Looking for the Quebec Whale

Dear reader–a piece I wrote several years ago that may be of some amusement….

Nothing personal, but when in Quebec, I like places where I won’t see my fellow Americans. I like the look, sound and feel of genuine Quebec. Love the combination of Old France elegance and New France hardiness. I savor the blend of the Second Empire granite style of downtown Quebec City and the flannel of the country farmers. For someone who wants a real taste of the province, one getaway is Tadoussac, nestled cozily between the Saguenay and St. Lawrence Rivers. From Quebec City, it is about 140 miles northeast–and even while traveling at the province’s manic speeds, some five or six hours along narrow Route 138.

Tadoussac is called a resort town, but that is relative to the sparse area nearby–it’s still a modest village, charmingly rough at the edges. There are the sights of rugged distant mountains, fresh water streams, forests primeval, and mad traffic drivers who insist on trying to pass on winding two lane highways, with limited visibility….Incidentally, at some 400 years of age, Tadoussac is also one of the oldest “civilized” establishments in North America. It was once a fur trade station, used by Samuel Chaplain to meet the locals coming down from the nearby Saguenay River.

History aside, I wanted to go mostly to paddle with the whales that congregate to feed in the nearby St. Lawrence River. Late one summer, we started our trip by riding up through Maine’s Route 201, and stopping at Jackman to do some brief mountain biking. For about 50 bucks, we got a room at the Moose Lodge Inn downtown as well as a couple of serviceable bikes and headed off into the wilderness with a map—-the sort that is all lines and dots and no colors. We stuck to one of the simpler trails and had a great time doing a loop by Jackman’s Fish Pond, taking about an hour or so to finish, and hoping all the time–at least me–to see bears or snakes or even a day time moose. No luck

We crossed into Canada just after dawn the next day. We soon saw what may have been a wolf or a coyote cross the road, and were treated to the grand and bizarre spectacle of what appeared to be a heron taking off. Its neck stretched out almost beyond endurance as its feet began to flail, its long wings beating till it finally lifted up and over the highway. We pushed to the village of Baie-Sainte-Catherine. For about $50, we checked into the Motel Le Vacancier nestled on a cliff that dropped into the St. Lawrence. The village was set on a hill, a few rows of streets and houses lording over a beach. We should have pushed on to Tadoussac, where there was a semblance of night life, but that would have required crossing on the ferry, and we were tired.

In the meantime, we decided we’d take up the offers on the many signs along the highway and join a whale watch. It wasn’t like a Stellwagen Bank venture; everything seemed on a smaller scale, as the shore was clearly in sight while we pursued finbacks, belugas and minke whales. Here, cetaceans are a big draw–and have been since the tough Basque whalers started a fishery centuries ago. Around any given whale basking on the surface there would be a half dozen craft, from large ferry-sized boats all the way to small high speed vessels that sat just above the water’s surface, to give you an eye to eye with the whales.

After supper in a nearby diner, we took a nap. When we awoke, it was dark and cold and the wind blasted the village. Our room had no phone and we realized the town, such as it was, had shut down. The next day, we crossed the Saguenay River on the free public ferry; the wind was cold and strong and sky clear and bright and it felt like autumn. On the other side was Tadoussac, a slightly bigger village on the edge of the St. Lawrence and the Saguenay in the Manicouagan region of Quebec. Behind the town were mountains bristling with pine and a silver lake that eerily reflected its surroundings like a bright mirror, at any time of day. The village seemed to be just barely emerging out of the wilderness; according to the historian Francis Parkman, this was always a tough region to survive in; it took several attempts to make civilization–as defined 400 years ago— take root here and a score or more of deaths.

Towards the water’s edge there were a few blocks of motels, taverns, and red roofed houses that had a quiet understated charm. For about $50, we stayed in a comfy room at the Hotel Beluga, a few blocks from the water. There was a small harbor with a few dozen sailboats and yachts and it looked, I was told by a Frenchman, like a fishing village in France. Although there was one luxury hotel, the Tadoussac, the village itself was more cozy than coddled, and the view across the St. Lawrence, 26 miles wide here, made it feel oceanic enough even for a native New Englander. The Cafe du Fjord, at one end of town, almost THE end of town, was by far the most interesting place to eat. The entire wait-staff, including the bespectacled teen ringing up the bills, sang and played an instrument. Our waiter could belt out Spanish songs–presumably about love–with gusto on his guitar.

While staying in town, for 15 dollars or so, I was able to get a berth in the rear seat of a two man kayak; a pleasant young man from Paris took the front. He had a little bit of English and along with a guide and an inexperience young couple, we paddled around against strong waves and headwinds not far from the shoreline. Above all, I hoped we would have a chance to see some of the whales in evidence the day before, but no such luck; either they were elsewhere or we didn’t go far enough. The lacquer black water was choppy, and we both got blasts of briny, freezing St. Lawrence in the face. A few times I was sure we might get tossed over on our side and have to do a rescue, but I always managed to keep us facing the waves at an angle and the weight of the kayak made it difficult to dump. The winds, however, did force the girl leading the trip to cut the voyage in half.

The next day, we drove up Route 172 to the Baie Sainte Marguerite section of the massive Parc du Saguenay, where there was a large nature reserve that cost a few dollars to park in. We followed a wooded path that ended at a raised wooden observation deck that looked over the confluence of a fresh-water river that ran into the Saguenay. Without doubt, with its cliffs, woods and deep dark water, Baie Sainte Marguerite was the most remote, grand and bleak spectacle of the trip.

According to the signs here, sighting the white-dolphin like Belugas had once been common; however, locals told me their appearance had become rare. Below the deck the sound of the wind rustling the many pine trees dotting the mountains and hills all around mixed with the rush of the water into one steady din. The Saguenay’s dark waves lapped the rock cliffs like a cow’s tongue on salt, greedily and without finesse. In the distance, looking up the Saguenay into the northern wildness, there were purplish blue mountains looming under dark clouds. The wind whipped up the waves even more and they began to splash harder. It made me feel more insignificant than usual.

On we drove through about forty miles of rocky mountains, pine forests and running rivers until finally stumbling over a speck on the map called Rose du Nord, a cluster of houses set around a concrete dock. A company offered a boat cruise of the Saguenay, which we took. The tour guide took us aside and kindly explained to us in English what she had already announced in French. She noted the Saguenay was roughly 800 feet deep, a rather eerie fact as roughly 80 versions of me could be drowned simultaneously end to end. She explained that the fjord might have been carved out by a glacier; it also could have been the result of the earth’s crust collapsing and the water pouring in to fill it.

Pollution, even out here, had been a problem, but she said at least the logging companies no longer floated their trees downstream. One of the most striking parts of the fjord was the Baie Eternitie, which includes Cape Trinity, whose rock face rises from the water 1600 feet to stab the sky. Standing among the cliffs over us was a large statue of Notre-Dame-du-Saguenay –a gift from a Quebec businessman who had crashed through the ice here some 130 years ago and promised he would build the statue if he survived. We viewed the Virgin to the strains of “Ave Maria,” which was sort of like overkill. After wards, we turned around and headed home.

The Charlevoix-Manicouagan region is a wilderness that has survived logging and industry–so far–untutored and grand, and sees few Americans and has no arcades or video games. Basically it just exists–rather like us–and is a fine place when we need reminding that just existing is our natural and pleasant state.