Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Saguenay, Quebec

I’ve wanted to kayak with whales for a long time. My recent trips to Oregon and Alaska provided views of Grays, a Humpback, and an Orca but none up close or from a kayak. The other disappointment in both these trips was the use of someone else’s kayak. The rented and borrowed kayaks were never the comfortable sleek units we paddle around home. I was determined to paddle with whales someplace I could drive with my own Boat.

I’m not sure how I discovered the St Lawrence River and the Saguenay Fiord. Wayne S. from ConnYak has made the trip a few times and was a great help with the planning. The map of sightings at www.whales-online.net put me over the top. It promised almost certain sightings of Minkes and Belugas with the possibility of Fins, Humpbacks, and Blues.

I started to generate interest in others in late January. In April we gathered at Lisa’s to decide on who was coming, set a target date, and agree on a rough itinerary. The group was eight strong, the time was the third week in July, and the itinerary was car camping. (My desire for primitive camping is for not when there would be 6 tents and 8 clowning and laughing adults involved.)

I selected “Paradis Marin,” a campground in Les Bergeronnes Quebec, about 600 miles from Providence. We would spend 8+ days; 6 camping and two somewhere along the way. In early July we met again to finalize plans and split into teams; Paul and Lisa, Bob and Carole, Rick and MA, and Eric and Heather. Each team agreed to plan one dinner and one breakfast. We figured we’d eat out a couple of times to fill in the unplanned spots.

When the departure date arrived we packed tents, coolers, food, kayaks, bikes and hiking gear and headed out on the road. Lisa and I left Friday morning, visiting St Johnsbury, hiking Mt Pisgah, and walking the town of Newport in VT. We had a late dinner and stayed in a hotel in Drummondville Quebec. On Saturday we explored Quebec City and Baie-St-Paul. All 8 of us met and stayed in St-Joseph-De-La-Rive.

On Sunday morning, E,H,P and L headed out early for the campground. The four of us had left New England on Friday. B,C,MA, and R had come up all the way from RI on Saturday and took the opportunity to have a more relaxed start. We wanted to get to Paradis Marin early because they don’t take reservations.

The road from QC to St-Joseph-De-La-Rive got better with every mile. The continuation to Les Bergeronnes was beautiful. We arrived at the campground and proceeded to try and explain in English to the French speaking owners that we were looking for six nights for eight people. At first they sent us off to “find a good site” which is the usual approach. Then before we could leave they set us up right by the boat ramp, close to the café and washroom, and all close together. There were prettier sites on the property but none more convenient. As Carole says:
“I was very happy with the campground. It was more like a small community than a campground. Although none of us spoke French , we quickly got in the groove and figured out what the signs meant, and only a few times said "Bonjour!" for goodbye, instead of "Au Revoir!" At whale sightings (the camp was directly on the water where whales could come quite close), word would soon get out and campers would gather quickly on the rocks or, if they were ready, jump into their kayaks. "Balein!" is a word we always understood. “

The 4 of us set up our tents and a screened gazebo. We were just about settled when the next 4 arrived so I went out for a bike ride. I had heard that there was a bike path and thought from my translation of French that it was paved. It was a great dirt path but with my road bike I was relegated to route 138. You don’t want to ride on a two lane road with no breakdown lanes when trailer trucks are passing in both directions at 60 miles per hour. Besides for my fear of death it was a great ride into Les Escoumins!

When I returned we started our first meal. While cooking we could see Belugas and Minkes swimming just off shore. When dinner was finished the 4 boys could stand it no more and we raced into our kayaks and headed out for a quick paddle. I donned my drysuit with just a thin polypro layer underneath. As soon as I got on the water the temperature dropped noticeably. As we paddled away from shore, less than a mile, it was clear that I was under dressed for the cold. But we had seen a Minke from shore and headed for that general area. On the water, in the calm conditions, we could hear the Minke before we saw it. It popped up a dozen times in an area about a 1⁄2 mile diameter. At one point it was very close to Rick. We avoided chasing this whale, reminding ourselves of the marine mammal protection rules. Besides, the whales were everywhere. There would be plenty more we thought.

On Monday we woke up in a fog. It was early in the week so we decided to pass on the paddling and do some exploring. We walked the bike path about a mile to Cape Bon Desire. It is a provincial park celebrating a light house and the whales. We sat in the cold wind on the rocks for an hour or so and saw a Fin Whale. This was confirmed in fine English by the ranger and tallied on their wall where the keep track of sightings.

