Whale Trail’s Tail

At last, we arrive at the fjord, the Saguenay River, black and relentless and the face of the grimmest nature as Puritan judge. We drive up the ramp on to the ferry, park, and wait for the exciting trip to Taddousac. The village just seems to appear out of nowhere on the side of a small mountain studded with pines. The houses are neat and always have gardens and there are two churches and the Hotel Tadousacc with its red tiled roof dominates the downtown. Here, as in the rest of Quebec, it’s a civilized place, people are soft spoken, polite, and they don’t carry guns—even if they do carry grudges against Canadian Anglophones.

Here, everything seems bigger and more exaggerated than what I’ve seen in New England. Deeper colder water, more whales, more mountains, more rivers and natural splendors. Even more sand. Nearby are the dunes—enormous cliffs of sand that face the St. Lawrence and are bigger than anything I’ve seen on Cape Cod. We take a day to enjoy the village, walk around its steep streets and get rid of the stiffness of driving so many hours.

The next day we spend motor touring—although I do feel time’s winged chariot drawing near. I know we must get a good day and kayak or the trip will be useless. But today, we drive out to Rose du Nord, a blip of a village on Route 123 in a postcard beautiful mountain valley that falls to the Saguenay Fjord. It’s a self contained serene place of maybe 20 houses, set back away from the river. It’s perfect, actually. There is a sight-seeing ferry that docks here, but the price is steep—50 dollars, and although the Trinity mountain, which is like a cathedral of rock rising from the Saguenay, is worth the view, I’ve seen it before. So, instead, we do some rock climbing in a steep cliff at the water’s edge, with many convenient handholds. We appreciate the idyllic views up and down the fjord from here, on this warm pleasant day.

Whenever I look out at the fjord I always know it’s something like 900 feet deep. Having kayaked parts of it, that’s a snack for thought. Climbing done, we walk up the hill to a tavern. There on a stone patio we drink beer and watch the bees zip around the tangle of flowers that had overgrown their planters ringing the patio. Looking over behind, we see cows grazing on the steep hillside, the grass is a rich electric green color.

We talk to the woman who runs the establishment—a thin serious looking person, but friendly and pleasant. She sayd she wanted to have a beer with us, but was a bit busy. But she finds it exotic we men of Boston have come so far North. In the back of my head, I always think, “We must all look alike to you.”

We make a point of stopping at Bay St. Marguerite, which has yet more dramatic views into the St. Lawrence. They say from the observation dock here, you can see belugas, but that has become a thing of the past. Pollution, apparently has driven them off. I recall once being here looking from the small bay, where a river feeds into the Saguenay. The sky was stormy and the waves whipping against the rocks and the mountains in the distance had wreaths of dark clouds and I felt this was the rending of a veil. I had seen some something powerful, and alive and gorgeous. It’s not like that today, but one has respect for a former lover that has shown special tenderness.

The next day we must make our move—the weather is favorable and the next day might not work. Some people have mocked Scott for attempting his reach to the South Pole in such bad conditions—as if he’d have a choice of picking his days. I decide on Grand Bergeronne. We need to do the best we can now, and this is a lucky spot. We drove due east to Grande Bergeronne, where I recognize the bearded grim harbor master from years past. It’s been a lucky spot to see whales. We pay the fee, park, and take out the gear. Wetsuits are a necessity here although they are no fun. We put out from the ramp.

I feel very alive. My wetsuit makes me look like a refugee from a fetish ball, is tight. I haven’t worn it in a while, and like O.J.’s glove, doesn’t quite fit right. I don’t want it cutting off my oxygen and I keep stretching the collar. We paddle and settle in to wait and listen and watch. This isn’t the epic part of the voyage.

The wait. I’ve waited for whales in boats, kayaks and on shore for 15 years. Nothing like it. Nothing more frustrating, nothing more exciting in a kayak. Out in the living gentle water we wait in an unreal unrealizable moment. The water, pinks, yellows, blues melding together gently. The universe was waiting to give me this and time stops, opens and seems to wait with me in the gentle lap of water. Ahead is 25 miles of waking dream, a living skin unbroken. Then finally a spurt. “Pffttt….pfffft….” I know that sound. We see a minke whale—20 feet of streamlined back. We turn to see a slick back. More and more appear, with the low serious sounding “phhtt…phhhtt” before the slick back slides underwater. This is what we wanted—the center of a years’ of talk and planning.

One then, two, and more. They swim, coil slightly, and and vanish. The whales are all around us. Some whales might be finbacks—very large whales—perhaps I’ve had them around me once or twice—but they are most likely minkes. They shock and thrill and delight us and probably don’t know it. They are behind us, to port, then to starboard. We fumble for the camera, which lacks batteries. The moment is only imprinted in the brain through the retina into the memory–so the remembrance will be fleeting and even more precious. The universe is so alive—the water, the sky, the whales, the seals.

The reality comes to just two hours. But it works. Cold and gloomy, we paddle back to the harbor and pull the kayak out of the water for deflation. Then it was time to return to camp.

Given the big bones of the place and our big ambitions, we have high hopes for the last day, maybe a paddle up the fjord. But a fog, thick and dangerous, hangs intermittently, so we can’t see more than 10 feet ahead at times. That’s that for whale hunting. We’d had a taste, at least. So the final day passes, and then it’s time to get back to camp. We go to the main bar in town that looks out over the harbor and gives one a view of clean white electric moonlight. A singer performs American folk songs. The people are polite, as always, and drinking there was a waiter who’d served us earlier that day in another bar—he recognized us and bought us a round. I bought him one back and he gave me a public thumbs up. I love the hospitality here.

People abuse nature because they don’t see it. It only visits them when they see a tornado or storm out of season triggered by global warming. It becomes part of the pain and fear mechanism that shapes everyone’s life. Fear of nature, fear of prison, bankruptcy, outsiders….You name it. We dump things and abuse nature in the slightest ways—cigarette butts, plastic wrappers, car exhaust. It accumulates. The whales can be frightened by hunters, but they don’t leave in fear. I think of the sad human world. We are always afraid, and this society with its media and government largely exists by stoking those fears.

The next day, we pack up camp and drive back the way we came. The air is crisp and electric, the water gloomy and grand. On the other side, a diminished side than the side we passed earlier on the way to Tadoussac, we linger looking over the fjord, seeing more whales spouting down below us. The water is gloomy forbidding soup again. Then we leave. I know the trip back would be less than half the trip.