Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Wall in Fermont, Québec: "taking the black flies" in a north wind

One of the perks of the geology profession is travel to places that other people aren't rushing to visit. These backcountry outposts can be the most interesting destinations. You experience real culture in rural places, not the optimally-commercial faces painted by tourism marketing. And lines are short.

One such place I've spent a lot of time at recently is the "company town" of Fermont, Québec. Above the 52nd parallel, it is one of the most northerly French-speaking communities in the world, incorporated in the 1970s to exploit vast deposits of iron ore. Fermont's dominant feature is "the Wall" (le Mur), a single, self-contained apartment building--stretching a length of 1.3 kilometers (4300 feet)--that purposefully shelters most of town from the cold north wind. The building contains the police department and hospital, a bowling alley and city offices. Lucky residents of the windbreak can also enjoy shopping, restaurants, schools and a swimming pool all without having to leave the building for nine months of winter. The liquor store and bars are well-frequented.

The Wall or its like may have inspired George R. R. Martin. At Fermont, winter is not coming. Winter is here. At a height of 50 meters (160 feet) along its length, the Wall protects leeward houses from the bitterest of winds and holds back invading mosquitoes for the few weeks it's not snowing. But you don't have to swear an oath of celibacy, and the pizza at Zonix isn't bad.

It's hard to capture the whole structure in one photograph from ground level.
The area looks like this much of the year.

It may be the largest wall in the world that's not covered in graffiti; it's too high and usually too cold for the paint to stick. Backed by Lac Daviault, Fermont is reminiscent of a medieval fortress. Designed by Montréal architects Maurice Desnoyers and Norbert Schoenauer, the town was modeled after similar enclosing structures in Swedish mining communities. Brightly painted older homes are themselves distinctive. At Fermont, literally "Iron Mountain," the nearby crude ores feed the huge appetite for steel in China, leaving home on corporate railways that snake southwards to the distant port of Sept-Îles. Like every other mining town, the local park has its own retired haul truck. That's practically a law.

Except for the occasional lakeside cabin, there are no suburbs in any direction. Leaving town you immediately enter the vast solitude of an immense boreal forest stretching across North America, alone with your thoughts on a mossy lichen carpet punctured by spindly stands of spruce and tamarack or sinuous rocky ridges plunging into lakes. I suspect few people come here but for mining or fishing; you can't walk a mile in a straight line without getting your feet wet. I've visited here several times and thought 99.9 percent of Québécois--let alone the rest of humankind--will never see this place. And that's how I like it, a club nearly as exclusive as that for those who have summitted Everest. And there are evidently a lot less frozen bodies and strewn garbage en route.

Sunny days are rare outside winter. When you're not freezing, it's raining. But when the skies do clear, the perfume of the pines is only surpassed by the dancing Northern Lights. There may be a few biting insects.

Typical "company" housing in the newer section of town, north of The Wall.

Though Fermont is largely an insulated community, with a mix of private mine-employee homes amongst apartments designated for Fly In-Fly Out workers, commercial traffic means there is accommodation available at Hotel Fermont. Aside from a fourteen hour drive from Montreal, on largely gravel roads north of Québec City (an intriguing road trip), the principal access is via airplane to nearby Wabush, Labrador and a thirty minute drive across the border into Québec on 389. The provincial welcome sign isn't necessary. You'll know when you've entered Québec when the highway is suddenly smoother; road maintenance on the Labrador side is sponsored by the local chiropractic association.

I may never crest a hill to see the Himalayas rise before me. I may never experience Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. But I have been to Fermont, Québec. Is that experience any less rich?