As the morning wore on the fog wore off. I was feeling that “too baked” feeling of being in the sun too long without a hat or sun tan lotion. So when the others went off to explore Tadousac I stayed back at the campground and rested in the tent. What I missed was a wonderful sighting of a Minke mom and her calf. They described the calf rolling over and showing its pink belly!

On Tuesday we were more determined to get back on the water.
There was a fairly stiff breeze from the east but nothing too strong. We decided to paddle east into the wind and then come back with the wind at our backs. We saw no whales (the big kind) but did see a few flashes of Harbor Porpouse. When we did turn back the waves were a bit pushy and fun to surf. I hung back with Eric and watched as Rick surfed over Carole’s boat and flipped. I swooped in to rescue the white boat that looked a lot like a Beluga! With Eric’s help we had Rick in the boat quickly. It took quite some time for Carole to get her boat turned around and position herself as additional support. This made me feel like the cautious paddling I was doing from the sweep position had been worthwhile.

By this point in the trip it was clear that Heather was the whale spotter in the group. She had the patience (and the best binoculars). She would sit on the rocks and wait, soaking in the relaxation she could draw from the sea. Then, without fail, she’d spot the marine mammal.

On Wed. the wind was more reasonable so we paddled West and then East in search of whales. Again we saw none from the boat despite our frequent sightings of Minkes in the morning and Belugas in the evening. All right from the rocks at the campground. With regard to not seeing whales, MA said:
“I was anxious throughout the trip as we were on the water wondering what would it be like if a whale surfaced right next to us, Would I freak and freeze, lose it and go over, or best scenario actually go over and roll the boat out of shear panic not to be floating outside my boat with something larger than life. Occasionally I would say to myself, "okay whales surface around Paul or the others, they can handle it and I really do not need to be up and personal with you". Then we got to the fiord, where I realized that as I floating above the water enjoying all that was the best of unfretted nature that below me there were babies and moms and families of the magnificent species just enjoying the same peace. They came here to relax and not be bothered as they created the next generation. Babies were probably looking up saying "Hey what are those huge dark spot that move across the water every so often. Can I go play with these little tiny things that seem to just float across the water. They keep waving at a rhythmic pace from one side to the next." For me it was just awesome to think that we were there sharing their time and space and water.”

In the afternoon I tried again to get out on the road bike while the others took their off road bikes on the bike path. My ride was much safer on a long looping back road but I still had to survive 3 miles of the high speed truckers on Route 138.

Each morning I’d get up and make coffee and head down to the rocks in search of whales. Most mornings I was not disappointed. One morning I saw a seal right in our cove. He had caught a large fish and had it in its mouth. It was about 10 lbs and still flipping. I never actually saw the seal swallow the fish but I’m sure it was satiated for at least a little while!

Thursday started out rainy. Seven of us headed into Les Escoumins for breakfast. The majority of the wait staff were not strong English speakers. (All of us were not even novice French speakers.) But we managed to order some wonderful breakfast dishes. From here we visited a terrible museum on Quebec natural history. Next we ventured to Bay-Saint-Marguerite. This area was supposed to be an area where belugas and their calves were gathered in large numbers. As it turns out we didn’t see any but we did have a nice hike. Finally we descended on Tadousac again. From the rocks in town we saw mother Belugas with their small grey calves right by their tails.

Two of the nights we had entertainment in the café. As Rick said:
“I loved the wonderful scene at the "after hours", open air cafe, where dozens of French-speaking Quebecers sung along with the English-language jazz standards and show tunes that were being performed on an old-timey guitar and upright bass by a wonderful husband and wife duo who came from Montreal to stay at the campground each summer, along with the husky-voiced, professional songstress who was also staying at the campground and who had only met the instrumentalists earlier that day.”

On Friday we loaded up our kayaks and paddled in the Saguenay Fiord. We launched from L’Anse-de-Roche. We headed south into the wind towards the Flueve-St-Laurent. It was beautiful paddling with steep cliffs and hills surrounding the 1 mile wide fiord. We think we heard a Peregrine Falcon (they nest in the area) but saw none of the expected Belugas. We stopped for lunch and headed a few more miles south before crossing over to the west side of the fiord and heading back towards the put in.

On the way back we stopped on a gravel beach to “adjust ourselves”. Just about the time we were all out of our boats someone spotted Belugas. (It had to be Heather!) We all jumped into our boats and headed out “in their general direction”. This was a difficult test of conscious because we all wanted a close whale encounter and we hadn’t seen a whale from the boat since the first paddle. But Belugas as an endangered species have a 400 meter avoidance distance. For a few moments I saw as many as 5 in the water at once. Bob was the closest but it was still a good distance away. I expected that we were about to see the procession of one Beluga every half mile as we would typically see from the rocks at the camp site every evening. As it turns out this small group was all we saw. Unfortunately we were not well situated for the viewing.

