• Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic

Aboard a small passenger vessel in the harbour of Rivière-du-Loup, Que., I spot my first eider ducks. They’re clustered together, gently bobbing in the surf off the rocky shore of Île aux Lièvres (Hare Island). This densely forested island astride the St. Lawrence Estuary is my destination and will be my home for the next three days.

In the town of Tadoussac, at the nearby junction of the Saguenay and St. Lawrence rivers, beluga whales attract visitors from all over the world. But here at Île aux Lièvres, the common eider is the main draw. North America’s largest duck is at the centre of an unconventional and far-sighted conservation effort to protect the fragile ecosystem of the islands of the Lower St. Lawrence. Together, the islands boast a remarkable biological diversity, populated with large numbers of waterfowl, seabirds, marine mammals and fish. And, like a link in a chain, Île aux Lièvres — the largest and most central of the group — is essential to the region’s ecological integrity. Hundreds of species thrive in its varied habitats, including (as the name suggests) the snowshoe hare.

I’ve actually made this journey once before: the four-hour drive from Montréal to Rivière-du-Loup, checking in with La Société Duvetnor Ltée, the non-profit organization that owns the island, followed by the river crossing. It was 1998, and my boyfriend and I had picked Rivière-du-Loup as a pit stop during a road trip to the Gaspé Peninsula. We’d discovered Île aux Lièvres on the internet. Not only did it seem like an ideal place to camp and hike for a few days, but it was owned by an enterprising group of biologists. To a couple of nature-loving science graduate students, it promised to be the perfect prelude. It was.

The island was breathtaking, dwarfed by the Charlevoix mountains to the north and partially protected by a trio of small islands to the immediate south, on which a restored 19th-century lighthouse stood watch like a sentinel for new arrivals. But it was the rare blend of the island’s beauty, natural spoils, maritime heritage and scientific pedigree that made it unforgettable.

Now, as I ease myself out of the boat, unstable under the weight of my camping gear (this time, I’m camping solo), I wonder, Will this visit be as magical?

As I wave goodbye to the captain, I see the man behind it all, retired Université Laval biologist Jean Bédard, striding toward me. Another summer season is coming to an end, and Bédard has stopped over for the day, camera in hand. He moves across the rocky shore with ease; after all, this has been familiar terrain for more than 30 years, beginning in the early 1970s, when he was studying the unusual eider behaviour of crèche formation. (A kind of extended family of ducklings and females from different nests, a crèche can range in size from a few birds to more than 30. Bédard showed that crèches form spontaneously when the eiders come under threat of a predator, and that duckling mortality declines as the size of the crèche increases.)

With the help of a few colleagues, Bédard founded La Société Duvetnor Ltée in 1979 and soon purchased Les Pèlerins archipelago, just upstream, as well as sev- eral other islands from two local families. Then, in 1986, after six years of protracted negotiations with a private company, Duvetnor acquired its crown jewel: Île aux Lièvres. In 1989, the organization opened two of the islands to visitors and hasn’t looked back.

Duvetnor has an unusual funding model — also Bédard’s brainchild. It supports itself through the sale of eiderdown, which employees collect by hand from 12,000 nests on local islands during a two-week sweep each spring. Duvetnor then cleans and sells the down in Europe for the manufacture of comforters and clothing. Bédard tells me the group sold 70 kilograms of the stuff in 2007, almost twice as much as in previous years.

We also talk about the changes to Île aux Lièvres since my last visit: There have been deliberately few. Duvetnor now offers boat trips to nearby islands, where visitors can better observe the region’s cliff-dwelling birds and scan the cobalt- blue water for belugas. It has added a simple auberge (offering a menu of local cuisine) to the handful of rustic campsites and cottages available to visitors who wish to spend the night. And there’s now a café, operating solely on wind and solar power, to serve the increasing number of hikers who make the crossing for a day. But there are still no telephones and no mountain biking or kayaking allowed. For the next few days, I’ll be spending my time exploring the forests, climbing the ridge that forms the island’s backbone and peering into its tidal pools on foot.

