.-Pierrais will ever completely abandon the sea. It's in their past and in their future. During one morning's walk along the quai, I passed the town's monument to its marins disparus en mer - lost sailors - and I saw a motorboat, like a mother duck, guiding six sailing dinghies out into the harbor. There were two children in each boat. They were learning how to sail.

My last morning in St.-Pierre was a Sunday. I walked past the cathedral, with its statue of St. Peter and enameled door handles in the shape of fish, then paused and went inside. The bishop was giving his sermon. One French word kept jumping out - pierre - and I realized the gray-maned prelate was ringing changes on the word "rock" and the name of the apostle and on the special place of this rock we were all standing on: St.-Pierre, a rock in the Atlantic, anchored with lonely Miquelon hard against a foreign shore.