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Saguenay Fjord

Breathed by Whales

July 28, 2013: For a short summer adventure, Dorothy Tod and I set out to explore the land of Samuel de Champlain and the whales of the Saguenay.
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Getting There

Dorothy has been channeling Samuel de Champlain for the past 7 years as part of her contribution to Part One of The VT Movie (which opens Sept 27 at the Barre Opera House). She read aloud from Champlain's diary as we made our way north - his description of his first visit to Tadoussac, and his chance encounter with a big gathering of Algonquin Indian tribes from all the watersheds that drain into the St Lawrence including the Great Lakes, and what was was to become the Maritime Provinces and Maine. Mapping this vast geography and securing the lands for France became Champlain's life's work and in order to do this he had to earn the trust of the Indians, leave behind his French boat and get into the wondrous canoes to travel the native waterways.

We spent a couple of days as tourists exploring this geography, taking a scenic route along the southern shore of "Canada's River (the St. Lawrence) to Trois-Pistoles. We then took a (very chilly) 90 minute ferry ride across the St. Lawrence to the first-nation town of Essipit. It was on this ferry that we saw our first whale - a Blue, the largest mammal on earth! It was a classic whale show - first the blow, then the whole immense whale body breaking the surface in an arc, then, finally, the fluke up as a parting gesture.

We camped at Bon Desir, then made our way to Tadoussac at the confluence of the Saint Lawrence and Saguenay rivers. Here we visited the oldest wooden church in Canada and the US, as well as the first trading post on the mainland of "New France", now the fur museum.

Leaving Tadoussac in the fog, we took the Ferry across the mouth of the Saguenay. We made our way up the south shore of the Saguenay, making a stop to Check out the takeout before proceeding to Baie Éternité to make camp for the evening.

Setting Out en Kayak de mer

We planned to launch near high tide in the morning. The tidal range is quite high (as high as 6 meters), and low tide often means a long rocky or muddy slog to the water. We planned our trip to optimize the timing of the tides, so finally we prepare our kayaks and get ourselves on the water! The day starts overcast but calm, the waters a cool 58° as we enjoy the high cliffs surrounding Baie Éternité. Our first day out we encountered five seals (one white one). The only traffic on the fjord that day was a couple of tour boats. Strong thunderstorms were forecast - and we kept an eye out, as there is precious little opportunity to take out along the cliffs. We could see and hear the storms in the distance, but they stayed to our south-east, near Tadoussac. Looking back up the fjord, the storm threat remained as we neared our camp site for the night at Anse du Portage, which we shared with five paddlers on their annual vacation from Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. Due to the vertical nature of the geography, Sépaq provides tent platforms at their official campsites. After we waited out yet another rainstorm, we managed to create a campfire (thanks in large part to Dorothy's willingness to paddle with a kayak full of dry firewood!). In the morning, I woke to find a group of 9 loons fishing (quite successfully!) just in front of camp.

The Baie of the Belugas

In the morning, we get ready to depart for Baie Sainte-Marguerite, the local hot spot for Beluga watching. The Beluga spawn and live there year round. The forecast was for a "high wind warning" for winds to build quickly to 25 knots from the NW. This would result in the wind and tide combining to make for a very quick ride to the bay. Once there we had intended to explore slowly as we crossed the bay (staying out of the protected zone); our camp for the night was to be at the shelter at Anse de la Barge. Well, with a 20 knot wind behind us we could not really spend quite as much time as we might have liked traversing the Baie! The waves were about 2-3 feet with numerous whitecaps... but wait! Not everything white is water :). Finally realizing that the beluga were everywhere, all we could do was enjoy the ride. Just before I turned into the cove where we stopped for a break, one beluga actually "stood" up out of the water not 50 feet off my bow! No photos of that, but fortunately I think you can see the multitudes in a few of these shots.

We stopped in the first cove beyond the mouth of the bay. It was a small, quiet beach tucked between the point where the park has a 'whale lookout' platform, and the next cove where we would be taking out for the evening. We climbed up the hill and had lunch on the platform. Walking on the paths surrounding the cove we saw numerous beautiul colonies of lichen, mosses and low plants. Some of these were quite extensive, and some went all the way down to the bay.

Eventually, we made our way back to the boats. Dorothy took a swim in the 65 degree water in the cove, then we paddled around the next point to the shelter we would call home for the evening. The 'rustic' shelter at Anse de la Barge is quite beautiful, really, with a wrap-around porch and spectacular views. The most magical thing about this location, however, would make itself known with the sunset. I don't think it is possible to photograph what happens in the bay. As the sun set, we walked out to the rocks at the edge of the cliff. The water had quieted down. We could see occasional ripples in the water, and I began to hear the breathing. Whales, hundreds of them, were plying the waters along the mouth of the bay for dinner. Just barely breaking the surface of the water, and not using a lot of force to blow, the sound of whales breathing began to resonate in the fjord. The only sound to be heard, as more and more joined the scene it began to sound like the whole universe was breathing. Just barely visible, the experience was more sound and vibration than sight. Dorothy took some video. If you listen in a quiet place you can hear the breathing. But, you really had to be there for the full experience!

In the morning, we were also treated to a different view of the beluga while we prepared to depart. We even had a fin whale just outside our cove!

Rockin' the Fjord

Well, the seals and whales and waterfowl are not the only interesting stuff in the fjord. The Fjord Rocks! We departed Anse de la Barge on a morning of quiet water, a bit before high tide. Winds from the south were forecast but not yet evident. The stunning experience of the morning was the rocks. There were striated rocks, reflections of rocks, rocks with rainbows, and rocks with attitude.

Not incidentally, my companion Dorothy became somewhat obsessed with the very evident Hydro Quebec infrastructure throughout our trip. I leave you with a photo of me, paddling a primeval environment into the arms of technology.

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Getting There
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Setting Out
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The Bay of Belugas
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Rockin' the Fjord
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Beluga Video