After seeing the whales we all spread out a bit in search for more. What we found was a large freighter heading out to sea. I’ll let Rick describe it:
"On the return trip up the Saguenay fjord, we noticed what appeared to be a tanker far in the distance, nearly camouflaged by the rocky fjord behind it. But before too long, it was clear that the giant tanker was heading our way, directly up the center of the river. M wisely suggested that we all head over to the right-hand shore, and in no time, she and C were hugging the coast. B and I, however, remained much closer to the middle of the river, presumably to get a closer look at the tanker (and its wake?) as it passed by. Meanwhile, E, H and P had chosen to avoid the tanker by heading to its left, and by the time M, C, B and I had regrouped, they were nowhere to be seen. M and C were hesitant (i.e., refused!) to continue homeward without first knowing precisely where E, H and P were. Of course, given the glare created by the low-lying sun, we were simply unable to locate them on the far shore. With some prodding by B, M and C reluctantly agreed to resume paddling in the fast-moving following seas towards our destination. M appeared to be at some risk of "losing it" as fatigue and uneasiness with the squirrely waters set it, but she kept it together valiantly. We all were heartened when we saw E, H and P's paddles flashing far up ahead, and before long we back at the launch unloading our boats, as the sunset began to irradiate the sky."

So while they were concerned, we were care free. What we had was a great tail wind and some nice 1 to 2 foot waves to surf on. The three of us had a great time working up a sweat catching rides that were sometimes 15 or 20 seconds long.

After the long paddle we headed into Tadousac for dinner. It was our last hurrah in Saguenay. We would be breaking camp the following morning.

Saturday was a beautiful morning. We concocted a breakfast out of whatever food we had left in the coolers. Then we slowly packed our tents and bikes. Meanwhile, the weekend had brought more day kayakers to the launch and various people we ogling our flotilla of kayaks. Mine and Eric’s seemed to draw the most attention. Probably because they represent two of the extremes in kayak design (Qajariaq and Force4). Someone was interested enough in the Q-boat that Eric let him take it for a test paddle.

When nearly everything was packed away we all (minus MA and H) headed out for one last paddle. (Or in Lisa’s case, a first AND last paddle.) The six of us plus a gentleman we just met paddled out into the wind towards Cape Bon Desire. Conditions were lively but comfortable. We saw no whales. After a short hour, Lisa and I headed in to go easy on her shoulder. When she beached her boat I headed out to do a little surfing right in front of the camp. I made 3 or 4 passes and was about to quit when suddenly I heard “Heather the whale hunter” shouting to me. She was pointing in the general direction that we typically see our morning Minke.

I headed to the zone a couple of hundred yards off the rocks. I waited and paddled in place. I was getting ready to quit when suddenly I saw the Minke 200 yards away heading straight towards me. It was an orientation I had not yet seen and was actually a little surprised by how thin it looked at that angle. It submerged and popped up again about a 75 yards closer. This time it had turned a little towards shore. On its third blow it was 200 feet away and I had a spectacular view. I was nearly levitating. It’s forth blow was less than 75 feet from me. This time it arched its back and went down for its dive. I was thrilled. I headed out to tell the others who were meandering back along the shore. What a spectacular finish to the trip! (Incidentally, this pattern of four breaths was very predictable with the Minkes.)

MA left early to head straight back to Mass. R,C,B,E and H headed to Quebec City. L and I headed further south. We expected to stay somewhere in Canada but found no vacancy in Sherbrook. Fireworks and a celebration meant no hotels in Magogg. Newport VT was full. We ended up pulling into St Johnsbury at midnight to get the last available room.

Sunday we meandered down through Vermont. The GPS emboldened us and we actually spent about 25% of the time on dirt roads! It was a relaxing way to travel the miles back.

I think the vacation was a great success. We were told that there were actually fewer whales than usual because the Capelin were spawning longer than usual further east and that’s where the whales were. And the weather for paddling could have been better. But I don’t think anyone was disappointed. I’d do it again in a heartbeat!

Saguenay Fiord 7/25 Air 75 Water Low 60s?
Flueve-St-Laurent 7/20,22,23,26 Air 60+/- Water low 50s

Winds/Fog were a factor in paddle planning. They were Highly Variable Day to Day and Place to Place.