We’re coasting along in our kayaks, navigating by the glow of a huge moon hanging over the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Nobody wanted to wait till morning to hit the water for the first time.
The Saguenay area of Quebec’s North Shore is a hotbed for whale-watching and a popular kayaking area. We’re here to connect the dots.
Visiting Quebec City, it’s hard to resist a side trip spent in Charlevoix and the Saguenay. The Saguenay River is only 215 kilometres east of Quebec City. The Saguenay flows 165 kilometres from Lac Saint-Jean to empty into the St. Lawrence estuary at Tadoussac. The junction of the Saguenay and St. Lawrence is an aquatic convention centre for whales — a krill buffet. You can see belugas, minkes, blues and more in the vicinity.
The mighty Saguenay is 250 metres deep and between two and four kilometres wide, definitely more fjord than river. Saguenay Fjord National Park protects much of the shoreline of the Saguenay, while Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park protects 1,245 sq. km — including the Saguenay and part of the St. Lawrence seabed extending as far downstream as Les Escoumins, our destination.
Getting there is half the fun. A drive from Quebec City to the Saguenay takes us through the magical Charlevoix region.
First stop, Baie-St-Paul, is halfway to the Saguenay and is the birthplace of Cirque du Soleil. Louise Penny’s latest best-selling mystery, The Long Way Home, leads to this long-time artists colony. (Later, I found out that I walked into the same gallery visited by her fictional hero, Chief Inspector Gamache.) The town is a magnet for travelers, packed with galleries, restaurants, inns, and bed and breakfasts.
At Baie-Saint-Paul, highway 362 offers a roller-coaster road that runs closer to the St. Lawrence through Les Eboulements to La Malbaie, and has stunning views that will be familiar to fans of Quebec art.
At Baie-Sainte-Catherine, a free ferry runs across the mouth of the Saguenay to Tadoussac and into whale country.
The mouth of the Saguenay is a rich feeding ground that attracts many whale species. Its location, within three hours of Quebec City, brings plenty of visitors ready to look for whales by tour boat, zodiac, or kayak.
Baie Sainte Catherine’s adjacent whale-watching centre bustles with an almost alarming level of boat activity. Some visitors even arrive and depart by helicopter.
We’re staying 40 kilometres further east, spending our week in more peaceful Essipit, an Innu community that abuts the small town of Les Escoumins. (I’m hooked as soon as I see the bike lane running through the community.)
Tiny Essipit is postcard perfect. It boasts a restaurant, store, radio station, whale-watching and more — most importantly for us, 32 attractive condo units on the shoreline.
All the Natakam condos have private decks or balconies on the water. The St. Lawrence is 28 kilometres wide here — more gulf than river. From our deck we see boats running out to incoming ships to deliver pilots to navigate the run upriver to Quebec City.
Closer in, I see minke whales cutting across our cove. Further out, one or more blue whales blowing send me lunging for my binoculars.
Our group has been organized by an Ontario outfitter, although there are plenty of local Quebec operators offering a few hours or days on the water. The group includes a doctor, a psychiatrist, a Mountain Equipment Co-op staffer, and a fellow who used to build nuclear submarines. I feel even safer than usual.
Our first morning, we stop in for a crash course from Parks Canada regarding whale-watching regulations: speed limits, distance limits, time limits. “Do not cross the path of the whale.” It seems like a nightmare to police. I hope the whales have been briefed.
Staff tell us that a blue whale had just collided with a tour boat. We are happy to be in our silent little kayaks, not part of the whale “industry”.
Most of the time we’re on the water, or loading and unloading our gear. Our guides do their best to coordinate our trips with the tides. Each day, we pack a lunch, don wetsuits and paddle a section of coast, no more than one to two kilometres off shore. The tour boats don’t seem to come this far down the coast, or they venture much further out in search of the giant blues.
We’re not chasing whales. It’s more akin to standing on a street corner and watching for passing traffic.
We meet some seals and porpoises. Minke whales are really common. These streamlined whales reach 10 metres in length, cutting through the water with no visible effort. The fins and blues keep their distance.
I am pronounced jaded when I say, “It’s only another minke.”
We spend one day on the rugged Saguenay looking for belugas. They prove elusive. This isolated population is endangered, numbering perhaps as few as 500 today.
Neighbouring Les Escoumins might be small but it has a grocery store and several good restaurants. I lose my heart to the Chocolaterie/Bakery/Bistro, returning three times for my favourite breakfast in Canada — artistically arranged crepes that wanted their picture taken.
I try out my hopeless French and the response is: “Do you speak English?” This is a friendly area, although “bilingual” here might mean French and Innu.
My favourite moment is our late-night paddle beneath the moon.
The salt water St. Lawrence is hauntingly peaceful and empty. I throw only the occasional glance over my shoulder for the departing Trois-Pistoles ferry. We return late, after the outgoing tide had left about 8 inches of water in the bay at Les Escoumins. And we find out our landmark, a cross on the point, is only lit on the side facing inland. The evening concludes with a stroll through a “rock garden” in the dark, hauling our kayaks back to our launch point.
If You Go:
Condos Natakam at Essipit: the peaceful location of these modern two-bedroom condos could not be improved. Every unit has a great view of the Gulf and full kitchens.
Le Reve Doux-Chocolaterie/Bakery/Bistro: accept no substitutes. This is breakfast Nirvana in Les Escoumins — best crepes ever.
Tadoussac: if you want to be closer to the action, this town at mouth of the Saguenay has a few attractions, like the oldest wooden church in North America. And you could stay in the Hotel Tadoussac, a Victorian pile dating to 1864, and curiously enough, featured in the Jodie Foster movie, Hotel New Hampshire.