Thursday, August 12, 2010

Saguenay Fjord (Paul's View)

I’d been planning a trip to British Columbia this summer but work and life combined to make the trip inconvenient. But I did not want the summer to pass without some sort of kayak camping adventure so I reserved the week following the Pan Mass Challenge bike ride for some sort of trip. On my list were three areas that I thought Keri and I could paddle as a pair. We settled on the Saguenay Fjord in Quebec. This is an area we could reasonably expect to see Beluga whales. It is also an area that is amenable to kayak camping with a Canadian National Park providing tent platforms accessible from the water only (no car camping) over its 60 mile length.

Generally the park wants you to paddle in one direction out of the Fjord. This would require a shuttling of the boats or at least the people to complete. We investigated this but found the number of days that the shuttle ran to be limited and not compatible with our schedule. I also found that the employees making reservations at the park were not strict about the one way direction. These issues as well as the tide timing mapped into the following plan:

Launch at Anse de Roche in Sacré-Coeur on an incoming tide paddling 7 miles to camp at Anse des Îlets Rouges. Launch late morning with an incoming tide 10 miles towards camp at Anse du Portage. Launch very early morning to catch the outgoing tide 13 miles to Anse au Cheval. Launch at a leisurely morning pace to return 5 miles to Sacré-Coeur.

The wild card in this plan was the wind. The Saguenay Fjord is generally about 1 to 2 miles wide and lined with 300 foot steep sides. It is part of what makes it a beautiful place. It also forms a wind tunnel with the wind blowing up or down its length.

We drove straight up to Tadousac in one day. It is about a 10 hour ride without any significant stops. We stayed at “La Galouine Auberge et Restaurant” where we had a wonderful dinner and a fine breakfast. This set us up to be at the launch around 9AM and on the water before 10:30. (We pre-sorted the gear into dry bags in the B&B parking lot.)

The boats packed up relatively easily. Keri felt a bit helpless watching as I stuffed bags into all the crevices of the two kayaks. I wanted to make sure her boat was loaded properly with the weight centered and low in the boat to maximize her stability. She had never paddled a loaded boat.

It was a beautiful warm day with little wind. Even though the water is cold we did not wear wetsuits. This is always a calculated risk you take based on water temperature, air temperature, weather conditions, skills, number of paddlers, and proximity to shore and/or rescue. As we paddled towards Baie Sainte-Marguerite the wind began to pick up in our faces. Keri was beginning to struggle with boat control when suddenly we were in amongst the Belugas. They were popping up all around us as we held our position into the wind with the tide and light paddle strokes.

When there was a lull in the whale surfacing and we started to try and make headway again it became apparent just how much the wind had picked up. It was clear we needed to get going so I put Keri under tow to help make her strokes as efficient as possible (no worries about directional control). We both did some hard paddling until we landed on the NE edge of Baie Sainte-Marguerite. We needed to rest, get some food in us, and put on our wetsuits which we had stored accessibly in our front hatches.

I was concerned. The wind at this point was blowing about 20 knots (as measured by how tightly I had to tighten the elastic cord in my hat to keep it on my head). The waves with an opposing tide had built to at least a 2 foot chop and it was difficult for us to make forward progress. We would seek refuge behind each little point but then as we rounded the point we would be exposed to the worst combination of tide, wind and chaotic waves. Fortunately, our first camp site was closer than I expected and we dragged our tired bodies ashore in a cove protected from the wind.

Our campsite was beautiful. We were the only campers on the six well spaced tent platforms. We cooked up our steaks and potatoes and relaxed in the evening light. I was enjoying myself but I was concerned about the wind. I was tired from the first day’s effort and I knew I would not be able to tow Keri for a second day like I did the first. We discussed this casually and I pointed out that we could always turn back if the wind returned.

The second day started out reasonable but there was already a head wind right from the start. It appeared to be coming across the fjord at an angle so we crossed over to the other side to seek refuge. Unfortunately, as I feared, the wind was coming straight down the middle and riding up both sides as it was slowed ever so slightly by the cliffs. We fought it for a while but I wanted the experience to be fun, not a slog. I chose to abort our planned destination before we were a third of the way there. We would take our chances that there would be an open campsite at one of the three pullouts that were within our reach. Anse à Tidée was the destination of choice.

With the decision made we crossed back over, now with the wind at our backs, to explore some islands on the other side. We sought out eddies to push us against the tide and played in some mini tidal rips. We ate lunch in Anse Gagnon. The gradual slope of this beach combined with the 15 foot tides had us pulling in the boats every 10 minutes. On the crossing back over to Anse à Tidée Keri spotted one lone Beluga.

We were the only campers at this pullout. We began to empty our boats and scope out the prime tent site. Just as were ready to settle in 5 paddlers came around the corner. They were a Maine Based tour group and they had reservations at four of the six sites. Fortunately no one else showed up and we settled in on an upper platform. We let them use the beach and we cooked dinner up by our tent.