Bédard, whose knowledge of this 13-kilometre-long strip of land and passion for its preservation are unmatched, sets off for his home on the mainland, as I head toward my campsite for the night. I pass a few day trippers walking in the opposite direction as I hike La Grande Course, a broad trail running the length of the island. By the time I make camp under a canopy of aspen, it’s almost dusk. I’ve never camped alone before but take comfort in the fact that the island’s sights and sounds are familiar.

The next morning, the tide is out and the island takes on a different shape. Vast mud flats paved with rocks and mus- tard-coloured seaweed distort the coast- line, stretching toward Rivière-du-Loup, eight kilometres south. I pick up a trail, appropriately called Des Eiders, that follows the rocky shore at low tide. By midday, I’ve encountered an array of rocks: finely layered shales, sharp to the touch and splintery, as well as slabs of granite that have been buffeted by brackish water since the Champlain Sea receded.

This starkly beautiful scenery repeats itself the next day, with nuances, as I round the eastern tip of the island, cross- ing from the south shore to the north. But the sounds change. Reclined along the string of boulders pointing east toward the Atlantic like a bowsprit are more than a dozen grey and harbour seals. Their barks punctuate the monotony of breaking waves. I scan the horizon for belugas, but I don’t see any.

The wind is much stronger here, bearing down on the beach from the north, but there are still eiders in the water riding the swells. By late summer, the males, with their striking white breasts, black crowns and orange beaks, are already 200 kilometres downriver, near Matane. In fact, the grey- or cinnamon-coloured females have been on their own since incubation commenced in late May. They are hard to distinguish from the young, which are almost fully grown but still incapable of flight.

In 1833, on a trip from New England to Labrador, John James Audubon observed the eiders with particular zeal. In The Birds of America, he writes: “The history of this remarkable Duck must ever be looked upon with great interest by the student of nature. The depressed form of its body, the singular shape of its bill, the beautiful colouring of its plumage, the value of its down as an article of commerce, and the nature of its haunts, render it a very remarkable species.” But he also wit- nessed their wanton exploitation for eggs, meat and down and warned that “this war of extermination cannot last many years longer.” Audubon was right. The ducks’ numbers plummeted until egging was outlawed in 1916.

But humans have continued to threaten their existence in Eastern Canada, most recently in the 1970s and 1980s, when the price of down rose significantly. When Bédard founded Duvetnor, he was also concerned about the impact of development plans in the Lower St. Lawrence, ranging from recreational sports facilities to a liquid-natural-gas terminal proposed for Île aux Lièvres. And although the eider population in the region today consists of more than 30,000 breeding pairs, several Quebec biologists are still conducting research to determine how various factors, both biotic (including epidemics of avian cholera) and abiotic, influence the fluctuating population.

Before I turn my back to the north channel and head inland for some protection from the wind, a freighter passes by.

It’s not the first I’ve seen since my arrival, but after three days alone in the woods, I find its presence on the horizon jarring and somehow ominous. I’m reminded that the St. Lawrence is a highway — one that connects this little island and its ducks to the rest of the globe. But I’m also cheered by the knowledge that so little has changed here in almost 10 years. I arrived three days ago hoping that I hadn’t idealized this place in my memory. I would leave assured that I hadn’t.

I head back to the pier, straining under the weight of my pack. As I ease myself upright after stooping to tie my shoelaces, my mind fixes on the down collectors. Every spring, they sweep inland from the rocky shore to the low, dense brush, searching for well-camouflaged eider nests. They bend hundreds of times to collect the precious feathers — gruelling work that has become a kind of rite. This annual down harvest is rooted in the region’s past and now, through the work of Duvetnor, stands for a future in which enterprise and science combine to sustain the land and its remarkable inhabitants.