Because of our plan change, the paddle from Anse à Tidée to Anse au Cheval was only about 3 miles. These three miles would bring us back by Baie Sainte-Marguerite where we hoped to see the Belugas again. I chose to fight the current around Île Saint-Louis so that we would drift through the whale zone and not have to paddle directly towards it. Unfortunately the currents were strong and pulled Keri’s boat around mercilessly. I quickly put her on tow again to get her around the island. Although the tow helped achieve my goal it was probably a poor decision from the point of view of building Keri’s paddling self confidence. Here we were in flat calm water and I was towing her. We could have just gone with the current the whole way.

We did not see any whales this morning and we pulled into our next campsite at the bottom of the tide. We settled in and I put a long rope on the boat and slowly advanced them with the tide. Through binoculars we kept watch for the Belugas. I was unsure if they showed up each day at the same time of day or the same time on the tide. Our plan was to wait until we could see them and then cross over in our empty boats. We waited until almost 4pm and the top of the tide. (This was later in both day time and tide time than we had seen them the first day.)

Near the mouth of Baie Sainte-Marguerite there were Belugas everywhere. We saw at least three distinct pods and we watched 3 and 4 surfacing simultaneously. We even saw one floating vertically in the water with its head in the air. A tandem kayak passed a few hundred yards from us and a pod of 4 or 5 chased it as it paddled away!
Suddenly, there was a disturbance right off Keri’s bow. She could see the whale passing under her boat. I looked down and could see mom and baby (the young whales are gray) sitting parallel to me about three feet down. The mom swam forward while the baby held position a bit longer.

(head up Beluga, look close)

In the all the excitement I failed to notice how well Keri was paddling. The wind had picked up, there was tidal rip happening, she was paddling beam to the waves, and all the while she was in perfect control. Maybe all the struggling with a loaded boat made paddling an empty boat seem easy? I do think the boat was loaded a bit bow heavy on the second day and paddling in calm water can make every mis-stroke of the boat even worse as the hull is so tightly attached to the water over the entire length. With only a handful of paddles under her skirt she was doing amazingly well.

We got an early start on our final day’s paddle. The water was calm, the sun was warm and it was perfectly relaxing. It was relaxing and uneventful until we heard the blow. Actually we both had heard it a few times before we became aware that a Minke was feeding in the cove in front of us. We sat spinning on the eddy line in front of Anse a Pierrot for at least a ½ hour while the Minke surfaced dozens of times. We saw it roll on its side. We saw its throat pleats and its flippers. Finally it crossed the Fjord to give a similar show to some kayakers we could see on the other side!

(On side, look close)

Our experience on the Fjord was phenomenal. Our whale encounters were unforgettable and the camping was beautiful. Our decision to alter our plans without having the appropriate reservations worked out well. Truth is we ended up doing the same amount of paddling that day but we did it with the wind and without the stress of charging toward a distant destination. Unfortunately it will take some really close encounters to exceed this experience. But I’m very willing to settle for “more of the same”!

Day1, 7.1 miles Day2, 9.3 miles Day3, 11.8 miles Day4, 11.6 miles

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Saguenay Fjord

8/10,11,12,13 Saguenay Fjord, 8/13,14 Flueve St Laurent

(This is a guest blog kindly submitted by Keri. I will follow up soon with a different perspective. PB)

Being new to kayaking (first season this year), and never having been on a kayak/camp adventure, I had no reference point to base this trip on. So when Paul suggested this as our first major outing, I was a little apprehensive. I saw the pictures from two years before and was wondering if my 10+ excursions so far were enough preparation for this level of adventure.

Starting out the first day, after packing up the kayaks we headed on our way. We entered the water at Anse de Roche and headed upstream with the tide. As we got to Baie Sainte-Marguerite (a haven for Belugas), the wind had started to pick up. We did stay in the Bay for a bit as there were many pods of Belugas and it was mesmerizing to watch them. After a while we needed to head to our first camp site at Anse aux Ilets-Rouges. The wind had really picked up by now, and the tide had actually started to turn also and I quickly found myself struggling to not lose any ground. After a while Paul finally put me out of my misery and attached the tow rope to get us both around the point to the safety (and calmness) of our cove. The campsite itself was incredible. There were 6 tent platforms and we were the only ones there for the evening. We unpacked, cooked dinner and enjoyed the solitude of the campsite.

On the second day we were due to head upstream further to Anse du Portage, however I was still having control issues with my kayak and after much frustration it was decided we would paddle locally, and settle on a closer campsite. We enjoyed a nice paddle around some of the islands and shores and saw one lone Beluga before settling on and heading to the Anse de Tidee campsite for the evening. This camping area also had 6 tent platforms and we waited anxiously to see if any other paddlers would show up to see if there was an extra one for us. Luck was with us and although an Adventure Kayak tour from Maine arrived, they had only reserved 4 of the 6 platforms and we were able to make camp for the night.

The third day we awoke, packed up and headed out to our final campsite. Since it was close by, we decided to unpack our camping gear to lighten our loads for the day. The campsite was at Anse au Cheval and had a beautiful landscape to it as we arrived at very low tide.

We were close to Baie Sainte-Marguerite and as we relaxed at the campsite, we kept the binoculars nearby to wait for the Belugas. Finally in the late afternoon they started arriving. The water was very calm and there was only 1 other visible kayak and a few small sailboats. We sat towards one shore and watched the Belugas as if it were our own personal nature program – completely in awe. As we were peacefully and blissfully unaware, a big air bubble came up right in front of my kayak – Paul started laughing at my barely stifled scream, and as I watched below me, the dark form of an adult and baby Beluga passed directly under me. I can tell you I was very scared that they would surface and tip me over, an event Paul thought would be very exciting to have happen. That would be our closest encounter. As the Beluga’s migrated back out of the Bay, we made our way back to camp to prepare dinner.

The nature show was not yet quite over yet. It was now high tide and our camp was very flooded. The beautiful landscape was completely submerged, and as we sat on our tent platform we watched as a harbor seal came into the flooded area, swimming around and poking his head up now and again. What a great way to end our final evening on the Fjord!

The final day we awoke at our usual 5 am, and packed up our kayaks with our camping gear for the last time as we needed to catch the tide as it recedes. We figured we were done with our whale encounters and explored the high Fjord walls. The water was like glass which made it my favorite paddle I have ever done.

I was in control of my kayak and the views were spectacular. To top it off, as we were slowly making our way to the launch, a Minke appeared in the bay before us and we again sat and watched our own private nature show as the whale surfaced, rolled, and fed in front of us for over a half hour.

It was truly an amazing day, and it was going to get better still. We exited the Fjord, retrieved the car and packed the truck back up with all of our supplies and equipment and headed to our last campsite of the trip; Paradis Marin. Again, Paul had been here before, and thought it would be a good place to whale watch. He didn’t know how right he would be. When we arrived we were informed we should drive around and pick out or campsite first, and then register at the office. We decided to take a quick drive through the water front spots on the off chance there was something available. As luck would have it, we spotted a prime camping spot as the current occupants were taking down their tent. Since it was a Friday afternoon, this was great luck!

I stayed at the spot while Paul went and registered us for the night. I sat and watched the glass-like water conditions in the Fleuve St. Lawrent as pods of Belugas, Minkes and even White Beaked dolphins swam by. You could clearly hear their deep breathes as they surfaced. We could hardly wait to get into the water and join them, but since we had not yet eaten lunch, we needed to get some food into us. We couldn’t bear the thought of leaving this front row view, so for the first time of our trip, we ate a freeze-dried meal. We chose the chicken breast and mashed potato meal, and because it was not well measured out, it ended up being cream of potato soup with chicken. It wasn’t too bad, but I think the consistency got to Paul as he excused himself, and when he returned he was done with lunch. After lunch, we quickly donned our wetsuits, and launched the kayaks. I think all the marine life decided it was time to take a break, because although it was a beautiful paddle, we saw whales only sporatically. The interesting part was, since it was so calm out, there were pods of kayakers gather around the fleuve. People were congregating in small groups on the water, just enjoying the fortunate weather and water conditions. The colors of the water were amazing, and although we didn’t see much marine activity, it was still one of my favorite paddles.

As we made our way back to the launch point we encountered some bubbles coming from the deep water. As the bubble path was moving, we were sure that it was a bubble net and moved out of the way to make room for the feeding exhibit we were about to witness. When nothing surfaced, but the bubbles continued, curiosity got the better of Paul and he tenaciously tracked the bubbles until he finally was able to discover the source. It was the elusive marine diver. There were two of them, and if they were able to see the kayak following their bubbles on top of the water, I am sure they were getting a good laugh at our expense.

As the day turned to dusk, we ate dinner and sat on the rocks in the sunset watching the few and far between whales go by. As per usual, we were barely able to keep our eyes open by 8 pm and crawled into our tent for the evening. Just then, we heard a whale blow, so we frantically threw back on our warm clothes and dashed out of the tent to watch the final whale of our evening go by.

The final morning in the St. Laurent we were woken up to the sound of a whale. We unzipped the tent door to reveal a spectacular sunrise and we were again fortunate to view whales saying good morning to us across the glass-like water. It was tough to pack up and leave. We stayed as long as we could before heading out to Quebec City. We enjoyed our time poking around the streets and shops of the city, but I think we both wished for more whale and paddle time. We are already trying to pick our next adventure, but how we will ever equal this experience will be a challenge.